First meeting of Dáil Éireann ‘would have done credit to the British House of Commons’

Core aim of one-party assembly – all members were Sinn Féin – was creation of republic

On the 21st of January 1919 27 newly elected Sinn Féin MPs met in the Mansion House in Dublin, in doing so they set up what became the first Dáil. Video: Ronan McGreevy/ Enda O'Dowd

 

January 21st, 2019 marks the centenary of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann, a landmark event in the evolution of an independent Ireland. The 1918 general election was the first occasion that women, (confined to those over 30 years old), could vote in parliamentary elections or stand for election; and the first occasion that all men over 21 could vote, though many were denied that opportunity because 25 seats were not contested.

Sinn Féin won 73 of Ireland’s 105 parliamentary seats. The party’s manifesto had highlighted four key principles: withdrawing from the Westminster parliament; using every means available to destroy “English” rule in Ireland; establishing a constituent assembly to speak and act in the name of the Irish people and to develop Ireland’s social, political and industrial life for the welfare of the population, and appealing to the post-war peace conference in Paris to recognise Ireland as an independent nation.

The Dáil met three days after the convening of the Paris Peace Conference and more than two weeks before the new Westminster parliament convened. For many years Sinn Féin’s founder Arthur Griffith had been urging Irish nationalists to establish their own parliament, and in the 1840s Daniel O’Connell had flirted with establishing an Irish Council of 300. Speaking in New York, Diarmuid Lynch, one of the elected members, compared the first meeting of Dáil Éireann to the 1776 Constitutional Assembly in Philadelphia.

The term Dáil Éireann was first used at the 1918 Sinn Féin ardfheis. Dáil was the term used in early/medieval Ireland to describe a meeting, or political assembly. It is unclear when the term TD, teachta dála emerged; in January 1919 the Evening Herald described the elected members as Feisirí Dáil Éireann.

The first public session of An Dáil Éireann (as many newspapers described it), was carefully planned. Invitations were issued to all elected Irish MPs. Sinn Féin held several meetings to plan the event, including a private meeting of the newly-elected representatives on January 7th. The date of the first meeting was publicised; many guests were invited, and the public could apply for tickets at Sinn Féin headquarters.

As the Round Room in the Mansion House in Dublin could hold up to 3,000 people the occasion marked the largest ever public attendance at a session of Dáil Éireann; women accounted for almost half the attendees. Contemporary accounts suggest that between 70 and 100 journalists were present, representing Irish national and local newspapers, as well as British, European, American and imperial newspapers and press agencies. According to the Evening Herald the newly-elected deputies “had to submit to being photosnapped” as they arrived – which was obviously seen as a novelty.

Only 28 of the 73 Sinn Féin deputies were present – most absentees were in English prisons, including Arthur Griffith, Eamon de Valera and Constance Markievicz, the only woman elected in 1918. No representatives of other political parties attended.

Nearby streets were decorated with bunting and Union Jack flags; the Royal Dublin Fusiliers held a home-coming celebration in the Mansion House earlier in the day. Representatives of the Dublin Metropolitan Police watched the arrivals, but did not intervene, though they had raided Sinn Féin offices and seized literature prepared for the Dáil meeting some days earlier.

However the law requiring the police to be given advance notice of public meetings had just lapsed, which meant that they had no power to suppress the meeting.

Sinn Féin TD Piaras Beaslaí, a journalist by profession was mainly responsible for organising the session. Many years later he recalled: “I was determined to leave nothing to chance. I had a long experience of producing stage plays, and I felt we must approach this public session in the same spirit. Everything to be done and the order in which it was to done must be clearly laid down beforehand. Every speaker must know when he was to be called up and must be word perfect in his speech. This was particularly important when all the speeches were in Irish and some of our proposed speakers were not very much at ease in that language”.

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Choreographed

The first meeting of Dáil Éireann was carefully choreographed to reflect Sinn Féin objectives, both national and international. The session began at 3.30pm and ended at 5.20pm. Many journalists commented on the dignity of the occasion. The Daily Express suggested that it “would have done credit to the British House of Commons”, the London Times described the proceedings as “entirely prosaic . . . orderly and dignified, not a word being uttered that could provoke discord or ill-feeling”, but the New York Times commented at some length on the fact that most of the proceedings were in Irish, a “dead language”.

When the meeting adjourned, the deputies had approved a short, provisional constitution for Dáil Éireann; appointed three delegates to the Paris conference; issued a declaration of independence, a declaration to the free nations of the world, and a Democratic Programme, setting out core principles that should inform socio-economic policy. The constitution provided for one elected chamber, with a five-person ministry/aireacht elected by the Dáil, consisting of a president and four ministers. In April, the number was increased to nine, and Constance Markievicz became minister of labour.

The declaration of independence reflected the Dáil’s hybrid origins in revolution and parliamentary democracy. Declaring that “the Irish people is by right a free people”, which “for seven hundred years . . . repeatedly protested in arms against foreign usurpation”, proclaiming an Irish Republic on Easter Sunday 1916, it stated that in the 1918 general election, the electorate had “seized the first occasion to declare by an overwhelming majority its firm allegiance to the Irish Republic”.

Through the declaration, which was affirmed by all members present, Dáil Éireann, the national parliament, ratified “the establishment of the Irish Republic” and pledged to make this declaration effective, by enacting legislation and demanding the evacuation of foreign troops.

The message to the Free Nations was a call for international recognition of Ireland’s independent nationhood. It was informed by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the prevailing optimism that a new world order was emerging in the aftermath of the Great War.

References to the freedom of the seas, “the new world emerging from the war . . . freedom and justice. . . international law. . . the dawn of the promised era of self-determination and liberty” combined with a description of Ireland as “one of the most ancient nations in Europe” in an amalgam of the past and the contemporary that characterised the first Dáil.

The final document, the Democratic Programme, was a fusion of Irish republicanism and social democracy. It cited the 1916 Proclamation, which declared the right of the people of Ireland “to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies”.

The first duty of government was to ensure that all children were provided with adequate food, clothing, shelter and education, and it gave a commitment to abolish the much-hated Poor Law, replacing it with a “sympathetic native scheme” that would care for the aged and infirm; “safeguard the health of the people” and ensure the physical and moral well-being of the nation. The Democratic Programme contained a strong commitment to developing Ireland’s natural resources, promoting Irish industries and expanding international trade, and the government was committed to working with other governments to introduce social and industrial legislation designed to secure “a lasting improvement” in the living and working conditions of the working class.

Toned down

The Democratic Programme, drafted by Labour leader Tom Johnson, and hastily revised/toned down by Seán T O’ Kelly to meet the objections of some Sinn Féin leaders, is generally seen as rewarding the Labour Party for not contesting the 1918 election, a decision that helped ensure a Sinn Féin landslide.

It can also be seen as reflecting the widespread belief that the aftermath of the first World War should be marked by improved conditions for all citizens: to reward wartime privation, and prevent the spread of Marxist revolution. The text of the Democratic Programme was deployed to secure international recognition for Dáil Éireann by the Socialist International in Berne, and an international trade union meeting in the Netherlands, though such recognition was of purely symbolic significance.

The large public attendance and extensive coverage in the national and local press meant that the Irish people were aware that a new alternative parliament and government had come into existence, though few would have experienced any immediate changes in their lives. Later sessions of Dáil Éireann received much less coverage, because of British censorship regulations; it was often reduced to tiny inserts similar to small classified ads in provincial newspapers. To overcome this, the Dáil printed and distribute copies of its proceedings.

The international dimensions were of equal, if not greater importance. The large foreign press attendance (journalists were invited to a reception in the Oak Room of the Mansion House that evening), demonstrated an ambition to proclaim Irish independence internationally, which is also evident in the emergence of a fledgling department of foreign affairs during 1919.

Ireland’s claim for a place at the Paris Peace Conference had already been dismissed before the first meeting of Dáil Éireann; self-determination only applied to the European territories of defeated powers. The New York Times noted that the Irish delegation would claim “representation as if Ireland were a state like Belgium or Serbia”, adding that “they did not expect it to be granted”.

But the prominent media attention given to the inaugural meeting of Dáil Éireann was significant, because a major part of the battle to persuade Britain to grant self-government to Ireland was achieved through the British and foreign press.

Other features of this first meeting worth noting are the absence of parliamentary debate. The formality of the occasion ruled that out, as did the low attendance, and the decision to conduct much of the proceedings in Irish. The first Dáil held 21 sessions between January 1919 and the final meeting on May 10th, 1921; 14 took place in 1919. The largest attendance, of 52 TDs, was in April 1919, following the release of prisoners; in September 1919 Dáil Éireann was proscribed by the British authorities, which meant that members were at risk of imprisonment. The fact that this was a one-party assembly – all attendees were members of Sinn Féin – also limited the possibility of parliamentary debate.

In January 1919 few commentators held out much hope for the survival or success of Dáil Éireann. The Irish Independent dismissed the prospects of securing a republic as “remote’; the Freeman’s Journal warned that any attempt to implement the declarations of the “Mansion House assembly inevitably must lead to defeat, disaster and ruin of the nation’s hopes”. The Irish Times dismissed the meeting as a “theatrical protest”. The political scientist Basil Chubb claimed “in 1919 the state did not exist in fact, though it may have existed in theory”; over the next two-three years that theory became fact.

Professor Mary E Daly is professor emerita of history at University College Dublin and has served for seven years as principal of the UCD College of Arts and Celtic Studies. She is a member of the Government’s expert advisory group on the decade of centenaries.

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