I thank Senators for the invitation to come to the House to mark the 750th anniversary of the first known Irish parliament. As Senator Ivana Bacik was instrumental in issuing the invitation, I thank her. I understand she has a number of historical perspectives to reveal to us.
The Parliament in Iceland dating from 930 is regarded as the oldest Parliament today, while the legislature on the Isle of Man which celebrated its millennium in 1979 is regarded as the oldest "continuous" parliament. Considering our shared heritage, Ireland probably also had ancient assemblies at the time in both the Gaelic and Viking traditions. It is great to see the interest this House shows in tracing the foundations of our parliamentary legacy over the centuries and, in particular, the assembly which met in the then important administrative and religious centre of Casteldermot, County Kildare, on 18 June 1264.
All of us will agree that the evolution of public assemblies through representative government to modern democracy in Ireland is a worthy topic for discussion. The 750th anniversary of the first Irish Parliament is an ideal opportunity to discuss some of the many milestone events throughout the evolution of our democracy. I understand we do not have many records from the first parliament, but it marked the beginning of regular meetings of councils and parliaments of the English colony in Ireland. This particular Parliament sought to inquire into the role of the Archbishop of Dublin and the broader question of the division of authority between the church and the state in the administration of justice.
In 1264 pressure from the aristocracy forced Henry III to sign the Provisions of Oxford under which a new form of government, namely, a council of 24 members - 12 selected by the Crown and 12 by the nobles - would be appointed to supervise ministerial appointments, local administration and the custody of royal castles. According to the provisions, parliament was to meet three times a year. Baron De Montfort's Great Parliament held in January 1265 in Westminster is regarded by historians as the first bicameral parliament in English history held under these provisions, but the parliament in Castledermot preceded the English parliament by several months. As we can imagine, these were chaotic times in Ireland, with parliaments composed of Anglo-Irish nobles, bishops and some Gaelic Irish. They were not representative of the people of Ireland. Some Members may be aware of the Parliament of Kilkenny which passed the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366. These forbade inter-marriage between native Irish and English, as well as more general Irish customs and language.
The areas of influence of the parliaments depended on the fluctuating control and jurisdiction of the British authorities. It was not until the late 14th and into the 15th century that the parliaments become more representative, with increasing and more regular attendance by elected representatives of ordinary people and lower grades of clergy. Sittings of parliaments in Ireland were inconsistent, as was the power available to the people concerned at parliament. During the 16th and 17th centuries there were entire years when no Irish parliaments met. Even in the 18th century, the Irish Houses of Parliament were at a standstill, with the majority of members representing tiny constituencies, effectively under the control of single individuals.
Irish legislation was reviewed and rejected in England before the Irish Parliament had any opportunity to act. This unrepresentative system, largely unconcerned with the needs of the people of Ireland, confronted Henry Grattan when, inspired by the Irish Volunteer Convention at Dungannon and the wider republican movement in Europe and America, he led the calls for real power to be given to Irish parliamentarians. For a short time, the Grattan Parliament sat in the world's first purpose-built, two chamber parliament building in College Green. For all its faults, this chamber gave a glimpse of what might have been. Catholic emancipation was firmly on the agenda and Irish matters were being considered in Ireland. I was delighted to bring forward plans to develop a new cultural and heritage centre in this building recently. The centre will be accessible via the Gandon designed entrance to the College Green buildings on Westmoreland Street. The project will open up part of the former House of Lords. With this new entity, I hope a new generation of Irish people and visitors alike will avail of the opportunity to explore aspects of our Irish history represented in this iconic building.
The achievements of Irish parliamentarians did not stop with the untimely end of Grattan's Parliament. I have long been an admirer of Daniel O'Connell and his great legacy of non¬violence. He used the parliamentary channels available to him. This was pivotal in his achievement in bringing about Catholic emancipation. We can only speculate about the transformation that might have followed if his campaign for repeal of the Act of Union had succeeded and autonomous government had been established in Ireland. The absence of such local and accountable government contributed significantly to the tragedy of the Great Famine and the strife that followed. I am pleased that new plans have been brought forward to commemorate Daniel O'Connell, including the restoration of the staircase in the tower of the O'Connell monument in Glasnevin Cemetery which will open in the coming months.
In our centenary commemorative programme this year we reach the passing of legislation for Irish Home Rule. In association with the Speaker of the Commons at Westminster, this historic achievement of John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party will be commemorated. Building on the work of Charles Stewart Parnell and the Land League, John Redmond and his party finally delivered the Home Rule Act. Too long in coming, passed on the eve of the Great War and incomplete in final form with painful issues unresolved, it was perhaps too late and soon overtaken by events.
Nonetheless, we must acknowledge the work of Irish parliamentarians in keeping the cause of self-determination alive and sustaining hope through some of the darkest periods of our history. It is appropriate that John Redmond's leadership will be remembered with a series of events, exhibitions and lectures to take place this year in Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, Dublin and Westminster. I think it appropriate also that the restoration of John Redmond's vault in Wexford is being addressed in the context of the centenary commemorative programme.
In 2018 we will mark the centenary of the general election of 1918 and, thereafter, the centenary of the first Dáil in 1919. This election reflects not only the terrible experience of the world war and revolution in Ireland but also the changes of electoral reform. Our programme will continue to examine the parliamentary development in Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. It is very important that the evolution over many years of our legislative structures is widely known and the deliberative procedures in law-making are understood. In an age of unrelenting media and instant reporting, the legislative processes of consultation and reflection can seem out of date. It is sometimes easy to complain about our painstaking system but care should be taken not to undermine institutions.
Remembering that first Parliament held on this day 750 years ago, we can stand justly proud of our legacy of parliamentary tradition. It is, nevertheless, a fragile and precious legacy, requiring nurturing and respect if it is to continue to serve succeeding generations of Irish citizens. Each generation, each era, brings new challenges, maybe new ways of conducting parliamentary business, but the essence of that business remains the same. We must always be conscious that it is our great privilege to be chosen to sit in these Houses of Parliament and that we are here to represent not ourselves but to represent those people who have elected us.
Again, I thank the House for this opportunity to mark the anniversary of the 1264 Parliament and to reflect on our traditions. I look forward to the various contributions by the Senators. I am sure many others will want to contribute along with Senator Bacik.