Known as the 'Liberator', Daniel O'Connell's political career was an atypical one. A Catholic and 'democratic radical', he gained office with the support of the unenfranchised Irish Catholics, sided with the Whigs on issues such as Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform, and became one of the most important parliamentarians of his time and a 'historical figure of European significance'.
The early 19th Century was a turbulent time in British politics. The Catholic Irish were unable to stand for office in the British parliament and the minority Protestant Irish owned most of the land and controlled their tenants' votes. Britain had its own electoral problems. Some large towns and cities had no representation at all, while some boroughs1 sent back two representatives despite having no residents and as few as seven non-residential voters.
Daniel O'Connell came from a relatively wealthy Irish Catholic family and became a largely self-taught and well-respected lawyer and politician. He was an advocate for non-violent political reform, to which end he formed the Catholic Association in 18232. Although initially considering himself a deist, by affiliating himself with the Catholic cause O'Connell was unable to take office as a parliamentarian or become more than a junior barrister, despite his skill and experience.
O'Connell stood for election in the county of Clare in Ireland against a pro-Catholic Emancipation candidate, Vesey Fitzgerald - not chiefly in order to win, but to preserve the credibility of the election, as the Protestant candidate was popular with the Catholics and no suitable candidate could be found to oppose him. In his Election Manifesto O'Connell predicted that if he were elected, Parliament might be persuaded to overturn the Oath of Supremacy. The Oath of Supremacy required a parliamentarian to disavow transubstantiation3 and reject the supremacy of the Pope before being allowed to take his seat, which no Catholic could do. After O'Connell won in a landslide victory, Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington were compelled through fear of public insurrection to overturn the Oath of Supremacy in the Catholic Emancipation Act. Although the Act was not retrospective, O'Connell was able to sit in Parliament after being elected again despite the reduced electorate.
In office, O'Connell sided with the Whigs on most issues, and in the 1835 general election he used his influence to help return all Whigs to office when they were not in direct competition with his pro-repealers. The Whig party was generally made up of pro-reformers, and later became the Liberals. Their opponents were the Tories, who became the Conservative Party and then the Conservative and Unionist Party. The Tories supported the monarchy, social boundaries and the 1801 Act of Union. O'Connell wanted the Act of Union repealed to return to Ireland its independent parliament. O'Connell's aversion to violent reform was motivated both by his personal experience of the French Revolution and his reluctance to overthrow the system he had profited from. In the general election of 1841 only 18 repeal MPs were returned, compared with the 39 elected in 1832. This demonstrated how being part of the government reduced the impetus for change and reform. When he started to lose power, O'Connell re-energised his repeal campaign in Ireland with a series of Monster Meetings. These meetings attracted up to 100,000 irate Catholics near Protestant towns in Ulster, but never degenerated into violence, due to O'Connell's powerful leadership. One such meeting was banned by Robert Peel and to avoid possible violence O'Connell cancelled the meeting, but he was arrested and imprisoned anyway. It is arguable as to whether his real intention with these meetings was to achieve repeal of the Act of Union or to simply regain power and influence with repeal as a bargaining chip.
Perks of the Job
As a parliamentarian, O'Connell had great influence over his community. He stopped one man who was 'obnoxious to the O'Connell family' from becoming the sheriff of county Kerry, and the historian RV Comerford stated that 'O'Connell and his relations shared in the redirected spoils of office but not to such an extent as to offend against the standards of the day'. Some degree of recompense was natural for members of Parliament in lieu of an income.
Working the System
Working within the system necessitated various compromises for O'Connell. His career as a lawyer was truncated and his prospects as a politician were limited when he affiliated himself with the Catholic cause, which, paradoxically, offered him the power-backing he needed in order to fight political battles within Parliament itself. He stood for office only to ensure the integrity of his opponent in the election, and ended up ensuring Catholic Emancipation almost unwittingly. In office it was necessary for O'Connell to work with the Whig party, but this collusion reduced his popularity and therefore, his power. However noble O'Connell's motives, the very act of attaining them changed the nature of his political leadership.
Comerford, RV, 'Daniel O'Connell', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol 41, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).