Lord Castlereagh: Probably the most significant and politically influential Ulsterman in history

A painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence of Viscount Castlereagh, the man responsible for the passage of the Act of Union through the Irish Parliament
A painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence of Viscount Castlereagh, the man responsible for the passage of the Act of Union through the Irish Parliament
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Two hundred and fifty years after the birth of Lord Castlereagh, historian GORDON LUCY looks at his remarkable life and achievements.

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, as foreign secretary was probably the most significant and politically influential Ulsterman in history.

Of Ulster-Scots and Presbyterian stock, Castlereagh was born in Dublin on June 18 1769, and was educated at the Royal School, Armagh, and at St John’s College, Cambridge. John Stewart, an ancestor, was granted a small landed property called Ballylawn in Co Donegal as part of the Plantation of Ulster.

In 1744 Castlereagh’s grandfather purchased a large estate in Co Down, including the town of Newtownards. Castlereagh’s father, Robert Stewart (subsequently the 1st Marquess of Londonderry), represented Co Down in the Irish Parliament from 1771 to 1783. Castlereagh himself was elected for the county in a celebrated and expensive election in 1790.

Castlereagh was acting chief secretary during the 1798 rebellion. His view on the its suppression was ‘firmness [towards the leadership] and leniency [towards the rank and file]’. In November 1798 he became chief secretary in his own right.

Castlereagh was also the man responsible for the passage of the Act of Union through the Irish Parliament. As early as 1792 Castlereagh had identified the desirability of a union between Great Britain and Ireland. Fearing the separation of Ireland from Great Britain, by 1798 he was absolutely convinced by the rebellion and the threat of French invasion that union was essential.

Initially, Castlereagh seriously underestimated the scale of the opposition to the Union, but with great skill, hard work and extensive patronage, he converted early parliamentary defeat into a substantial parliamentary majority for the measure. He viewed the Union as the prelude to Catholic Emancipation.

He also believed in the abolition of tithes and in the state payment of Roman Catholic clergy. It was his conviction that this package of measures would bind the Roman Catholic population to the Union. Being an honourable man, Castlereagh, along with Pitt and Cornwallis, resigned when George III thwarted the introduction of Catholic Emancipation.

Arguably, Castlereagh’s greatest achievements came between the years 1812 and 1822, when he occupied the office of foreign secretary – achievements which overshadow all other events in his long and distinguished political career. Of Castlereagh, it has often been observed that only the 1st Duke of Marlborough achieved a comparable personal ascendancy, as a British representative in European diplomacy.

Castlereagh was the architect of the great coalitions, which overthrew Napoleon. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, he redrew the map of Europe and laid the foundations for one of the longest periods of peace in modern European history. The concept of the ‘Concert of Europe’ was largely his creation and he did much to promote the practice of diplomacy by conference. Although Castlereagh dismissed Tsar Alexander I’s Holy Alliance as ‘a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense’ from the outset, Cabinet colleagues and the British public did not understand the subtlety of Castlereagh’s foreign policy.

Castlereagh’s role in domestic politics was not best calculated to make him popular. As Leader of the House and the government’s principal spokesman in the Commons, Castlereagh was inevitably closely identified with the repressive policies of the years 1815-19. These were years in which the problems posed by peace seemed to be even more intractable than those generated by the war. The period was characterised by widespread unrest, unemployment, an agricultural recession, a colossal national debt and fear of revolution.

As a result of the intemperate writings of liberal Romantics such as Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, and Shelley, Castlereagh and his colleagues have long been depicted as harsh and unbending reactionaries and wilful opponents of the spirit of progress and enlightenment. Placed as they were, in the difficult position of governing a nation confronting serious problems and severe dislocation in the aftermath of 20 or so years of war, perhaps Castlereagh and his colleagues deserve sympathy and understanding rather than popular execration.

On the whole, Castlereagh’s reputation in Ireland does not stand high. In a Parliamentary debate in July 1817 Castlereagh admitted ‘that with respect to Ireland, I know I shall never be forgiven’. However, he did not regret his part in the passage of the Union. On the contrary, what he regretted was that the Union which he had envisaged, accompanied by Catholic Emancipation, had not yet come into existence.

Castlereagh remained a firm believer in Catholic Emancipation until his tragic death in August 1822. Nevertheless, this did not prevent Daniel O’Connell from denouncing him as ‘the assassin of his country’.

Castlereagh’s British and international reputation stands conspicuously higher than his Irish one. A week after Castlereagh’s death, Henry Brougham, one of his most gifted political opponents and a future Whig Lord Chancellor, wrote: ‘Put all their other men together in one scale and poor Castlereagh in the other – single, he plainly weighed them down’. The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, a great Conservative prime minister, foreign secretary and profound political thinker, described Castlereagh as ‘a practical man of the highest order, who yet did not by that fact forfeit his title to be considered a man of genius’. Draw up a list of great British foreign secretaries and it would be impossible to take seriously any list on which Castlereagh did not feature.

Dr Henry Kissinger noted that at the end of the Napoleonic Wars Castlereagh opposed the clamour from his Cabinet colleagues for a harsh and vindictive peace, and observed that the final settlement, with some compromises, was a practical embodiment of Castlereagh’s principle of the ‘just equilibrium’. The settlement arrived at in Vienna lasted, except for one or two changes, for more than 40 years.

Castlereagh was conspicuously more successful at redrawing the map of Europe and at peacemaking than another Ulster Scot, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, was at the end of the Great War a century later.

Dr Kissinger justly observed many years ago that ‘the attainment of peace is not as easy as the desire for it’. As that remains the case, perhaps we can learn from Castlereagh how we may build a stable international order.