The First Dáil Éireann: Challenges and Obstacles

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Ireland’s newly elected government deputies met for the first time on 21st January 1919. Nowadays, complaining about our elected officials (often with good cause) makes for a great armchair sport, but a hundred years ago things were very different in Ireland. The trailblazers of the 1918 election established an entirely new Irish government, but in doing so they faced some unique challenges.

Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland) is the name given to Ireland’s parliament. The first Dáil Éireann was a meeting of Ireland’s elected representatives who refused to take their seats in the British House of Commons, deciding instead to establish an Irish government at home.

Why was it important?

At the time, the British government’s intention was to introduce Home Rule in Ireland. Under this arrangement, Ireland would control local affairs, but remain part of the British Empire. Control over foreign affairs and defence would rest with the British Government.

The first Dáil pushed the agenda for an independent Irish government rather than a Home Rule scenario. It highlighted Ireland’s cause internationally (especially in the US) and underlined the need for Britain to reach agreement with Ireland. The first Dáil members also gained valuable experience in the administration of government.

Background

During 1918, the British Government were pursuing the idea of Home Rule for Ireland. They were supported in this by the Irish Parliamentary Party who held eighty seats in the British House of Commons. But the British made a move which consolidated public support for an independent government in Ireland. In April 1918, under pressure from US President Wilson, the House of Commons passed the Military Service Bill to allow for conscription in Ireland.

All shades of Irish nationalism were united in opposition to conscription for Ireland. Even the Irish Parliamentary Party, supporters of Home Rule since 1874, withdrew from the British House of Commons in protest. An anti-conscription campaign was organised, and a pledge to oppose conscription was signed at churches across the country.

The campaign was a huge success. Throughout the summer of 1918 the British government hesitated to enforce conscription, or indeed Home Rule, due to the general climate of unrest in Ireland. The end of World War I in November ended the threat of conscription.

With the end of the war, the British Government called an election. The political landscape had changed completely. Women had the vote for the first time. The Irish Parliamentary Party, advocates for Home Rule, were in decline. Sinn Féin, who were largely credited with the success of the anti-conscription campaign, declared that if elected they would establish a government in Ireland.

Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 Irish seats in the election (a big jump from the seven seats they previously held). The Irish Parliamentary Party won just six seats. It was a clear mandate by the Irish people for an independent government.

The aftermath of World War I saw a growth in the idea of self-determination by small nation states. This idea was supported by Wilson in the Paris Peace Conference. With new nations springing up in Europe, the international context for the establishment of an Irish government seemed ripe. Especially as Home Rule took a back seat while British Prime Minister Lloyd George was occupied by the Paris peace talks during the first six months of 1919.

The First Dáil Meeting

The British establishment initially saw the idea of Irish politicians establishing an Irish government as a joke, especially as many of the newly elected Irish representatives were exiled or imprisoned. Nevertheless, Sinn Féin decided to make their move before the British House of Commons met on 4th February 1919. They also wanted to capitalise on the Paris Peace Conference by sending a representative of the new Irish government to put Ireland’s case to the nations of the world.

So, the day was set: 21st January 1919. Only 28 of the 73 elected Sinn Féin representatives were able to attend (the rest being exiled or imprisoned) and they were greatly outnumbered by spectators. There was a significant showing of journalists, British and international as well as Irish.

Proceedings on the day were later described as “dull, but…. electric.” Spectators were requested not to cheer. Cathal Brugha made the opening address, first in Irish and then in English. A brief constitution was read out. Next the Declaration of Independence was read in Irish, French and English. This ratified the establishment of the Irish Republic as proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916.

The Message to the Free Nations of the World appealed for international support for Ireland’s status amid the post-war world order:

“Ireland to-day reasserts her historic nationhood the more confidently before the new world emerging from the War, because she believes in freedom and justice as the fundamental principles of international law, because she believes in a frank co-operation between the peoples for equal rights against the vested privileges of ancient tyrannies, because the permanent peace of Europe can never be secured by perpetuating military dominion for the profit of empire but only by establishing the control of government in every land upon the basis of the free will of a free people.”

A Democratic Programme was the last order of business. This was a hastily put-together document advocating socialist principles for the new state. The government’s duty to protect the welfare of its children, the need to replace the Poor Law System with a more sympathetic scheme, and the need to promote and develop national resources were just a few of these principles. You can access the official records of the day’s proceedings here.

The Dáil initially established four Ministries. These were Finance (Eoin McNeill), Home Affairs (Michael Collins), Foreign Affairs (Count Plunkett) and National Defence (Richard Mulcahy). In April 1919 the number of Ministries was extended to eleven. These were:

  • Home Affairs – Arthur Griffith
  • Defence – Cathal Brugha
  • Foreign Affairs – Count Plunkett
  • Labour – Countess Markievicz
  • Industries – Eoin MacNeill
  • Finance – Michael Collins
  • Local Government – William T. Cosgrave
  • Trade & Commerce – Ernest Blythe
  • Irish Language – Sean O’Ceallaigh
  • Propaganda – Laurence Ginnell
  • Agriculture – Robert C. Barton
  • Trade & Commerce – Ernest Blythe
  • Fisheries – Seán Etchingham

Challenges

The establishment of the new Irish government did not take place in a vacuum. On the day the Dáil met for the first time, two policemen were shot dead in County Tipperary  in an ambush carried out by IRA members – this marked the beginning of the War of Independence. The first Dáil deputies were not only upholding their country’s right to self-determination: they were also fighting a bitter guerrilla war with the British authorities.

Many Dáil deputies were deeply involved in the War of Independence. Michael Collins became one of the British Government’s most wanted men and was famous for dodging the authorities as he cycled around Dublin.

Collins had an enormous capacity to get things done. He set up two underground newspapers, built an intelligence network, organised the smuggling of arms into the country and in February 1919 he was involved in Eamon de Valera’s escape from prison. And all that was separate to his official government duties as Minister for Finance.

Raising money became problematic. The British authorities were investigating undercover bank accounts. Also, funds raised in the US could not be drawn down due to the Irish Republic’s lack of legal status. But funds were secured nevertheless. So successful was Michael Collins in raising money that Arthur Griffith later said it was “one of the most extraordinary feats in the country’s history.”

Michael Collins holding a bicycle

Michael Collins dodged the authorities on his bicycle

In September 1919, the British government outlawed the Dáil and Sinn Féin. Government officials now had to operate in secret. This obstacle was overcome thanks to a network of messengers and supporters. One man, known as ‘the walking bank’ carried thousands of pounds in Dáil salaries with him as he walked Dublin’s streets. Arthur Griffith, acting Dáil President in Eamon de Valera’s absence, could usually be found conducting business in a Dublin pub. Ministries were run from rooms all over the city, rented using fake names.

At the height of its activities, the Dáil employed 300 people – impressive for an underground administration. It even established courts of law towards the end of 1919. These were intended to fill a void in parts of the countryside where local police stations had been burned out.

The courts became very successful, hearing cases of petty thefts, sheep rustling and desertion by husbands of their wives. A network of judges, clerks and registrars operated the new judicial system. There was even a high court and a supreme court.

Establishing a relationship between the new government and its army had its own challenges. Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence and Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army, wanted the armed forces to swear an oath of allegiance to the Dáil. However, it took some months to arrive at an acceptable formula for the oath, and there were further delays in implementing it .

The hoped-for recognition from the nations of the world was slow in coming. Sean T. O’Kelly traveled to the Paris peace talks, but he had difficulty gaining access to the major players. US President Wilson didn’t acknowledge any of  his many letters. O’Kelly became disillusioned, confiding in a journalist that “all colours and races may be heard before the Conference, except the Irish.”  Despite this, there was strong support for the Irish cause among the Irish-American community.

Differences in opinion represented another challenge. For instance, Arthur Griffith was a strong advocate for self-determination in Ireland by peaceful means while others took a more hardline view that violence was necessary. De Valera’s decision to travel to the US to seek financial and political support was opposed by his cabinet colleagues. They wanted him to remain in Ireland as President of the Dáil and leader of the cause, but he traveled nonetheless and was away for over a year.

The End of the First Dáil

The First Dáil held its last meeting on 10th May 1921. The previous year, the British Government had passed the Government of Ireland Act, which provided for two separate sets of Home Rule institutions in Ireland: one for Northern Ireland and the other covering the remainder of the country. This act allowed for two separate elections to take place on 24th May 1921.

Sinn Féin won 124 of the 128 seats allocated to the Southern parliament. This was treated as the election of the Second Dáil which sat for the first time on 16th August 1921.

The War of Independence carried on through 1919 and 1920, intensifying all the time. By the summer of 1921, the Irish Republican Army was very short of ammunition and weapons and many fighters had been imprisoned. British forces claimed they were on the verge of defeating the Irish, but there was no immediate end in sight.

In July 1921, British and Irish Republican forces negotiated a truce so that talks on a political settlement could begin. Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Eamon Duggan, George Gavin Duffy and Robert Barton traveled to London to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The treaty was bitterly divisive in Ireland, causing Sinn Féin to split into two factions, one in support and the other against. Civil war ensued. The opposing factions eventually morphed into Ireland’s two largest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But that’s another story.

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