Analysis: the key takeaways from the first public meeting of Dáil Éireann 100 years ago today

Today, Ireland marks the centenary of the first public meeting of Dáil Éireann. In hindsight, the gathering in Dublin’s Mansion House in January 1919 was a momentous occasion because it laid the constitutional foundations of the future Irish state.

Sinn Féin’s sweeping victory in the December 1918 general election was predicated on three policy commitments: to achieve an Irish republic, to abstain from parliament at Westminster in favour of a national assembly and to appeal to the international peace conference at Versailles to have Ireland’s claims of statehood recognised. These lofty ambitions were ridiculed by the press as fantasy. Sinn Féin was undeterred. It sought to undermine the British administration in Ireland through the creation of a rival government and an appeal to world opinion.

From RTÉ News, Sandra Collins of the National Library of Ireland looks at how newspapers reported the first Dáil

Confident of success at the polls, the standing committee of Sinn Féin decided "to convoke the Dáil Éireann" on December 19th, nine days before the election result was officially announced. Prompt action was necessary because Woodrow Wilson, the US president, had arrived in Europe in mid-December ahead of the Versailles peace conference. The Sinn Féin executive instructed Robert Barton, Michael Collins, George Gavan Duffy and Seán T. O’Kelly to proceed to London to get in touch with the president. Predictably, this fanciful scheme was in vain. By contrast, arrangements for a national assembly were pragmatic and far more fruitful. The term Dáil Éireann had been used by Sinn Féin at its 1918 ard fheis and derived from the name of a council of elders in Gaelic Ireland.

Arguably, the very first meeting of the Dáil took place in the Mansion House on January 7th, 1919. Chaired by Count Plunkett, this was a private session attended by 29 of the 35 Sinn Féin TDs not in jail. 13 of those present became ministers and four of the five signatories of the future Anglo-Irish Treaty were present. Arthur Mitchell has characterised the freshly elected TDs as young (with an average age of 40), lower middle class and predominantly urban (i.e. Dublin-based). The deputies signed the roll and a pledge in Irish (with an English translation) to abstain from Westminster, "to work for the establishment of an Independent Irish Republic" and "nothing less than complete separation from England".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Conor Mulvagh, lecturer in Irish history at UCD, on the first meeting of Dáil Éireann 

A motion declared Dáil Éireann constituted and established. The meeting appointed select committees to draw up standing orders for the house and a constitution, to draft a declaration of independence and to produce a message to the free nations of the world. They set to work immediately. It was decided that all persons elected for Irish constituencies at the general election would be invited to attend the public assembly of Dáil Éireann. The appointment of substitute members to replace those in prison was mooted but ultimately not pursued.

Strikingly, the parliamentary procedures adopted by the rebel parliament in Dublin adhered closely to established practice at Westminster. The standing orders largely followed the British pattern with, for example, written orders governing parliamentary sessions, daily question time, and precedence of ministerial business. An amendment in April in the name of Éamon de Valera and Countess Markievicz ensured that deputies would be referred to by the names of their constituencies, just like the House of Commons. In addition, the constitution enshrined the Westminster model of cabinet government and ministerial responsibility to parliament. Subsequent efforts by some disgruntled TDs to introduce an American style committee system were resisted.

From RTÉ Archives, the 50th anniversary of the first Dáil meeting is marked at the Mansion House in January 1969

Even after the Dáil was suppressed in September 1919 and went on the run, the doctrine of executive responsibility to parliament was maintained with ministers making periodic reports as their circumstances permitted. The constitution was largely drafted by George Gavan Duffy, who came to prominence as solicitor for Roger Casement in 1916. In five short articles, it laid down a provisional scheme of government and not just a framework for the Dáil. There was one significant innovation. Unlike the British constitution the Irish constitution was a written one.

Further preparatory meetings took place on January 14th and 17th at which final drafts of the standing orders, constitution, declaration of independence and message to the free nations of the world were adopted. Irish translations of the documents were also prepared. The declaration echoed the 1916 proclamation in protesting the injustice of foreign rule "maintained by military occupation against the declared will of the people". It declared "a new era in history" following the Irish electorate’s endorsement of the Irish Republic at the general election and ordained that "elected Representatives of the Irish people alone have power to make laws binding on the people of Ireland, and that the Irish Parliament is the only Parliament to which that people will give its allegiance".

From RTÉ Documentary On One archives, The First Dáil examines the origins, establishment and achievements of the first parliament. Originally broadcast January 1969

The document also called for international recognition of Irish independence. This was made more explicit in the message to the free nations to uphold Ireland’s "national claim to complete independence as an Irish Republic against the arrogant pretensions of England". In the event, Irish claims were not entertained at the peace conference.

The "Democratic Programme", a statement of social and economic principles, has often been either misunderstood as suggesting the radical intentions of the first Dáil, or regarded as recompense for Labour for abstaining from the general election. Seán T. O’Kelly recalled working until the early hours of January 21 to finalise a draft initially prepared by Thomas Johnson of the Labour Party. The true purpose of the Democratic Programme was to have the Irish labour movement recognised at the International Socialist Conference in Berne in February 1919. In return, this aspirational document might elicit international support for Sinn Féin’s claim to representation at Versailles.

Ó RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. An Chéad Dáil 1919, clár fáisnéise faoin chéad seisiún de Dháil Eireann 

The Mansion House and Dawson Street were bustling on the day of the first public meeting. Some 400 members of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who had been prisoners of war in Germany, were treated to a celebratory dinner in the Mansion House. There was good humoured banter as they trooped out and Sinn Féin supporters and over 60 journalists filed into the Round Room unsure of what to expect. The timing was significant coming three days after the beginning of the peace conference and two weeks before the new parliament at Westminster was due to assemble on February 4th. The authorities watched on, but did not intervene other than imposing press censorship.

The first public meeting of the Dáil – the apogee of Sinn Féin’s policy – was carefully stage-managed. At 3.30pm, 24 deputies of the new assembly entered. Cathal Brugha was appointed ceann comhairle and reminded those present that this was the most important work in Irish history. Father Michael O’Flanagan, vice-president of Sinn Féin, then read a prayer to open the session. The roll of all elected representatives was called in alphabetical order by constituency. The usher replied "níl sé i láthair" for those of other parties (the Ulster Unionists and Irish Parliamentary naturally declined their invitations), "níl sé i láthair – fé glas an gallaib"(for those in jail) and "ar díbirt ag gallaib" (for those exiled from Ireland).

From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Myles Dungan and guests discuss the first meeting of Dáil Éireann and assess the significance of the Soloheadbeg ambush 

The proceedings, conducted in Irish, were solemn and formal. The constitution was the first document presented and was read in Irish alone. By contrast, the declaration of independence and the message to the free nations were read in Irish, French and English, and the democratic programme in Irish and English. Each document was proposed and seconded. A delegation to the peace conference was appointed comprising Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett and Arthur Griffith. At 5.20pm, the house adjourned.

That evening, a reception and dinner were held in the Oak Room in honour of the visiting journalists who were treated to clear soup, roast beef, and apple tart and custard. And so began the careful cultivation of the press at which Sinn Féin excelled during the War of Independence.  The following day, the Dáil assembled in private session. Standing orders were approved, a secretariat and ceann comhairle (Seán T. O’Kelly) were appointed.

A 1969 RTÉ Guide marking the 50th anniversary of the meeting of the first Dáil

However, the most important business was the election of a cabinet. In the absence of the imprisoned de Valera and Griffith, Brugha was elected acting president (príomh-aire); he resigned in favour of de Valera on April 1st. Four ministers were appointed: Eoin MacNeill to finance, Michael Collins to home affairs, Count Plunkett to foreign affairs and Richard Mulcahy to national defence. The assembly then adjourned and did not reconvene until April.

The first public meeting of the Dáil is significant for four reasons. First, it demonstrated an acceptance of the ballot box as a source of representative authority. Second, the founders of the national parliament were constitutionalists and the model adopted by them has remained the basis of Irish parliamentary government.

Sinn Fein members of first Dáil pose for photos outside the Mansion House in Dublin in January 1919. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Third, the meeting was in itself revolutionary. Irish resistance would take the form of a rival democratically elected government. Despite enormous difficulties, during the War of Independence the Dáil established a functioning counter-state to its British rival and gained a wide measure of effective authority.

READ: How should Ireland remember Soloheadbeg?

By chance, on the same day as the historic events at the Mansion House, Constable Patrick O’Connell from County Cork and Constable James McDonnell from County Mayo were killed at Soloheadbeg during an ambush by Irish Volunteers. Sinn Féin was not formally in favour of violent revolution and the Dáil did not take responsibility for the military campaign until April 1921. Lastly, the Dáil provided the authority and the personnel to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ