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Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghail, TD on the 100th anniversary of the First Dáil

Good evening to you all. It’s a great pleasure to be here.  I will use the opportunity of this captive audience to outline some of the plans the Houses of the Oireachtas has to mark the 100th anniversary of the First Dáil  next year and to give you a broader outline of our work in Leinster House in the context of this Decade of Centenaries.

I’m delighted to be here on my first official visit to 2234 Massachusetts Avenue and thank Dan Mulhall and his team for the hospitality.  Since being elected to the office of Ceann Comhairle almost two years ago, one aspect of the job which I have particularly enjoyed has been my engagement with foreign dignatories, and with the diplomatic corps, both at home and abroad. I can honestly say that I have witnessed some of Ireland’s finest public servants serving our best interests overseas, and I commend them all for the extraordinary dedication they show in flying the flag.  Dan Mulhall was one of the first Ambassadors I met as Ceann Comhairle when I travelled to London within weeks of taking office, and the Court of St James’ loss is very much Washington’s gain.  I know Dan is still relatively new in his position here in the United States and I use this opportunity to wish him every success in the challenges ahead.  There is no one better, and our American friends are very lucky to have him.

And heaven knows we need as many dedicated public servants flying the Irish flag at present.  The turbulent waves of Brexit continue to crash around our island’s economy, even now before the divorce has even been finalised.  It is the challenge of this generation, and Ireland needs all the friends it can gather to hammer home the urgency of  a soft Brexit, if the dreaded process is to be followed through.  There is too much at stake – economically, socially, culturally, internationally – for us to leave it entirely to the UK and EU negotiators.  But this is something we may be able to discuss later this evening.

When I think of the past one hundred years of Irish history, I think of the momentous period from 1912 to 1923 where everything ‘changed, changed utterly’.  But if a terrible beauty was born, it was a beauty of our own making, and the subsequent decades after the birth of our nation moved with extraordinary speed with far-reaching outcomes, up to the present day.  We look to the past to give context to our present; similarly,  our present - and future - is shaped by the constant ebb and flow of our history.  Our history of the past century is a rich seam which we must mine to understand and explain our current position not only to ourselves, but to our future generations.  For those of you who may not have been in Ireland for some time, I can tell you that the cultural homogeny of the island has changed utterly.  We are now, perhaps, a post-Christian Ireland, though quite how to define that is something I have yet to decide on.  We are multicultural.  We have passed marriage equality and we are a more open, tolerant and - I hope – caring society.  That is reflected in our parliament, I am happy to say, though we have some way yet to go.  We have a Taoiseach whose father was from India, we have Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter represented in our two chambers, and while women and ethic minorities are still under-represented, I am hopeful that we are improving, slowly but surely.  I feel strongly that it is vital for our national parliament to represent all in our society, so that young children, on a school tour to Leinster House, can see that they are represented, their voice is listened to and heard, whatever their creed, colour or background.

The Decade of Centenaries programme, which commenced in 2012, focused initially on the many significant centenaries occurring over the period 1912–1916.

We are now in the second part of the Decade of Centenaries where we will remember a number of key events that led to the making of modern Ireland – the General Election of December 1918, the meeting of the first Dáil, an independent parliament for Ireland in January 1919, the War of Independence, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 and the foundation of the Free State in December 1922. Reflecting that commitment to parliamentary democracy, the Houses of the Oireachtas is hosting a programme of events that will highlight these historic events. This year, the Houses of the Oireachtas will mark the historic 1918 General Election which will be followed in 2019 by events commemorating the 100th anniversary meeting of the first Dáil, which met in the Mansion House on Dawson Street.

The 1918 General Election heralded a sea-change in public opinion. In that election, Sinn Féin, the nationalist party, won 73 of 105 Irish seats in the House of Commons. However, Sinn Féin had pledged not to sit in Westminster but to create an independent assembly in Ireland.  Making good on that promise, all elected Irish representatives were invited to attend a parliamentary assembly in Dublin. On 21 January 1919, the first Dáil met in the Round Room of the Mansion House. The room was crammed with onlookers and journalists, who greatly outnumbered the 27 Members who attended.

Ninety-nine years ago when that First Dail met, 34 of the 105 elected members were in jail. And the Unionist MPs declined to attend.  Indeed, in my own constituency of Kildare South or Chill Dara (theas) as it says on the official roll for that day, the TD Art Ó Conchubhair is listed as “fé ghlas ag Gallaibh”, imprisoned by the foreigner.

Those meeting in the Mansion House believed in independence, they believed in democracy and they believed they were establishing a sovereign, independent parliament.  Very importantly, they put in place an administration and a parliamentary structure which effectively marked the foundation of the state.

The Dáil then called on the free nations of the world to “support the Irish Republic by recognising Ireland's national status and her right to its vindication at the Peace Congress.” It also laid out a democratic programme, declaring the desire that Ireland be ruled “in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all, which alone can secure permanence of Government in the willing adhesion of the people.”

Linked with that creation of a Dubin-based parliament, it should be remembered that the General Election of 1918 marked the first year that Irish women were allowed to vote and run in parliamentary elections.   This year, through our Vótáil 100 – Mná san Oireachtas programme, we are commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the giving of voting rights to women.  This programme of commemorations have already begun and last week a conference was jointly organised by the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Royal Irish Academy on women’s particiation in parliament one hundred years after their right to vote.

Also of particular note in this context, 1918 saw the first woman elected to the British Parliament at Westminster. Countess de Markievicz, who represented a Dublin constituency, never took her seat at Westminster. Instead, she joined the revolutionary first Dáil, becoming the first female TD. Following the establishment of the Irish Free State, its constitution gave all citizens aged 21 and over the right to vote and become members of Dáil Éireann. Irish women achieved full voting equality six years before British women, demonstrating the commitment of the newly independent State to liberty, equality, and justice for all.  Our celebration will focus on the achievement of the Countess, whose status sits on the main forecourt of Leinster House casting a watchful eye on her successors, and we will also be associated with a major exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland looking at her legacy.  I will travel to the Palace of Westminster at the end of this month as a guest of the House of Commons Speaker to present to him a replica of the portrait of the Contess owned by the parliament to mark this important woman’s role in both Irish and British history. 

Leinster House has many good neighbours: the National Library, the National Gallery, the Royal Irish Academy, and the National Museum, this last institution generously allowed us use one for their fine rooms to temporarily house the Seanad chamber during the current refurbishment project underway in the parliament.  I am conscious that we haven’t been as neighbourly as we could have been with those cultural institutions. One of my initiatives has been to invite in our friends from those cultural institutions to discuss closer coooperation, and I am pleased that many of the upcoming commemorations involve those neighbours and friends.  As Ceann Comhairle, I have found that the simple act of extending a hand of friendship is all that it takes to set in motion a process that benefits the parliament and as well the recipient of that intiail gesture of comraderie. 

As an example, and in the context of a troubled politics of our island, I was pleased, honoured and delighted to accept a gracious invitation from the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, as well as representatives of the Irish branch of the British Legion, to attend the annual Poppy Day service in that magnificent city centre venue.  Talking to other guests during my two visits there since taking office, it is clear that they are deeply grateful that I, as chair of the parliament, attend to show solidarity and respect for that tradition in Ireland.  For my own part, I am delighted to attend and think it only right and proper to do so.  It is seemingly small gestures of faith and trust such as this which pay rich dividends, break down invisible, psychological barriers, and allow for fruitful dialogue and an honest reassessment of the role and treatment of some of our citizens who may have been forgotten or sidelined for many years since independece. 

Similarly, I have been involved in ongoing engagement with leaders of the religious and faith communities, seeking their views and advice on how Parliament can interact and work with them to our mutual benefit.  To my mind, this is all part of what a parliament should be doing – acknowledging our part, including our past failure, engaging proactively with the public and our neighbours to make our parliament work better and more effectively for the benefit of us all.  That, to me, is an important part of this commemoration project.

As I said, those ten years in the early part of the 20th Century were a period of profound and dramatic change worldwide, but particularly in Ireland. That decade forged who we are today. The experiences of all people, not just the politicians and the leaders, but also the trade unionists, the suffragettes, the artists and the ordinary people, were the bedrock of modern Ireland. They led the way and we have followed. We owe it to them that we remember, commemorate and celebrate their lives, struggles and achievements in a respectful and inclusive way.

Our society has changed immensely since the foundation of the State and our parliament has changed to reflect those developments. But the fundamentals remain the same and we, as politicians in whom the people place their trust – just as the electorate in 1918 placed their trust in politicians who swore allegiance to a new, independent Irish parliament – we must continue to work to uphold our democratic principles. Across Europe and elsewhere, I worry about a possible erosion of the central parliamentary tenets of decency, honestry and fair play.  Intolerance and injustice is on the rise, and I, as Ceann Comhairle, will strive to emphasise the role of parliamentary democracy is respecting difference and honouring the rich, interwoven tapestry that is modern Irish society.  We must always remind ourselves that a healthy political system and ahealthy civil society do not just happen:  They must be established, nurtured, upheld and sustained. That is our job.

In the words of John F Kennedy: “Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.”

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