The prime minister, William Pitt, soon after the suppression of the rebellion, began to act on an view he had entertained for some time, that the well-being of both Britain and Ireland would best be served by their formal unification, as England and Scotland had done in 1707. The unification of the two separate kingdoms would expedite commerce, lessen political complications and expenses, and facilitate defense against foreign enemies. Under unification the paradox of an established church in Ireland having a minority of the population as its adherents would be resolved. The Church of Ireland would then be part of the wider Church of England and its adherents would compose part of the majority of the united kingdoms. On the other hand, Pitt believed it could be feasible to make further concessions to Catholics, such as membership in parliament and public subsidization of their church, since they would be only a small minority in the united kingdoms, unlike the overwhelming majority position they had in Ireland alone. Under union the Protestant Ascendancy, in terms of its landed position and social eminence, would continue, but the bribery and patronage that characterized the separate parliament would be no more.
There was minimal opposition to the idea of union within Britain, but there was a considerable degree of opposition in Ireland from diverse quarters. Naturally the now scattered and underground United Irishmen, now completely committed to the idea of a separate Irish republic, were opposed. But the Orange Order, apprehensive at the prospects of Catholic emancipation, was also opposed. Many Irish commercial interests, who had benefited from protectionist tariffs, feared the free trade that union would bring. The business classes of Dublin were anxious that the end of the Irish parliament and the city's subsequent loss of political importance would have dire economic consequences. The legal profession, including both barristers and judges, was concerned at the possible ending of their domains. Lastly, and possibly the most important, the members of the Irish parliament, particularly the placeholders, that is, the recipients of patronage in return for their votes, and the occupiers or owners of the numerous "rotten boroughs," those constituencies with very few voters, were reluctant to lose what they regarded as virtually private property.
When Lord Cornwallis had the measure for union presented to the Irish parliament for consideration the first time in January 1799 a motion opposing it carried by five votes. Among the opponents were some members of the progovernment "Junta," such as John Foster and John Parnell, as well as Henry Grattan and the Patriots. The measure did pass in the Westminster parliament with ease. Cornwallis and his chief secretary, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, and John Fitzgibbons, the earl of Clare, undertook the task of persuading a sufficient number of Irish MP's to accept union. This required threatening placeholders with dismissal if they acted independently and offering substantial compensation to owners of rotten boroughs for the loss of their "property." Their efforts were sufficient to enable the Act of Union to be passed the following year and go into effect at the beginning of 1801.
The terms of the Act of Union were as follows. Four of the Irish bishops and 28 of the other Irish peers would represent their colleagues in the Westminster House of Lords. Ireland would have 100 members in the House of Commons, most of whom would be county representatives selected by the forty-shilling freeholders, of which there were many Catholics. Common budget expenses, such as defense, would be apportioned between Ireland and the rest of Britain at a rate of two to 15. Free trade was established, but certain tariffs and duties were allowed to continue for 20 years to allow adjustment. Ireland would have a separate exchequer with responsibility for its own national debt. The established churches of England and Ireland would be unified. Existing statutes in both countries would continue and could be changed only by the Westminster parliament.
One of the items Pitt had hoped would ensue from the act was Catholic emancipation. However, when he pressed the idea King George III reacted most vigorously in opposition, as he regarded allowing Catholics to sit in the parliament as a violation of his coronation oath. Since Pitt did not want the king to lapse into a bout of insanity, such as had brought the Regency crisis of more than a decade before, he dropped the matter, although the Catholics had been given to believe that it was imminent. However, he was honorable enough to resign his office. The effort to repeal the Act of Union would become the persistent overriding issue in Ireland for the next 120 years and in Northern Ireland to this day. It would be primarily the Catholics of the island who would seek its repeal, whereas Protestants would overwhelmingly come to support the union. Had Pitt persisted in pushing Catholic emancipation against the king's wishes and had he succeeded, one wonders if Irish history might have evolved differently.