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Lord Stanley’s Irish Registration Bill

WithGrevel Lindop

First published in Blackwood’s, July 1840, pp. 135–44, and never reprinted. There is no known manuscript. For the attribution, see W. E. A. Axon, ‘The Canon of De Quincey’s Writings’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom, 32 (1914), pp. 1–46.

A bill ‘to amend the laws relating to the registration of voters in Ireland’ was introduced into the House of Commons on 25 February 1840 by Edward George Stanley (1799–1869; DNB), independent MP for North Lancashire and later (from 1851) fourteenth Earl of Derby, who as Chief Secretary for Ireland (1830–3) had already secured the passage of much Irish legislation, most of it protecting the interests of the (Protestant) Church of Ireland. The bill’s proclaimed purpose was to bring arrangements for the registration of voters in Ireland broadly into line with the practice that had prevailed in England since the Reform Act of 1832 and in so doing to prevent certain widely prevalent abuses of the franchise.

In England voters had to register annually and remained on the electoral register only for one year. Registration took place at certain specified towns, which remained constant from year to year. In Ireland registration of voters took place quarterly, and was done by barristers who travelled over a circuit of places, which might change from year to year. Once on the electoral register, a voter remained there for eight years and could remain for further periods provided he met certain conditions, including the swearing of an affidavit asserting his right to vote in a certain constituency. This complicated system gave opportunities for unscrupulous electors to assume multiple identities, register several times over, or vote in several different constituencies without being detected. Stanley proposed that registration of voters in Ireland should henceforth take place annually in specified and constant places. Those making false claims, or lodging false objections against the registration of genuine electors, should be made to pay unlimited ‘costs’, or in other words fined, at the discretion of a magistrate.

The bill was opposed by the Irish MPs, led by Daniel O’Connell, a determined enemy of Stanley, who argued that it would have the effect of ‘annihilating the franchise under the pretence of revising it’. Pointing out that in Ireland only 5 per cent of the population were eligible to vote, as against 19 per cent in England, O’Connell cited cases where local magistrates and other dignitaries actively intimidated voters who attempted to register, or raised false objections to their registration. More centralized registration requiring annual 86confirmation would make such malpractice easier and lead to the wrongful exclusion of electors.

The bill was perceived in Ireland as an inflammatory measure, at a time when increasing social and political discontent had been newly focused by O’Connell’s founding in April 1840 of the Repeal Association (dedicated to the repeal of the Act of Union, which incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom). The Whig government, dependent on the co-operation of the Irish members for maintaining its fragile hold on the Commons, failed to support the bill actively and it passed into its committee stage by a majority of only three on 21 May 1840. Thereafter it was neglected, being formally withdrawn by Stanley on 28 May 1841. The bill had effectively been dead for two months before De Quincey’s article appeared.