The First Dáil, 21st of January 1919
Blog18 January 2019
The results of the General Election of December 1918, which were declared on the 28th of the month, two weeks after polling day, produced a landslide for Sinn Féin, which won 73 seats and virtually wiped out the Irish Parliamentary Party, a party that had dominated Irish politics for decades.
Sinn Féin's election manifesto had contained a commitment to refusing to take up seats at Westminster and to setting up a constituent assembly in Dublin. This stance was in line with the party's policy going back to its establishment by Arthur Griffith in the early years of the century when it aspired for Ireland to emulate Hungary which had prized a form of independence from Austria under the dual monarchy set up in 1867. Of course, by 1918 Sinn Féin was a much larger and more ambitious Party, having inherited the precious mantle of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Thus those elected in December were invited to attend a meeting of the First Dáil on the 21st of January in Dublin's Mansion House, the official residence of the city's Lord Mayor. Just 27 of the party's 73 Dáil Deputies, as those elected were to be called, were in a position to attend. The remainder were either in prison or otherwise unavailable. Unionists and Irish Party members were invited to participate but declined to do so.
On the day, there was great excitement among participants and the spectators who numbered around 2,000. About 50 journalists turned up to cover the event, some of them from overseas.
The British authorities kept a close watch on proceedings, but wisely decided not to try to prevent the gathering from taking place. It would be September before the Dáil was proscribed after which it was forced to meet in secret.
The proceedings, which were described by The Times correspondent as prosaic, orderly and dignified, were conducted almost exclusively in the Irish language with Cathal Brugha as Speaker. Four documents were adopted: a constitution for the new Dáil (rather than one for the fledgling state); a Declaration of Independence; a Democratic Programme; and a Message to the Free Nations of the World.
An Executive was established with a President (Brugha assumed this role on a temporary basis; Eamon de Valera replaced him some months later having escaped from Lincoln Jail) and four Ministers, responsible for Finance, Defence, Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs.
Ireland's Declaration of Independence does not have anything like the profile or renown of its American equivalent. This is because the Proclamation of the Irish Republic issued by the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 occupies the premier place in the historical imagination of modern Ireland. The Proclamation has stood the test of time and was a centrepiece of the Rising's centenary commemoration in 2016 when a copy was delivered to every school in Ireland.
By contrast, Ireland's Declaration of Independence has always had a low profile. Like the other documents adopted by the First Dáil, the Declaration was drafted by a committee under the chairmanship of Seán T. O'Kelly, who later became a leading Government Minister and Ireland's second President (1945-1959).
The Declaration is best seen perhaps as a reiteration of the 1916 Proclamation. The difference between the two documents is the context in which they were issued. When it occurred, the Easter Rising expressed the will of a relatively small minority of Irish nationalists, whereas in January 1919 the members of the First Dáil had the wind in their sails in the wake of that decisive election result a month before. The quest for some form of independence now had the undoubted support of a majority of the Irish electorate.
The Declaration lacks the literary quality of the 1916 Proclamation which had contained input from three talented writers, Pearse, MacDonagh and Connolly. It covers similar ground to its predecessor, declaring the Irish people to be "by right a free people" who had "never ceased to repudiate" foreign rule which had been based on "force and fraud."
There was more than a nod to the contemporary international situation for the Versailles Peace Conference had begun just three days earlier. Thus it states that "at the threshold of a new era in history" the Irish electorate had "seized the first occasion to declare by an overwhelming majority its firm allegiance to the Irish Republic." The Declaration went on to "ratify" the Republic established in 1916 and to describe "foreign government" in Ireland as "an invasion of our national right which we will never tolerate."
As elected representatives of the Irish people, the First Dáil claimed for itself the sole power "to make laws binding in the people of Ireland." They insisted that "the Irish Parliament is the only Parliament to which that people will give its allegiance."
The Democratic Programme was a strikingly radical document, echoing the kind of socio-economic concerns that had motivated 1916 leader James Connolly. It declared that the nation's sovereignty extends "to all its material possessions, the Nation's soil and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation". It insisted that the right to private property "must be subordinated to the public right and welfare" and promised every citizen the right "to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation's labour."
It is difficult to know what to make of these commitments, whether they were anything more than rhetorical window dressing and a nod to the Irish Labour movement that had stood aside at election time thus helping to magnify Sinn Féin's electoral triumph. The gap between the radicalism of the Democratic programme and the subsequent conservatism of the independent Ireland that came into being in the 1920s has often come in for comment and criticism.
The final document endorsed on that January day in Dublin was an Address to the Free Nation's of the World which Irish diplomats have for the past 100 years regarded as the founding articulation of Ireland's independent foreign policy. It calls on every free nation to recognise "Ireland's national status and her right to its vindication at the Peace Congress."
The Declaration is infused with Wilsonian principles of self-determination, the notion that Government must be based on "the free will of a free people." The Dáil duly sent delegates to Paris but they failed to get the recognition they craved at the Versailles Conference.
There was to be no yearning after an enhanced Irish slice of the Imperial pie. The address struck a firmly anti-Imperial note: "the permanent peace of Europe can never be secured by perpetuating military dominion for the profit of Empire."
What happened in Dublin on the 21st of January 1919 has been overshadowed in Irish history by the coincidence that on the same day in Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary two policemen were killed in an ambush that is generally seen as marking the start of what we call our war of independence which lasted until July 1921. That chequered period in Irish history is one I plan to write about in the coming months.
But back to the inaugural meeting of the First Dáil, what strikes me about it is the ambition behind the various documents that emerged that day. This was not a gathering of careful, hesitant politicians. They were agents of change who set out bold ambitions and were buoyed by what they interpreted as a clear mandate from the Irish people. They were also conscious of the inheritance of the Easter Rising. There could be now no turning back, even if the final destination, and when and how it would be arrived at, remained uncertain.
The First Dáil ushered in what has turned out to be an unbroken century of parliamentary democracy in Ireland, which was no small feat against the backdrop of a troubled, turbulent 20th century and of the violent upheavals of Ireland's war of independence and ensuing civil war.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States