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Opinion: The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil was a radical socialist document

Far removed from the romantic vision of the Easter Proclamation, the programme outlined the material reality of what a new Ireland should stand for, writes Donal Fallon.

Donal Fallon

THE MEETING OF the First Dáil on 21 January 1919 was the realisation of Sinn Féin’s stunning electoral victory in the General Election of the previous month.

Sweeping aside the old order of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Sinn Féin landslide was described beautifully by one contemporary observer as the “triumph of the young over the old.”

Some of those who lost their seats had stepped aside graciously; in the words of one defeated Home Ruler, it was simply: “the passing away of a great movement, to be succeeded by another.”

To the conservative British press, the result was horrifying, though the Daily Mail found some comfort in the fact that: “the victory of the Sinn Féiners, since they do not intend to come to Westminster, may indeed be regarded as a blessing.”

Sinn Féin’s election manifesto had been unambiguous about the question of Irish parliamentarians sitting in Westminster, pledging the party to: “withdrawing the Irish Representation from the British Parliament and…denying the right and opposing the will of the British Government or any other foreign Government to legislate for Ireland.”

More ambiguous however was its commitment to: “making use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise.”

A Global Audience

With 69 parliamentarians representing 73 constituencies, Sinn Féin could assert itself as the dominant force in Irish political life. Yet a century ago, it was a mere 27 elected representatives who gathered in Dublin’s Mansion House, reflecting the political turmoil of the day and the widespread suppression of prominent Sinn Féin voices.

Internationally, the gathering was front page news, with New York’s The Evening World telling their readers that: “probably no country except Ireland could present an episode as remarkable as the assembly of the Dáil Éireann (Gaelic for Irish Parliament) which was called to order in Dublin’s ancient Mansion House.”

In London, the press reports noted that: “Dublin Castle has apparently decided to ignore the Dáil, as long as it is confined to talking.”

When the roll call of all elected Irish parliamentarians was read, 27 were ‘i lathair’ (present), many more ‘as lathair’ (not present), and others either ‘fé ghlas ag Gallaibh’ (jailed by the foreigner) or ‘ar díbirt ag Gallabih’ (deported by the foreigner).

There was some laughter in the room when Unionist leader Edward Carson was recorded as ‘as lathair.’

What took place at this gathering was deeply symbolic, and intended for the consumption of a global audience.

As Europe was reeling from the fallout of World War One, and all eyes were focused on France and the peace conferences many hoped could bring permanent peace to the continent, a ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’ was read in the Mansion House in English, Irish and French.

It explicitly stated that: “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.”

Sinn Féin sought to give Ireland a voice at this new table of European diplomacy, maintaining that while it was a new day, we were an old nation: “Ireland today reasserts her historic nationhood the more confidently before the new world emerging from the War.”

Cutting Radicalism

Yet undoubtedly the most significant document read that day was the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, a declaration of political, social and economic principles which was an altogether more radical document than even the Proclamation of three years earlier.

Maintaining a cutting radicalism even today at the remove of a century, the document pledged that:

It shall be our duty to promote the development of the Nation’s resources, to increase the productivity of its soil, to exploit its mineral deposits, peat bogs, and fisheries, its waterways and harbours, in the interests and for the benefit of the Irish people.

The document maintained that:

“The Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation”

And insisted that:

The right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.”

Far removed from the “August destinies” and romantic vision of the Easter Proclamation, here was a document rooted in the material and economic realities of what a new Ireland should stand for.

Communistic or largely poetry?

This document was mostly drafted by Thomas Johnson, Secretary of the Labour Party, which had not contested the 1918 Election, allowing Sinn Féin a clear-run in what became something of a referendum in Labour’s absence.

Johnson’s original draft was somewhat toned down by Seán T. O’Kelly of Sinn Féin – with one contemporary joking it was in essence “Debolshevised”.

The original document, in the words of one TD, was “communistic”.

It is a difficult assessment to oppose, given Johnson’s proposed inclusion that “the Republic will aim at the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth produced by the workers of the nation but gives no useful service in return.” The line, unsurprisingly, did not make the cut.

Like the ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’, the Democratic Programme can only be understood in its international context, however.

The following month, the Socialist International would meet in Berne, Switzerland. The first gathering of European labour and socialist parties since the outbreak of the First World War, and since the birth of Bolshevik Russia, Ireland would be represented by a delegation from Labour who would make the case for Irish nationhood.

If the ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’ was designed to win favour with those carving a new Europe over the political table in France, the Democratic Programme was intended to win the minds of radicals.

The Irish delegation distributed the document widely in Berne, and sought to present the Irish question as one with social dimensions beyond just national independence.

Johnson’s comrade, William O’Brien, remembered sitting beside him in the Mansion House as the Democratic Programme was read. He recounted that: “to all appearance, but only to appearance, Johnson is the least demonstrative of men, although his warmth occasionally shows in his speeches.”

On this occasion, things were different, and: “he was so stirred that by his side in the gallery of spectators I put my hand to his arm in restraint”. They weren’t the only ones caught up in the moment, Máire Comerford of Cumann na mBan, another spectator to proceedings, remembered listening to the speaker read the programme, as: “we repeated the words of the Declaration after him, and felt we had burnt  our  boats now. There was no going back.”

The Democratic Programme would later be dismissed by Kevin O’Higgins, a government minister in the early years of the Irish Free State and one of the 27 TD’s in the Mansion House, as “largely poetry.”

To others, it reflected a real and achievable radical vision of transforming Irish society.

The famous dismissal of O’Higgins does leave the important question of just how reflective the final Democratic Programme was to the aspirations of Sinn Féin.

It is hard to disagree with the assessment of Brian Farrell that: “it did not represent the social and economic ideals of the first Dáil. Most of its members had not read the document in advance”.

Piaras Béaslaí, one of the TDs in attendance who actually read the document in Irish before the gathered spectators, recalled how: “it is doubtful whether the majority of members would have voted for it without amendment or had there been any immediate prospect of putting it into force.”

Missing voices

Yet other TDs who would readily have accepted its radical ethos, including the imprisoned Countess Markievicz, were not present. Sinn Féin was a broad political church, and Johnson’s aspirational programme resonated with some in the party.

For the Dáil, governance proved challenging. The imprisonment of many deputies, coupled with the refusal of Unionist or Irish Parliamentary Party MP’s to engage with the separatist parliament, prevented large attendances.

Between the first Mansion House meeting and the Truce, the Dáil would meet on only 21 days, with only 4 meetings ever held publicly, the last in May 1919.

The outlawing of the Dáil in September 1919 brought further challenges. Yet in spite of this, Republican Courts and Republican Police were initiated over large parts of the country, as people rejected the legitimacy of Westminster to intervene in the day to day lives of Irish people.

As Philip O’Connor rightly observed recently, the Dáil received a boost in subsequent local elections, when: “support for advocates of independence increased in municipal elections in January 1920 to 77 per cent, in the rural council elections of June 1920 to 80 per cent, and in county council elections the same month to 83 per cent, all held under a PR system designed to stunt Sinn Féin support.”

On the very same day that Thomas Johnson’s amended Democratic Programme was read before the Dáil, the first shots of the War of Independence were fired in Tipperary, by Volunteers acting of their own volition.

The leader of those men, Séamus Robinson, was dismissive of what he later termed “Sinn Féin pacifism” (though later elected a TD himself), believing that Ireland could only achieve her independence in the field of war, while Dan Breen recounted their belief that: “the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war”.

While these events in Dublin and Tipperary occurred totally separate from one another, in the eyes of the global media they were intricately linked, and Ireland was now at war.

Donal Fallon is a historian, writer and broadcaster based in Dublin and author of the Come Here To Me blog.  

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