Tuesday 23 July 2019

Century of change: Key moments from the Dáil in the last 100 years

The big read: From the Civil War to the financial crisis, Kim Bielenberg looks back at the key moments in the 100-year history of the Dáil

From gun-running allegations to Taoiseach: Charlie Haughey with supporters after his election in 1987
From gun-running allegations to Taoiseach: Charlie Haughey with supporters after his election in 1987
Emergency: Michael Noonan who brought in laws to liquidate IBRC. Photo: Mark Condren
Former taoisigh John Bruton and Garret FitzGerald. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Crunch: Austerity protests outside Government Building in 2010
Frank Aiken, whose filing cabinets contained 13 guns
Split: De Valera walked out of the Dáil in 1922 with fellow anti-Treaty TDs
Tough medicine: Noël Browne's Mother and Child scheme which was vetoed by medics and the Church
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It first met as a clandestine assembly 100 years ago in the Mansion House in Dublin. The first members were Sinn Féin MPs, who were elected to the parliament in Westminster, but refused to take their seats.

With the setting up of the Free State in 1922, Dáil Éireann wielded power across the land and settled in its home at Leinster House, originally the ducal palace of the Dukes of Leinster.

In a century of transformation, our national parliament has survived Civil War, the Emergency, the Arms Crisis and the depths of financial crisis.


A banner headline in the Irish Independent captured the historic importance of the debate that started on December 14, 1921 in a room at University College Dublin. Across a page there was a banner headline in capital letters: "DÁIL ÉIREANN'S MOMENTOUS MEETING."

In a tense atmosphere, members of the parliament met to decide on whether to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was to turn Ireland into a "Free State" with a limited form of independence.

Michael Collins made impassioned contributions during the debate, having led the delegation to London to negotiate the treaty. He was opposed by Éamon De Valera, then President of the Republic.

Collins told the Dáil on the first day of the debate: "If I am a traitor, let the Irish people decide it or not, and if there are men who act towards me as a traitor, I am prepared to meet them anywhere, any time, now as in the past. "

In a later contribution, he said of the Treaty: "In my opinion, it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire… but the freedom to achieve it."

Among the luminaries on the other side who opposed the Treaty was Constance Markievicz, the first woman to be elected in a Westminster election and the first Irish cabinet minister.

She told the Dáil: "I have seen the stars, and I am not going to follow a flickering will-o'-the-wisp, and I am not going to follow any person juggling with constitutions and introducing petty tricky ways into this Republican movement which we built up."

On January 7, 1922, the Dáil ratified the treaty by 64 to 57 votes. De Valera, announced he was quitting and soon afterwards he walked out of the chamber with all the anti-Treaty TDs.

The bitter split over the Treaty ultimately led to the Civil War and the political configuration that dominated Irish politics for almost a century, with the pro-Treaty side forming the party that later became Fine Gael, and their opponents forming Fianna Fáil.


Irish democracy was given its ultimate test in 1932 when the Cumann na nGaedheal government lost in a general election and Fianna Fáil under De Valera became the dominant party.

Amid fears that there might be an army coup, Fianna Fáil politicians arrived in Leinster House equipped with guns, apparently supplied by Frank Aiken, who had been chief of staff of the IRA.

James Dillon, an independent who later became Fine Gael leader, said Fianna Fáil were "swaggering around the place with revolvers bulging out of their pockets".

The fears of the Fianna Fáilers proved to be unfounded and the transition was relatively smooth. Almost 50 years later, after the death of Frank Aiken, his son Frank Junior was sorting through old filing cabinets of the deceased politician. He came across 13 handguns and several packs of ammunition. These were thought to be the famous guns seen around Leinster House in 1932.


Under the leadership of Éamon De Valera, Ireland stayed neutral during World War II.

Winston Churchill may have criticised this stance as an act of betrayal, but the decision met with almost universal approval in the Dáil.

On May 28, 1940 the Taoiseach announced in the Dáil an all-party front to confront the dangers facing the country.

"I am sure all our people will be united as one man behind the Government, ready to meet aggression from whatsoever quarter it may come."

Justifying neutrality, De Valera harked back to the previous world war, when the British forces wanted to conscript Irishmen.

"Over 20 years ago, another peril brought the country to one magnificent unity. The leaders of all parties, the Church and the people combined for a great and noble purpose - to save our young men from being forced into a war against the nation's will.

"Can I not ask for the same unity today to resist being brought into a war in which our State has declared its desire and its intention not to be involved?"


Tough medicine: Noël Browne's Mother and Child scheme which was vetoed by medics and the Church

All hell broke loose as the young Minister for Health Noël Browne tried to introduce free healthcare for mothers and children up until the age of 16.

Browne, a Clann na Poblachta TD in an inter-party government led by John A Costello, wanted to implement the radical plan that actually had its origins in the previous Fianna Fáil government.

The free healthcare for mothers and children was to be provided without a means test.

It it ran into opposition from vested interests in the medical profession, who feared a loss of income, as well as the formidable Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid. The plan was ultimately also opposed by the Taoiseach and Browne's party leader, Seán MacBride.

In a resignation speech to the Dáil on April 11, 1951, Browne blamed his fellow ministers rather than the bishops

"I, as a Catholic, accept unequivocally and unreservedly the views of the hierarchy on this matter. I have not been able to accept the manner in which this matter has been dealt with by my former colleagues in the government."

Browne's party colleague Peadar Cowan was less forgiving about the Church's role, telling the Dáil: 'The most disquieting feature of this sorry business is the revelation that the real government of the country may not in fact be exercised by the elected representatives of the people, as we believed it was, but by the bishops."


Donogh O'Malley served for just 18 months as Minister for Education, but introduced what was seen as the most radical measure affecting schools for over a century.

On November 30, 1966, the minister formally announced to the Dáil the introduction of free second-level education.

On its front page on the following day, the Irish Independent reported: "The Leaving Certificate course will be made available for all, without a means test or academic test, beginning next September."

O'Malley told the Dáil it was essential that all pupils should be encouraged to achieve educational proficiency in accord with their varying ability and talents.

The minister, who died in 1968, was a renowned heavy drinker who regularly got into scrapes. He once told a story how, earlier in his career, he was called in for a telling off by the then Taoiseach De Valera.

"They tell me you are drinking again, Donogh," De Valera had said. "I wouldn't mind them, Taoiseach," O'Malley reportedly replied. "They told me you used to sleep with Mary MacSwiney and I never believed them."


There were riotous scenes in the Dáil as the Taoiseach sacked two ministers from his cabinet and a third resigned following allegations over the importation of arms.

On May 6, 1970 Taoiseach Jack Lynch sacked the Minister for Agriculture Neil Blaney and the Minister for Finance Charles Haughey after accusing them of being involved in importing arms from Europe for the IRA. Social Welfare Minister Kevin Boland resigned over the dismissals.

In what was described as "the longest day in Irish politics", the Taoiseach told a packed and silent chamber in the early hours of the morning of the attempted illegal importation.

Both ministers were later acquitted of charges (and Haughey would become Taoiseach himself 17 years later).

The Irish Independent reported that towards the end of the 1970 debate, blows were struck as tempers flared in a clash between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs.

At one stage the Taoiseach was trying to break up the scuffles before the Dáil Superintendent Commandant Jack O'Leary restored order.


Former taoisigh John Bruton and Garret FitzGerald. Photo: Steve Humphreys

There was drama in the Dáil on January 27, 1982 when the government fell as it lost a vote on the budget by 82 votes to 81.

The downfall of Garret FitzGerald's seven-month coalition administration was put down to a tax on children's shoes in John Bruton's budget, but the four independents who voted against the budget also objected to increases in the price of butter and milk.

The end of Fine Gael's short reign came at 8.15pm when a jubilant Fianna Fáil chief whip Ray Burke almost ran into the chamber carrying the tally paper which showed the government defeated by 82 votes to 81. He shouted gleefully: "We've won!"

FitzGerald was described in the Irish Independent as "pale and visibly shocked" as he announced that he would go to the Áras to seek the dissolution of the Dáil.

The Taoiseach was asked to explain later that night why his government could not give children's shoes an exemption to the 18pc tax on footwear. It was feared that women with small feet could take advantage of the exemption and buy children's shoes.


In a riveting speech to the house on November 16, 1994, broadcast live on television, Tánaiste Dick Spring announced that Labour would withdraw from its coalition with Fianna Fáil, leading to the downfall of Taoiseach Albert Reynolds.

The two-year coalition between Fianna Fáil and Labour collapsed after revelations about former attorney general Harry Whelehan.

Reynolds had nominated Whelehan as President of the High Court despite concerns of the Labour Party over his handling of the extradition of Fr Brendan Smyth to Northern Ireland to face child abuse charges.

As Spring rose to speak, few knew what the fate of the government would be.

As Miriam Lord described it in the Irish Independent: "A hush fell over the chamber, the tension was almost unbearable. This was it. Albert smiled. But not for long."

Spring said it was time he had his say.

"Like a cat toying with a mouse, he impaled Albert with a shiny claw, then he let go.

"Then he struck again - and slowly the grin faded from the Taoiseach's face."


On September 30, 2008, with the government in the midst of financial crisis, Taoiseach Brian Cowen came before the Dáil and passionately defended the government's €400bn guarantee to the country's six banks.

An emotional Cowen said the greatest risk to the stability of Ireland's financial system was to do nothing. Although accepting that urgent action was required, Fine Gael and Labour claimed the government was effectively asking the taxpayers of Ireland to underwrite a €400bn guarantee, so that banks can chase their own losses.

The guarantee was the equivalent of up to €250,000 per taxpayer, they argued.

"In the office that I hold, I could not absolve myself from the responsibility of making the decisions," Cowen said. "On the advice of the relevant people who have the competent authority in this area, I had to make that decision."


Emergency: Michael Noonan who brought in laws to liquidate IBRC. Photo: Mark Condren

During a day and night of high drama on February 6, 2013, Finance Minister Michael Noonan brought emergency legislation to the Dáil to liquidate IBRC, the former Anglo Irish Bank.

Amid scenes of confusion and farce, TDs attended a packed Dáil sitting into the early hours to pass the emergency laws for the bank's liquidation, which was linked to the deal being hammered out with the European Central Bank.

Tempers were frayed and there was a lot of shouting in the chamber as opposing sides wrangled over Dáil procedure. The government was adamant that the legislation had to be passed overnight to protect the assets of IBRC.

The Finance Minister explained he had no choice but to rush the bill through.

"It is simply compelling in the larger public interest to now take this action and the Government has made its decision on that basis alone," he said.

The bill passed the final stage in the Seanad soon after 6am and was dispatched to Áras an Uachtaráin to be signed by the President.

During the same year, there was another rowdy late-night session to debate an abortion bill, when Fine Gael TD Tom Barry was shown on camera pulling fellow TD Áine Collins on to his lap. The incident became known as "lapgate".


Swordsmanship, pub crawls and insults

How do you stop a TD voting against you in a confidence motion? Ply them with drink and put them on a train to Sligo. That is what happened to the suitably named National League TD John Jinks in 1927, as De Valera's Fianna Fáil tried to oust Cumann na nGaedheal from government. Jinks was nobbled.

Government supporters took him on an extended pub crawl around Dublin, before helping him to the train. When it came to time for the vote, he could not be found and Fianna Fáil lost.

There have been many fights among TDs over the decades, and some of them involved TDs from the same party. In the early 1980s, Fianna Fáil descended into bitter in-fighting among supporters and enemies of Charles Haughey.

In one incident, anti-Haughey TD Jim Gibbons was hit and knocked to the ground.

Martin O'Donoghue recalled how a supporter of Gibbons came to his defence in Leinster House by brandishing a sword and shouting: "Get off that man or I'll kill everyone of you."

In December 2009, Green Party TD Paul Gogarty woke fellow deputies from their slumber when he told Labour's Emmet Stagg during Social Welfare debate: "With all due respect, in the most unparliamentary language, f*** you Deputy Stagg! F*** you!"

After the Gogarty episode, it emerged that f*** was not on the list of banned words in the chamber. Quaint insults that are outlawed in the Dáil include: buffoon, chancer, communist, corner boy, gurrier, guttersnipe, scumbag, and yahoo.

Indo Review

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section