Saturday 23 March 2019

Enduring legacy of the first Dail

Ninety years on, the parliamentary ideals of our founding fathers remain paramount, writes John A Murphy

HISTORIC: The inaugural meeting of the Dail on January 21, 1919, attracted huge crowds and there was huge excitement

TUESDAY afternoon, January 21, 1919. There was an air of anticipation and high excitement around the Mansion House as the time (3.30pm) approached for the inaugural meeting of An Dail Eireann (this was how the Sinn Fein-convoked constituent assembly was referred to in the press at the time). Orderly queues formed in Dawson Street, visitors' tickets had been already distributed and the Round Room was soon crammed. Those occupying vantage points in neighbouring windows were by no means all Sinn Fein sympathisers -- they included police chiefs and several military officers.

A piquant touch was added to the occasion as a group of ex-POW Royal Dublin Fusiliers left a reception in their honour in the Mansion House just before the Sinn Fein people moved in. This caused a local trader to remark, to some laughter, "no city in Europe can beat Dublin after all!'' Inside the building there were more than twice as many journalists (from European, North American, British and Irish newspapers) as the newly-elected representatives.

The background to this dramatic event was the UK general election of December 1918, when Sinn Fein secured 73 of the 105 (single-seat) constituencies in all of Ireland. In its manifesto, the organisation had declared it would secure a republic by, inter alia, withdrawing the Irish MPs from Westminster and setting up an independent constituent assembly in Ireland. (This strategy had been mooted, but never acted upon, by some 19th century nationalists). Emboldened by its triumph at the polls, Sinn Fein now called on all elected Irish representatives to attend the inaugural meeting of a single-chamber Dail Eireann. The invitation was, of course, ignored by the unionists.

As the meeting began, there was loud applause when the elected members took their seats. As Ceann Comhairle, Cathal Brugha dominated the two-hour session and set the uncompromising tone. A severely-wounded hero of 1916 and destined to die in a Cu Chulainn-like last stand at the start of the Civil War, his was hardly likely to be the voice of moderation on that opening day, especially in the absence of mainstream leaders like the imprisoned Arthur Griffith and Eamon de Valera. The Irish Times noted that the Sinn Fein representatives were nearly "all young men, there being no grey hairs among them and very few wrinkled brows''. They were obviously highly conscious of the historic significance of the event as they set about, in Cathal Brugha's words, "the most important task since the Gaels came to Ireland''.

The emotional fusion of religion and nationalism which had characterised Easter Week was also strongly evident in the rhetoric of the First Dail. This was not crawthumping but a fervent and self-righteous conviction that God was on the side of the revolutionaries and that their enterprise was obair naomtha, "holy work''.

Significantly also, given the formative influence of the Gaelic League on that generation, Irish was the dominant medium of the proceedings. This meant, according to the Irish Times, that three-quarters of those present were "completely at sea''.

The roll call of all 105 members (including unionists and the handful of surviving Redmondites) provoked some laughter when Sir Edward Carson, among others, was solemnly recorded as being as lathair (absent) suggesting somehow that he had a cold or missed the bus.

Only 27 Sinn Fein members were present, the majority being listed as imprisoned or on the run.

There was perhaps some make-believe, then and thereafter, about the public use of Irish. Certainly, as attendances increased at subsequent sessions of the First Dail (52 members were present at the meeting on April 1) English came to dominate the proceedings and it was soon ordained that "all notices and pronouncements were to be issued bilingually''. The sending of invitations to unionists and the dutiful intonation of their names in a roll call smacked of theatrical posturing. Sinn Fein was continuing the nationalist self-deception that unionists would turn out some day to be nationalists, once the British scales had fallen from their eyes.

The most important document of that historic first day was the Declaration of Independence. This took the form of ratifying (to great applause) "the establishment of the Irish Republic . . . proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916 by the Irish Republican Army'' and now receiving the allegiance of "the overwhelming majority'' of the Irish people. Two points should be emphasised. First, what de Valera was to call the "straitjacket'' of the Republic was now in place, making future constitutional compromise not only difficult but open to the charge of treachery. Secondly, the Assembly was claiming that its authority was grounded in the 1916 proclamation (and the blood-sacrifice mandate) as much as in the democratic credentials of the 1918 election.

The seeds of further ambivalence lay in an occurrence in Co Tipperary on the same day as the Dail opening. This was what the Irish Times called the "foul murder'' of two policemen by armed Volunteers. Needless to say, the Dail deputies were not aware of, still less responsible for, this event but it was to lead in a very short time to the most important question facing the fledgling state: would a civilian Dail government be able to assert its authority over the gunmen?

Other business transacted on opening day included the drafting of a short, provisional constitution; the issuing of a rhetorically high-minded message "to the free nations of the world''; and the adoption of a Democratic Programme, unanimously approved without debate.

This document could have been more appropriately titled a "social'' or even a "socialist programme''. It was a concession to Labour which had stood aside in the 1918 election but which now wanted its aspirations recognised by the one-party Sinn Fein Dail.

Irish nationalists in general had always believed that an independent Ireland would be prosperous and just; Sinn Fein's social policy specifically envisaged the development of national resources for the public good; the Democratic Programme now went much further. It was a radical manifesto with some striking phrases, e.g. "no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing or shelter''. IRB leaders, like P S O'Hegarty, single-mindedly concerned with ending British rule, dismissed it as "socialist theoretical high-sounding jargon''. It hardly reflected the mind of a lower middle-class Dail and certainly not the sentiments of a recently-established peasant proprietorship. This historical context should be kept in mind by latter-day commentators who mistakenly regard the Democratic Programme as a mainstream founding-fathers' ideal from which there has been a shameful falling away.

The British authorities had tolerated the public -- and widely reported -- opening ceremonies of Dail Eireann but they banned the Assembly from September 1919. The Dail and its government went underground and in spite of increasingly fraught circumstances in 1920-21, performed impressively in setting up an alternative jurisdiction in local government, the administration of the law and public financing. The Second Dail, returned without a contest in May 1921, continued to receive popular nationalist support until the Treaty split and Civil War, 1922-23.

We tend to think of the parliamentary and physical-force traditions as diametrically opposite dynamics in Irish nationalism.

Yet over the decades since independence, successive "republican'' groups, while refusing to recognise the "Free State'' and its institutions, have bizarrely insisted on their allegiance to the First and Second Dails as the wellspring of legitimate political authority in Ireland. Unreal and perverse though this mentality may be, it unwittingly acknowledges the priority of the parliamentary tradition as the most enduring political force in our history.

And so it is appropriate that on Wednesday, January 21, and despite the current disenchantment with politics in this country, the Oireachtas should honour the idealism of our native parliamentary founding fathers, 90 years on.

John A Murphy is Emeritus Professor of Irish History at UCC

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