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The World’s Famous Orations.
Ireland (1775–1902). 1906.

Isaac Butt

At the Bar of the House of Lords

MY duty is to endeavor to show to your lordships reasons why you ought not to adopt the provisions of the Bill now before your lordships for regulating the municipalities of Ireland, so far as they destroy the rights, confiscate the property, and abrogate the charters of the City of Dublin.

The petitions which have been presented, my lords, briefly state the case. Your lordships will perceive that it is a case involving both private rights and public interests; and I do confess that this very circumstance makes me feel no little embarrassment in addressing you. My lords, I will first call your attention to this Bill as divided into two parts: it is a Bill of disfranchisement, and a Bill of enfranchisement. It begins by sweeping away every existing right in the City of Dublin. Not the right of a single freeman to vote for municipal offices is retained. No privilege is spared—no franchise retained. However your lordships may decide as to the admission to new rights and new franchises, we fearlessly assert that no reason has yet been supplied which can justify you as the highest court of judicature in the land in forfeiting the existing right of freemen. Thus, my lords, our first ground of protesting against this Bill is that of individual injustice. You punish a number of individuals who have been advanced under the existing order of things to the highest offices in the magistracy of the city; I say you punish, because to degrade is to punish. You degrade, in the evening of their days, the aldermen—men who have borne an unblemished character, who, as magistrates, have never yet been charged with partiality in the execution of their magisterial duties; you degrade the sheriff’s peers, who have acquired their right by long and onerous attention to several duties; and you degrade the freemen of the City of Dublin, because you take from them their rights—rights which have hitherto been supposed to rest upon the same foundation as the privileges of your lordships’ illustrious House—upon hereditary succession, the transmission from father to son, upon the charters of monarchs, and upon repeated acts of Parliament recognizing their privileges. I do again and again urge upon your lordships’ justice this one broad principle of the Constitution, that by the law of England no man can be punished unless he is convicted of a crime; that when you degrade, you punish; that when you take away franchise, you punish; and that, therefore, this is a bill inflicting punishment upon parties against whom not merely no crime has been proved, but against whom no charge even has been made.

The only proper municipal function which this Dublin Corporation will have to discharge, with its enormous revenue and power of taxation, is to supply us with cold water; and perhaps, my learned friend would say, by agitation keep us in hot water, too. For this large amount of taxation we are to get nothing in return. It is to be solely applied to the payment of officers; to keep up an expensive staff for a body whose only business will be political agitation. The very absence of all useful occupation compels them to seek employment the reverse of useful. You create a corporation which you call municipal, and then studiously shut it out from every municipal function; you will not let them light a lamp; you will not permit them to pave a street; you have provided us a separate police, one man of which they can not control. You have given them great pomp—“The Right Honorable, the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen,” with their chains, their collars and their gowns. I do not speak lightly of these emblems of civic authority. You invest this new body with all the prestige of ancient authority. Is it to be expected that a corporation you have enthroned in dignity will sink down into insignificance and do nothing? But their choice is between insignificance and mischief. If they do not become political agitators, they have nothing to do. In the name of the great mass of the professional inhabitants of Dublin, I ask for what you will impose on us the tyranny of this body? We have no objection to the present corporation: it does not tax us; it does not interfere with us; it does not agitate against our religion—against the Church we love—the laws we revere—and the Constitution we are determined to uphold; we are content to pursue our vocations at our profession and have nothing to do with it. But this new corporation will do all these things, while it has no one useful function to discharge. You are incorporating some one of those seditious societies in Dublin which for years have convulsed the peace of the country, and made it difficult for any good government to be established. This Act is utterly useless for municipal purposes; it is an Act to incorporate the Trades Union, give them the power to legislate and to tax with perpetual succession, by the name of lord mayor, aldermen, and burgesses.

Now, my lords, the point we have urged in our petition is, that Dublin ought to be exempt, as you have exempted London; that, whatever regulations you may hereafter apply to us, you can not deal with Dublin upon the principle of establishing a purely democratic corporation. In our petition we state our willingness to acquiesce in any measure of reform that your lordships can adopt that will not compromise the safety of the Protestant religion or violate our charters; but, my lords, by adopting this measure you will do grievous injustice to the population of a metropolitan city. Why subject us to the control of a democratic corporation, with which we have no sympathy, no unity of sentiment, no connection, no influence? Why place the bar, the professional classes, the gentry of Ireland, under the control of the populace of its chief city? The principle has never been carried into effect in England. I do not merely urge that London has been exempted; but what would your lordships say if it was proposed to incorporate into one vast corporation the whole of this immense metropolis, so that Finsbury Square should give law to St. James’s? Is it because the professional classes and gentry of Dublin are distant, because they are unprotected, that you will inflict upon them a grievance and tyranny which you would not endure in London? I may be told that you must give the same Bill to Ireland that you have given to England, no matter how differently circumstanced the two countries. I take the argument. I say, if you give us all the evil, give us the one solitary good. London has been exempted—exempt Dublin. You have respected the Magna Charta of John in London; why not respect the Magna Charta of Henry in Dublin? Am I to be told that, because on the faith of England we gave up our independent Parliament, that you are to disregard us? On the faith of the legislative union, my lords, we demand that our rights should be held in the same respect as those of London. In our own Parliament they were so. Once, indeed, in that Parliament, in a debate upon the privileges of the City of Dublin, it was pleaded that some similar rights of the City of London had been respected by the English legislature. Some one dared to hint that the privileges of Dublin stood on lower and less sacred grounds. Who was the man who rose with prompt indignation to resent this insult to the Constitution of Ireland?—a man, my lords, whose memory is still held in honor in our country—the illustrious Henry Grattan! He it was who, in the spirit of a true Irishman, indignantly denounced the attempt to place the privileges of Dublin below those of London. It was no part of that great man’s patriotism to vilify and bring into contempt the institutions of his country.

There is, indeed, my lords, a people who look with intense anxiety to your decision on this question—the people to whom these charters were granted, the Protestant people of Ireland. They contemplate this Bill with alarm and dismay; they believe that it will place them under a tyranny intolerant and intolerable—that it will hand over their country to the control of Jacobin clubs, but Jacobinism on which will be engrafted the worst elements of national antipathy and religious hate; which will present to the world the spectacle of the extraordinary influence of civil anarchy and religious despotism, uniting in an anomalous combination all the evils of democracy and of superstition. They implore of your lordships to protect them from this tyranny. One argument they have against this measure which your lordships will not disregard. In this the highest court of judicature in the realm, where the errors of every inferior tribunal are corrected—in this most solemn and most honorable of all tribunals, they appeal with confidence to your lordships, and say that this measure ought not to pass because it is unjust.

My lords, I have done. For myself I have no words strong enough to express my gratitude for the patience and indulgence with which you have heard me. If in any thing I may have wandered beyond the limits which my situation imposed, I implore of your lordships to attribute it to the embarrassment and novelty of my position—my inexperience in the forms and usages of your lordships’ House.