The Constitutional Position

Anglo-Irish relations had their origins in England and Ireland’s common medieval past. It was only the problems of ruling the far-flung domains of the Angevin kings that led to any systemisation of government. Henry II personally ruled as King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, etc., all of which territories were ruled separately and adhered to different laws and customs. He created his youngest son, John (who unexpectedly became his ultimate heir), Lord of Ireland, and from John’s reign until that of Henry VIII the Kings of England were Lords of Ireland.

Then in 1541 parliament met in Dublin and, in 33 Henry VIII, c. 1, presented to parliament in both Irish and English, Henry declared himself King of Ireland, which he defined as ‘depending and belonging to the imperial crown of England’. Thus from the accession of James I and VI in 1603 to the Scottish Act of Union in 1707 the sovereign of England had two separate and theoretically co-equal crowns and one dependent crown. The status of Ireland was confirmed by the Revolution settlement in 1692.

Apart from the Act of Recognition, the Irish parliament did not pass any constitutional legislation at the time of the Revolution settlement. Constitutional aspects of the settlement were confined to such legislation of the English parliament as specifically included Ireland. Consequently the Bill of Rights was reduced solely to the sections that defined the title to the Crown, although an unsuccessful attempt was made to introduce a Bill of Rights for Ireland in 1695. The remaining legislation associated with the 1689–1714 settlement, passed by the English (after 1707 the British) parliament, applied to Ireland only in so far as it related to the succession to the throne.

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Judicial tenure remained at the royal pleasure and the duration of parliament was limited only by the wishes or life of the sovereign in whose name it had been called. This was a period in which both England and Ireland were evolving the basis of a system of co-operative government. Gradually the basis of the agreement emerged: protection for the new governing class in Ireland and finance for the British government, with the Irish military establishment as a link between the two. Standing armies were unpopular in England, but the European interests of William III and the Hanoverians made them anxious to keep the numbers of men under arms higher than the British parliament would have wished.

The financial arrangement was frequently subject to friction over the question of whether the Irish House of Commons had the ‘sole right’ to initiate all money bills. They were usually quite willing to pay in return for security, and during these years financial arrangements evolved whereby the method of securing any shortfall in the revenue would be left to the Irish parliament, which eventually decided that the shortfall would be made up through additional duties on specified goods and not as earlier by a direct poll tax, which had proved unworkable.

The placing of Ireland within the imperial mercantilist framework was indicated by 7 & 8 Will. III, c. 39 (Eng.), ‘for encouraging the linen manufacture of Ireland’ by admitting Irish linen free of duty into England, and 10 Will. III, c. 5, which imposed duties on the export of Irish wool. A further English statute, 10 & 11 Will. III, forbade the export of Irish woollens other than to England. Another area of recurrent conflict was the question of whether final jurisdiction lay with the British or Irish House of Lords; in 1720 an attempt was made to resolve this by 6 Geo. I, c. 1 (Gt B.), declaring that it lay with the British House of Lords. This produced some curious results both in its operation, see 19 & 20 Geo. III, c. 30 (Tenantry Bill), and following its renunciation (28 Geo. III, c. 28 (Gt B.).

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However, the major change resulting from the Revolution settlement 1688/9–1714 was in the executive position of the king. This was partly due to the external commitments of William III and the poor health of Queen Anne, combined with the long drawn-out War of Spanish Succession. Moreover, their Hanoverian successors were elderly and not overly ambitious men, preferring, if certain demands were met, a quiet life with frequent visits to their home in Hanover. Therefore, by the eighteenth century the parliament of Great Britain had entered into an executive partnership with the Crown whereby the king selected his ministers from parliament and a policy agreed between them was submitted for parliamentary approval. In Ireland the king’s executive authority had previously been exercised through his personal representative, the Lord Deputy or Lord Lieutenant.

After the Revolution this representative was appointed with the consent of both king and cabinet and, from time to time, the Lord Lieutenant was a member of the cabinet. Members of the cabinet were automatically members of the British Privy Council, which, until 1782, had the deciding voice in the formation of Irish legislation. By the eighteenth century the executive power of the king in Ireland had evolved into that of the king and the British parliament. This had the curious consequence of allowing the person of the sovereign to be separated from the policies being carried out in his or her name, and gave rise to the erroneous view that the crown of Ireland belonged exclusively to the king in the Irish, not the British parliament.

Moreover, British cabinets in the eighteenth century operated on two theories: government under a prime minister actually or tacitly acknowledged, or government by departments separately responsible to the monarch. The latter indicated the greater influence of the House of Lords on the government than exists in the United Kingdom today. Many ministers were peers whose social position naturally inclined them to the idea of individual and co-equal responsibility, for by long tradition they were the king’s hereditary counsellors and the mainstay of his dynasty.

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It was from this group that the king chose his personal representative, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Every British minister who aspired to the leadership of his colleagues had to operate within the consensus of this powerful landed oligarchy, whose political power was not only traditional but also electoral. Political parties in the modern sense were unknown, and no eighteenth-century ministry changed as the result of a general election.

In a real sense in Great Britain the eighteenth century was a transitional period in the methods by which political power was exercised. Until the final decade of the seventeenth century parliament did not meet regularly in either England or Ireland. Colonies were small and distant and for the most part regarded with a benign neglect: a situation that had been exacerbated by the Civil War. Cromwell had subsequently attempted to establish a framework for trade, which, in the eyes of the mother country, was the principal purpose of colonies.

Although Cromwell’s work had officially been obliterated by the Restoration, many of his ideas reappeared during the reign of Charles II. As a mature and above all a neighbouring possession that not only had shared England’s medieval heritage but was also part of Europe, Ireland was in a different position from the embryonic colonies overseas, and her administration raised particular problems, many of which dated from the end of the medieval period.