Sunday 20 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Wellington beat the Tory Ultras. Can Theresa May do the same?'

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

On December 11, Theresa May will face the same challenge the Duke of Wellington faced when he wrote to Archbishop Patrick Curtis on the same date 190 years ago, supporting Catholic emancipation.

Before dealing with the striking similarity between Wellington's struggle for Catholic emancipation and Theresa May's for a soft Brexit, let's clean off two bits of nationalist graffiti.

First, Wellington did not deny his Irishness by making the infamous remark about stables and horses. Daniel O'Connell coined that sound bite - subverting his own belief that to be Irish it was enough to be born here.

Second, far from grudgingly conceding Catholic emancipation, as Irish nationalists claim, Wellington laid his own political career on the line to deliver the Catholic Relief Act on April 12, 1829.

Long before that, however, Wellington showed he was no bigot, when in 1807 he took over as Chief Secretary for Ireland.

All he had to do to be popular with his own Protestant caste was to implement largely lapsed penal law provisions.

Instead he told the leading Catholic aristocrat, Lord Fingall, that he "would administer the laws with mildness and good temper".

He backed his words with deeds, angering the Orange Yeomanry of Enniscorthy by refusing to allow their annual sectarian ceremony, celebrating their victory at Vinegar Hill.

In 1809, by now commander of a small British army that was 40pc Irish, Wellington arrived in the Iberian Peninsula intent on winning the minds and hearts of the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese he had come to help resist Napoleon's invasion.

Doubtless to the delight of his Roman Catholic Irish troops, he issued proclamations which would not have been popular with his more prejudiced Protestant officers.

They had to take off their hats to priests, or when passing churches, and have their troops present arms when the Sacred Host passed in the street. Failure to do so was punished by flogging or even hanging.

After Waterloo in 1815, Wellington was a national hero. That meant, when he became prime minister in January 1828, he was the only political leader with a slim chance of delivering O'Connell's demand for Catholic emancipation.

The Tory party was split on the issue. King George IV and the Ultra-Tories in the House of Lords were resolutely opposed to reform - and without the support of both, no relief bill could go through.

Meantime, the opposition Whigs (think Corbyn's Labour Party led by wealthy aristocrats living in Holland Park) could pretend to support what they could never deliver.

Just as Corbyn lauded the IRA, so the Whigs worshipped Napoleon. Just as Corbyn pays lip service to a united Ireland, so the Whigs paid devout lip service to Catholic relief.

But the brute political fact was that only a hard Tory like Wellington, with Waterloo wrapped around him, had any chance of persuading hard-line Ultra-Tory Protestants to accept Catholic emancipation.

That was why Wellington often opposed proposals for Catholic relief that he knew had no hope of passing the king and the lords. But secretly he was preparing for his big battle.

Back in 1825, three years before O'Connell's Clare victory, Wellington began to marshal his forces.

In a typically methodical sequence he set out to convince his colleagues in cabinet, then the House of Commons, then the bigoted King George IV, and finally the House of Lords, to grant Catholic relief.

The proof of Wellington's work can be seen in two memoranda which have not been given due weight by Irish historians.

The first, in May 1825, was titled, 'Memorandum on the case of the Roman Catholics in Ireland' and was aimed at doubting cabinet colleagues, arguing that Catholic relief was no threat to the Crown.

Wellington cleverly pointed out that the principle of Catholic civil equality had already been conceded in Hanover - which was the king's own German kingdom!

This was a trenchant political stroke of the sort Daniel O'Connell might have privately relished had he known about it.

In 1828, three years later, Wellington began to exert steady pressure in a series of audiences with the king looking for his assent to a bill in the House of Lords.

Wellington even pocketed his military pride when the delusional king told him to his face that he, George IV, and not Wellington had won the Battle of Salamanca.

Wellington persisted. In a second memorandum to the King on August 1, 1828, he used Daniel O'Connell's victory in Clare to deliver a reality check.

He told the king he had three choices: exterminate O'Connell (which he could not do because O'Connell had carefully broken no laws), dissolve parliament (and let the hated Whigs in), or concede Catholic relief.

Reluctantly the king agreed to give his assent if the House of Lords passed the bill. With one last hurdle to clear, Wellington began a Lyndon B Johnson campaign of twisting arms.

He began his Lords campaign in June 1828 and resumed it in February 1829 making no less than 25 speeches dealing with different objections.

He finally got the Catholic Relief Bill passed on Saturday, April 6, 1829, with a hard-won majority of 105 votes.

Wellington got no thanks in Ireland: O'Connell credibly claimed it was his pressure. But Wellington didn't seem that pressurised, given he delayed six months before enacting the relief.

But if he got nothing for his troubles in Ireland, he got dogs abuse in England where - shades of Theresa May - he was attacked by both parties.

Naturally Wellington was hated by the Whigs because he had stolen their cosmetic Irish issue.

But he was even more hated by bigoted Ultra-Tories in his own party - with one of whom he was even forced to fight a duel.

A few months later the Ultra-Tories took revenge on Wellington by bringing down their own government in a fit of spiteful revenge.

Rory Muir, his greatest biographer, himself a bit of a Tory, says this of the Ultras:

"Rather than make the best of things as he did, they had their revenge, even though this resulted in the fall of a relatively sympathetic government and its replacement by one that was much less sympathetic to their interests."

The parallel between the struggle of Wellington and May to save the Tories from themselves is striking. Both faced Tory Ultras willing to destroy the Tory party in a fit of ideological bigotry.

Equally striking is the sight of Conservatives choosing ideology over pragmatism.

This challenges the polemics of those who claim that Brexit is a crisis in English nationalism.

Actually it's a crisis in British conservatism - and that includes the DUP.

To end it they should follow the example of that pragmatic Irish conservative: Wellington.

Wellington noted, "the Roman Catholic religion in its natural state is not very favourable to civil government in any part of Europe".

But it did not stop this great Irishman from doing his duty as he saw it.

Sunday Independent

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