Leo Varadkar: Democratic programme of first Dáil worth rereading

Many of its aspirations became reality but others have yet to be realised

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


On this day 100 years ago a bold, profound and decisive statement was made about the future of Ireland. A small group of people, recently elected to Westminster, met in the Mansion House in Dublin to constitute the first Dáil. In some ways, it was more of a symbolic statement: the Dáil was a legislature without any power. But as symbolism went it was incredibly powerful. It proclaimed the essential democratic nature of the Irish revolution, the value it placed on parliamentary institutions and its aspirations for a free, independent and democratic state.

Sinn Féin won 73 seats in the December 1918 election, but as four people were returned for two constituencies, a total of 69 different people were elected. Of these, many were in jail or absent when the first Dáil met. Reading through the official transcript (available on the Oireachtas website), I counted 27 different TDs who were marked ‘i láthair’ (‘present’). Notable names such as Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, WT Cosgrave and Constance Markievicz were in prison and were marked as ‘fé ghlas ag Gallaibh’ (‘imprisoned by the foreign enemy’). Michael Collins was also absent, as he was in England working to organise de Valera’s escape, and was listed as ‘as láthair’ (‘absent’). So too were all the unionist MPs, such as Edward Carson.

Multilingual meeting

This historic first meeting was short, beginning at 3.30pm and adjourning at 5.20pm. It was a multilingual meeting, with most of the proceedings in Irish, and some documents also read in French and then in English. With Cathal Brugha in the chair as ceann comhairle, the gathering approved Bunreacht Dála Éireann and then heard the reading of the declaration of independence setting out a vision of a free, independent republic. It was one which sought to “re-establish justice, to provide for future defence, to insure peace at home and goodwill with all nations and to constitute a national polity based upon the people’s will with equal right and equal opportunity for every citizen”. They are the same principles which guide us today.

There was also an international dimension to the first meeting with a message sent to the ‘free nations of the world’. Many new states had been created following the end of the first World War and Ireland was seeking to join them, calling “upon every free nation to uphold her national claim to complete independence as an Irish Republic”.

So much of what was asserted 100 years ago could be restated today, as it set out a vision of a confident trading nation, which “must be open to all nations”.

The democratic programme was also read and adopted at this meeting. The influence of the Labour Party on the language is evident, such as the assertion that “the right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare”. Today this is reflected in Bunreacht na hÉireann in article 43 where private property rights are enshrined but are subject to the common good.

For many at the time, the ideas in the democratic programme seemed too radical. Kevin O’Higgins in 1922 dismissed it as “mostly poetry”. But what is striking is how successive governments were eventually able to translate the poetry of the democratic programme into legislative prose. I believe they are aspirations we can share today.

Over time, the new Irish State would establish policies “for the care of the nation’s aged and infirm, who shall not be regarded as a burden, but rather entitled to the nation’s gratitude and consideration”. Health services were established to safeguard the health of the people and ensure the physical wellbeing of the country, one that serves us well, despite its problems.

Through the development of State-owned enterprises such as the ESB and Bord na Móna “the nation’s resources” – its “mineral deposits, peat bogs, and fisheries, its waterways and harbours” were developed “in the interests and for the benefit of the Irish people”. It took many decades, and a new direction in Irish economic policy, but Irish industries were eventually invigorated and “trade with foreign nations . . . revived on terms of mutual advantage and goodwill”.


The democratic programme also points to where the State has fallen short. Its assertion that “the first duty of the government of the Republic” will be “to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training” reminds us of our responsibilities to children. Industrial schools, illegal adoptions and mother-and-baby homes were a betrayal of those ideals. Although today the rate of child poverty in Ireland is only a fraction of what it was 100 years ago, and is falling, we must do better.

In the first years of the Irish Free State there were almost half a million pupils in primary school, but only one in 20 would continue beyond that. Third-level education was for the few. It was no wonder that WB Yeats called Ireland in 1928 “the worst-educated country in northern Europe”.

Today we are one of the best educated. Different governments over many years made that possible – for example, bringing in free education – and the result is that this ideal of the democratic programme has become a reality for many. Today, more people attend higher education than ever before with more than ever before coming from non-traditional backgrounds.

The Dáil met 14 times in total in 1919, although under greater restrictions. Constance Markievicz became minister for labour, an historic appointment of a female cabinet minister which sadly was not repeated until 1979.

Of course, January 21st, 1919, was also the date of the ambush at Soloheadbeg in Co Tipperary, an event that subsequently came to be seen as the first shots in the War of Independence. In the months and years ahead we will commemorate the struggle that helped us to achieve the independence declared so eloquently on behalf of the Irish people in the Mansion House on this day.

So today is an opportunity to recall the past and look to the future. The meeting of the first Dáil was a bold exercise in democracy, an assertion that the struggle for Irish independence had the support of the Irish people and derived its legitimacy from them.

By honouring the first Dáil we reaffirm our belief in its democratic integrity, concourse with the world and rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of its values and aspirations.

Leo Varadkar TD is Taoiseach

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