March 1849


The Poor Laws, Potato Disease and Free Trade

Pages 340-347, edited for length)

There can be no question that from the beginning of the year 1848 the state of this country has assumed a very disastrous aspect. A renewed and extensive failure of the potato crop has added greatly to the sufferings of the poor, and increased the perplexities which have involved all other classes of society. The burthen of poor rates has become intolerable to a perople who have been themselves the principal sufferers from the loss of their crops; and the prospect of the aggravation of the pressure during the ensuing year from the continued and increasing distreess and destitution in the country, hs paralysed the energies of even the most sanguine and the most resolute. The peculiar evils of the present system of poor laws in Ireland, and their great inaptitude for such a country, has also naturally tended to check all exertion to prevent an increase of the rates, as teh most active and well-disposed proprietor finds that all the employment he can give to his poor is of little avail without an extensive cooperation among his neighbors, which it is, from various causes, impracticable to attain, while the ill effects of a system by which such vast numbers are fed upon public doles have, it is too plain, only increased their indolence and indisposition to earn their bread by manly exertion. This system, continued in one shape or other since the Labour-rate Act was passed, while it is fast swallowing up all private property, has at the same time, produced incalculable evils, in rendering the mass of the population listless and dead to every feeling of independence, an effect peculiarly disastrous to the case of the Irish peasantry. Altogether the prospects of the country are most gloomy, the very opposite to those which a well-ordered state should exhibit.

Various attempts have been made to arrest our downward progress, and to correct the system of legislation that has been inflicted upon us. With this view, and with the very desirable object of raising a national spirit in the country, the Irish Council was, in the summer of 1847, founded by a few men of great talents and of sincere and patriotic intentions. It failed, however, from what cause it would now be useless to inquire. The Council of National Distress and Safety, composed of such of the Irish members of parliament of all political parties as chose to attend, was not productive of any better results. All the principal grievances of the time were in both these societies enlarged upon, and formed the theme, with many, of eloquent declamation. The vast sums expended upon under the Labour-rate Act upon useless works -- the increasing burthen of our poor rates -- the decay of manufactures and of productive industry in general, and the blundering legislation of the Whig government were not forgotten, but we are constrained to believe with a secret determination on the part of many who hld this language to take no step that would effect the removal of that government. . . .

Whilst we are writing, a new association has sprung up, the object of which is to procure a periodcial session of the Imperial Parliament in Dublin. This scheme has also had its origin in the disgust generated in the public mind by the mischievous course of recent legislation; but we cannot conceal our fears that it will be found only a delusion, calculated to distract attention from the real source of our misery, while it will serve the purposes of corrupt men, who will endeavor to maintain their populairty by a noisy agitation for a project which they know is not likely to meet the support of any English party in the imperial parliament, and will therefore never bring them into any real collision with the ministry. Like the Irish council, this society consists of men of every political hue; and we greatly lament that in, perhaps, the necessary constitution of this body there should be found an opening through which fraud andimposture may rear its deformed head, while all the crying evils of thelandare still left unredressed.

It is now become abundantly manifest to all who do not willfully shut their eyes, that the occurence of the potato disease was made the pretext only for an entire change of the commerical system from one of portection to free trade. instead of the adoption of efficient measures of an extraordinary character, to meet an extraorindary emergency, ireland and its calamity only served the objects of those who had long contemplated the entire overthrow of protection to domesti industry . . .

< a href="http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/434/49.html&bold=on&sw=Connell&sw=O&DBase=Articles&hits=10&context=all&ParagraphType=1&indexremove=off#first_hit">Mr. O'Connell had for some years seceded from parliament, under the allegation that Irish members could effect no good for their country in an Imperial Parliament; but the moment they repeal of the corn-laws and the other measures of free trade were proposed in 1846, he went over to London, and arrayed all the Irish members over whom he had influence, the representatives of an entirely agricultural country, in direct hostility to the English agricultural party, and thus with strange inconsistency, the cornlaws were destroyed by a man who never ceased to attribute the wretchedness and poverty of Ireland to the loss of protection to her industry, as resulting from the Act of Union. . . . . So far from free trade and political economy being a remedy for the famine, it is now generally allowed, that the most effective measures for its relief were those adopted in 1845, by the formation of depots of food throughout the country, by the agency of government; but this mode of relief was in violation of the principles of political economy, and was abandoned by the Whig government on that ground in 1846 and this abondonment was one principle ground of their having recourse to the new poor-law, as the only alternative, when they refused any longer to use extraorindary means of providing foor for the people. . . .

Thus almost all the remedies provided by the legislature to meet an abnormal state of things arising from a sudden calamity wer founded upon principles applicable only to the ordinary state of society, and accordingly they were greatly deficient. There was great loss of life from famine and pestilence; and although the relif afforded was far from being effectual, the expense entailed upon an impoverished country was vastly increased by the refusal of government to interfere with the course of private trade, and the necessity thus arising to purchase food from the private importers who in defiance of the all the theory of free trade, were the real monopolists during the year of famine. The Labour-rate Act, which has also saddled us with such crushing burthens, was likewise supported upon a principle ready cut from Adam Smith, and that science which now excludes every other idea from the minds of our ruling statesmen. This was plainly avowed by the prime Minister himself, in a late debate on a motion introduced into the House of Commons, with the view of enforcing the application of any future relief loans for Ireland to reproductive works. On that occasion the waste of money expended under the Labour-rate Act was strongly urged, but every argument was met by Lord John Russell by the notable dogma, that government could not go into the labour market and employ the destitute on useful works. . . .

The repeal of the corn-laws, at the dictation of the Anti Corn Law League, was the first strong manifestation of the absolute sway of the new principles of political economy. A most plausible picture was then drawn of its advantages to Ireland even, and a great parade was made of the removal of the police tax from the county cess to the consolidated fund, to enable the farmers the better to encounter foreign competition. How grossly has the expectation of reduced taxation been falsified. A poor rate, amounting in most cases to a fourth of the annual value of the land -- in many, to one-half -- in not a few, to the whole value, and a greatly increased country cess, are pretty sensible evidence of the folly of all such expectations. The great majority led by Mr. O'Connell turned the scale in the House of Commons in favour of the destruction of the corn-laws: he was influenced by the feeling often avowed by him -- a desire to break down the English aristorcracy; but Ireland perhaps has only met with a just retribution in being itself reduced to misery and desolation. Instead of uniting firmly with English agricultural party to resist the encroachments of the Manchester school, Ireland led the van in an assault upon the landed interest; and nay party in the House of Commons to guard the interests of that extensive portion of the population, which derives its subsistence from from agriculture, was completely broken up, and through that breach entered the New Poo Law, the Labour-rate Act, the Temporary Relief Act, and all that train of destructive enactments which while they completely impoverish and criplle the landlord and farmers, must necessarily disable them from employing the artisan and the labourer, and thus leave him to destitution and starvation. Often has the principle been asserted in Ireland, that the famine was an Imperial calamity, and should be borne by the whole state. If this principle, contended for by men of all parties at the great Rotundo meeting of peers and commoners in 1847, had been admitted by the legislature, it wouldhave gone a great way towards alleviating our distress; but after the conduct of the Irish members on the corn-law question, was there any prospect of the English agricultural members or their constituents enduring taxation to relieve a country which had left them to struggle in future, unprotected, against foreign competition? No other conduct could naturally have been expected from them, than that they should join in the outcry raised in England against the endless burthen of Irish povery, and vote for the new poor-law, and all the catalogue of confiscating legislation; and thus is the failure of the Rotunda meeting to produce any effect, though so influential from its numbers and respectability, easily accounted for. It is true that Lord Stanley succeeded in carrying several important amendments in the Poor-law Bill in the House of Lords, which would have greatly mitigated its pressure; but the fatal effects of the conduct of Irish members on the question of the corn-laws rendered it impossible for any of his political friends in the lower house to join in the attempt, and Ireland was left to bear the full severity of the ministerial bill; no English member would undertake the unpopular task of opposing a measure which was held forth as in future relieving England from the burthen of Irish poverty. We would call upon our readers to consider the effect of the conduct of our own representatives, the majority of whom we bodly say have brought upon us all the evils of recent legislation. They have greatly sacrificed the interests of Irealnd to aggrandise the great capitalists of Manchester, and this they did with the view of enjoying the smiles and favour of the Whig ministry; they have completely abandoned and disgusted the representatives of the landed interest in England; they have suicidally thrown the whole weight of their influence into the scale in favour of Cobden and Bright, who merely used the potato famine asa pretext to carry their own views, and the consequence has been not merely the repeal of the corn=laws, but what every man of common sense who is acquainted with the workings of party in the House of Commons must have foreseen the total disruption of any party in that house to protect the landed interest, both in England and Ireland, from injurious legislation. It is one of the most absurd assertions that ever was attempted to be pawned on a besotted people, that the 105 Irish members have no influence in the legislature. This is every day in the mouths of repeal members, and instilled by the press; and it is well calculated to serve the designs of corrupt men, who wish to combine the two objects of keeping up agitation and at the same time of withdrawing public attention from their parliamentary conduct, as being not worthy of regard, from the alleged inability to effect any good for Ireland. Behind the dust raised by agitation, there is scarcely a repeal member that does not drive a profitable trade with ministers for his vote, since the day that his vote on the corn-laws brought them into power, and they are become completely indifferent to the ruin which the principles and policy of the government have brough on the country whose interest they were elected to represent. A feeble opposition made by them on a few isolated points, is but a wretched compensation for all the mischief which their general support enables them to effect, while it has greatly increased the ingination and contempt which their utter abadonment of the agricultural and Protectionist party in parliament has given rise to. What independent English member would feel any heart to propose any measure to benefit Irelandor its impoverished people, when he reflects on the treatment which Lord George Bentinck's Railway Bill received from the Irish members? -- who unanimously approved of it one day, but after a visit to the minister, two-thirds of them either voted against it, or absented themselves at the division,a nd thsoe the very members who clamour loudest on the fertile topoic of Irish poverty and starvation. Who would not feel disgust when he sees the Irish representatives make such a barefaced sacrifice of the public good to their private views, and for the future discontinue all attempts to serve her? . . .