June 24, 2016

Henry Cooke and Catholic Emancipation (1825)

Henry Cooke
It is ever the case that Unionism and its avatars are presented as bigoted and regressive, while nationalism and its icons are liberal agents of change. Never has this clash of ideas been better encapsulated than with the Henry Cooke-Daniel O'Connell standoff. Yet O'Connell wasn't necessarily the paragon of enlightenment and liberation that he is automatically projected as. As Mick Hall and others have noted:
"Yet Daniel O’Connell, within five years of achieving Catholic Emancipation, stated that Protestants were “foreigners to us since they are of a different religion”."

Henry Cooke was examined by Royal Commissioners on the 5th and 6th of January 1825, and again the following April by select committees of both Houses of Parliament which were appointed to inquire into the general state of Ireland. Aspects of his evidence found their way into the press. His testimony excited much of Ireland. Henry Cooke's was heavily criticised, beset on every side to the point that his position became very difficult. Then using the columns of the News Letter that were opened to him he sought to vindicate his character. Here he explains his position on Catholic emancipation and the proper position of Catholics in Britain and Ireland:
"The second capital charge against me is that of being illiberal and unfriendly to Catholic emancipation. This charge I flatly deny. And to this point I specially request the attention of the public. 
The origin of the charge seems to me to be the following. A portion of my evidence, wherein I detailed what changes I believed to have taken place unfavourable to Catholic emancipation, was in some newspapers culled for insertion to serve special purpose! The man who would dare to tell that others were unfavourable to Catholic emancipation, was unthinkingly supposed to be also unfavourable. 
My evidence in favour of Catholic emancipation was kept studiously back. The cry was got up; and when an additional portion of my evidence, that would have explained the other, was published, I was already condemned, and no man would listen to explanation or defence. 
My evidence is divided into three parts:
1. My general idea of the state of public opinion
2. My own opinion
3. My ideas of any late change 
On the first part I said, *I think the opinions are exceedingly various among all classes of the people, both the more and less learned. I think in general among the more informed classes of the Presbyterian body, they entertain less fear about it. Some of them dislike it; some of them disapprove of it; some of them do approve and wish for it; but take the less informed of the Presbyterians altogether, I think they almost entirely disapprove of it.’ By less informed I mean possessed of less political knowledge. Now I do ask any honest juror who ever sat in a court of justice, is not this true testimony ? … I say it without boasting, but when I say it those who know my habits will believe me, there is not a minister, there is not a man in Ulster, who has better means of knowing the state of mind of the common people among orthodox Presbyterians than I have; I am a humble individual, but I possess some of their confidence. I have preached in more of their congregations in Derry, Antrim and Down than any other member of the Synod; and, therefore, when I stated this opinion to the House of Lords I had good grounds for believing myself correct. Nor could the assertion of any possible number of Arian, or Socinian ministers, or elders, ever shake or invalidate my testimony. They know as much of the opinions of the people of Hindustan as they do of the opinions of Old Light Presbyterians or orthodox Churchmen. 
As to my own opinions, I am aware they are of little weight on any side; yet let me get the praise or blame they deserve. I am questioned: ‘Do you think the admission of Catholics to equal rights would diminish or increase certain animosities?' 
I think in the north it would diminish them. By the admission of the Catholics to the honours of the State their chief source of prejudice and alienation would be done away. The admission of Catholics to equal privileges would, in the south of Ireland, be productive of great good.’ Are these the answers, my Catholic countrymen, of the man who is represented as your enemy? You see it is a foul slander they have attempted to cast upon me. 
I now come to the third part of my evidence, in which I state that 'I think there has lately been an increase of feeling amongst Protestants very much against Catholic emancipation.’ 
On coming a second time before their Lordships, I felt it necessary more minutely to explain what I meant by saying that many Protestants were opposed to an extension of equal rights to Catholics. I observed that if the phrase 'equal rights’ were taken to mean equal rights to personal protection, enjoyment of property, profession of religious opinion, and practice of religious worship, I never knew any Protestant who would object in that sense. But, if by equal rights were meant admission to all offices of the State, it was in that sense alone that I believed many Protestants would be found to object. 
I stated that to certain concessions and advancements to the Catholics, in places of honour and emolument, I believed the most considerate part of the Protestants would not much object; and that with certain limitations of office, to operate as securities, I believed for certain reasons stated, the matter might be settled without any very serious obstacles, conceiving, as I still do, that the chief objections arise from the idea of unlimited concession. I was then questioned as to what offices did I suppose that, on these grounds, Catholics might be admitted with a tolerably general approbation of Protestants? 
I mentioned Parliament, the Bench, and the Sheriffalty… I was further questioned, What offices I conceived should be considered exclusively Protestant? I judged it unnecessary to mention the Throne, but specified those of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Lieutenant, and some of the Chief Secretaryships connected with the executive departments of the Irish and British Governments; also the office of Commander-in-Chief, though I believed that, as the law at present stands, Catholics might be eligible to that high office. My reasons for these opinions I need not obtrude upon the public. I lament, that in my own defence I have been compelled to say so much; yet I am not afraid to avow my sentiments. I may be perhaps as liberal as those who call me otherwise; but if any man says that the Throne and the other exalted offices of the Executive are to be thrown open by one single act of legislation, and that there is to be no barrier to preserve an essential Protestantism in the State; then, if to oppose this opinion and proceeding in every form and shape be illiberal, I rejoice in the epithet; I glory in the accusation. I was born the subject of a Protestant Government, the original liberty of which my Presbyterian forefathers chiefly contributed to establish and maintain. Esto perpetua is the fervent prayer which I breathe over it; nor shall word or act of mine ever tend to interrupt its fulfilment. Yet, as I love that constitution, and as I cherish its liberty, and as I would speak and act for its defence, so would I wish to extend its every blessing to all within the pale of its power, so far as I could be persuaded that the extension was consistent with the integrity and permanence of its structure."
Like Cooke, Edward Carson also appealed to the forefathers of Ulster's protestants to make his pro-Union case:
"Who can say—how, at all events, can the descendants of those who resisted King James II. say—that they have not a right, if they think fit, to resist, if they think they have the power, the imposition of a Government put upon them by force?"
J. L. Porter who in 1871 wroteThe Life and Times of Henry Cookesaid:
"These noble sentiments, embraced in boyhood and confirmed by experience, constituted the foundation of Mr. Cooke’s political creed, and they were maintained, unchanged and unimpaired, to the last moment of his long life. His defence was felt to be triumphant. His adversaries were silenced, in so far as their charges against his political consistency and accuracy of statement were concerned. Something, however, of the animus that prevailed against him in certain quarters may be gathered from the fact, that the copy of the Belfast News Letter which contained his defence was torn from the file preserved in the Commercial News-room; and, it was only on his calling attention to this act of mean and dishonourable spite, that another copy was purchased."
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