Constitutional Theory

The undisputed doyen of eighteenth–century Irish constitutional theorists was Sir William Molyneux (1656–98), MP for Dublin University and a close friend of the English philosopher John Locke. His classic account, The case of Ireland's being bound by acts of parliament in England stated, was published in April 1698, almost exactly a year before the English parliament passed a foreshadowed act aimed specifically at preventing the export of Irish woollen goods. This act was part of a general tightening–up of the Navigation Acts, the mainspring of the British imperial system. Molyneux's pamphlet aroused considerable debate in both England and Ireland. The English parliament's censure contained a resolution saying that it should be burned by the common hangman, but it is uncertain whether this actually happened.

It was acknowledged that, while Molyneux's thesis was not new, he had 'reduced it into form and now at last brought it forth into the world'. The issue had been raised at the Restoration when the Attorney General, Sir William Domvile, drew up a disquisition on the traditional independence of the Irish parliament. Even this qualification was not strictly correct, for it had been part of the constitutional debates in the years preceding the civil war. These had dominated the administration of the unpopular Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. In An Argument delivered by Patrick Darcy Esquire by express order of the parliament of Ireland, 9 June 1641, Darcy declared that no statute law was valid in Ireland until it had been enacted in the Irish parliament. Finally, James II's parliament in 1689 passed a Declaratory Act declaring Ireland's independence of the English parliament and law courts.

Molyneux's (1425) theory, then, was long–standing, and by 1700 it had been partly overtaken by events. However, largely as a result of fears inherited from the previous century, most eighteenth–century Irish parliamentarians clung to certain key issues as not negotiable. They refused to recognise that politics is dynamic, not static. Constitutionally, they failed to realise the developing connections between the post–1689 monarchy, its ministers and the Westminster parliament. Consequently, they did not foresee the inevitable impact of these changes on the Dublin administration and the Irish parliament.

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The kingdom of Ireland might be attached to the crown of England, but the British monarch was increasingly part of an executive collective whose individual strands could not be separated. Government in both Great Britain and Ireland operated on the subtle and often hidden co–operation of legislative and executive powers. Establishing these working connections was a basic problem for the eighteenth–century administration of Ireland. Theory and practice were often unharmonious. After 1692 the victorious Protestant minority were fully conscious that they could not maintain their position without the military presence of England in the background, and 'were ever fearful of offending that kingdom, from whose powerful interference, in case of emergency they looked for protection'. Of that protection they were never entirely certain, for, as Edmund Burke told his son: 'I have never known any of the successive Governments in my time influenced by any passion relative to Ireland than the wish that they should hear of it and of its concerns as little as possible.'

Despite their fundamental insecurity, the Irish parliamentary class took a high line on their parliament's constitutional rights and liberties. During the eighteenth–century, the Irish colonial nationalists were primarily concerned with refuting any idea that the Irish parliament was not the supreme legislative assembly and judicial court in Ireland. They modelled their demands on those of the British parliament, pointing out their similarly ancient origin and warning their opponents that 'the rights of parliament should be preserved sacred and inviolable wherever they are found. This kind of government, once so universal all over Europe, is now almost vanished from amongst the nations thereof.' Nor was the attachment all one way, for England required a secure and tranquil Ireland at her back, particularly when she was in a defensive position and deeply involved in European or imperial affairs.

It was not surprising that Molyneux's book, which had been triggered by a threatened act of the English parliament restricting exports of Irish raw and manufactured wool, was almost instantly condemned by the English House of Commons as 'of dangerous consequence to the crown and people of England', wool being the traditional English staple as illustrated by the seat of the Lord Chancellor on the woolsack in the English House of Lords.

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Thus, apart from its constitutional implications, the book attacked the perceived interests of the English merchant class. In querying England's right to restrict Ireland's exports (internal trade was not affected), Molyneux's book was a direct attack on the mercantalist system, variations of which were common to all contemporary western European nations.

Under it the metropolis acted as an entrepôt for imperial trade, and certain staple products of various dependencies, e.g. tobacco from Virginia and linen from Ireland, received special protection within the imperial market. Problems arose when, as with Irish wool, potential exports were perceived to constitute a threat to the markets of the English merchants and producers. However, in this case improved technology, rising populations and expanding markets ensured that by the middle of the century English manufacturers were anxious to absorb all the wool available from Ireland.

By the end of the century Locke's concept expounded by Molyneux was challenged by Paine's theory of 'the Rights of Man'. But Paine's challenge was preceded by that of Francis Hutcheson, a Presbyterian, who was born in 1694 at Saintfield, Co. Down, and grew up during the Dissenter persecutions of the reign of Queen Anne. His emphasis was on the rights of people – the greatest good for the greatest numbers, – he preceded Bentham. He taught that rulers have no sacred rights other than those that arise from the consent of the people and as a corollary of this that if the mother country oppresses a colony and the colony is able to subsist as a sovereign state it is not bound to remain subject any longer.

In 1729 Hutcheson became Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, and in this capacity he taught virtually all the ministers in the Irish Presbyterian Church between 1729 and his death in 1746. Many of his students emigrated to north America. Some taught in Benjamin Franklin's new university in Philadelphia and an influential number of their students sat in the Continental Congress. Adam Smith, Hutcheson's most illustrious student and a successor to his Chair, paid tribute to the charismatic qualities of 'my never to be forgotten teacher'. Hutcheson's influence went far and wide. For a variety of reasons, economic as well as political, the mercantalist system came under increasing pressure as the century progressed and in 1776 its philosophical justification received its most severe attack from Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations.

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Regardless of its original fate, Molyneux's book became the classic statement of what were perceived as the rights of the Irish parliament. Its reprints trace every Anglo–Irish constitutional crisis before the amendment of Poynings' law in 1782. Early reprints appeared in 1706, at the time of the Scottish Union, for Molyneux had written that 'If ... the Parliament of England may bind Ireland; it must also be allowed that the People of Ireland ought to have their Representatives in the Parliament of England, and this I believe we should be willing enough to embrace; but this is a happiness we can hardly hope for.' It was only as the eighteenth–century progressed that anti–Union sentiment developed, along with that halfway house in the evolution of a national identity – colonial nationalism, or the desire for a national identity within an imperial framework.