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7 January 1999 Edition

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An Chéad Dáil - a challenge to the British Empire

The Annual Fearghal O'Hanlon Memorial Lecture was given by Mícheál MacDonncha, Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle member and Parliamentary Assistant to Caoimhghín O Caoláin TD. The event in Monaghan town on Sunday 3 January was chaired by Seán Conlon of Monaghan Sinn Féin and a short address of welcome was given by Monaghan Urban Councillor Pádraigín Uí Mhurchadha. Pádraigín is a sister of IRA Volunteer Fearghal O'Hanlon who was killed with his comrade Seán Sabhat of Limerick in the raid on Brookeborough RUC barracks, County Fermanagh, on New Year's Day 1957.
We carry here an edited version of the lecture which marks the 80th anniversary this month of the First Dáil Éireann.


Throughout 1998 we have been commemorating the Bicentenary of the United Irish Revolution. The United Irish were the pioneers of democracy in Ireland and they fought for the sovereignty of the people exercised through a national parliament elected by universal suffrage. It took 121 years for that goal to be achieved. The sovereign Irish assembly which Wolfe Tone fought for was only established in 1919 when Dáil Éireann assembled following the overwhelming victory of Sinn Féin in the November 1918 General Election.

That election was of course an Imperial Election to the Westminster Parliament which ruled not only the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland but the British Empire which still covered much of the globe. The victory of Sinn Féin was thus a stunning event not only in Ireland and Britain but in imperial politics because it had implications for all the subject peoples of the British Empire.

Like the 1916 Rising the establishment of the First Dáil Éireann was a major challenge to the British Empire with huge international implications; it was an unequivocal assertion of the right of the Irish people to national self-determination; and it was a potential catalyst for profound social and economic change within Ireland.

Three key documents were adopted unanimously by the Dáil on 21 January 1919 - the Message to the Free Nations of the World, the Declaration of Indepedence, and the Democratc Programme. All have continuing relevance today to the place of Ireland as a nation on the world stage, to the unfinished business of partition and the British connection, and to the need for social and economic justice.

In its message to the Free Nations of the World Dáil Éireann said:

``Ireland today reasserts her historic nationhood the more confidently before the new world emerging from the War, because she belives in freedom and justice as the fundamntal principles of interntional 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...''

The international context of the Irish struggle at this time has generally been neglected by historians. The adoption of this Message shows its importance in the context of a very rapidly changing and very radicalised world scene.

The context of the 1918 election and the victory of Sinn Féin was of course the end of the First World War which devastated Europe and in which an estimated 50,000 Irishmen died. The recent 80th Anniversary of the Armstice which ended the war has seen much misrepresentation of the public attitude to the Irish soldiers who fought and died in the British Army.

The revisionists ignore the fact that Irish political reaction to the First World War was absolutely central to the making of both the 1916 Rising and the 1918 victory of Sinn Féin. Those who led the 1916 Rising were the same people who opposed the war and urged Irishmen not to allow themselves to become cannon fodder for the British Empire. While Pearse and Connolly are portrayed by revisionist historians as dangerous dreamers obsessed with a cult of blood sacrifice culminating in the Easter Rising, the political leaders who actually sent tens of thousands of Irishmen into a sea of blood in Flanders are exonerated. Chief among them was John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, who urged Irish nationalists to go to war for England in return for the promise of Home Rule. Pádraig MacPiarais wrote of John Redmond:

``The man who in return for the promise of a thing which is not merely less than Separation, but which denies Separation and proclaims the Union perpetual, the man who, in return for this declares peace between Ireland and England and sacrifices to England as a peace holocaust the blood of 50,000 Irishmen, is guilty of so immense an infidelity, so immense a crime against the Irish nation, that one can only say of him that it were better for that man (as it were certainly better for his country) that he had not been born.''

Redmond's chief lieutenant was a man who wielded great influence in this part of Ireland - Joe Devlin, leader of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a kind of pale Catholic imitation of the Orange Order which was once strong in County Monaghan as it was in other parts of Ulster. James Connolly wrote a devastating condemnation of Devlin who acted as a British recruiting sergeant as he travelled through his desperately impoverished West Belfast constituency in his motor car, then of course a great luxury. Connolly said:

``The present writer cannot ride up the Falls Road in his motor car, the penny tram has to do him, but thank God, there are no fresh-made graves in Flanders or the Dardanelles filled by the mangled corpses of men whom he coaxed or bullied into leaving their homes and their families.''

Very soon after the 1916 Rising the advice of Pearse and Connolly was listened to. Already by 1916 recruitment to the British Army had dropped as the reality of the slaughter was brought home to people. What had also become clear also was the duplicity of the British government. Redmond's Irish Party had agreed to the principle of Partition in return for Home Rule, albeit with the ``temporary exclusion'' of certain Ulster counties. But in May 1916, less than three weeks after the execution of Connolly, Lloyd George, who was soon to take over as British Prime Minister, wrote to Unionist leader Edward Carson:

``We must make it clear that at the end of the provisional period [for the exclusion of Ulster counties] Ulster does not, whether she wills it or not, merge in the rest of Ireland.''

Thus many factors converged to turn the tide of Irish opinion away from Redmond's party and towards republicanism. The slaughter in the trenches; the duplicity of the British government which had claimed to be fighting for the freedom of small nations but was preparing to partition a still subject Irish nation; the bravery of the 1916 republicans; the influence of their writings published after their deaths; the imprisonment of hundreds of Irish people after the Rising; all these combined to create an entirely new political scene.

What clinched the issue was the threat of Conscription. The threat was met by a mass movement of people led by the reorganised Irish Volunteers. The tide was so strong that the Catholic Hierarchy had to allow itself to be carried along and the British government had very quickly to back down. Once again international factors were at work.

The help of the United States was essential to the British Empire and France if they were to win the war against Germany. Full-scale repression in Ireland would have jeopardised US-British relations and this was a big part of British calculations as they looked to US support in the post-war peace negotiations.

The end of the war in 1918 unleashed a torrent of high emotions and even higher expectations right across the world. Ireland had already experienced what was now being experienced by people in other countries - a sense of betrayal by governments who had promised freedom in return for the lives of their young men.

People in Britain had been promised ``a land fit for heroes'' but the post-war period saw a return to the harshest conditions for the British working class, bringing years of industrial strife which was to culminate in the General Strike of 1926. By December 1919 it is estimated that there were 4,000,000 workers on strike in the USA. 10,000 were arrested in the so-called Red Raids carried out by Department of Justice agents led by J. Edgar Hoover, later the notorious chief of the FBI.

The spirit of militancy was almost universal and where it found its closest parallel in the Irish situation was among the other subject peoples of the British Empire. In India as in Ireland 1919 was a watershed year. Like the Irish the Indians had been promised political progress in return for participation in the war on Britain's side. Gandhi was one of the leading Indian nationalists who supported the British on this basis.

But the British expressed their gratitude for the sacrifices of the Indian people with the repressive Rowlatt Act which aimed to stamp out the Indian independence movement. In response Gandhi called for mass protests which brought India to a standstill. The British had another response ready. At Amritsar in the Punjab troops under Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer shot dead some 500 unarmed demonstrators on 13 April 1919.

On the day the First Dáil met the raid at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary, took place and it is generally regarded as the first engagement of the Tan War. Among those taking part was Dan Breen and an Indian writer, Kaplana Dutt, described the influence of Breen and Ireland on his comrade Masterda:

``He used to tell me how India would become free by fighting the way the Irish fought. It was when I was with him that I read Dan Breen's `My Fight for Irish Freedom'. Dan Breen was Masterda's ideal. He named his organisation the Indian Republican Army, Chittagong Branch, after the Irish Republican Army.''

In the year of the First Dáil Irish and Indian speakers shared anti-imperialist platforms in Britain and the USA, Irish-Americans protested against the deportation of Indian nationalists from the US, and Indian exiles there presented De Valera with a flag and sword.

Similar links were forged with other people struggling against British imperialism, including, notably, the Egyptians. Egyptian nationalists suffered the same fate as the Irish when they were denied a hearing as a separate nation at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference.

We have seen the international climate of militancy in 1919. Ireland was equally radicalised on several levels. Obviously the biggest political manifestation of this was the victory of Sinn Féin and the establishment of the First Dáil. But it was also seen in the growth of the trade union movement. Trade Union membership grew from 110,000 in 1914 to 300,000 in 1921.

The rank and file of the Labour Movement were also to a great extent the rank and file of the Republican Movement. Organised Labour played a key role in the struggle. On 23 April 1918 the trade unions called a one-day General Strike Against Conscription which closed down almost the entire country.

Four more general strikes were called during the course of the national struggle culminating in the two-day strike in support of republican prisoners in April 1920 and the Munitions of War Strike in December 1920.

At the same time there was growing militancy by the trade union movement on the social and economic front. May Day 1919 saw a one-day general strike for higher wages and shorter hours. There were strikes throughout 1919 in practically every town of any size. Here in Monaghan town workers led by socialist republican Peadar O'Donnell seized the asylum and held out for several days under siege by the RIC.

This brings us to the issue of the role of the Labour Movement in the national struggle and the social and economic content of that struggle. This matter has been debated endlessly by historians and political activists.

Time does not permit a detailed discussion here. Suffice to say that the problem was two-fold. Firstly the leadership of the Dáil, Sinn Féin, and the IRA was by and large socially conservative or unpoliticised apart from their opposition to British imperialism - and even that was not unanimous as was soon to become clear.

Secondly the leadership of the Labour Movement utterly failed to follow in the footsteps of James Connolly. They could not see the inextricable link between national freedom and social justice. They refused to push forward to take up their rightful place in the leadership of the struggle for independence. Today people like Ruairi Quinn who claim to be the inheritors of that Labour Movement lament that their supposed predecessors were told by de Valera that ``Labour must wait''. But the real problem was that the Labour leadership of 1919 was more than willing to wait on the sidelines of the national struggle, in stark contrast to their membership.

In the run-up to the 1918 election Sinn Féin offered Labour a free run in four Dublin constituencies on condition that their candidates pledged support for the Irish Republic and abstained from Westminster. But the Labour leadership refused, fearing that they would alienate loyalist trade unionists.

Labour did have an important imput into one of the key documents of the First Dáil - the Democratic Programme. This declared 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 wealth-producing processes within the nation and we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinate to the public right and welfare''.

The Programme declared ``the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation's labour''.

Had a Labour leadership in the James Connolly tradition pushed forward to the front rank of the republican struggle the outcome may have been different. The Democratic Programme may actually have been put into effect.

It would have been more difficult for the likes of Arthur Griffith - a bitter opponent of the Dublin workers in the 1913 Lockout - to turn the national struggle in a conservative direction, leading to the establishment of the Free State.

Liam Mellows wrote in Mountjoy shortly before his execution:

``Labour played a tremendous part in the establishment and maintenance of the Republic. Its leaders had it in their power to fashion that Republic as they wished. By their acceptance of the Treaty...they have betrayed not alone the Irish Republic but the Labour Movement in Ireland and the cause of the workers and peasants throughout the world.''

It was of course not only the Labour leadership which reneged on the solemn commitments made on 21 January 1919 in the Mansion House. Time would tell that many of the Dáil leadership saw those declarations as opening negotiating positions. They were not prepared to carry the struggle through to its ultimate objective. The unity and heroism of an entire people during the Tan War was sundered by those in politics, press and pulpit who saw it in their interest to sell the struggle short and assume positions of power in the new Free State.

None of this should distract us from the fact that it was the British government which violently suppressed the will of the Irish people as expressed on 21 January 1919. The vast majority had voted clearly for sovereign independence and against partition. It was one of the great moments in Irish history.

Easter 1916 was a revolutionary moment made by the most outstandingly talented and clear-sighted group of leaders that Ireland has ever had. In contrast 1919 was a moment made by the masses - those who voted in huge numbers for Sinn Féin, including for the first time, the women of Ireland, the rank and file Volunteers of the IRA, those who filled the prisons, the popular network of support which made the guerrilla war possible. These were the victors of 1919. Their victory was thwarted and we know the reasons why.

We know also that the struggle remains unfinished.

I have not dwelt here on the lessons for today but I think they are clear enough. The Declaration of Independence has yet to be fully implemented while partition remains. An Irish government which pursues a foreign policy that is moving closer all the time to abandoning neutrality and which could not bring itself to criticise the recent bombing of Iraq is a far cry from the anti-imperialism contained in the Dail's Message to the Free Nations of the World. And while social justice is still a crying need in our divided and unequal society the Democratic Programme will still echo down the decades.

This is our unfinished business as republicans. The finest tribute to those like Fearghal O'Hanlon and all who have fallen in the struggle for freedom is to finish it. Let us got on with the work.
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