The Act of Union

By Jonathan Bardon




In December 1779 Sir George Macartney, an Ulsterman and a former Irish Chief Secretary in the middle of a distinguished imperial career, was sent to Ireland on a secret mission.  The Prime Minister, Lord North, had instructed him to ascertain what the reaction might be to a proposal to unite the Dublin and Westminster parliaments.  After giving the assurance that even the Lord Lieutenant ‘has not the smallest suspicion of my real errand in this kingdom’, Macartney reported bluntly: ‘The idea of a union at present would excite a rebellion’.

Britain was at that time fighting a war with its American colonists who, with the assistance of France and Spain, inflicted damaging defeats on the Crown forces.  Stripped of troops who had been sent to fight on the other side of the Atlantic, Ireland was defended by some 40,000 Volunteers who feared invasion from France.  The island was not invaded by the French and the Volunteers, paying for their own equipment and uniforms and therefore not under government control, forced a beleaguered and near-bankrupt administration to grant concessions.  Working closely together, the ‘Patriot’ opposition MPs and the Volunteers triumphed by gaining ‘legislative independence’ in 1782.

'Ireland is now a nation', the leader of the Patriots, Henry Grattan, declared.  What had been won?  The Irish Parliament was nearly as venerable as its English counterpart: its first clearly documented meeting had been as far back as 1264.  For most of its history the knights and burgesses of the Commons and the peers in the Lords had overwhelmingly represented colonial Ireland and, after the final defeat of the Jacobites at Aughrim and Limerick in 1691, Catholics had been permanently excluded from Parliament.  The legislative independence won in 1782 involved the removal of restrictions.  Under Poynings Law, enacted in 1494 and subsequently modified, Irish Bills could be altered or suppressed by the English Privy Council: now Irish legislation merely required the consent of the monarch.  The Declaratory Act of 1720, also known as 'the Sixth of George I', was repealed - this 'act for the better securing of the dependency of the Kingdom of Ireland upon the Crown of Great Britain' had given Westminster the power to legislate for Ireland.


In the euphoria of victory the Irish Parliament voted Grattan £50,000 to enable him to buy a country estate.  Actually ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ possessed a good deal less independence than even contemporaries realised.  The Irish executive was still appointed not by the majority in the Commons but by the British government of the day.  The Lord Lieutenant (or viceroy), the Chief Secretary, the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and other members of the administration in Dublin Castle all owed their positions to the Prime Minister in London and they in turn controlled much of the patronage when making public appointments.  Legislative independence was gained at a time of ministerial instability in London but stability returned when William Pitt the Younger formed a government towards the close of 1783.  Pitt was to remain Prime Minister without a break until 1801 and he therefore had many years during which he could perfect his ability to control the Irish Parliament.

Grattan’s Parliament might have a better chance of surviving longer than eighteen years had it worked harder to gain the affections of a majority of the Irish people.  Catholics, forming at least three-quarters of the population, could not sit in parliament and, until 1793, they could not vote.  No fewer than 234 out of 300 MPs sat for ‘close’ boroughs where representation was controlled by a single patron.  In Belfast, for example, two members were elected solely by the thirteen members of the corporation, all of whom had been appointed by Lord Donegall.  Even in the thirty-two counties, where forty-shilling freeholders elected two MPs for each county, contests tended to be between aristocratic factions.  In fairness it should be pointed out that until 1789 most of the states in Europe were absolute monarchies with no legislative assemblies.  Holland, Britain and Ireland, far from being democracies though they were, were unusual in possessing representative institutions of any kind.  Nevertheless Volunteers and others who had supported the drive for legislative independence (nearly all of them Protestants) were bitterly disappointed when their call for parliamentary reform was brusquely rejected even by the majority of their erstwhile allies, the Patriots.  The Irish House of Commons remained the equivalent of an exclusive gentlemen’s club dominated by leading families of the Anglican élite known as the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’. 


Legislative independence had been conceded by the Whigs suddenly brought to power by the fall of Lord North’s government.  In opposition the Whigs had worked in close alliance with the Irish Patriots but many of them feared that too much unchecked power had been granted.  The Tories had resisted the Patriot demand and from late 1783 they were in power for the rest of the century.   Pitt’s view that the constitutional relationship between Great Britain and Ireland was unsatisfactory was much strengthened by the failure of his commercial propositions in 1784-5.  Since Westminster could no longer legislate for Ireland he proposed a treaty between the two parliaments by which trade restrictions on both sides of the Irish Sea would be mutually eased.  Westminster MPs insisted that the treaty should include an obligatory Irish contribution to the Royal Navy in certain circumstances and for this reason the Irish Parliament raised such a storm of protest that Pitt abandoned the project.  Grattan, who had led the charge against the propositions, argued that Britain and Ireland were equal states united by a common allegiance to the Crown – a view repellent to Pitt, the son of the great empire builder, Lord Chatham.  Pitt may have agreed with the opinion expressed to him by Lord Lieutenant Rutland on 16 June 1784: ‘I should say that without a union Ireland will not be connected with Great Britain in twenty years time’.

Pitt was further irritated when the Irish Parliament invited the Prince of Wales to become the Regent of Ireland in 1789, while George III was ill and incapable, before Westminster had made its own decision.  Pitt responded by greatly increasing funds available for government patronage in Ireland to ensure comfortable majorities in the Irish Parliament for measures and policies he favoured.  He depended heavily on the ‘three Johns’ – John Fitzgibbon, John Beresford and John Foster – to manage his affairs in Ireland.  From the perspective of London, however, this arrangement was cumbersome, expensive and unsatisfactory.  The shortcomings of the constitutional relationship were alarmingly exposed to Pitt when Britain and Ireland were drawn into a protracted European conflict.


  The fall of the Bastille to the Paris mob on 14 July 1789 marked the beginning of the first successful revolution in modern European history.  The shock waves soon swept beyond the frontiers of France and a heady cocktail of democratic ideals was enthusiastically imbibed by middle-class Irishmen disgusted by the selfish exclusiveness of the Irish Parliament.  In October 1791 the Society of United Irishmen was formed in Belfast to seek radical reform of parliament, the repeal of remaining penal laws against Catholics and independence from British government control.  Joining forces with the Catholic Committee, the United Irishmen became a powerful lobby for change.  Pitt’s initial reaction was to make concessions.

Government by elected representatives in France dissolved into turmoil and terror, and war was declared on the Austrian Empire and its allies in 1792.  Louis XVI was executed in January 1793 and a few days later Britain declared war on France.  The French offered help to any people seeking to get rid of kings and aristocrats and, fearful that some Irishmen would accept the offer, Pitt used all his influence to get the Irish Parliament to remove penal laws.  In 1793 Catholics could become lawyers and vote in parliamentary elections.  Then in 1795 Pitt’s nerve failed him: he refused to back his Lord Lieutenant, Earl Fitzwilliam, in using patronage to remove the last major penal law, that which prevented Catholics from sitting in parliament.  For many United Irishmen this was the crucial turning point and they prepared for insurrection with the aid of the French.

Most Presbyterians in Antrim and Down were avid supporters of the United Irishmen.  In contrast, Protestants of all sects west of the River Bann had a lively fear of Catholic resurgence.  A vicious decade-long sectarian war between Catholic Defenders and Protestant Peep-o’-Day Boys in mid-Ulster climaxed with a Protestant victory at the Diamond in County Armagh in September 1795.  Tens of thousands of Defenders were swept into the United Irishmen and prepared for rebellion.  A mortal threat to the British Empire was revealed in December 1796: a French fleet carrying some 14,000 troops evaded Royal Navy patrols to reach Bantry Bay only to be disbursed by storms. 

Pitt had no choice but to approve a sheaf of repressive measures passed through the Irish Parliament.  Britain’s position was fast becoming desperate.  French troops were triumphant everywhere and one by one Britain’s allies were forced to make peace.  The British Army was overwhelmed in Holland in 1795 and it was only at sea that the French suffered reverses.  Ireland had become a dangerously vulnerable strategic liability.  Ruthless military repression did lead to major arms seizures but those ready to rise were being numbered by Pitt’s spies at hundreds of thousands.  On 23 May 1798 the rebellion began.  After a century of peace Ireland was plunged into the bloodiest episode of modern times.  After insurgents had captured Enniscorthy and Wexford and won control of much of southern Leinster Pitt was forced to divert scarce military resources to Ireland.  Presbyterians rose in Antrim and Down and, after some minor successes, were defeated in June at Antrim town and Ballynahinch in County Down.  The French landed in Mayo on 22 August and with a small force overwhelmed Crown forces at Castlebar.  Final victory came when the French and Irish were defeated at Ballinamuck, County Longford in September and a French fleet was outgunned in Lough Swilly in October.  In just a few months some 30,000 are estimated to have died violently in Ireland.


Pitt had been convinced of the need for a union long before 1798 but the rebellion provided him with the opportunity to make union government policy.  He wrote first to the Irish viceroy, Lord Camden, on 28 May to inform him of his decision.  Pitt had the enthusiastic support of the king who advised him on 13 July 1798 that the rebellion should be used ‘for frightening the supporters of the Castle into a Union’.  The key members of the cabinet who helped Pitt put the union proposals into shape were Henry Dundas, the war minister, and Lord Grenville, the foreign secretary.  Lord Cornwallis, one of most distinguished soldiers and diplomats in the land, agreed to replace Lord Camden as Irish viceroy in June 1798 – he accepted the post knowing that his main political task would be to convince leading interest groups in Ireland of the benefits of union.  The Protestant Ascendancy, in the view of these men, had proved unequal to the task of governing Ireland and they were convinced that a corrupt, dangerous and inefficient system had to be swept away.

The appointment of Cornwallis was an early indication that Pitt intended Catholic emancipation to accompany the Union for the new Lord Lieutenant, unlike Camden, was an enthusiastic advocate of permitting Catholics to sit in parliament.  Catholic emancipation, Pitt was convinced by now, alone could ensure the stability of Ireland.  The ascendancy not only had proved incapable of running the country but had been too opposed to change.  The Catholics of Ireland had posed a deadly threat to Britain in the midst of a major war and the security of the empire could be obtained only by enlisting the support of moderate and propertied Catholics.

When Pitt’s plans were revealed to the Irish cabinet two key ministers vehemently opposed them: John Foster, the Speaker, and John Parnell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  The remainder supported them but they in turn were divided on the issue of emancipation, with Cornwallis and Castlereagh in favour of emancipation and Clare strongly against it.  Clare, the Lord Chancellor, had for long been Pitt’s most reliable fixer in Ireland and his opinion could not be ignored, particularly as George III swiftly took the view that he would be breaking his coronation oath if he made further concessions to Catholics.  With a heavy heart Pitt dropped the emancipation proposal and Cornwallis ruefully observed: ‘I certainly wish that England could now make a union with the Irish nation, instead of making it with a party in Ireland’.


Edward Cooke, Under-Secretary for the civil department, declared that if the government was serious about a union it must be ‘written-up, spoken-up, intrigued-up, drunk-up, sung-up and bribed-up’.  So it proved.  The union with Scotland in 1707 had been worked out by commissioners representing both countries.  Pitt rejected this approach because he wanted more direct input into the drafting of the terms.  The measure, however, would have to be a treaty in all but name, passed separately through both the Westminster and Dublin parliaments.  Pitt was rightly confident of comfortable backing at home but he greatly underestimated the difficulty of convincing the Irish Parliament.

The first test came when parliament met on 22 January 1799.  In the Commons George Ponsonby moved an amendment pledging the House to maintain ‘the undoubted birthright of the people of Ireland to have a free and independent legislature’.  The debate, with eighty speeches, lasted for twenty-one uninterrupted hours.  William Plunket declared that he would resist a union ‘to the last gasp of my existence and with the last drop of my blood’.  ‘You would have thought you were in a Polish Diet’, John Beresford observed afterwards.  ‘Direct treason spoken, resistance to the law declared, encouraged, and recommended.  I never heard such vulgarity and barbarism’.   When the motion was put in the afternoon of 23 January it was defeated by 106 to 105 but a majority of one for the government was useless.  In any case another motion against a union was passed 111 to 106 the following day.

For the remainder of the year the government had to work unremittingly to build a decent majority for the union.  This task fell primarily to Lord Castlereagh, appointed Chief Secretary in November 1798, and to the viceroy, Lord Cornwallis.  Parliamentary seats were bought and attention was concentrated on major borough owners and particularly those who had abstained in the January voting.  Pensions, places (jobs for MPs and peers and their relatives), promotions in the peerage, and other enticements were promised.  This lavish use of patronage was denounced in later times as ‘bribery and corruption’ but it was legal and (just about) within the conventions of the time.  ‘My occupation is now of the most unpleasant nature’, Cornwallis wrote, ‘negotiating and jobbing with the most corrupt people under heaven’.  What was illegal was Pitt’s diversion of secret service funds, unknown even to members of the cabinet, to support newspapers and pamphlets favourable to the union.  The Bank of England notes were cut in half for safety and sent by two separate messengers to Castlereagh, who had to join them together again.


'The mass of the people do not care one farthing about the Union', Cornwallis remarked and there was much truth in this statement.  The bad harvest of 1799 was of much greater concern.  The Presbyterians of Antrim and Down, who had been in rebellion in 1798, were not going to lose sleep over the loss of a corrupt Ascendancy assembly.  The Orange Order grand lodge in Dublin attempted to be neutral on the issue but thirty-six lodges, from Armagh and Louth alone, petitioned against the Union.  The fear was that Catholic emancipation would immediately follow the Union - indeed that was Pitt's intention.  Cornwallis came very close to promising emancipation forthwith and, for that reason, most educated Catholics - with the noted exception of the lawyer Daniel O'Connell - were in favour of the Union.  Merchants and artisans in Dublin feared the loss of business if there was no longer a parliament in College Green.  The fierce pamphlet warfare shows that feelings ran high but only amongst a relatively confined circle of Protestants.

The level of passion was revealed when the Irish Parliament opened on 15 January 1800.  Sir Laurence Parsons, in proposing an amendment pledging the House to maintain a free and independent parliament accused Castlereagh of ‘prostituting the prerogative of appointment to places in order to pack a parliament’.  Angry speeches were delivered on both sides through the night.  At midnight Henry Grattan (who had not been an MP for several years) bought Wicklow borough for £1,200 and, dressed in his old blue Volunteer uniform, arrived in the Commons at 7 a.m.  Exhausted and ill, he was allowed to speak sitting down.  In his two-hour declamation Grattan pointed at Castlereagh saying that the Chief Secretary proposed to ‘buy what cannot be sold – liberty…Against such a proposition, were I expiring on the floor, I should beg to utter my last breath and record my dying testimony’.  It was to no avail.  The motion was defeated by 138 votes to 96 and resolutions in favour of the Union obtained consistent majorities both in the Commons and the Lords.  To maintain its supporters’ morale lavish dinners were held every day for twenty or thirty members until, as Sir Jonah Barrington recalled, ‘every man became in a prosperous state of official pregnancy…fully resolved to eat, drink, speak, and fight for Lord Castlereagh’.  More secret service money – in total £30,850 – crossed the Irish Sea.  The Bill for Union passed its third reading on 7 June and received the royal assent on 2 July 1800.  An identical Bill passed with overwhelming support through Westminster.

Generous compensation for boroughs which would no longer be represented helped to weaken opposition to the Union.  Compensation totalled £1,260,000 and was paid to supporters and opponents alike – the Marquis of Downshire, against the Union, got £57,000 for 7 seats he controlled.  Examples of ‘Union engagements’ include: for Sir John Blaquiere (the promise to make him a peer was not kept) £1,000 a year for his wife and daughter, £700 annual pension for himself and another £300 a year from 1803; sinecures of between £250 and £800 a year for 27 MPs; eleven MPs who were lawyers were promoted or were given other judicial rewards; and £300 a year for Theobald McKenna, a pamphleteer, for his literary services.


The Union came into force on 1 January 1801.  It was to last 120 years but during much of that time it failed to win the adherence of a majority of the Irish people.  The Union was in being only for a few weeks when it received a body blow: George III flatly refused to consider Catholic emancipation and declared: ‘I shall reckon any man my personal enemy who proposes any such measure’.  Pitt, who was convinced that emancipation was essential to ensure the success of the Union, resigned on 3 February 1801.  Over the next couple of decades resolutions and bills in favour of emancipation were debated at Westminster (where Grattan eloquently supported them) but failed to gain sufficient support.  In the end emancipation was not granted – it was wrested from Britain in 1829 after a mass agitation brilliantly co-ordinated by Daniel O’Connell.  The opportunity to incorporate educated and propertied Irish Catholics into the élite was lost.  They formed their own alternative élite and called for repeal of the Union.

Protestant parliamentarians who had vehemently opposed the Union Bill were soon won over.  One reason, undoubtedly, was that the prospect of immediate Catholic emancipation quickly faded.  In another respect the sky did not fall in: a separate Irish administration was retained in Dublin Castle and this meant that coveted jobs, mainly in the civil department, could still be obtained and monopolised by the Ascendancy.  For many decades to come successive Westminster governments depended heavily on the Protestant landed gentry to maintain law and order and run local government.  Later, when governments began to undermine the power of the Ascendancy, the gentry remained passionate supporters of the Union because the alternative would leave them exposed and isolated in a Dublin parliament.  Fear of growing Catholic self-confidence persuaded the great majority of Protestants of all classes – including descendants of Presbyterians who had fought in 1798 – to become passionate supporters of the United Kingdom.  A sprinkling of Protestants could always be found in the nationalist camp, such as Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis, John Mitchel, Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell.  They were all members of the intelligentsia, however, and the vast majority of humbler Protestants became unwavering unionists.

The retention of a separate Irish executive was an indication that Britain was not wholly committed to the integration of Ireland into a kingdom that was supposed to be fully united.  In many respects Ireland was treated like a colony with a population too potentially dangerous to be governed by laws prevailing in the rest of the United Kingdom.  During the first fifty years of the Union there were only five years during which special coercive legislation (such as the suspension of habeas corpus) was not in force.  British governments, in an attempt to create a more neutral and impartial state, steadily undermined the Ascendancy by, for example, appointing stipendiary magistrates, creating a national police force and allowing a Board of Works to take over some functions of landlord-dominated county grand juries.  Some legislation specifically for Ireland was highly innovative: the island had a professional and impartial police force, a national government-funded system of primary education, rudimentary public health provision, state-supported hospitals and judicial rent controls long before the rest of the United Kingdom.  All this, however, ensured that Ireland was governed differently, ruled in a more centralised and interventionist way than England, Scotland and Wales.  This willingness to intervene was not enough to prevent around a million deaths when potato blight struck repeatedly in the 1840s.  For many of those who survived, the Great Famine was proof that the Union would have to be broken.  On the other hand the rapid industrial and commercial development of the north-east reinforced the view of most Protestants that the Union was essential to maintain the prosperity and stability of Ireland.

©The Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis, 2003