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Irish Parliamentary History

The Irish Parliamentary Tradition

Cliceáil anseo don leagan Gaeilge.

Ireland has a tradition of parliamentary government whose roots predate the written history of the country. The legends and annals of ancient times give numerous examples of elective chieftainries and kingships and describe how Irish society was organised along lines that could reasonably be regarded as 'democratic' today. The legal system of the time - the Brehon Laws - were clearly grounded on common-sense, practical arrangements that facilitated people living together in a co-operative way.

The coming of the Normans to Ireland from 1169 onwards is one of the most fundamental events in Irish history. The Norman colonists established themselves successfully in the relatively small area around Dublin and part of Leinster known as the Pale, where they introduced the same type of feudal society, laws and parliament as they had already established in England.

From 1172 until the early modern period, traditional Irish society successfully co-existed alongside the areas of Norman rule, with the native Irish possessing almost total independence in their political organisation and day-to-day affairs. It was not until the early 16th Century that a concerted effort was made to bring the whole country under the English system of government and the control of a parliament in Dublin. This culminated in the defeat of the native Irish armies by those of Queen Elizabeth I at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 and in the 'Flight of the Earls', when Ireland's remaining major chieftains left for the European continent.

With the accession of King James I and his policy of encouraging new colonists to settle in Ireland, a political division rapidly developed. The supplanting of the native Irish under James I's plantation in the northern counties led to an uprising by the Ulster Irish who were joined by the Catholic 'Old English'. This resulted in the 1641 'Parliament' of Kilkenny - the first attempt to establish a central body representative of the majority of Ireland's inhabitants.

The turmoil of the mid- and late-17th century led directly to the concentration of power in the hands of the 'Protestant ascendancy'. A series of penal laws were enforced, one of which was the total exclusion of Catholics from the Irish parliament in Dublin.

Under the influence and the example of the American War of Independence, new political ideas began to develop and pressure by the Protestant ascendancy itself for reform led to a significant constitutional change. In 1782 the Irish parliament, legally subservient to Westminster, was granted legislative independence.

Yet the life of this independent Irish parliament was a mere 18 years. Reacting against the spreading revolutionary ideas of the French Revolution and the 1798 rising of the United Irishmen, the London government induced the parliament in Dublin to vote itself out of existence under the 1800 Act of Union. From this time until Independence in 1922 Irish MPs held seats in the House of Commons in Westminster.

During the early 19th Century significant changes were taking place in that the penal laws against Catholics began to fall into disuse. This process culminated in 1829 in Daniel O'Connell's achievement of Catholic emancipation allowing Catholics to take seats in Parliament and enjoy other civil and religious rights long denied. This was the spur to political activity and development in the country.

In the period following Catholic emancipation, a powerful Irish party emerged with 'Home Rule' as its objective. Led in succession by Isaac Butt, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond and other able political strategists, the Irish Parliamentary Party kept the 'Home Rule' question to the forefront of politics for some 40 years. Finally with "Home Rule" within sight the onset of World War I delayed the implementation of the Home Rule Bill. Yet it was this very failure that inspired the leaders of the 1916 uprising and their successors.

At the end of the first world war Sinn Féin - the party first organised by Arthur Griffith - stood on a radical, abstentionist platform in the December 1918 general election that had been called by the British. The party swept the country, winning 73 of the 105 seats allocated to Ireland in the Westminster parliament. Acting on its pledge to set up an Irish representative assembly in Dublin, twenty nine of the elected Sinn Féin representatives met and constituted themselves as the first Dáil Éireann - of those remaining, 35 were in prison, four were 'on the run' and five were unable to attend.

The first Dáil met in the Round Room of the Mansion House on the 21st January 1919. The Members present ratified the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and passed a Declaration of Independence.

On the 50th anniversary of the first Dáil the Members of the Dáil and Seanad returned to the Round Room of Dublin's Mansion House, where they were addressed by the then President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera (a Sinn Féin member of the first Dáil). This is the only time since the foundation of the State that sittings of the Houses have been held outside Leinster House.

The three-year War of Independence followed. During this time the formal government of Ireland remained with Westminster. After a further general election in May 1921, the Sinn Féin representatives refused to accept the British concession of a Parliament for Southern Ireland. Instead, continuing in the footsteps of their predecessors, they constituted themselves as the second Dáil.

Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 - when Britain recognised Ireland's independence as the Irish Free State, with jurisdiction over twenty-six of the country's thirty-two counties - the third Dáil was elected in June 1922. This enacted a Constitution which provided for the establishment of a second parliamentary Chamber - Seanad Éireann (Senate). The Senate first met on the 11th December 1922.

Since 1922 Leinster House has been the seat of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann.

(extract from 'Tithe An Oireachtais')