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16 March 2000 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The first cabinet

By Aengus Ó Snodaigh

The inaugural meeting of Dáil Éireann lasted less than two hours and went without a hiccup. Thanks for the smooth running lay with the organising committee, Piaras Beaslaí especially. He said afterwards: ``I was determined to leave nothing to chance. I had a long experience of producing plays, and I felt we must approach this public session in the same spirit.''

Even George Moore, the observer of England's Commander-in-Chief of armed forces in Ireland, Lord French, was impressed by the proceedings and its orderliness and reported to Lord French that the assembly represented ``the general feeling in the country''.

The prayer read by Father O'Flanagan at the opening of Dáil Éireann, the Constitution of Dáil Éireann, and the appointment of a delegation to the Peace Conference in Paris were done in Irish only. The Declaration of Independence and Message to the Free Nations were read in Irish first, followed by the French version and afterwards in English. The Democratic Programme, because it was finalised at the last minute, was read in Irish and English only.

Of the 16 who addressed the house the first day, eleven spoke in Irish only. The prominence given to the use of the Irish language was enthusiastically greeted by deputies and by the supporters of Irish-Ireland, a term used to describe the resurrection of a national spirit at the end of the 19th Century and early 20th Century.

When the first day's proceedings were adjourned at 5.20pm on 21 January 1919, it was agreed to reconvene the next day to agree the normal rules and regulations of the house and to elect a cabinet. After midday on 22 January, a private session of Dáil Éireann convened (the sessions of the First Dáil for the rest of 1919 varied between private and public - from 1920 onwards they were mainly private, an underground government). Count Plunkett took the chair and 24 ``Teachtaí answered to their names''. The first item on the agenda was to read the letters and telegrams of congratulations ``on the declaration of independence of the Irish Republic''. The only one recorded in the minutes was a letter from the nationalist MP for North-East Tyrone. J Harbison is recorded in the ``Official Record'' as having ``wrote acknowledging invitation to attend the Dáil, which invitation he stated he should decline for obvious reasons. He expressed his entire sympathy with the demand of Ireland for a hearing of her just cause at the Congress of the Nations. The contents of the letter were ordered to be published''.

The Standing Orders were agreed and copies circulated among the deputies. It was then agreed that the appointment of a secretariat for the House should be left to the Speaker of the House and that they be paid at the ``rate of £2.2s. per day while the House is in session''. Five deputies: Sean Ó hAodha, C. Ó Coileán, P. Ó Máille, Richard Barton and Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, were appointed to consider and report on the Paris Peace Conference. It was proposed that the Executive would consider the question of substitutes for those deputies held in British jails and that it would report back to the full Dáil.

As the Constitution of Dáil Éireann as passed the previous day allowed for a cabinet of five ministers and a ``Príomh-Aire'' to be elected, this was the next on the order of business. Cathal Brugha was elected ``pro. tem'' as ``príomh-Aire'', or in English ``President of the Ministry. The meeting adjourned to allow him to submit the names of the ``officers of the Ministry in accordance with Article 2 (Clause b.) of the Constitution''.

The following cabinet nominations were agreed by the Dáil: Finance Minister - Eoin Mac Néill; Home Affairs Minister - Michael Collins; Minister of Foreign Affairs - Count Plunkett; and Minister for National Defence - Dick Mulcahy. There was one dissenting voice to the nominations. Piaras Beaslaí opposed Eoin Mac Néill being given the finance portfolio.

The next item was the granting of permission to the incoming Finance Minister the right to raise £2,000 for ``necessary expenses''. Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh was then elected Speaker of the House, with the appointment of Deputy Speaker being deferred till the next meeting, held on 1 April.

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