Parliament of Ireland

Parliament of Ireland
Coat of arms or logo
HousesHouse of Lords
House of Commons
Disbanded31 December 1800
Succeeded byParliament of the United Kingdom
John Foster (last)
Ennoblement by the monarch or inheritance of a peerage
First past the post with limited suffrage
Meeting place
Parliament House, Dublin
----See also:
Parliament of Great Britain

The Parliament of Ireland was the legislature of the Lordship of Ireland, and later the Kingdom of Ireland, from 1297 until 1800. It was modelled on the Parliament of England and from 1537 comprised two chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Lords were members of the Irish peerage ("lords temporal") and bishops ("lords spiritual"; after the Reformation, Church of Ireland bishops). The Commons was directly elected, albeit on a very restricted franchise. Parliaments met at various places in Leinster and Munster, but latterly always in Dublin: in Christchurch Cathedral (15th century),[1] Dublin Castle (to 1649), Chichester House (1661–1727), the Blue Coat School (1729–31), and finally a purpose-built Parliament House on College Green.[3]

The main purpose of parliament was to approve taxes that were then levied by and for the Dublin Castle administration. Those who would pay the bulk of taxation, the clergy, merchants and landowners, also comprised the members. Only the "English of Ireland" were represented until the first Gaelic lords summoned during the 16th-century Tudor reconquest. Under Poynings' Law of 1495, all Acts of Parliament had to be pre-approved by the Irish Privy Council and English Privy Council. Parliament supported the Irish Reformation and Catholics were excluded from membership and voting in penal times. The Constitution of 1782 amended Poynings' Law to allow the Irish Parliament to initiate legislation. In 1793 Catholics were re-enfranchised.

The Acts of Union 1800 merged the Kingdom of Ireland and Kingdom of Great Britain into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The parliament was merged with that of Great Britain; the united Parliament was in effect the British parliament at Westminster enlarged with a subset of the Irish Lords and Commons.


Middle Ages

After the 12th-century Norman invasion of Ireland, administration of the Anglo-Norman Lordship of Ireland was modelled on that of the Kingdom of England. Magna Carta was extended in 1217 in the Great Charter of Ireland. As in England, parliament evolved out of the Magnum Concilium "great council" summoned by the king's viceroy, attended by the council (curia regis), magnates (feudal lords), and prelates (bishops and abbots). Membership was based on fealty to the king, and the preservation of the king's peace, and so the fluctuating number of autonomous Irish Gaelic kings were outside of the system; they had their own local brehon law taxation arrangements. The earliest known parliament met at Kilkea Castle near Castledermot, County Kildare on 18 June 1264, with only prelates and magnates attending.[4] Elected representatives are first attested in 1297 and continually from the later 14th century. In 1297, counties were first represented by elected knights of the shire (sheriffs had previously represented them). In 1299, towns were represented. From the 14th century a distinction from the English parliament was that deliberations on church funding were held in Parliament rather than in Convocation. The separation of the individually summoned lords from the elected commons had developed by the fifteenth century.[5] The clerical proctors elected by the lower clergy of each diocese formed a separate house or estate in until 1537, when they were expelled for their opposition to the Irish Reformation.[1][2]

The 14th and 15th centuries saw shrinking numbers of those loyal to the crown, the growing power of landed families, and the increasing inability to carry out judicial rulings, that all reduced the crown's presence in Ireland. Alongside this reduced control grew a "Gaelic resurgence" that was political as well as cultural. In turn this resulted in considerable numbers of the Hiberno-Norman Old English nobility joining the independent Gaelic nobles in asserting their feudal independence. Eventually the crown's power shrank to a small fortified enclave around Dublin known as the Pale. The Parliament thereafter became essentially the forum for the Pale community until the 16th century.

Unable to implement and exercise the authority of the Parliament or the Crown's rule outside of this environ, and increasingly under the attack of raids by the Gaelic Irish and independent Hiberno-Norman nobles, the Palesmen themselves encouraged the Kings of England to take a more direct role in the affairs of Ireland. Geographic distance, the lack of attention by the Crown because of the Hundred Years' War and the Wars of the Roses, and the larger power of the Gaelic clans, all reduced the effectiveness of the Irish Parliament. Thus, increasingly worried that the Irish Parliament was essentially being overawed by powerful landed families in Ireland like the Earl of Kildare into passing laws that pursued the agendas of the different dynastic factions in the country, in 1494, the Parliament encouraged the passing of Poynings' Law which subordinated Irish Parliament to the English one.

Kingdom of Ireland

The role of the Parliament changed after 1541, when Henry VIII declared the Kingdom of Ireland and embarked on the Tudor conquest of Ireland. Despite an era which featured royal concentration of power and decreasing feudal power throughout the rest of Europe, King Henry VIII over-ruled earlier court rulings putting families and lands under attainder and recognised the privileges of the Gaelic nobles, thereby expanding the crown's de jure authority. In return for recognising the crown's authority under the new Kingdom of Ireland, the Gaelic-Anglo-Irish lords had their position legalised and were entitled to attend the Irish Parliament as equals under the policy of surrender and regrant.

The Reformation in Ireland introduced in stages by the Tudor monarchs did not take hold in most of the country, and did not affect the operation of parliament until after the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis of 1570. Initially in 1537, the Irish Parliament approved both the Act of Supremacy, acknowledging Henry VIII as head of the Church and the dissolution of the monasteries.[6] In the parliaments of 1569 and 1585, the Old English Catholic representatives in the Irish Commons had several disputes with the crown's authorities over the introduction of penal legislation against Catholics and over-paying of "Cess" tax for the putting down of various Gaelic and Catholic rebellions.[7]

For this reason, and the political fallout after the 1605 Gunpowder plot and the Plantation of Ulster in 1613-15, the constituencies for the Irish House of Commons were changed to give Protestants a majority. The Plantation of Ulster allowed English and Scottish Protestant candidates in as representatives of the newly formed boroughs in planted areas. Initially this gave Protestants a majority of 132-100 in the House of Commons. However, after vehement Catholic protests, including a brawl in the chamber on Parliament's first sitting, some of the new Parliamentary constituencies were eliminated, giving Protestants a slight majority (108-102) of members of the House of Commons thereafter.[8]

In the House of Lords the Catholic majority continued until the 1689 "Patriot Parliament", with the exception of the Commonwealth period (1649–60). Following the general uprising of the Catholic Irish in the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the self-established Catholic assembly in 1642-49, Roman Catholics were barred from voting or attending the Parliament altogether in the Cromwellian Act of Settlement 1652, which was reversed by the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.

1660 to 1800

The House of Commons in session (by Henry Barraud, John Hayter)
The House of Commons in session (by Francis Wheatley, 1780)

Following the death of Cromwell and the end of the Protectorate, the Stuarts returned to the throne thereby ending the sectarian divisions relating to parliament. Then, during the reign of James II of England, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, Irish Catholics briefly recovered their pre-eminent position as the crown now favoured their community. When James was overthrown in England, he turned to his Catholic supporters in the Irish Parliament for support. In return for its support during the Williamite war in Ireland (1688–91), a Catholic majority Patriot Parliament of 1689 persuaded James to pass legislation granting it autonomy to and to restore lands confiscated from Catholics in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. The Jacobite defeat in this war meant that under William III of England Protestants were returned to a favoured position in Irish society while substantial numbers of Catholic nobles and leaders could no longer sit in parliament unless they took a loyalty oath as agreed under the Treaty of Limerick. Having proven their support for Catholic absolutism by their loyal support for James during the war, and because the Papacy supported the Jacobites after 1693, Irish Catholics increasingly faced discriminatory legislation in the Penal Laws that were passed by the predominantly loyalist and Protestant Parliament from 1695.

Nonetheless, the franchise was still available to wealthier Catholics. Until 1728, Catholics voted in House of Commons elections and held seats in the Lords. For no particular reason, beyond a general pressure for Catholics to conform, they were barred from voting in the election for the first parliament in the reign of George II. Privileges were also mostly limited to supporters of the Church of Ireland. Protestants who did not recognise the state-supported Church were also discriminated against in law, so non-conformists such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Quakers also had a subservient status in Parliament; after 1707 they could hold seats, but not public offices. Thus, the new system favoured a new Anglican establishment in Church and State.

By 1728, the remaining nobility was either firmly Protestant or loyally Catholic. The upper classes had dropped most of its Gaelic traditions and adopted the Anglo-French aristocratic values then dominant throughout most of Europe. Much of the old feudal domains of the earlier Hiberno-Norman and Gaelic-Irish magnates had been broken up and given to Irish loyalists soldiers, and English and Scottish Protestant colonial settlers. Long under the control of de jure power of magnates, the far larger peasant population had nonetheless under the relatively anarchic and sectarian conditions established a relative independence. Now, the nobility and newly established loyalist gentry could exercise their rights and privileges with more vigour. Much as in England, Wales, and Scotland, the franchise was always limited to the property owning classes, which favoured the landed gentry.

The Irish Parliament was thus at a time of English commercial expansion left incapable of protecting Irish economic and trade interests from being subordinated to English ones. This in turn severely weakened the economic potential of the whole of Ireland and placed the new and largely Protestant middle-class at a disadvantage. The result was a slow but continual exodus of Anglo-Irish, Scots-Irish, and Protestant Irish families and communities to the colonies, principally in North America. Ironically, it was the very efforts to establish Anglicans as the primacy in Ireland which slowly subverted the general cause of the Protestant Irish which had been the objective of successive Irish and British Parliaments.

The Irish Parliament did assert its independence from London several times however. In the early 18th century it successfully lobbied for itself to be summoned every two years, as opposed to at the start of each new reign only, and shortly thereafter it declared itself to be in session permanently, mirroring developments in the English Parliament. As the effects on the prosperity of the Kingdom of submitting the Irish Parliament to review by the British became apparent, the Irish Parliament slowly asserted itself, and from the 1770s the Irish Patriot Party began agitating for greater powers relative to the British Parliament. Additionally, later ministries moved to change the Navigation Acts that had limited Irish merchants' terms of trade with Britain and its empire.[9]