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Lawless was born in Dublin and was the son of a brewer. He later moved to northern Ireland and became editor of the Ulster Register and the Belfast Magazine and a prominent member of the Liberal party.
As a member of the committee of the Catholic Association in the 1820s he campaigned strongly for Catholic emancipation.
His radical views were distrusted both by the government, who ordered copies of his 1818 book on Belfast politics to be burnt, and by Daniel O'Connell who referred to him as 'Mad Lawless'.
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