The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, passed by Parliament in 1829, was the culmination of the process of Catholic Emancipation throughout Britain. In Ireland it repealed the Test Act 1673 and the remaining Penal Laws, which had been in force since the passing of the Disenfranchising Act of the Irish Parliament of 1728. Its passage followed a vigorous campaign on the issue by Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell had firm support from the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, as well as from the Whigs and liberal Tories.
The Act permitted members of the Catholic Church to sit in the Parliament at Westminster. O’Connell had won a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 against an Anglican. Under the then extant penal law, O’Connell as a Roman Catholic, was forbidden to take his seat in Parliament. Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, who had until then always opposed emancipation (and had, in 1815, challenged O’Connell to a duel) concluded: “though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger.” Fearing a revolution in Ireland, Peel drew up the Catholic Relief Bill and guided it through the House of Commons. To overcome the vehement opposition of both the House of Lords and King George IV, the Duke of Wellington worked tirelessly to ensure passage in the House of Lords, and threatened to resign as Prime Minister if the King did not give Royal Assent.
The campaign for Catholic emancipation in Ireland, 1828–1829, was led by Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847), organiser of the Catholic Association, but many others were active as well, both for and against.
As Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1822 to 1828, the Marquess Wellesley (brother of the Duke of Wellington) played a critical role in setting the stage for the Catholic Emancipation Bill. His policy was one of reconciliation that sought to have the civil rights of Catholics restored while preserving those rights and considerations important to Protestants. He used force in securing law and order when riots threatened the peace, and he discouraged the public agitation of both the Protestant Orange Society and the Catholic Society of Ribbonman.
Bishop John Milner was an English Catholic cleric and writer highly active in promoting Catholic emancipation, prior to his death in 1826. He was a leader in anti-Enlightenment thought and had a significant influence in England as well as Ireland, and was involved in shaping the Catholic response to earlier efforts in Parliament to enact Catholic emancipation measures.
Meanwhile Ulster Protestants mobilised, after a delayed start, to stop emancipation. By late 1828 Protestants of all classes began to organise after the arrival of O’Connellite Jack Lawless who planned a series of pro-emancipation meetings and activities across Ulster. His move galvanised the Protestants to form clubs, distribute pamphlets and set up petition drives. However the Protestant protests were not well funded or coordinated and lacked critical support from the British government. After Catholic relief had been granted, the Protestant opposition divided along class lines. The aristocracy and gentry became quiescent while the middle and working classes showed dominance over Ulster’s Catholics through Orange parades.
The Parliamentary Elections (Ireland) Act 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 8) which accompanied emancipation and received its Royal Assent on the same day, was the only major ‘security’ eventually required for it. This Act disenfranchised the minor landholders of Ireland, the so-called Forty Shilling Freeholders and raised fivefold the economic qualifications for voting. Starting in the initial relief granting the vote by the Irish Parliament in 1793, any man renting or owning land worth at least forty shillings (the equivalent of two Pounds Sterling), had been permitted to vote. Under the Act, this was raised to ten pounds.
J. C. D. Clark (1985) depicts England before 1828 as a nation in which the vast majority of the people believed in the divine right of kings, and the legitimacy of a hereditary nobility, and in the rights and privileges of the Anglican Church. In Clark’s interpretation, the system remained virtually intact until it suddenly collapsed in 1828, because Catholic emancipation undermined its central symbolic prop, the Anglican supremacy. Clark argues that the consequences were enormous: “The shattering of a whole social order….What was lost at that point… was not merely a constitutional arrangement, but the intellectual ascendancy of a worldview, the cultural hegemony of the old elite.” Clark’s interpretation has been widely debated in the scholarly literature, and almost every historian who has examined the issue has highlighted the substantial amount of continuity between the periods before and after 1828–1832.
Eric J. Evans (1996) emphasises that the political importance of emancipation was that it split the anti-reformers beyond repair and diminished their ability to block future reform laws, especially the great Reform Act of 1832. Paradoxically, Wellington’s success in forcing through emancipation converted many Ultra-Tories to demand reform of Parliament. They saw that the votes of the rotten boroughs had given the government its majority. Therefore it was an ultra-Tory, the Marquis of Blandford, who in February 1830 introduced the first major reform bill, calling for the transfer of rotten borough seats to the counties and large towns, the disfranchisement of non-resident voters, preventing Crown office-holders from sitting in Parliament, the payment of a salary to MPs, and the general franchise for men who owned property. The ultras believed that a widely based electorate could be relied upon to rally around anti-Catholicism.