The Birth of the Irish Free State, 1921-1923

By Joseph M. Curran | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

The Struggle for
Independence: 1919-1920

On January 21, 1919, the twenty-seven Sinn Fein MPs who were not confined in British jails met publicly in Dublin to establish the Irish Republic. Cathal Brugha was elected speaker of Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland), and a brief provisional Constitution was adopted. Next, a Declaration of Independence was read; it ratified the establishment of the Republic proclaimed in 1916, recognized Dail Eireann as the sovereign national authority, demanded British evacuation, and appealed to all free nations for recognition and support of Irish independence. Without discussion or dissent, the Dail adopted this declaration. It then appointed a delegation to the Paris peace conference and passed a resolution repeating the appeal for international recognition and asking admission to the conference. 1

The final business of the Republican Parliament's historic first meeting was consideration of a Democratic Program, based on the principles of social justice set forth in the 1916 Republican Proclamation. Asserting the nation's sovereignty over all its resources and wealth, the program decreed the subordination of private property to public need and proclaimed the new government's duty to secure social welfare and promote national economic development. Although the Dail approved the Democratic Program unanimously, this endorsement was more a maneuver to win labor's support than a commitment to radical economic reform. With the exception of James Connolly and a few disciples, the leaders of the Irish revolution were much more concerned about expelling the British than attacking the evils of capitalism. 2

In confirming the demand for a Republic, the extremists in Sinn Fein kept faith with their ideal, but they probably acted unwisely. Circumstances had changed drastically since the Republic was first proclaimed in 1916. Germany had been defeated; and however sympathetic they were to Irish aspirations, neither the United States nor other victor nations could afford to quarrel with Britain over such an issue. Sinn Fein should simply have called for national self-determination, leaving open the question of relations with Britain. Such a demand would have won substantial support in Britain and the Dominions and left ample room for eventual compromise. But as Cathal Brugha made plain, militant Republicans were not interested in practical considerations: "Deputies,

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