"The thing in one sense was futile and unreal, but in another it conveyed a very grave warning to the Irish people… folly walks abroad in the garb of patriotism and, in its tragic blindness, preaches the breaking-up of laws."
An Irish Times editorial shows that newspaper, predictably enough, was not impressed by the inaugural meeting of the First Dáil, held in Dublin’s Mansion House on 21 January 1919.
The editorial writer had a point in highlighting the unreality of proceedings: this was a parliament with no power, no administrative machinery, and no clear way of achieving its aims. But what it did have was a mandate, and that first Dáil meeting was to prove a crucial step in Ireland’s struggle for independence, giving a cloak of democratic legitimacy to the "breaking-up of laws" that would soon engulf the country.
The mandate came from Sinn Féin’s victory in the general election of the previous month. The separatist party won 73 seats (though as four candidates were elected in two constituencies, there were only 69 Sinn Féin TDs), the Irish Parliamentary Party 6, and Unionists under various labels 26 – a radical recasting of the political landscape.
In line with its election manifesto, Sinn Féin invited all those elected for Irish constituencies to the first meeting of the Dáil. Not surprisingly, the Unionists and the survivors of the Parliamentary Party declined to attend. Also missing were 34 Sinn Féin TDs who were in prison, as well as Michael Collins and Harry Boland, who were in Britain planning Éamon de Valera’s escape from Lincoln Jail.
That left just 27 TDs in attendance for what was a piece of public theatre, designed to win publicity for the Irish cause.
1916 hero Cathal Brugha, the most prominent available link with the Rising, was elected Ceann Comhairle (the following day he would be elected President pro tem of the Dáil Ministry, a position he retained until de Valera’s return). The Dáil’s first session also adopted a (fairly rudimentary) Constitution, and named de Valera, Count Plunkett and Arthur Griffith as delegates to the Peace Conference. But its most important work was the adoption of three key documents.
The Declaration of Independence married the two streams of nationalism, the revolutionary and the constitutional. After pointing out that the Irish Republic had been proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916 "by the Irish Republican Army acting on behalf of the Irish people", it went on to claim that the Irish electorate had, in the previous month’s general election, "seized the first occasion to declare by an overwhelming majority its firm allegiance to the Irish Republic".
Some might question quite how "firm" the allegiance was, and the claim to an "overwhelming majority" was an exaggeration, given that Sinn Féin had garnered only 47% of the vote on the island of Ireland (though that share would have been higher if all the seats had been contested). However, its thumping majority of seats left little doubt that Ireland had voted for an alternative to Home Rule.
The second document, the Message to the Free Nations of the World, appealed for a hearing at the Peace Conference, which had begun a few days before in Paris. The appeal for international support was based in part on President Woodrow Wilson’s high-flown rhetoric about the right to self-determination, and in part on the self-interest of nations which might be persuaded to oppose Britain. Pointing out that Ireland was "the gateway of the Atlantic", the Message said "her great harbours must be open to all nations, instead of being the monopoly of England", and claimed that Ireland was "subjected to the purposes of England’s policy of world domination".
Had the war ended in a stalemate, or British defeat, this appeal might have worked. But with Britain on the winning side, its Empire was safe, in contrast to those of the losers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey – which were in the process of disintegrating, or would be dismantled by the peace treaties. The door to the Peace Conference would be shut to Ireland, precluding a peaceful path to independence.
The final document approved on the Dáil’s first day was the Democratic Programme. This was drafted by Tom Johnson of the Labour Party. It was partly a consolation prize to Labour, which had stood aside in the general election to give Sinn Féin a free run, and partly an attempt to help Labour secure support for Irish independence from sister socialist parties in Europe.
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The first Dáil Éireann met in the Mansion House, Dublin. Seán Mac Réamoinn introduces Seán Óg Ó Ceallaigh (son of Sceilg) speaking about the first meeting of the Dáil which he attended as a child. First broadcast: The First Dáil, Jan 18th 1969.
Johnson’s draft said the Republic would aim to eliminate the capitalist class, and that property was held in trust for the people, and could be confiscated by the State without compensation if that trust was abused. This was strong stuff, and Sinn Féin TD Seán T. O’Kelly redrafted the Programme to make it more palatable to conservative opinion. But even in its amended form the Democratic Programme was more progressive than successive Irish governments would prove to be.
The Programme as adopted said that "all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare", and left unchanged Johnson’s explanation of the State’s duties to its youngest citizens: "It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland." Most members of the Dáil, then and since, simply ignored the Democratic Programme.
The inaugural meeting of the First Dáil set in train an attempt to build an alternative government in Ireland. That effort would have some successes – the raising of a loan, the Dáil courts, local government – but the Dáil’s main importance would be as a symbol, a focus of loyalty and democratic legitimacy during the War of Independence which became more intense and widespread after the Dáil was outlawed by the British and driven underground.
During that War the IRA couldn’t - and didn’t - inflict a military defeat on British forces; but it could – and did – make the price of outright victory too high for the British Government to pay. That reality forced the British to the negotiating table, which meant that some, but not all, of the high hopes of 21 January 1919 would be achieved. Some could not accept a compromise which didn’t reach the high bar set by the First Dáil. In that sense, its inaugural meeting set the scene not just for the War of Independence, but for the Civil War which followed.