Peel, Sir Robert (1788–1850), 2nd baronet, Irish chief secretary (1812–18), was born 5 February 1788, at Bury, Lancashire, England, eldest son of Robert Peel (1750–1830), a wealthy calico-printer, and his wife Ellen (née Yates), daughter of his business partner. In 1790 his father bought a large estate in Staffordshire including parts of the borough of Tamworth, for which he was elected MP the same year. Ten years later he was created a baronet in reward for his influential support of Pitt's government. Politically and socially ambitious for his family, the elder Peel provided his son and heir with an aristocratic education at Harrow and Oxford, and purchased a seat in parliament for him as soon as he came of age. As one of the few promising young politicians on the ministerial side of the house, the younger Peel gained early promotion in 1810 to an under-secretaryship in the department of war and colonies. When in 1812 his departmental chief Lord Liverpool became prime minister, he sent Peel to Ireland as chief secretary. The undefined but potentially wide responsibilities of this office gave him his first opportunity to display the energy, creativity, and high standards of public service that were to characterise his whole career.
An early cause for concern in the Dublin executive after his arrival was the reaction in Ireland to the defeat of Henry Grattan's (qv) catholic emancipation bill in 1813 and the decline of moderate aristocratic influence within the unofficial Catholic Board in the face of more extreme nationalist members. Peel shared the prevailing view of his political superiors in both capitals that emancipation was unacceptable without securities for the protestant constitution. He gained the tacit assent of an otherwise unenthusiastic cabinet for the dissolution of the board by viceregal proclamation in June 1814. The following year Daniel O'Connell's (qv) increasingly personal and abusive attacks provoked Peel to challenge him to a duel, the abortive outcome of which left him with feelings of dislike and contempt for the Irish agitator.
The lull in the emancipation movement after 1813, however, allowed Peel to consider the problem of widespread crime and disorder, which to his fresh English eye constituted the most striking aspect of Irish society. In 1814 he introduced an insurrection bill, strengthening the emergency powers of the Irish executive, and a peace preservation bill, establishing the first police force outside Dublin paid and directed by the central government. These two measures, his first essays in major legislation, reflected (as far as practical considerations permitted) his private view that ‘honest despotic government’ was the only immediate answer to Ireland's endemic social troubles. His vigorous and timely measures to deal with the partial failure of the potato crop in 1817 crowned an exceptionally long and unprecedentedly successful tenure of the chief secretaryship. From the comments in the Irish press when he retired in 1818, it was clear that he had put a stamp of authority on the office equalled by few of his predecessors and certainly none since the union. On the wider English scene he had not only made his reputation as the ablest minister outside the cabinet, but had secured the coveted honour of a seat for Oxford University and, by default rather than choice, the unofficial leadership of the protestant party in the house of commons.
As home secretary (1822–7 and 1828–30) he found his ministerial oversight of Irish administration less productive. The threats of food shortages, in 1822–3 and more seriously in 1826, were competently dealt with; but otherwise it was a barren and frustrating experience. The causes for this lay partly in the deep divisions on policy within the Dublin executive, partly in the rise of O'Connell's Catholic Association. In 1827 Peel left office because of his disagreement with the new prime minister George Canning over catholic emancipation. Returning to the home office under Wellington (qv) he found himself facing a similar crisis when O'Connell's election for Co. Clare in July 1828 forced the prime minister to abandon the previous government policy of neutrality on the catholic issue. Peel tendered his resignation; but the prolonged constitutional deadlock with the king during the autumn of 1828 finally induced him to remain in office to aid Wellington in passing an emancipation bill through parliament. By that date he had come to accept that the concession, however unwelcome, was both necessary and inevitable; though he remained unconvinced that it would end Irish agitation. His influence was largely responsible for the decision of the cabinet to discard nearly all the securities originally envisaged by Wellington, on the grounds that they would be useless to protestants and offensive to catholics. His central role in passing the catholic emancipation act of 1829, however, shattered his reputation for consistency and alienated many of his followers. The so-called ‘betrayal’ of the protestant interest by Wellington and Peel was one of the main reasons for the fall of the ministry in 1830.
During Peel's years as opposition leader (1830–34 and 1835–41) the Irish reform measures brought forward by the whig ministries created some of his most difficult problems. His early negative and sometimes unrealistic tactics were influenced to some extent by his distrust of O'Connell's popular power in Ireland, but more generally by the need to hold together the discordant elements of the conservative party. Taught by his experience in 1835, when his minority government was brought down by a whig–O'Connell alliance on an Irish church revenue issue, he showed an increasing readiness after 1837 to arrive at amicable compromises with the ministry on Irish legislation, despite discontent in his party. At the start of his 1841–6 administration, therefore, he was able to concentrate on more pressing domestic matters. It was not till 1843 that the visible success of his tariff reforms gave him the opportunity, and O'Connell's repeal campaign the incentive, to turn his full attention to Ireland. Though in October 1843 the ‘monster’ repeal meeting at Clontarf was banned and O'Connell charged with conspiracy, it remained Peel's view that mere force could never constitute a permanent remedy. He had long been convinced that Irish social disorders arose primarily from the chaotic land system and that the administration of Ireland was persistently undermined by the failure of successive British politicians to establish a working relationship with the Roman Catholic church. He was now prepared to jettison everything except the maintenance of the union and the preservation of the established Church of Ireland for the sake of a lasting settlement.
The delicate question of landlord–tenant relations he entrusted to a cross-party royal commission under the chairmanship of Lord Devon. Appointed in November 1843, it produced an important report (February 1845) which influenced subsequent Irish land-tenure reform. The even more sensitive task of conciliating Roman Catholic opinion he initially approached through three pioneer pieces of legislation: a charitable bequests act (1844) to encourage private endowment of the Roman catholic church, a Maynooth act (1845) to provide more money to improve the vocational training of its clergy, and an academic colleges act (1845) to provide secular university education for the Irish laity, catholic and protestant. Though this last was hindered by the non-cooperation of the catholic bishops, the other two proved more successful than is commonly realised. Nevertheless, the violent protestant opposition to the Maynooth bill in England gravely weakened his hold on his party.
When the potato blight of 1845 spread to Ireland, the response of Peel's experienced administration was both imaginative and effective. But his decision that the unpopular protective corn laws would be politically unsustainable in the circumstances of a prolonged Irish famine led to the defection of two-thirds of his already unstable party and the fall of his ministry in June 1846. Out of office he supported Russell's whig government on principle, though he thought his famine-relief measures inadequate and his general Irish policy timid. His own increasingly progressive ideas were partially revealed in 1849 when in a major parliamentary debate he urged the government to use the opportunity offered by the famine to take over encumbered Irish estates and start a process of transferring ownership of the land from aristocratic proprietors to their peasant tenantry. Much of what he suggested was taken up later in the century, but at the time he was ahead of his generation.
Peel died prematurely in London, as the result of a riding accident, on 2 July 1850. He married (8 June 1820) Julia, youngest daughter of Gen. Sir John Floyd; they had five sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Robert (qv) (1822–95), 3rd baronet, was chief secretary for Ireland 1861–5.
With wider personal knowledge of Irish society than any other nineteenth-century British prime minister, Peel was rivalled only by Gladstone in his concern for the problems of Ireland and his willingness to risk his career in searching for solutions. Too intelligent not to learn from experience, too strong-minded not to take on responsibility, he demonstrated on Ireland as on other issues a capacity for constant self-education.