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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Conspiracy law, class and society - Part 2

Nineteenth-Century Cases

An early example is Forbes. This involved a plot, not to overthrow the government or to cause an insurrection, but to insult the Duke of Wellington. The defendants were charged with conspiring to riotously assemble at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, and to hiss, insult and assault the Marquis of Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Allegedly, the accused did then and there ‘with force of arms throw, fling and cast at the said Lord Lieutenant…divers pieces of wood and copper and divers glass bottles.’ The Attorney-General, prosecuting, devoted most of his talents to keeping the case from being laughed out of court. He stressed that the case was vital to the political interests of Ireland: ‘I should blush for our country, were it necessary to state that a deliberate insult to the King’s representative…is no light or trivial offence.’ His argument did not convince the jury, who failed to agree on a verdict. The accused were discharged.

In 1800 the Act of Union, passed by the English Parliament, had unified the legislatures of Ireland and England by abolishing the Irish Parliament and providing for Irish parliamentary representation at Westminster. During the first half of the nineteenth-century, the central demand of Irish nationalists was the repeal of this statute. The Repeal Party was led by Daniel O’Connell, a middle-class lawyer who had, in 1835, been offered the post of Master of the Rolls in Ireland. By 1843, with the rapid growth of his party as economic conditions worsened, his public meetings were banned and he was charged with seditious conspiracy.

The indictment against O’Connell and five of his followers was written on a roll of paper one hundred yards long. It alleged a multitude of conspiracies to do seditious acts. The bulk of the Crown’s evidence consisted of extracts from meetings, speeches and newspaper articles – a pattern which was to occur throughout the nineteenth-century and right up to the present day. In summing up, Chief Justice Tindal told the jury that the accused need not have done any act – ‘…the gist of the offence is the bare engagement and association to break the law.’

In legal terms, the significance of O’Connell’s trial was that another authority was added to the list of precedents, still cited in Archbold, supporting the rule that liability for conspiracy may be founded merely on proof that the accused entered into an agreement, even though the object of the agreement was never carried out. In political terms, O’Connell’s conviction and imprisonment meant the end of the Repeal Party as an effective force.

During 1846 and 1847, the Irish potato crop failed. The resulting famine caused immense social and economic changes. Almost half a million people are estimated to have died of starvation and disease: two million emigrated and the number of agricultural smallholders decreased by fifty percent. Against this background, a new revolutionary group – the Young Ireland movement – organised Irish Nationalists into a system of ‘confederate clubs’. The Young Irelanders were essentially propagandists who developed a romantic view of Irish cultural nationalism through their newspapers. There is evidence that they cooperated with the Chartists on the English mainland, a phenomenon described by E.P. Thompson as ‘the confluence of sophisticated political radicalism with a more primitive and excitable revolutionism.’

The movement’s leaders travelled to revolutionary Paris where they prepared for the ‘cabbage-garden revolution’ – an abortive rising at Kilkenny where a provisional government was declared. The English government reacted by suspending habeas corpus and by passing the Treason Felony Act. O’Brien and Meagher, two leading Young Irelanders, were convicted and transported in the first treason felony trial. O’Doherty, proprietor of the Irish Tribune, was indicted for treason felony and tried three times for compassing to depose the queen through his newspaper. The first two juries disagreed: the third convicted and he was transported for ten years.

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