The absence of O’Connell and the Repeal MPs from Parliament in 1843 cleared the stage for a remarkable campaign by the liberal-unionists.  The liberal-unionists were a mixed bag of Protestants and Catholics, Whigs and liberals, and they had as little idea of party unity as the stereotypical independent Member of 19th century fame.  That they came to act as a Parliamentary party during 1843 owed much to the pressure of events in Ireland.  But it was also attributable to the two men who orchestrated their efforts, Thomas Wyse of Waterford and William Smith O’Brien.

The crisis of 1843 transformed Wyse into an indefatigable conspirator.  He wrote at length about his activities in a series of letters to his younger brother, George, at home in Waterford, correspondence which reveals a calculating, even manipulative politician.  It emerges that the course of the liberal-unionists was planned well in advance.  What have been seen as cries of frustration – Smith O’Brien’s motion on the state of Ireland in July 1843 and the ‘Remonstrance’ of the liberal-unionist Members in August – were elements of a strategy which potentially had implications for the development of a liberal-unionist party, the future of Peel’s government and, above all, the way in which Ireland would be treated by the British legislature.  O’Brien was Wyse’s ally in this campaign, and its principal public face, until he lost patience and joined the repealers in October 1843.[1]

O’Brien’s conclusion in February 1843 that ‘the British Parlt. is incapable of properly legislating for Ireland’ was apparently confirmed a month later when he moved for a committee to inquire into the operation of the Irish poor law.  He argued that defects in the law, including the exclusive insistence on workhouse relief, had provoked ‘universal condemnation’.  In the middle of his speech, an English MP rose and moved that the House be counted and, although the required number (40) were found to be present, O’Brien ‘protested in terms of warmest indignation against the attempt made to get rid of a discussion upon a subject which excited much interest in Ireland and stated that if this mode of dealing with Irish affairs were continued he should endeavour to secure their fair discussion in an Irish Parliament.’  His motion for a committee was lost by 108 votes to 23.

A new party

There seemed little prospect, initially, of success in Parliament, as Wyse wrote to his brother on 2 May 1843:

Whigs there are none, at least no Whig party.  All our old Treasury arrangements are given up, no circulars, no whipping, anyone speaks, fights, guerrillas as he can…  There is no Opposition, in fact, in the true disciplinarian style of the word.  The time is not yet come.  Our Irishmen are still more scattered.  The ‘moderés’ are the only in attendance.  All the O’Connellites are still away.

Already, however, Wyse and O’Brien had begun to work together.  They decided to respond to the intention of a British Tory, Lane Fox, whom Wyse called ‘a sort of anti O’C. fanatic’, to move in favour of coercion as the answer to the growing agitation in Ireland.  Wyse reported,

O’Brien very judiciously thought it was a moment not to be lost to the moderate section in Ireland…  [Wyse and O’Brien] went over the resolutions he proposes to move in amendments together…  It is the only course which our section could take consistently with our character as Irishmen and men of temperate politics.  We propose to do all we can to assist the discussion of the question in Ireland, by using all efforts to obtain our remedy first here.  Should we fail, we have worked to the last, the fault, the blunder or crime of the result will not be ours.

O’Brien’s resolutions stated that the upsurge of repeal was due to the ‘overbearing, exclusive, anti-national spirit in which the affairs of Ireland have been administered’ and called for early consideration by Parliament of measures for Ireland.  In the event, Fox’s motion was abandoned and O’Brien’s postponed.  Wyse appreciated the importance of O’Connell’s absence:

We can speak with more weight in our attitude of an independent Irish party than under his wing, and say things which from us will have their effect, tho’ from him they would provoke little more than scoff or jeer.  O’Brien and others of us are determined to be explicit enough.  The Arms Bill will give us another opportunity…  [It] will appear a Bill for disarming the Catholics and leaving the Orangemen armed.[2]

O’Brien told his wife, Lucy, that the government was bringing in ‘a new Coercion Bill under the name of an Arms Bill’, but he was hopeful that ‘the progress of events in Ireland’ would cause it ‘to give more attention to Irish concerns’ and ‘promise more satisfactory govt. for Ireland…  People here are at last beginning to get a little frightened about Repeal.  That is a good sign.  There is never any chance of getting anything in the way of conciliatory govt. from England until she becomes alarmed…’  On 2 June, he described his wish ‘to open the eyes of the Government to the perils into which they are about to plunge the country’ – but he went on to tell Lucy that this was ‘probably my last session in a British Parliament’ before giving it up as hopeless and throwing himself ‘into the ranks of those who seek for what every day’s experience more & more teaches me to believe is the only effective remedy for misgovernment – an Irish Parliament.’

Pressed by Limerick corporation to back Repeal, O’Brien admitted that ‘every hour’s experience continues to prove the futility’ of seeking to make the Union work, but he believed still that the ‘unanimous determination of the Irish people’ might yet compel Westminster to change course.  ‘So long, then, as a hope of obtaining good government through other means than a severance of the legislative connexion remains on my mind, I shall adhere to the union.  When that hope is extinguished, I shall not fear to contemplate the remaining alternative.’  From others this might have been an evasive reply to satisfy constituents, but enough is known of O’Brien’s character (and of the future course of events) to appreciate that he meant what he said.

Wyse was more optimistic.  British opinion, he felt, was moving towards conciliation, with many talking of ‘throwing the Church overboard, increasing the Members, lowering the franchise, reorganising the law of landlord & tenant, expanding education, and providing largely for public works in Ireland.  I hear them every day – Protestant & Catholic, Tory as well as Whig and Radical.’  On 6 June, he described the liberal-unionists’ intentions, revealing that their famous declaration of August 1843 – the ‘Remonstrance’ – was envisaged months beforehand by Wyse and O’Brien, as part of the plan to engineer public opinion:

These views are constantly present to a small section of us – O’Brien, Ross, Crawford, Reddington.  (Denham Norreys to a certain degree.)  Under all circumstances we adhere to these great reforms, but are not indifferent to any others.  Our course is to let the Repeal movement fight our battle – and when the acceptable time shall arise, and the public mind shall be ripe, to be ready with our Ultimatum in set formal terms under the name of Declaration of Rights.  (Say nothing of this.)  O’Brien and I have had several consultations on it, and we shall not be wanting when the House & Country are ready to receive it.

It was more than a matter of displacing the Tory ministry.  Wyse wanted ‘very considerably to re-fashion the whole concern – a far more important matter than any cheque-mating of parties’.  But he was proud of the liberal-unionists’ role in reviving the Whigs:

The Irish members have awakened them – they alone.  O’Connell’s absence has been very fortunate.  We … are now a compact, united, energetic and working body, which the House is beginning to feel and respect…  Our future action is very obvious.  We are determined to let nothing pass, to put forward in one shape or another all our claims.  Hence O’Brien’s finance, and Reddington’s army and my education motions – the Provincial Colleges … and the University (of which say nothing yet), in readiness for a fitting opportunity.  The Whigs must follow.  They do it reluctantly enough.  Lord John [Russell] excepted, who has spoken out?  Many of them think too rarely.  But the day will come … there must be a total fusion of the party.[3]

Two days later, on 8 June, Wyse met the leading Whigs at Russell’s house and persuaded them to support his strategy, allowing the Irish to lead in the Commons.  He and O’Brien busied themselves ‘ascertaining aspects of Irish opinion in & out of the House to be sure before we set down to the work what sort of support we are likely to have…’

O’Brien and I are decided … about our declaration & we have been considering … the various topics.  As it is likely to have an important effect & to be a historic document we must take some care…  This briefly is our policy – to have this document approved by the Irish members, signed by them and then followed up by the intermediates & moderates in Ireland…  [I]t will (as will really be the case) be seen as the only means left of tempering and staying the existing agitation and warding off the evils which otherwise may follow…  As to topics – Church, Franchise, Representation, Public Works, Education, Grand Jury Reform, Finance and Patronage will form our head complaints.  Tenure of land & Emigration shall not be neglected.  In fact we intend a regular manifesto – and such as will give unity of action and opinion to our section at last, not only now but in all future sessions…  If the matter is well managed we shall I think ultimately succeed and at all costs we shall rally together a party which it is quite obvious only require some such course to bring and keep them together.

The aim, then, was a reform programme for Ireland and a united liberal-unionist party, a party capable of exerting ‘some control over the feelings and judgement of the country’.  O’Brien assured Lucy on 13 June of his confidence that ‘we shall be able to make some impression for the benefit of Ireland before the end of the session’.  He was resolved ‘not to return to the British Parliament’ if the session ended ‘without some change of policy towards Ireland’ – extending ‘just & conciliatory measures’ – but was hopeful that the session would not be allowed to ‘elapse without some important change’.

To battle

The struggle over the arms bill of 1843 saw the debut performance of the new ‘party’.  The bill was intended to regulate the possession of weapons and the liberal-unionists disliked its provisions, including the harsh penalties and increased powers of search.  Above all, however, it was thought that remedial legislation, rather than this coercive measure, was needed to defeat Repeal.  It was this train of thought that led to the presentation of the full array of Irish grievances.  Opposition was well organised.  Wyse’s letters of 15 and 16 May were the first of many to refer to meetings of the Irish Members ‘on the resistance to the Arms Bill’.  The second reading debate at the end of May lasted for three nights: the liberal-unionists led the assault and O’Brien was privately pleased with their display of ‘sharpshooting’.  The vote was lost, but they were resolved to ‘fight every inch’.  ‘O’Brien and I,’ wrote Wyse, ‘think we should fight it at every stage.  Lord J[ohn] & O’F[errall] do not, lest we should have small divisions.  We can’t accept that.  Who cares for divisions now?  The point is, the great point, to show that Ireland has in her representatives men on whom she can rely…’[4]

Wyse’s motion to refer the bill to a select committee led to another three-day debate in which Home Secretary Sir James Graham’s claim that conciliation had been ‘carried to its utmost limits’ was mercilessly exploited as evidence that the Tories had nothing to offer Ireland.  His ‘immense blunder,’ as Wyse put it, gave the Irish ‘an opportunity of falling on him sword in hand…  I wish you could have seen Peel’s face.’  The liberal-unionists now spoke ‘with a self reliance and vigor they had not before’ as they acted ‘as interpreters of the feelings of large masses of the country…  It is quite clear we are getting to close quarters on all the great questions and before the end of the session shall have the programme of our future campaign fairly traced out.’  It was at the committee stage, from 23 June until 27 July, that the opposition to the arms bill became truly extraordinary.  The Irish forced 51 divisions.  Wyse told his brother of numerous meetings ‘to distribute our parts and order of battle man by man’.  On 3 July, he wrote from the front line: ‘Another night of fierce fighting on the Arms Bill, now 2 in the morning, just completed at 1 o’clock…  We have not, after 3 nights, allowed them to get beyond 11 clauses, or rather 8 – 3 postponed – and without a single factious move.’  Peel was driven to exasperation:

There is a certain Lord Clements in the House of Commons, an unparalleled bore and with means of obstructing public business by a combination of ignorance and perseverance unequalled in the annals of Parliament.  He took 13 divisions last night on miserable points in the Arms Bill.  I was haunted throughout the remainder of the night after the business was over by the sound of his voice.[5]

F.S. Murphy, one of the liberal-unionists, quipped that ‘the penalties are bad, but the Clementcy worse’.  The success in securing amendments – for example, the defining of arms as firearms only and the reduction of penalties – was secondary to the creation of an effective Parliamentary party.  The Dublin Evening Post hailed ‘as well disciplined an opposition’ as it had ever seen and for historian Angus MacIntyre it was ‘the first genuine example of the use of those methods of obstruction by which Parnell and his party later brought Parliamentary government to a standstill’.

On 4 July, O’Brien introduced his motion on the state of Ireland, a shortened version of the resolutions he had drawn up in answer to Lane Fox.  It called on the House to resolve itself into a committee to consider the causes of Ireland’s discontent ‘with a view to the redress of grievances and to the establishment of just and impartial government in that part of the United Kingdom’.  The debate monopolised the business of the House for five nights and twelve Irish liberals (one of them a repealer) spoke.  O’Brien memorably declared that ‘the cry for Repeal is not the voice of treason, but the language of despair’.  He announced his readiness to support Repeal if Parliament did not show (‘by your decision this night’) its determination ‘to repair the many wrongs which have been inflicted upon Ireland’.  But the government offered no concessions, and on 12 July the motion was defeated by 79 votes.

Wyse celebrated the impact on Parliamentary and public opinion, and the evidence of disarray among Tories: some now spoke ‘for Ireland and against the Church…  Even the Cabinet is not unanimous…  Last night Stanley was taking notes to answer Graham.  Peel took them out of his hand.  He did not speak…’  The liberal-unionists were hailed as heroes all over Ireland, not least in the Repeal Association.  However, it was soon evident that they could not remain united, for the task of formulating a liberal-unionist reform programme was to be beyond them.

The Remonstrance

In August 1843, the liberal-unionists sought to rouse opinion in Britain – as Wyse put it, ‘We speak as the organs of a Nation to a Nation and call not for favours but rights’ – by issuing the long-intended manifesto of Irish demands.  Preparation of this ‘solemn remonstrance’ was ‘going on well’ when the document was ‘concocting still between O’B. and self {Wyse}’ – but disagreements emerged during a series of private meetings with other liberal-unionists:

O’Brien and I have been indefatigable in preparing the Remonstrance – for such we now are resolved to call it – and not Address, Appeal, etc.  You have little idea of the difficulties we have had to contend with on all sides – & the patience and perseverance requisite to overcome them.

Each member of the steering committee of five – Wyse, O’Brien, Villiers Stuart, Ross and Morgan John O’Connell – prepared drafts and O’Brien strove ‘to melt them into each other’.  There followed lengthy discussions between the five principals and, on 31 July, within a broader circle of liberal-unionist Members.  Wyse was greatly annoyed by Richard More O’Ferrall’s opposition to ‘the whole proceeding – [he] thought it could answer no possible purpose, no one would sign it, it would be torn in pieces by O’Connell – finally were we prepared if our party came in to adopt it?  We laughed openly at his idea of its embarrassing a future ministry…  [He is] under the tow of his master instead of above it and more servile than even what is demanded by his former and future superior’, Russell.

There is a suggestion here that the Whig leaders were wary of any statement that could assume the character of a manifesto they would be expected to fulfil in office.  Wyse was dismissive – ‘We at least shall have done our duty’ – but O’Brien slid quickly into disillusionment.  Regarding O’Ferrall, Wyse noted, ‘Even O’Brien is sometimes disgusted by his paltry, truckling, insidious conduct, and almost tempted to give up.’  On 1 August, others raised objections, leaving O’Brien ‘quite out of patience, & had he anticipated so much cavil & opposition [he] would never have undertaken it.’  Wyse ‘laugh[ed] at his want of experience’ – but, though happy with the final outcome, Wyse, too, went on to regret that they encountered ‘much disagreement and obstacle’ and had been forced to drop O’Brien’s paragraphs on finance (which effectively challenged the terms of the Union) and to refrain from presenting Repeal as the alternative to conciliation.  ‘It still stands however a manifesto of which no Irishman not a Tory need be ashamed, and with many points on which even Tories must coincide.’

The final version was a clear statement of the grievances advanced in Parliament (and in Ireland) throughout the summer.  The privileged position of the Church of Ireland, the restrictive municipal and Parliamentary franchises, the failure to appoint a fair proportion of Catholics to public office and the state of landlord-tenant relations featured prominently.  There is a suggestion of more agreement on Ireland’s grievances than upon remedies.  Above all, the hope that the Remonstrance would serve as the manifesto of liberal-unionism was undermined when Wyse and O’Brien sought their colleagues’ signatures.  Wyse ‘found O’Brien much disappointed.  He had been able to procure very few names.’  Lord Clements ‘did not like to afford his signature to a pledge!!’  Villiers Stuart ‘doubted’ and Sir William Somerville thought ‘it would do no good’.  Wyse believed that Denis O’Connor refused because ‘it would be attacked by O’Connell’; he would ‘carve document and signers without mercy’; for Wyse, ‘it is right in the face of a thousand O’Connells’.  Richard Sheil and More O’Ferrall did not wish to embarrass the Whig leaders, their former and possibly future employers.  O’Ferrall ‘of course not only will not [sign] but is laughing and enjoying the refusals’.

Wyse and O’Brien initially (on 4 August) secured 15 signatures and hoped for another ten.  ‘But this is not what ought to have been the case.  The universal representation on our side of the House should have signed it…  [O’Brien] was much annoyed and indignant at such tergiversation…  We have every courage but moral courage’ – the readiness to raise one’s head above the parapet – ‘that we want.  He said, had he anticipated half what he had met or experienced from our own side, he never would have touched the subject.  [Wyse] would – & time will prove me right…’

In the end, the Remonstrance was signed by 29 Members, but it received a muted response in the press and Wyse came to accept that it would not ‘produce immediate and especially popular effect’.  The struggle over it seemed to add much to O’Brien’s sense of exasperation.  On 6 August, he told Wyse that he ‘is decided on leaving Parlt. and throwing himself into the Repeal movement in November, if nothing be done in the interval by the Govt….  He is sick of begging – and will beg no longer – ten years he has been doing, and without avail, nothing else.’  Wyse spoke to him of ‘the want of heart and soul and honesty and honour and firmness of the men with whom he was about to unite.  His only answer was, ‘Is it right?  – I have been considering all that and will not be deterred from fixing a course because of its supporters…  We have no hope from anything else.’’

The session ended with no sign of conciliatory measures, no indication that Wyse’s Parliamentary strategy might succeed, so he stood little chance when, in mid-August, he ‘continue[d] to advise him [O’Brien] to keep his position and work on for at least another session’.  He warned that the repealers would introduce a ‘hundred-headed tyranny’.  They were ‘not a set with whom O’B. can or ought to work’.

He knows nothing of them and suspects nothing.  He has very little experience indeed of the vileness and iniquity of these underhand politicians and is of too confiding & frank a spirit not to take every thing they say for granted.  He would be their leader & then their victim.  Whether my eloquence or his wife’s has worked the wonder, he has at last promised he will not only do nothing before November, but keep altogether out of the way – and for that purpose is about to set out at once to Germany…  Should Parlt. not meet however in Nov. he means he says to join the Association…  My plan is quite other.  I never was less in love with Repeal.

O’Brien would never regret his conversion to Repeal but, as Wyse foresaw, he would eventually despair of the repealers.  On 18 August, O’Brien wrote an important note to his sister, Anne Martineau, telling her he was about to go to Germany:

I am anxious to get out of the way of Politics for a few weeks being tired to death after six months of unavailing toil…  [I]t is not my intention to return to the Brit. Ho. Comm. after the expiration of the present year.  I cannot afford to waste my life in fruitless efforts to serve my country & I have long been of opinion that I should be more useful at home.

He duly left for Europe on 20 August and travelled through Belgium and Germany for almost two months.  During O’Brien’s absence, the government struck, banning the monster meeting planned for Clontarf on 8 October and arresting O’Connell and charging him with conspiracy.  O’Brien reached Dublin on 18 October and, after calling on O’Connell at his townhouse in Merrion Square, he sent in his subscription to the Repeal Association on 20 October.

In his letter to the Association, O’Brien cited the fourteen years of ‘misgovernment’ since Emancipation and the ‘neglect, ridicule, or defiance’ with which the Remonstrance was received as reasons for his conversion, and the Clontarf proclamation as the decisive factor.  At public dinners in Limerick in November and December, he claimed that ‘it was the proclamation of the Clontarf meeting that made me avow myself a Repealer’.  But it is clear from Wyse’s letters that O’Brien was almost decided on joining the repealers some time before Clontarf.  He was disillusioned by the conduct of other liberal-unionists over the Remonstrance and, above all, by his ‘fruitless efforts’ to secure remedial measures for Ireland.  Having failed to find the answers to Ireland’s problems in London, he would now fight to restore an Irish parliament in Dublin.

Wyse and O’Brien tried to establish liberal-unionism as the vehicle by which conciliation of Ireland’s grievances could be achieved in the British Parliament.  This required the moulding of a liberal-unionist party that was capable of sustaining an effective opposition of which any ministry would have to take account.  Success would stem the Repeal tide and end Tory ‘misrule’ in Ireland.  Other liberal-unionists clearly shared these aims and pursued them with great determination.  Their opposition to the arms bill, in particular, was a remarkable effort.  However, the failure to extract concessions and the mixed response of colleagues to the Remonstrance suggest that Wyse’s and O’Brien’s hopes were not well founded.  An effective party, one able to wage the sort of long-term campaign that Parnell and his followers later sustained, was not created.  Peel went on to pursue a conciliatory policy in Ireland, but it was his appreciation of the dangerous state of Ireland which brought this about.  The possibility of Parliamentary difficulties did not dictate Peel’s policy.[6]

On the other hand, though not forced by Parliamentary opposition, Peel’s conversion may well have been influenced by the powerful arguments advanced across the floor of the Commons in 1843.  Peel, his career suggests, was open to persuasion, and mid-nineteenth century ministers did not operate on the assumption that points made by opponents could simply be dismissed as elements of party ritual.  Peel adopted the liberal-unionist solution, trying to make the Union work, to which the extraordinary campaign of 1843 directed Britain’s attention.

Then again, it was a sad reflection on the achievements and prospects of the liberal-unionist campaign that one of its leaders, O’Brien, effectively pronounced it a failure…


[1] In addition to the present author’s book and thesis, see Robert Sloan, ‘O’Connell’s liberal rivals in 1843’, in Irish Historical Studies, xxx, no. 117 (May 1996), pp. 47-65.  This article presents much of the Wyse correspondence, the key to understanding the liberal-unionist campaign of 1843.

[2] All three of the Wyse quotations here came from the Wyse Papers (N.L.I.), MS 15019 (10), Wyse to George Wyse, 2 May 1843.

[3] O’Brien had developed an interest in the financial aspects (the disadvantages inflicted on Ireland) of the Act of Union.

[4] Richard More O’Ferrall, the liberal-unionist Member for Kildare, had held office under Melbourne.

[5] Viscount Clements of Leitrim was the only liberal-unionist who voted against the arms bill in all 25 of the recorded divisions; O’Brien came second with 24.

[6] See Sloan, ‘O’Connell’s liberal rivals in 1843’, in Irish Historical Studies, xxx, no. 117 (May 1996), 64.