Tuesday 23 July 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Our 'message to world' in first Dáil still resonates as days of the free, sovereign nation appear numbered'

Lord Mayor of Dublin Nial Ring, President of Ireland Michael D Higgins, Sabina Higgins, Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail & Cathaoirleach Denis O'Donovan during a Daill100 event to commemorate the centenary of the First Dail at the Mansion House, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Lord Mayor of Dublin Nial Ring, President of Ireland Michael D Higgins, Sabina Higgins, Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail & Cathaoirleach Denis O'Donovan during a Daill100 event to commemorate the centenary of the First Dail at the Mansion House, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

The birth of any nation is seldom smooth, and those first, tentative baby steps into independence are the most perilous of them all.

But against all odds, this week sees our nation mark 100 years of the Dáil and while you could reasonably argue that we're still struggling through national adolescence rather than settling into comfortable middle age, the event was a profound touchstone in the development of the country we live in today.

The 100 years since the first Dáil sat in the Mansion House on January 21, 1919, have been the most accelerated and turbulent in human history.

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But at the time, outrage over the treatment of the captured rebels of the Easter Rising two years earlier, and the rather more pragmatic fear of the introduction of conscription in Ireland, resulted in a Sinn Féin landslide, which saw it canter home with 73 TDs.

Famously, only 23 were able to take their seats, with a variety of impediments, invariably involving being in British custody ("fé ghlas ag Gaillibh") or simply on the run, preventing more of them from attending.

It's easy to imagine both the exhilaration and trepidation felt by those first TDs in the Mansion House that afternoon.

The newly installed Ceann Comhairle, Cathal Brugha, called on the world's leaders, still ensconced in Versailles working out their own disastrous post-war terms with the defeated Germans, to recognise Irish independence and invoked US President Woodrow Wilson's support for the self-determination of small nations.

Idealism may have been heavy in the air in Dublin 2 that day, but as so often with Ireland, idealism's evil twin - violent force - was also at play and we were left with awful symmetry of our first symbolic act of independence being mirrored by the murder of two RIC men in Soloheadbeg in Co Tipperary.

As we saw in the commemoration of that event over the weekend, it was just one of the many wounds to be inflicted during the subsequent years of bloodshed.

Like all aspirational democracies, our first missives to the rest of the world were romantic and undeniably stirring, and it's interesting to note the parallels between the words written a century ago and the current events of today.

As we stare down the abyss with the ever nearing nightmare of Brexit, one paragraph from the 'Message To The Free Nations Of The World' stands out...

It states that: "Internationally, Ireland is the gateway to the Atlantic. Ireland is the last outpost of Europe towards the West; Ireland is the point upon which great trade routes between East and West; her independence is demanded by Freedom of the Seas; her great harbours must be open to all nations, instead of being the monopoly of the English."

If you were of a certain political persuasion, you could reasonably argue that a simple replacement of the word 'English' for the 'EU' means that century-old statement still resonates.

As we all try to peer into our time machine and imagine what the members of that first Dáil would think of the nation today, it's obviously impossible to know with certainty. But plenty of people have been busily projecting their own current beliefs onto the blank canvas of the first Dáil.

For example, socialists have been busy claiming that the first 'Democratic Programme' of that Dáil was a "radical socialist agenda".

Traditional Catholics, meanwhile, have been just as diligently pointing out that the denizens of that Dáil would be turning in their graves at the sight of the nation they midwifed into existence now allowing abortion.

In other words, just like virtually every other political document or movement ever created, there was enough to keep people bickering about its true nature a hundred years later.

If it was a simple toss-up between the Catholic traditionalists and the socialist idealists, then the Catholic traditionalists won by a knockout.

We would spend much of the remaining 20th century in thrall to the Church and whether people think that was either a positive or a negative is irrelevant; any Dáil which constantly looked over its shoulder to make sure that the hierarchy was on side was never truly independent.

But the question shouldn't be about the Dáil of 1919, regardless of how many ceremonies the great and the good of this country attend this week.

The only issue which really matters is the Dáil of 2019 and where we stand as a nation today.

It's not unfair to say that we live in an era of unprecedented cynicism when it comes to politics and, in particular, politicians.

The commemorations this week seem to have unleashed an avalanche of scorn and contempt upon our current leadership, but in many ways the politicians are the least important part of the political process.

After all, they come and they go, and while it would take the patience of a saint not be enraged by the mistakes and often baffling incompetence of successive governments, the crucial element is that we get to elect those governments, for right or for wrong.

We need to cherish even that scenario, because in a globalised world such a luxury is under increasing threat. The Troika indicated that in this country a decade ago, the average Greek citizen curses the EU, and the European Commission's unprecedented intervention into Italy's domestic budget reminds us that perhaps the days of the free, independent, sovereign nation, and everything that first Dáil was supposed to represent, are numbered.

Scepticism when dealing with politicians is always the smart approach, but while we often accuse our politicians of their own brand of crass, self-serving cynicism, the voters are just as guilty.

After all, many of those complaining today about the gravy train that is Leinster House would also have voted to keep the Seanad in 2013's tight referendum, purely as a protest vote against Enda Kenny.

It's also hard to understand why so many people who understandably laud the events of the first Dáil, and that nascent struggle for self determination, remain so committed to outsourcing much of our sovereignty to the EU, which has become another European empire in everything but name - even down to land grabs on Russia's former satellite states.

We can wallow in resentment at the events we see in the Dáil, but we can also take some comfort from the fact that we even have a parliament we can complain about.

Stormont collapsed two years ago, and the men of violence are happy to fill that vacuum, as we saw in Derry over the weekend.

Yes, we know our system is massively flawed and the politicians are frequently infuriating, but it sure beats the alternative.

Ultimately, in a time of globalisation and increased EU control, we should probably ask ourselves a question which is seldom mentioned in polite company - when push comes to shove do we truly want full independence, or just a master who will treat us well?

Irish Independent

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