~ The First Dail 1919 ~
First Dail 1919 - 90th Anniversary Speech
Tuesday 20 January 2009
Speech by Enda Kenny TD, Leader of Fine Gael, at the special Dáil sitting to mark the 90th Anniversary of the First Dáil
Four score and ten years ago, on the 21st of January, the men and women of the 1st Dáil met here in this room. Their meeting sent out a message of independence, of courage and of hope to the peoples of the world. That message has been repeated by many leaders in many lands in the intervening decades. It will be repeated again today in another place by another young man carrying in his genetic make-up part of what makes our Irishness unique.
The first Dail's meeting here marked a revolution: a revolution in Ireland's relationship with Britain; a revolution in the history of Irish democracy, but, most of all, a revolution in how we saw ourselves as a nation. The first revolution in an era of revolutions throughout Europe.
Its membership read like a 'who's who' of the people who framed the twentieth century in Ireland - de Valera, Cosgrave, Mulcahy, O'Kelly and Collins, among many others. It also included the first woman elected in Ireland, Countess Markievicz.
I am moved by the spirit of those who preceded us in this place, particularly by those elected to that 1st Dáil who later became the leaders of the Cumann na nGaedheal Party and later Fine Gael over which I now preside as Leader.
The most striking characteristics of the First Dáil were its simplicity and its austerity. There was no fanfare, no pomp or ceremony, just a short prayer in Irish read by Fr Michael O'Flanagan and then the roll call of members. The majority of the 103 members returned in the 1918 election were not present - some by choice, others through force of circumstance, their absences recorded in the recurring phrase of that day 'faoi ghlas ag Gallaibh'.
Those who scoffed at this new Body - and there were many - totally underestimated the seriousness of purpose, the utter determination of this new emerging generation of Irish politicians. It was easy to be sceptical. The new assembly had no legal standing or international recognition, no building of its own, no government apparatus to direct or carry out its wishes. Its very calling said the Irish Times was 'a solemn act of defiance of the British Empire by a body of young men who have not the slightest notion of that Empire's power and resources, and not a particle of experience on the conduct of public affairs'.
And yet, in spite of its shadowy existence, in spite of the constant raids and harassment, and in spite of not having any real power or resources, this Dáil did establish the authentic credentials of modern Irish democracy. It was a clear signal that once the military campaign was over the people's parliament would be supreme.
But it was more than just symbolic. The new Dáil laid down the principles and guidelines on which an independent Irish parliament would evolve. And at the heart of these principles was the central role of a sovereign Dáil. It also gave us many of our rules and procedures which have persisted to this day. And crucially it insisted on full total accountability by Government to the Dáil - accountability as to how the people's money was spent and answerability for all the actions of government.
It would be good to recount that this principle of Dáil supremacy found its way into the life of the new State. Sadly it did not. It may have been the Civil War which created an atmosphere of mistrust among former colleagues; it may have been a too rigid system of party discipline; it may have been the diffidence of the Dáil itself, but for whatever reason subsequent years saw an inexorable strengthening of the position of the government over that of the Dáil, and saw the Dáil itself - except maybe in times of crisis - give up so many of the powers and functions - and indeed responsibilities - that should have rightly been its own.
We celebrate this anniversary at a time in the life of our country which is as unhappy and dangerous as any we have known. But if one thing is clear at this time it is that we need a Dáil as envisaged by the men and women of 1919 - a Dáil which is at the centre of our politics, not one at the periphery of events, a Dáil to which the government and all its agencies are openly accountable and most of all a Dáil which leads events rather than reacting to them.
But there are other things to reflect on today. There is for example the debt our democracy owes to those who were not present 90 years ago today - the old Irish party, the party of Parnell, Redmond and Dillon. It is easy to forget the enormous part they played in the shaping of Irish parliamentary democracy. For 40 years it was the voice of nationalist Ireland and for 40 years its goal was an independent Irish parliament. For all of this it got little thanks. The great Sean MacEoin, the 'Blacksmith of Ballinalee', expressed it well in 1938: "the old Sinn Fein members should apologise to the members of the old Irish Party...we blackguarded them up and down the country because we were not aware of the facts."
Sean MacEoin's words were not universally welcome in 1938, but today, and especially those of us in the two bigger parties who stem from old Sinn Fein should echo the words of Sean MacEoin and acknowledge on this very special day the contribution of the Irish Party to the establishment of our strong and durable parliamentary democracy.
We should remember too that just a few short years after the meeting of the First Dáil our country was split by Civil War - an experience that disfigured our politics for years to come. Those years of bitterness and sterility should remind us that while our politics should be tough and searching, and maybe rough at times, we should never forget the role of parliament as a unifying force in times of national difficulty and a source of leadership and solidarity rather than divisiveness.
But the most important memory today should be a positive one. The memory of the men and women who made the first Dáil possible. They were, it has been said 'politicians by accident', but by any standards they were an exceptional generation, rising to the challenges of independent statehood, establishing and sustaining democratic institutions and values. They were men and women of probity, of ability and most of all of simple and honest values. They led by example, living up to the values they preached. And this was true of all sides...Cosgrave and de Valera, Lemass and Mulcahy, McGilligan, Macentee and Tom Johnson. Let us remember them today with pride and take courage in their values as our country faces into days as difficult and uncertain as any we have encountered.