The first meeting of Dáil Éireann on 21 January 1919 was a highly symbolic act. The twenty-seven available abstentionist MPs who attended the meeting in Dublin’s Mansion House were engaged in an act which made a multi-faceted statement to the people of Ireland (north and south), of Britain, and of the world. Those Sinn Féin MPs not attending were either imprisoned, deported or otherwise incapacitated. Also absent were the six remaining Irish Parliamentary Party MPs and the twenty-six elected Unionists – all of whom continued to take their seats at Westminster.
The symbolism of this first meeting is easily understood in terms of the challenge made to Britain and the stated intention of those who ran on an abstentionist platform at the 1918 general election to declare ‘the inalienable right of the Irish Nation to sovereign independence’. This was a gathering of individuals who were committed to ‘stand by the Proclamation of the Provisional Government of Easter, 1916.’ It was a long way from attempting to ensure the implementation of home rule or secure greater concessions from Britain.
It is worth delving into the proceedings of the meeting to consider what the intentions of the assembly were. The Dáil, of course, went on to provide the framework for the development of an alternative government and administration in Ireland. A constitution was adopted, which mainly dealt with the legislative powers of the Dáil and the composition of an executive (cabinet) headed by a Príomh Aire, or President. This structure was largely modelled on the British parliamentary system rather than the republican form of government invoked by the term ‘president’. A judicial arm in the form of arbitration courts, later known as Dáil courts, was subsequently instituted.
The remainder of the proceedings dealt with matters concerning sovereignty and an attempt to outline a social and economic programme for an independent Ireland. Three documents were adopted in support of this. First, the ‘Declaration of Independence’ closely followed the Sinn Féin election manifesto and reasserted the Republic proclaimed in 1916. Significantly, the document refers to the ‘Irish electorate’ and a majority confirming its allegiance to the Republic. The Declaration would be made ‘effective by every means at our command’. This latter passage gives rise to debate about the legitimacy of the IRA’s armed actions, both in pursuit of the Republic during the War of Independence and in support of republican aims up to the present day. The actions of a group of Irish Volunteers at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary on the same day as the first sitting of the Dáil was a sign of what was to come, but that particular ambush and killing of two RIC men was not actually sanctioned by the Dáil. The theme uniting the three documents adopted was the clear messaging to the outside world through appeals for international recognition. The Declaration of Independence noted that ‘We claim for our national independence the recognition and support of every free nation in the world, and we proclaim that independence to be a condition precedent to international peace thereafter’.
The second document, ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’, was specifically directed at the delegates to the Paris Peace Conference, hence its adoption in English, Irish and French. The importance of the document in January 1919 cannot be overstated. The Sinn Féin strategy at this time was largely centred on having the Irish case heard at Paris, and ensuring that the Irish Republic was recognised by the world powers, thereby placing unprecedented pressure on Britain. By the autumn of 1919 it was abundantly clear that the strategy was not on a successful course and increasing emphasis was placed on passive resistance through the formation and operation of the republican counter-state.
The third adopted document, the ‘Democratic Programme’ stimulates more debate and controversy today than it did in 1919. It is often forwarded as the accepted social and economic programme of the First Dáil. The Democratic Programme was progressive, yet was very much of its time. The ideas espoused were in vogue and inspired by the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the various people’s uprisings across Europe in the immediate post-war period. The Programme was drafted by Tom Johnson, William O’Brien, and Cathal O’Shannon, all members of the Irish Labour movement that demurred from fielding candidates in the 1918 general election. Sinn Féin’s Seán T O’Kelly took the initiative to redraft it and tone down some of the more radical pronouncements of the socialists before it was placed before the Dáil, but it retained a progressive core that allows continued discussion of its merits today. Rights to private property, for example, were to be ‘subordinated to the public right and welfare’. ‘Every citizen’ was to have the right to ‘an adequate share of the Nation’s labour’, and ‘no child’ was to be allowed to ‘suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter…’
The ease with which these aspirations can be compared with the performance of past and present Irish governments mean that the Democratic Programme continues to be used as a tool for political argument, particularly by left-wing and republican political activists and their supporters. However, a reassessment of the document’s original purpose perhaps makes much of this debate irrelevant. Some historians have argued, for instance, that the Democratic Programme was simply another device to strengthen the Irish case at the Paris Peace Conference. An international socialist conference was due to take place in Berne, Switzerland, within weeks and there was an assumption that the proceedings could have had a forceful impact on the post-war peace negotiations. Emmet O’Connor has gone further and suggested that the Democratic Programme was never intended to be implemented, neither by Sinn Féin nor the original Labour draftees. Certainly, the narrative that the acceptance of the document by the First Dáil was an expression of gratitude to Labour for withdrawing from the 1918 election is very wide of the mark. It has been well established that Labour withdrew from the election on its own terms, rather than in pursuit of some grand patriotic gesture. This goes some way towards explaining the lack of concern expressed by socialists and other progressives at the non-implementation of the Democratic Programme, and perhaps places question marks over the value of using it as a revolutionary betrayal gauge.
As we look back on the first meeting of Dáil Éireann after 100 years there will be much debate about what it did and did not achieve, how it rightly or wrongly legitimised the armed actions of the Irish Volunteers/IRA, and whether or not it was a good idea to abstain from Westminster and form a revolutionary Irish parliament at all. For instance, it was argued by the writer of an opinion piece in the Irish Times this month that all Irish MPs would have served Ireland better by lobbying against partition after taking their seats at Westminster. It is not a new argument, and there is merit in exploring it further, but one must not lose sight of the democratic mandate for abstention and separation held by Sinn Féin. One might quibble over the inequities of the first past the post voting system or point to uncontested seats, but when all is said and done, Sinn Féin achieved a significant majority in what was the general election with the largest and most representative electorate until that point.
What about the north? This is a big question, too big to address adequately here. However, it is worth noting the lack of reference to the formidable Unionist power bloc in the north east. Granted, the Sinn Féin strategy was to bypass the Unionists by courting international favour, but the lack of acknowledgement is still quite striking. It also set the tone for this and subsequent Dáilaí to relegate the problems of the north down the priority list. While it should also be noted that Unionism was not exactly open to compromise, the first meeting of the Dáil is a reminder that the attention to detail necessary for a considered strategy to avert partition was not forthcoming from Sinn Féin.
The centenary of the first sitting of Dáil Éireann marks one of the most notable events in Irish history. The gathering of twenty-seven men (Constance Markievicz was in prison) in the Mansion House clearly sent the message to the world that the Irish people had moved on from the slow drive campaign for limited self-government to a demand for full control of the country’s political future. Despite the multi-layered complexities and unfulfilled promise of this period the fact remains that 21 January 1919 was one of the most significant dates in Irish history and propelled the country headlong into a great confrontation with Britain.