Peel’s policies towards Ireland seem to swing backwards and forwards over the period 1829-46; he supported Catholic emancipation in 1829, yet his policy of coercion seems distinctly repressive, and this was then followed by conciliation, which could be considered reforming. Peel had to tread a thin line between firmness and assertion of authority without alienating any potential Catholic support. However, on balance we can consider that his policies were more reforming than repressive.
Peel’s support of Catholic emancipation in 1829 shows the reforming side of his policy. He supported it against a huge amount of scepticism from his own party and did it in the belief that it was for the good of the union – he thought it was a greater risk to refuse to satisfy their demands than to grant them. However, the restriction that Catholic emancipation placed on the franchise meant that it carried with reform an element of repression. Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto of 1834 showed moderate support for reform, but did not commit the Tory party to anything and certainly didn’t advocate anything on the scale of Catholic emancipation. Peel’s early reformist attitude had all but disappeared by the 1841 election, where his party emphasised their traditional position as the defenders of the established Church.
During his second ministry, Peel’s policy of Coercion was clearly quite repressive. Faced with a problem in Ireland that he considered a greater threat to British Authority than Chartism had ever posed, he made an announcement in parliament that he would ‘crush any attempt to break the union with armed force.’ This aggressive statement was the start of Peel’s more repressive policy in Ireland. The Irish Arms act of 1843, which gave the Authorities in Ireland greater powers and banned Catholics from owning guns, was very stringent and can therefore be considered repressive, but it can be seen that it was a necessary move in order to prevent more violence in Ireland.
Peel’s decision t ban the meeting at Clontarf can also be seen as repressive. O’Connell had organised many large scale demonstrations before which had not been seen to pose a significant threat, but the British government interpreted it as an incitement to illegality. Over half a million people were expected to turn up and the government knew about it well in advance; however by banning it just the day before it was due to take place, Peel dealt a heavy blow to O’Connell.
Thousands of Irish people were already on their way to the demonstration and O’Connell had to tell them all to turn back. On top of this, despite not having done anything illegal, O’Connell was then arrested for sedition, tried and found guilty by an all protestant jury. This is perhaps the most openly repressive thing that Peel did in the period. This incident proved to be the turning point in O’Connell’ political career; despite later being released from prison he never regained his full authority and subsequently his repeal movement began to fall apart. This was a clear victory for Peel’s defence of the union, and gave him great support within the Conservative Party.
However, Peel was convinced that a population that was more than 80% Catholic could not be coerced indefinitely and in early 1844 asserted that whilst the union itself was still the overriding objective, ‘Equality of treatment for Protestant and Catholic Citizens was necessary’ so that the Irish middle classes could be persuaded of the benefits of it. Peel’s plan of conciliation sought to improve relations and win this crucial support within Ireland. The first step that showed Peel taking a more reforming line was to remove the staunch protestant defender de Gray as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was replaced by Lord Heytesbury, who was happy to follow Peel’s policy of giving Catholics equal opportunities in government. This showed not just willingness for change, but also would eventually lead to more Catholics in the civil service and magistracy; thereby lessening the chance that disaffected Irishmen would turn to the Nationalist cause instead.
This willingness for change was shown again in the setting up of the Devon Commission. Setting it up in the first place was an act of great courage – the opinion of the time was that it was a landlord’s right to do as he wished without interference – and therefore shows a real attempt at reform by Peel, although it never came to fruition. Peel further tried to win over the Irish Catholics with the charitable bequests bill of 1844. It plainly displayed the goodwill of Peel’s administration to the Catholic Church. Peel saw the support of the Irish Catholic Church as something incredibly important; it had an essentially conservative nature and there was no ideological reason why its support should be blocked, as it wasn’t linked to the nationalists or revolutionaries, and therefore Peel thought it important for them to be ‘on-side’.
This religious aspect was further tackled in the Maynooth Bill. He was convinced that in its current state, Maynooth was attracting the wrong sort, and by giving money for its improvement and increasing its annual grants, he was not only showing a positive attitude to the Catholic Church, but also ensuring that the new priests were not likely to support the revolutionaries or nationalists. Peel’s Irish Colleges Bill continued this programme of reform by setting up un-sectarian colleges, with the aim of ensuring that there would be more educated Catholics who would be eligible for the newly available jobs in the Civil service. However, this was in the face of requests for Catholic colleges from the priests, something that Peel flatly refused to consider.
With the coming of the potato famine in 1845, Peel found even greater problems in Ireland, which lead to further reform. Peel’s worry about the dependency on the potato was justified, and many people in Ireland were starving. Peel made the decision to try and repeal the Corn Laws. He faced huge opposition from his own party at the suggestion, yet the Bill was passed with Whig support. This is the most reforming one of Peel’s policies towards Ireland; however, there is the suggestion that his hand was forced politically.
Overall, the evidence suggests that although there were some repressive elements to Peel’s Irish policy, namely the period of Coercion, the majority of his policy can be considered as more reforming, as he acted to try and change and improve the conditions in Ireland and the relationships between Britain and Ireland. This is shown by Peel’s reasoning that in order to preserve the Union (which was to him the most important matter), the Irish would have to be treated fairly and be shown the benefits of it.