Reform and Confrontation

Although Swift did not die until 1745, he was incapacitated from about 1742 and the torch that he had carried passed to Dr Charles Lucas (1276), a Dublin apothecary and journalist of considerable vituperative power. The opposition press had been developing from the 1720s, and in it Lucas conducted a series of attacks on the electoral policy of the city of Dublin, parliament and the judiciary. In a less polished and more popular style, he expressed and expanded the views of Molyneux and Swift. Although more genuinely idealistic than John Wilkes, Lucas possessed many of his exhibitionist characteristics and he irritated the Irish administration as Wilkes, a decade later, irritated the British. The issue was complicated by a double Dublin city by-election. Originally both Lucas and James Digges La Touche stood. A few years earlier they had campaigned for the reform of the Dublin Board of Aldermen, who were thought to have usurped the power belonging to the Commons of the Corporation. Government and corporation produced their candidates. Lucas fled abroad, and in 1749 La Touche's election was declared invalid.

It was against this background that the next major constitutional crisis came in 1749. It was administrative as much as constitutional. The years between the Peace of Aix–la–Chappelle in 1748 and the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in 1756 were remarkable for the surpluses in the Irish Treasury. Peace had brought prosperity, which in turn had brought increases in a revenue that depended largely on customs and excise taxes. The argument was over the method of applying these budget surpluses, and Molyneux's The case of Ireland's being bound ... was again reprinted as a statement of Ireland's rights.

A fierce constitutional dispute broke out in 1751 over whether parliament could assign the surplus, which was in the Heriditary Revenue (a permanent grant made to the king at the Restoration), to the reduction of the national debt, or whether this could only be done with the express prior consent of the king. The king and his ministers in London declared that His Majesty's 'previous consent' was essential and demanded that the royal prerogative be upheld.

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Parliament, jealous of its perceived rights, declared that it alone possessed the right to dispose of surplus revenue, thereby raising the 'sole right' issue which had been so dominant a feature of the immediate post-war years of the 1690s. There were a variety of undercurrents to this relatively clear–cut, if irreconcilable, dispute. After several dramatic parliamentary confrontations the 'previous consent' was added in England. Lord Lieutenant Dorset was replaced by Lord Lieutenant Hartington, soon to be the 4th Duke of Devonshire. A formidable figure in British politics, Hartington's recently deceased wife was heiress to the senior branch of the Boyle family and he was a brother–-n-law of John Ponsonby (1702). The political exhaustion of the politicians, combined with the Lord Lieutenant's family connections and political skills enabled Hartington to smooth things over politically, while poor harvests and the outbreak of the Seven Years' War ended the surplus. But, as the Duke of Bedford's viceroyalty revealed, Devonshire had achieved a truce rather than an agreed resolution to the conflict between the administration and parliament. Lucas had raised the sensitive issue of the British government's use of Irish patronage to reward British politicians and to support distant or indirect members of the Royal Family, for example the king's German relatives and mistresses.

Patronage provided the cohesion of eighteenth–century parliamentary politics, and there was never enough of it. Consequently successive British ministers used a certain amount of Irish patronage to reward or secure their British followers. Also, delicate issues tended to find their way on to the Irish pension list, where they would be less likely to embarrass the king or his ministers in England. Pensions now became a recurrent issue, particularly as George III had a large immediate and extended family. At the end of the century the French wars left many of them to claim his support, and much of this was passed on to the already over–burdened Irish exchequer. Attempts were made to control these additional burdens, but these were vitiated by the number of exemptions.

At the end of the Seven Years' War Britain was the leading European imperial power, with the responsibility of maintaining this position and financing it. The years of benign imperial neglect had finally come to an end. The first decade of George III's reign saw various attempts to persuade Britain's increasingly reluctant dependencies to share the cost of this new responsibility. Ireland was not excluded, and in 1769 the heated dispute over the augmentation of the Irish army, as part of the British government's expanded policy for imperial defence, resulted in the House of Commons threatening a short Money Bill, and Lord Lieutenant Townshend prorogued parliament in protest.

At this point there was a further reprint of Molyneux's book. And, showing its wider appeal, a London edition was printed in 1770. Benjamin Franklin visited Dublin in September 1771 and received a warm reception from the Irish parliament. Two further Irish editions appeared in 1773 and 1776, for Molyneux's views had included the very topical opinion that 'If one law may be imposed without consent, any other law whatever may be imposed upon us without our consent. This will naturally introduce taxing us without our consent ... To tax me without consent is little better, if at all, than downright robbing me.'

The War of American Independence was followed with the keenest interest and sympathy in Ireland. As Britain's position became more hazardous, Ireland's demands for first economic and then constitutional reform grew. But, unlike the Americans, the Irish parliamentarians sought independence within the orbit of the Crown; feeling that this offered the best protection for their exclusive position – ensured by the penal laws and membership of 'the Church by law established'. The final edition of Molyneux came in 1782, in the excitement that immediately preceded legislative independence. Yelverton's (2268) heads of a bill for the amendment of Poynings' Law and the repeal of the Declaratory Act provided the charter for the colonial nationalism for which Molyneux had been the leading and most repeated spokesman.