Frederick Engels in La Réforme

The Coercion Bill For Ireland and the Chartists [238]

Source: MECW Volume 6, p. 445
Written: on January 4, 1848;
First published: in La Réforme, January 8, 1848.

The Irish Coercion Bill came into force last Wednesday. The Lord Lieutenant was not slow in taking advantage of the despotic powers with which this new law invests him; the act has been applied all over the counties of Limerick and Tipperary and to several baronies in the counties of Clare, Waterford, Cork, Roscommon, Leitrim, Cavan, Longford and King’s County.[239]

It remains to be seen what the effect of this odious measure will be. In this connection we already have the opinion of the class in whose interests the measure was taken, namely, the Irish landowners. They announce to the world in their organs that the measure will have no effect whatsoever. And in order to achieve this a whole country is being placed in a state of siege! To achieve this nine-tenths of the Irish representatives have deserted their country!

This is a fact. The desertion has been a general one. During the discussion of the Bill the O'Connell family itself became divided: John and Maurice, two of the deceased “Liberator’s” [Daniel O'Connell] sons, remained faithful to their homeland, whereas their brother Morgan O'Connell, not only voted for the Bill, but also spoke in its support on several occasions. There were only eighteen members who voted for the outright rejection of the Bill, and only twenty supported the amendment put forward by Mr. Wakley, the Chartist member for a borough on the outskirts of London, who demanded that the Coercion Bill should also be accompanied by measures aimed at reducing the causes of the crimes which it was proposed to repress. And among these eighteen and twenty voters there were also four or five English Radicals and two Irishmen representing English boroughs, meaning that out of the hundred members which Ireland has in Parliament there were only a dozen who put up serious opposition to the Bill.

This was the first discussion on an important question affecting Ireland which had been held since the death of O'Connell. It was to decide who would take the place of the great agitator in leading Ireland. Up to the opening of Parliament Mr. John O'Connell had been tacitly acknowledged in Ireland as his father’s successor. But it soon became evident after the debate had begun that he was not capable of leading the party and, what is more, that he had found a formidable rival in Feargus O'Connor. This democratic leader about whom Daniel O'Connell said, “We are happy to make the English Chartists a present of Mr. F. O'Connor”, put himself at the head of the Irish party in a single bound. It was he who proposed the outright rejection of the Coercion Bill; it was he who succeeded in rallying all the opposition behind him; it was he who opposed each clause, who held up the voting whenever possible; it was he who in his speeches summed up all the arguments of the opposition against the Bill; and finally it was he who for the first time since 1835 reintroduced the motion for Repeal of the Union,[240] a motion which none of the Irish members would have put forward.

The Irish members accepted this leader with a bad grace. As simple Whigs in their heart of hearts they fundamentally detest the democratic energy of Mr. O'Connor. He will not allow them to go on using the campaign for repeal as a means for overthrowing the Tories in favour of the Whigs and to forget the very word “repeal” when the latter come to power. But the Irish members who support repeal cannot possibly do without a leader like O'Connor and, although they are trying to undermine his growing popularity in Ireland, they are obliged to submit to his leadership in Parliament.

When the parliamentary session is over O'Connor will probably go on a tour of Ireland to revive the agitation for repeal and to found an Irish Chartist party. There can be no doubt that if O'Connor is successful in doing this he will be the leader of the Irish people in less than six months. By uniting the democratic leadership of the three kingdoms in his hands, he will occupy a position which no agitator, not even O'Connell, has held before him.

We will leave it to our readers to judge the importance of this future alliance between the peoples of the two islands. British democracy will advance much more quickly when its ranks are swelled by two million brave and ardent Irish, and poverty-stricken Ireland will at last have taken an important step towards her liberation.