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Remarks by Professor Brian Farrell at the launch of the Parliamentary Archive on the Internet
at the National Library, Kildare Street, Dublin 2 on 5 July 2001

Introduction

A Cheann Comhairle, A Chathaoirligh an tSeanaid, A Comhaltaí na Dála agus an tSeanaid -

The parliamentary records of Dáil and Seanad - not unlike the daily newspapers - are an extraordinary mine of information for many kinds of researchers - historians, social scientists, students of politics, even economists - let alone those most directly and professionally involved - politicians themselves, public servants at many levels, and journalists.

The idea of a mine of information is a good analogy:

  • There are nuggets of hard information, dull pebbles of long-forgotten information and knowledge. But in the right hands they can become as energetic as coal, as brilliant as diamonds, illuminating our world and its development.

  • There are veins and seams that indicate the varying trends of opinion, interest and attitude.

  • There are selective galleries of exploration, often determined by long-dead parliamentarians, whose (sometimes unduly rigidly interpreted) procedures, rules and conventions reveal some of the strengths as well as the limitations of their time,

  • And, for every mine, there are problems of access and the necessity for a dependable guide to lighten our way through its labyrinthine ways.

Today's launch marks a unique, pioneering project to open up the rich mine of Irish parliamentary records and make them accessible and manageable to a mass audience.  I'm honoured and delighted to be asked to participate in this exciting exercise in democratic transparency. The first time that I saw a full set of the Dáil and Seanad debates was in the Widener Library in Harvard when an hospitable librarian located a desk for me among the rows of green and red volumes, they were irresistible. Later I was to spend days in this very Library, trawling through debates, parliamentary questions and matters on the adjournment in researching Irish government and politics. With the kind assistance of Mrs. Eamonn Duggan (widow of the Treaty Signatory) and Vivian de Valera (the most prominent backbencher in the history of the Dáil) I later managed to collect a full set of the Dáil debates, covering nearly a full wall of a room in UCD, which I left behind me. Now anyone can access all of that on a domestic computer. Even better, we are being given a data retrieval system that, with just minimum input, will give instant access to the exact record.

Its a wonderful development. When I think of my own bundles of filing cards stuffed on filing cabinets, I envy young scholars, starting their careers, with this immense research tool to hand. And see how quickly it works.

Lets just try a few examples -

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CONFIDENCE MOTION: "...an equality of votes..."

A relatively rare but important event is the situation where a tied vote in the House requires the Sean Comhairle to exercise his casting vote on a motion of confidence. It is a situation screaming out for the headline "Crisis" and inviting allegations of partisanship. But it hasn't worked out like because Michael Hayes spelled out the basis of his ruling the first time it arose.

Can we track it down?

Lets enter confidence motion and Ceann Comhairle:

Dáil Éireann, 16 August, 1927

NO CONFIDENCE MOTION

AN CEANN COMHAIRLE: The figures are 71 Deputies for the motion and 71 Deputies against. There is, therefore, an equality of votes, and it devolves on me, in pursuance of Article 22 of the Constitution and Standing Order 58, to give a casting vote. Article 22 of the Constitution, in so far as it concerns this matter, reads:—

All matters in each House shall, save as otherwise provided by this Constitution, be determined by a majority of the votes of the members present other than the Chairman or presiding member, who shall have and exercise a casting vote in the case of an equality of votes....

I propose to state to the Dáil, and have recorded on the Journal of the proceedings of the Dáil, the reasons and the considerations which influence the Chair in giving a vote upon this occasion. In the first place, the vote of the Chair should, I think, always be given in such a way as to provide, if possible, that the House would have an opportunity for reviewing the decision arrived at. Secondly, the status quo should, if possible, be preserved. When it is not possible to vote on either of these principles, it would, of course, be necessary for the Chairman to vote on the merits of the proposal before the House, with or without any statement, as he might think fit. In this particular case a vote against the motion enables the Dáil to review its decision on a further occasion on a vote of no confidence, not necessarily identical in terms with the motion before the House this evening, but aiming at the same result, and of similar effect if carried. Further, in my judgement, a motion of no confidence in any Executive Council should be affirmed by a majority of Deputies and not merely by the casting vote of the presiding officer of the House. I therefore vote against the motion. The figures, consequently, are:—For the Motion, 71; Against the Motion, 72. I accordingly declare the motion lost.

Up it comes. A ruling based on the original ruling by Erskine May.

Incidentally it would be useful to include the very useful handbook "Rulings" by the Ceann Comhairle as part of this project.

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"... a slightly constitutional party ..."

Lets try something else. Seán Lemass's often quoted phrase that Fianna Fáil was a "slightly constitutional party." Again we enter the phrase and the name Seán Lemass. I know he said it shortly after the party entered the Dáil in 1927, lets say between 1927 and 1930. Once again, here is the exact quote.

Dáil Éireann 21 March, 1928

PRIVATE DEPUTIES' BUSINESS

REVIEW OF PRISONERS' CASES
—PROPOSED SELECT COMMITTEE

Mr. LEMASS: I think it would be right to inform Deputy Davin that Fianna Fáil is a slightly constitutional party. We are perhaps open to the definition of a constitutional party, but before anything we are a Republican party. We have adopted the method of political agitation to achieve our end, because we believe, in the present circumstances, that method is best in the interests of the nation and of the Republican movement, and for no other reason.

Interesting how he spells it out. Even more interesting is a slightly more elaborate explanation, Not on the original list but see what happens when instead of 'slightly constitutional party' the drop the word party.

Dáil Éireann, 18 May, 1928

PETITION FOR
INITIATION OF CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS

Mr. LEMASS: Because every word of the Minister's speech here was in direct contradiction to the speech delivered by the President on the last day that this motion was debated. As a Deputy who, when this question was raised some time ago, did not hesitate for one moment in describing himself as being only slightly constitutional, the President's speech on Wednesday last, I think, justifies me in claiming him as a colleague.

I think that a large section, at any rate, of the Cumann na nGaedheal Party in their attitude in this matter have shown themselves to be only slightly constitutional as well.

Both the President and myself are agreed apparently that the Constitution is an intolerable nuisance only to be obeyed when it suits us, and in so far as it suits us, and be ignored when it happens to be inconvenient. I strongly suspect that the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Agriculture are with us in our attitude, although, in view of the effect which the President's speech has created they are anxious to give a veneer of legality to their attitude. Deputies O'Connell and Davin are, of course, constitutionalists. We can afford to ignore those—we can deal with those. If we can get agreement between the two big Parties in this House to regard the Constitution as a nuisance—something of no significance, something that can be ignored when occasion requires—then I think we will have cleared the way very considerably towards the establishment of proper canons of political honesty in [1757] this country. We, however, before deciding upon having that particular fact clearly recognised by the people must reckon with the opposition we are likely to encounter. We have it already indicated clearly that Deputy O'Connell and the Labour Party will oppose our unconstitutionalism. However logical and reasonable that may sound, their numbers in this House, I think, are not sufficiently great to enable them to impede us in our work.

There are other Deputies who are likely to be as strictly constitutional as the Labour Party. We know that the word has gone forth from the “Irish Times” to those who adopt its political creed on this matter. In this morning's issue of that paper, you will find that stated in the leading article:

Mr. Cosgrave's incontinent rejection of it, (that is the petition) therefore, may be interpreted, not unreasonably, as a violation of the Constitution; and such violation must be regarded as a dangerous precedent. We can imagine easily the use Mr. de Valera might make of it if, at some future time, his Party should take office. The Constitution can be amended by Parliament but, as it stands, it is sacred. Any other attitude to-day—especially by Ministers —opens an alarming vista of irregularity and lawlessness.

The order is gone forth to the Constitutionalists that President Cosgrave and myself in having this Constitution relegated to the scrap heap will have to reckon with considerable opposition from that quarter.

“So gather round, my boys,
Sinn Feiners scorning,
Let your voices roll across the floor,
For the Constitutional movement, now take warning,
Must go on and on and on, for evermore.”

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Resignation of Minister (Noel Browne)

A third example - illustrating a nice point regarding the dismissal of a minister in coalition government.  Noel Browne officially resigned. But enter Séan McBride's name and the cat is out of the bag. The resignation was in effect a dismissal by the party leader.

Dáil Éireann, 12 April, 1951

Adjournment Debate—Resignation of Minister

Minister for External Affairs (Mr. MacBride): I do not propose to take more time than is absolutely necessary, but I do feel that the matters involved are of sufficient importance to warrant a good deal of detail. In the first place, for the purposes of the records of this House, I should like to state what I conceive to be the duty of the Leader of one of the Parties composing the Government in relation to members of his Party who may be in the Government. I regard it as part of my responsibility, part of the responsibility of the Leader of any Party in the Government, to be in a position at all times to assure the Taoiseach that the members of his Party in the Government are worthy of the confidence of the Government, the Oireachtas and of the people, and that they are capable of discharging their duties effectively. In pursuance of that conception of my duty, I wrote to the Taoiseach on the 10th April this letter which, though it has been published already, I shall read here so as to have it on the records of the House:—

“Dear Taoiseach: I enclose a copy of a letter which I have sent by hand to-night to Dr. Browne, Minister for Health, requesting him to tender his resignation to you. As the formation of the inter-Party Government is a new concept in our Parliamentary history, it is well that I should set out the considerations that have compelled me to adopt this course.

I take the view that, as the leader of one of the parties in the Government, it is part of my responsibility to be in a position to assure the Taoiseach at all times that the members of the Party whom I have the honour to lead in the Government are trustworthy of the confidence of the Government, the Oireachtas, and the people, and are capable of discharging their duties effectively. As I can no longer give you this assurance in regard to Dr. Browne, for the reasons stated in my letter to him, I deemed it to [787] be the proper course to request him to transmit his resignation to you.

I am sure that you and the other members of the Government will greatly regret the circumstances which have compelled me to adopt this course. Dr. Browne did good work in the Government, for which he deserves full credit and it is most unfortunate that he should have behaved, in recent times, in a manner which compelled me to take the action I have taken.

I hope that Dr. Browne may benefit by the experience he has gained, and that, at some time in the future, he may again be in a position to render service to the country.” ...

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Resignation of Minister (Michael O Morain)

Here is another interesting nugget from a ministerial resignation debate. The occasion was the resignation of Michael O Morain - the first parliamentary scene in what was to become the drama of the Arms Crisis in 1970. Just notice the innocent quick question from Liam Cosgrave - not for the first time, a parliamentary interjection that carries more resonance that many a long-winded speech.

Dáil Éireann, 05 May, 1970

The Taoiseach: I should like to announce, for the information of the Dáil, that Deputy Michael Moran yesterday tendered his resignation to me as a member of the Government, I have advised the President and he has accepted the resignation with effect [519] from today. It was my hope to introduce a consequential Motion for the appointment of another member of the Government today. This is not possible and I will do so tomorrow at 11.30 a.m.

Mr. Cosgrave: Can the Taoiseach say if this is the only Ministerial resignation we can expect.

The Taoiseach: I do not know what the Deputy is referring to.

Mr. Cosgrave: Is it only the tip of the iceberg?

The Taoiseach: Would the Deputy like to enlarge on what he has in mind?

Mr. L'Estrange: What did Deputy Blaney say last week when he threatened the Taoiseach in public?

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Cosgrave: The Taoiseach can deal with the situation.

The Taoiseach: I can assure the Deputy I am in complete control of whatever situation might arise.

Mr. Cosgrave: But smiles are very noticeable by their absence.

Mr. Murphy: Was the resignation asked for?

The Taoiseach: The resignation was tendered.

Mr. L'Estrange: It was demanded on the morning after the incident.

An Ceann Comhairle: There can be no discussion on the statement.

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Grand Committee of the Dáil

These records go right back to the First and Second Dáil . It is often forgotten that these were single-party parliaments, all the sitting members were Sinn Féin. Some backbenchers weren't happy to be just canon fodder. An early demand for a committee system to share power was seconded, as you shall see, by Seán MacEntee who was to go on to become a staunch upholder of executive power.

Dáil Éireann, 25 August, 1921

MOTION AS TO FORMATION OF GRAND COMMITTEE OF THE DÁIL

PRESIDENT proposed that to provide for occasions when the Dáil could not meet as a Dáil a Grand Committee of the Dáil be formed by each constituency selecting one of its members to represent them in the Dáil.

There were, he said, about 40 constituencies and if they had 40 persons in addition to the Ministry they would have a body which would keep a check on the Cabinet. If the House was willing to delegate to a committee consisting of one member from each constituency instead of the number at present it would enable them to carry on in times of distress.

MINISTER FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT, L. COSGRAVE, seconded.

P.J. BYRNE asked if the members for each constituency were to meet and select one of their number.

PRESIDENT replied, exactly. His idea was to have one member representing each constituency and they could make any arrangement they liked as to whether they should have a permanent representative or chose one for each meeting.

[63] LIAM DE RÓISTE asked would the representative carry the voting power of his group.

PRESIDENT said he would be inclined to have one representative, one vote.

S. FITZGERALD (Cork) pointed out that in Co. Cork the eastern constituency had eight members while the western one had only three and it would be unfair to the eastern group to give them only one representative.

M.P. COLLIVET suggested that a meeting of this committee should not be taken as a meeting of the Dáil but that their decisions should be ratified by the Dáil.

PRESIDENT said the member's for Limerick (M.P. Collivet) suggestion meant the committee would meet only in a consultative capacity. That would not be exactly sufficient for their purpose. His idea was that the committee should have legislative powers. He did not see how a body the size of the Dáil was going to meet in any place during war times. They would require no powers to bring a consultative committee together. The point was, was the Dáil willing to delegate its own powers to this proposed committee.

SEÁN MILROY thought it was an extraordinary suggestion to ask members of this Dáil to extinguish themselves. He was not convinced that this was the wisest way to provide for smaller meetings of the Dáil.

LIAM DE RÓISTE (Member for Cork) said it was not necessary at all. Stress of circumstances in the past forced the Ministry to do things which the Dáil as a Dáil did not like. The Ministry now had powers to deal with any circumstances that occurred.

MINISTER FOR LABOUR, COUNTESS MARKIEVICZ, said she would like to support that view. The members chosen might not be able to get to Dublin at all.

PRESIDENT said it would save discussion if he made it clear what he had in view. He was trying to prevent them from effacing themselves altogether. Supposing the Dáil could not meet for four or five months it would be a satisfaction to five or six of them who would be here in Dublin taking these powers to feel that they had at least a body that could outvote them. So they were looking for a check committee of the Dáil, but at the same time such a committee would be of little use unless it had the legislative powers of the Dáil. If the House would not accept this proposal the only other thing that could be done was to risk calling the full meetings of the Dáil which would endanger the whole administration or else go on without meetings and risk getting out of touch with the country which might very well happen.

S. MACENTEE supported the President's motion.

GAVAN DUFFY thought the proposal ought to be looked upon with the greatest suspicion. He was prepared to support the motion subject to modification. It meant the Ministry would do what they liked and the Dáil would not be able to stop them. Naturally the Ministry would come to the next meeting with a substantial block of members behind them. One thing he objected to was that the next actual meeting of the Dáil should be forbidden to go into the last business. He thought the President should agree to have the committee consultative.

J.J. WALSH strongly supported the proposal. All the members had a sporting chance of having an opportunity of keeping in touch with affairs.

Dáil adjourned on motion of President till 4 p.m.

Dáil resumed business at 4.15 p.m.

PRESIDENT said he would like the members to know that he proposed the motion to form a Grand Committee simply for a discussion. He was not pleased with the proposal because he was afraid any arrangement they could make would be unsatisfactory. He was not bringing it up as a Ministerial proposition at all. If they would not accept some such proposal as this to put a standing committee to revise and criticise the work of the Ministry they would have to let the Ministry work without any supervision at all. The machinery for setting up such a standing committee [64] was for them to form. The larger the area from which members would be selected the better.

SEÁN MILROY said he saw plainly the necessity for it, but to keep in accordance with its constituencies it should be kept on the basis of a committee and he had drafted this motion:

“That a Grand Committee of An Dáil comprised of 10 members for Munster, 10 members for Leinster, 10 members for Connaught and 10 members for Ulster be formed.”

PRESIDENT said he would be quite willing to withdraw his proposal in favour of that if they would make it say about eight members per province.

Original motion withdrawn.

S. DWYER seconded Seán Milroy's proposal.

JOS. MCGUINNESS thought the Ministry should be empowered to go on and when they saw any necessity for advice they should call on the members nearest them.

JOS. MACDONAGH was opposed to giving any legislative power to such a proposed committee.

DAVID KENT was in favour of the President's proposal.

GAVAN DUFFY proposed an amendment to add “that all the decisions of the committee of the Dáil so constituted shall have effect only until the next meeting of the Dáil.”

PRESIDENT accepted this amendment but said to meet the question of proportion he was trying to find out the members for each province. Connaught would be 7, Munster 10, Leinster 11, Ulster 2 according to present proportions. That would give 30. Would the member who proposed some numbers accept that?

SEÁN MILROY replied, certainly, he would accept those figures.

SEÁN MACENTEE proposed that the representation of this Grand Committee be by constituency and that each constituency would be entitled to have one member on the Grand Committee.

P.J. BYRNE seconded the amendment proposed by the member for S. Dublin (Gavan Duffy).

SPEAKER said it had been accepted.

M.P. COLLIVET said that meant all decisions had to be brought up at next meeting of the Dáil.

SPEAKER replied, yes, and said Mr. MacEntee's proposal dropped as it was not seconded.

He then put the motion: “In addition to the Ministry that a Grand Committee of the Dáil composed of 10 members from Munster, 11 members from Leinster, 3 from Ulster and 7 from Connaught selected by the members of each province may be called together to act for the Dáil at such times as is not possible for the Dáil to meet as a whole provided that all decisions of the committee so constituted shall have effect only to the next meeting of the Dáil”.

P.J. BYRNE asked would that be a permanent body for the whole period of the war.

PRESIDENT said that would be for the provinces to decide.

Ceist curtha agus aontuithe.

PRESIDENT suggested it would be well to get the representatives of the provinces to elect the members for this Grand Committee before they separated.

It was then agreed to make the selection on Friday after the election of the Ministers.

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Fethard-on-Sea boycott

One last example. The infamous Fethard-on-Sea boycott - lets enter that. Imagine a visiting student of church-state affairs wanting to know what de Valera had to say. Simply enter his name, Here it is.

Dáil Éireann, 04 July, 1957

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers

Fethard-on-Sea Boycott.

Dr. Browne asked the Taoiseach if he has received from, or on behalf of, any residents at Fethard-on-Sea representations respecting the boycott of a section of the population there, and if, in view of the grave and growing disquiet throughout Ireland, he proposes to make a statement in regard to the matter.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach (Donnchadh Ó Briain) (thar ceann an Taoisigh): Certain representations have been made to me.

[731] I have made no public statement because I have clung to the hope that good sense and decent neighbourly feeling would, of themselves, bring this business to an end. I cannot say that I know every fact, but if, as Head of the Government, I must speak, I can only say, from what has appeared in public, that I regard this boycott as ill-conceived, ill considered and futile for the achievement of the purpose for which it seems to have been intended; that I regard it as unjust and cruel to confound the innocent with the guilty; that I repudiate any suggestion that this boycott is typical of the attitude or conduct of our people; that I am convinced that 90 per cent. of them look on this matter as I do; and that I beg of all who have regard for the fair name, good repute and well-being of our nation to use their influence to bring this deplorable affair to a speedy end.

I would like to appeal also to any who might have influence with the absent wife to urge on her to respect her troth and her promise and to return with her children to her husband and her home.

Mr. Corish: What steps has the Taoiseach taken to find out whether or not there is, in fact, a boycott? Will the Taoiseach endeavour to ensure that certain people will not conspire in this part of the country to kidnap Catholic children?

The Taoiseach: I do not think I should add to the considered statement I have made. I am not accepting the statements of the Deputy.

Deputies: Hear, hear!

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Conclusion

You could go on all night. Indeed I hope that you will go on yourselves and experiment with the magical application of modern technology to one of the core records of this democratic state, In place of seeking out those formidable volumes - the Dáil debates are now on volume 540, the Seanad has reached 167 volumes - in some well equipped library, all you have to to is to log on and it is all there at your fingertips. Shortly to be available for the professional users the whole record neatly packed into a set of ten CD-ROMs or one DVD.

This project opens up a new works for research and study.  It is a vigorous and valuable contribution to the ever-widening world of democratic transparency. It is an added buttress strengthening the parliamentary tradition that has served Ireland and its people so well and a challenging invitation to all of us who have inherited that tradition to explore the words and actions of those who created it in the Dáil and Seanad.

Professor Brian Farrell
5 July 2001

The Parliamentary Debates 1919 - 1997 Official Report is now on-line.


 
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