Following a series of events commemorating the First Dáil and Democratic Programme, eolas magazine reflects on the first unicameral parliament of the revolutionary Irish Republic, which endured as a symbol of popular resistance despite failing to realise its objectives.
December 1918 represented the arrival of Ireland at a political crossroads. John Dillon’s Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) experienced a humiliating defeat at the hands of Sinn Féin, who won 73 seats representing 46.9 per cent of the Irish population. The electoral annihilation of Dillonite nationalism not only altered the political composition in Westminster: the landslide victory simultaneously demonstrated a shift in the Irish ideological psyche.
The wartime crisis destabilised political structures across Europe. In Ireland, severe conditions transformed attitudes to British rule. Initial enthusiasm for an Irish contingent of the British Army quickly shifted towards vigorous opposition to the war, particularly within the context of forced conscription. What emerged as a result was a new generation which turned its back on the Home Rule Party. Speaking to eolas magazine, author and academic Kieran Allen suggests that whilst Sinn Féin at the time were a very small organisation, they offered more radical aspirations to their IPP rivals, whose goals merely amounted to “a goal of reframing their position within the British Empire with some recognition of Irish autonomy”.
Held in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, the Easter Rising and the Conscription Crisis, the General Election of 1918 was the first election held since the passage of the Representation of the People Act 1918. The Act granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification, whilst all men over the age of 21 were afforded the same right. Women and working-class men were now included in a democratic process which previously alienated them. The Irish electorate increased from around 700,000 to about two million. Furthermore, much of the new electorate’s political awareness had been formed in an eight-year period of international bloodshed, crushed republican revolution and controversy around the backtracking of the British Government on the extension of Home Rule.
The aftermath of the elections saw Sinn Féin vigorously pursue its manifesto objectives, with elected members refusing to take their seats in the British Parliament of Westminster, forming their own alternative body in Dublin. The First Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland) declared Irish independence as a republic, in line with the objectives of the 1916 Proclamation of Ireland. However, an understanding of Sinn Féin’s landslide victory should be viewed within a wider context of a radicalism which swept across Ireland in the years approaching the Civil War – a radicalism which Allen suggests was encapsulated in the language of the First Dail’s Democratic Programme.
The Democratic Programme contained within it a number of strong social aspirations that concerned Ireland’s natural resources, subordinating private ownership for the common good and prioritising the mental and physical welfare of children. According to Allen, the reason why this occurred is often forgotten: there was a significant period of radicalism in Ireland around the period of the War of Independence.
“They weren’t just fighting for independence, they were fighting for a better life and more equality. We can also see that in the radical language of the First Dáil, which at the time reflected enthusiasm for revolutionary activity occurring in Russia. Indeed, you can see this enthusiasm reflected in other events of the period, including examples of Soviets in areas across Ireland, including Limerick, and the fact that 12,000 people marched in Dublin in commemoration of the Russian revolution,” explains Allen. Indeed, the First Dáil was to become the revolutionary government under which the War of Independence was fought.
The First Dail’s synonymous relationship with the War of Independence can be traced to the opening hours of its inception. With its first meeting came what were now recognised to be the first shots fired in the conflict. In the minds of some Irish republicans, peaceful means had been exhausted, leaving their movement open to repression and eventual defeat. This was an opinion shared by Volunteers Dan Breen, Seán Treacy and Séumas Robinson, who launched an unsanctioned attack on two RIC constables at Soloheadbeg, Tipperary. The event, still lingering in Ireland’s collective memory, was emblematic of a republican tradition which stretched as far back as the Fenian Brotherhood: a belief that a small group can decide on behalf of a country to lead it into armed struggle.
Breen, who later claimed to have led the attack, suggested that the Volunteers risked fading into obscurity as a purely political body. Others have dismissed Breen’s claim, arguing that the Soloheadbeg ambush was merely a botched operation with unprecedented consequences. “The only regret we had, following the ambush, was that there were only two policemen in it instead of the six we expected, because we felt that six dead policemen would have impressed the country more than a mere two,” said Breen. However, it was arguably the symbolism behind the attack, and not its ruthlessness, which proved as a catalyst for all-out conflict in Ireland.
The legacy of the First Dáil carries great ambiguity in modern Ireland. Many contemporary accounts recognised the landslide victory of Sinn Féin as a realisation of Arthur Griffith’s utopian vision. However, whilst the Democratic Programme reflected a republican desire to mobilise its core, elements of Sinn Féin expressed concern at a radical document, with Kevin O’Higgins referring to its content as “just poetry”. By the time the Civil War ended, most talk of those radical aspirations had stopped.
The First Dáil has become an enduring symbol of popular resistance in Ireland and served as a vehicle for popular resistance in its short life span. Fundamentally, the election of the First Dáil was to activate a chain of events which would see all-out conflict with Britain, a catastrophic civil war and the eventual partition of Ireland. Despite this, the legacy of the First Dáil and Democratic Programme is of high value to the Irish State, particularly within the context of more recent conflict in the North. “I think the Irish political establishment, particularly given the modern conflict in the North, are keen to reclaim that mantle of legitimacy. It is hypocritical. The idea that the current state is inspired by 1916, or even the First Dáil, is fictitious,” argues Allen. Pointing to rates of poverty, unemployment and homelessness in Ireland, he adds: “When Leo Varadkar recently said that the aspirations of the First Dáil had not been filled, that was a massive understatement”.