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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 Jul 2018

Vol. 259 No. 6

Declaration of Independence Day Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages

Bill received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I welcome the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan, to the House.

I welcome the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to the House and thank her for taking Report and Final Stages of this Bill prior to the summer recess. I also thank my co-signatories of the Bill, Senator Diarmuid Wilson who is with me here today, and also Senators Robbie Gallagher and Mark Daly.

As we are all aware, the first meeting of Dáil Éireann took place in the Mansion House on the afternoon of 21 January 1919. The meeting may have been brief and lasted a couple of hours but they were probably the most momentous hours in Ireland's history. Orderly queues even formed on Dawson Street. Visitors' tickets had already been distributed and the Round Room was soon crammed with people. Deputies nominated Deputy Cathal Brugha to be Ceann Comhairle. After he accepted the nomination he recited the Declaration of Independence in Irish, followed by Deputy George Gavin Duffy who recited it in French and, finally, Deputy Edmund Duggan recited it in English. The momentousness of this day was not lost on our friends across the globe. Journalists from the United States, Canada, France, Belgium and Spain came here to witness the opening of the First Dáil, which demonstrates how closely Ireland's struggle for independence was being watched by our neighbours across the world.

Yesterday, being 4 July, the US celebrated its Independence Day, Bastille Day will be celebrated in France and around the world on 14 July and Belgium's day of independence will be celebrated on 21 July. All of these days are recognised across the globe. As I have said before, no one party should attempt to claim ownership of the First Dáil or the Declaration of Independence. There will always be differences in opinion on how best to remember the past. I believe that it is not only appropriate but imperative that this momentous day in our history is formally recognised on an annual basis.

Finally, I thank my colleagues from all parties and none for the overwhelming support that they have shown for the Bill.

I thank Senator Swanick for his work on this Bill. As he said, what happened on 21 January 1919 shaped this country and, therefore, it is fitting that the date is designated as our independence day. It is positive that the Bill does not propose that the day be declared a public holiday as this will make the designation process more straightforward. The measure will also ensure that recognising an independence day will not have a significant economic impact on the State.

The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has given extensive consideration to the Bill and I ask her to outline in detail the type of commemorations that are likely to take place.

I welcome the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to the House. I thank her for her co-operation in terms of allowing the legislation to swiftly pass through the House.

I commend my colleague, Senator Keith Swanick, for putting together this important legislation and I hope it comes to fruition very shortly. It is important that we commemorate the first sitting of the Dáil on 21 January 1919. The one thing that the Senator did not allude to in his contribution today, which he has done on numerous occasions, is the fact that we do not seek the day to be designated a public holiday and simply want it to be commemorated. As he alluded to, many countries celebrate their independence day or, if they do not have an independence day, the day is celebrated and they also have a national memorial day.

I wish to take this opportunity to welcome to the House Senator Swanick's wife Aislinn, his son, Julian, and his daughter, Rosa Pearl, who are here to commemorate this great occasion. Once again, I commend the Senator and my co-signatories to this Bill. Finally, I thank the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for allowing the legislation to be passed unanimously.

I join with colleagues in commending Senator Swanick for introducing the Bill and thank the Minister for her assistance on the matter.

I served on the decade of commemorations committee during the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Next year with the centenary of the sitting of the First Dáil, it is important that the occasion be marked and this is a fitting element to it, as we celebrate the declaration to the free nations of the world. Of course, that occasion on 21 January 1919 was relatively short, attendance was particularly poor on the first sitting of the First Dáil, but for good reason. I believe 33 of the Members were on the run or in jail, so the failure to attend was excusable in many ways. I know the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, has taken over the portfolio from the previous Minister. Much and all as we might have issues with the former strategic communications unit headed by Mr. John Concannon, in his role as head of the 2016 commemorations, together with the then Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, he did an excellent job in marking those events.

I have written to the Minister on a number of occasions regarding the Government's all-party consultation group on the decade of commemorations. This is an important group because during the lead up to 2016, there was no plan, and opportunities were missed. One of the events we need to look at came to my attention when we had a group down from the Shankill Road, who raised the issue of what happened to their community in the Twenty-six Counties during the War of Independence and the Civil War and that it needs to be acknowledged by the State. The wrongs that were perpetrated need to be marked by the State. We need to grasp these issues and they need to be addressed in an appropriate way.

When will the all-party consultation group on the decade of commemorations meet? We in Kerry have already marked the 100th anniversary of the first action in the War of Independence, although the people in County Tipperary would tend to disagree that it happened on 21 January 1919. The boys in Cork claim that the first action of the War of Independence happened on St. Patrick's Day 1918. We need to have a plan. I know there is an expert group and I know the officials are working behind the scenes but I know the all-party group made up of Members of this House and the other House played a key role in identifying and addressing issues. There was talk at one stage that even the GPO would not have had the commemorative centre ready, in that the foundation stone would only be laid in 2016. As a result of pressure from members of the committee, the Taoiseach opened the Witness History Centre in 2016, as should be the case. There were issues about whether there should be a parade. All the issues were addressed in respect of 2016, and now all the issues arising from the centenary celebrations for 2019 need to be addressed. When it comes to the issue of the Civil War, the all-party consultation group is critical in how we address that most tragic period in our nation's history.

This is an important piece of legislation in that as a nation we must mark and commemorate the significant events, not just because of their historical context but because it gives us an opportunity to reflect upon how far we have come and how far we have yet to go to achieve the aims of the 1916 Proclamation and the aims and aspirations of the First Dáil. Other small nations would believe in the words and aims of the Proclamation when it states: "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally."

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to take this Bill. I commend my colleague, Senator Keith Swanick, for introducing it and getting it to this Stage in the run up to the important anniversary of the first sitting of the First Dáil.

I echo Senator Daly's closing remarks. I commend Senator Swanick and the co-signatories for bringing this Bill before us.

I have had the great pleasure of contributing to this discussion through its passage in this House and on each occasion, I have gently reminded Members that while it is important to remember and acknowledge our Declaration of Independence and it is something that we can all join together in marking, there is a greater onus on us when legislation is before the House to remember the unfulfilled aspirations of the Declaration of Independence of that revolutionary era and those revolutionary leaders, men and women whom we rightly acknowledge and remember with great respect in both Houses when we pass through the corridors of these buildings.

This is a very worthy Bill in terms of what it seeks to do. I wish it every success in how it is implemented. I hope it acts as a catalyst for respectful commemoration and reflection. Unashamedly I want it to act as a reminder that we have an unfulfilled body of work. I know the proposers share that sentiment in terms of realising the establishment of a truly national democratic and independence, but also the ethos, the heart and the spirit of that era. I had some limited engagement with the organisation of the decade of centenaries programme when I was previously a member of Belfast City Council. The Minister can appreciate that we had a very delicate balance in terms of navigating those somewhat choppy waters. Certainly it is right that we remember, that we commemorate, that we are respectful, understanding and embracing in so doing. It is important too that we are unashamed in our remembrance, commemorations and celebration.

I commend Senator Swanick. This has been a labour of love for him which was apparent at every Stage. I know that the State has done much admirable work in navigating the choppy waters of the decade of centenaries. It will come as no surprise that there were instances where I think we could have done better, but nevertheless I know it has been a considerable body of work, not least for the officials in the Department and associated committees around this issue.

Go n-éirí leis. Tá mé sásta a thacú leis, ní hamháin ar mo shon féin ach ar son Shinn Féin fosta.

I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile. As no other Senators are offering I invite the Minister to conclude.

I thank Senator Swanick for bringing forward this legislation. I met his beautiful wife and children outside. It is lovely to see them here today.

I have decided not to propose an amendment to the Bill at this Stage but as I said on Committee Stage, I consider the Bill requires some amendment. My officials have been considering the issue in consultation with relevant Departments and the Parliamentary Counsel. This consideration is ongoing but I will be shortly seeking Government approval to proceed with drafting amendments arising out of that consideration. I note the support from across the House and I would hope therefore to be in a position to bring forward relevant amendments when the Bill is considered in the Dáil.

In response to the question raised by Senator Hopkins, my Department is considering with relevant Departments, including the Department of the Taoiseach, how we can appropriately remember the date. There are some ideas currently under consideration such as: a schools' module competition and collaboration with the Department of Education and Skills; an annual wreath laying ceremony to commemorate the significant contribution by the Members of the First Dáil to the emerging Irish State; and an annual cultural event, for example, a lecture, exhibition or concert in partnership with Creative Ireland and-or our national cultural institutions. There will be opportunities for local authorities to mark this event at county level if they wish, as part of their annual commemorative activities and the outcome of this consideration will in turn inform any proposed Government amendments.

I am also very interested in any ideas from Deputies and Senators on how best to hold an annual commemoration. I thank Senator Diarmuid Wilson for his comments. I note that he mentioned it is not a bank holiday, and that is a positive issue from my perspective.

Senator Mark Daly mentioned the all-party consultation group. It was difficult to get a balanced nomination from all groups in the current Oireachtas, however I can assure the House that we have almost agreed on a membership and we hope to convene a meeting as soon as possible.

Senators Niall Ó Donnghaile and Mark Daly rightly mentioned the issue of recognising the position of nationalists in Northern Ireland and unionists in the new Free State. This is being borne in mind in respect of all commemorations over the coming years.

Question put and agreed to.

I thank the Minister. I see she is staying with us for our next business.