Speech to Speakers, Deputy Speakers and representatives of Parliaments from 29 nations
Áras an Uachtaráin, 21 January 2019
Dia dhaoibh, is cúis mhór áthais fiór chaoin fáilte a fhearadh romhaibh go léir chuig Áras an Uachtaráin inniu.
You are all most welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin. I thank you for being with us on this special day, as we celebrate the centenary of the establishment of Dáil Éireann. It is a great honour to be joined by so many Speakers, Deputy Speakers and representatives from parliaments across Europe and from the United States.
We Irish are marking an important moment in our long and unremitting struggle for independence, an experience we share with many other nations.
Our struggle was part of global cry for national freedom, one that, in the aftermath of the First World War, united peoples from India to Latvia, from Poland to Egypt, behind the principle of national self-determination. It carried, of course, within it other struggles that were not always allowed to surface, from workers’ rights to gender issues. They had to wait but they were not quenched.
Despite all the changes in modern technology and in international economic policy in the last century, the international political order is still today organised on the principle of the nation, recognised and embedded in the Charter of the United Nations.
Democracy, for people throughout the world, is still primarily experienced and given form through and by the nation-state. It is in national parliaments, whether in multi-national states such as our closest neighbour, or in unitary states, that democracy is looked to for expression even if it is in the international fora that many rights issues are given full recognition.
It is in our parliaments that all the great issues facing our countries are deliberated upon and debated, in the most proximate sense, it is through parliaments that the common good is forged, and it is through parliaments that our peoples choose how our countries are to be governed, and for whom.
The issues, opportunities and challenges transcend borders, however, and nations share those in wider unions.
Parliaments are not only shaped, but have the capacity to shape, a people and a demos, to act as the locus and centre of a political community, sharing its life with other political communities. That magnificent experiment in continent-wide democracy, the European Parliament, speaks and acts for hundreds of millions of citizens of the European Union. It is there that the aspirations of the European Street find voice. It is to there now proposals of the Commission and Council must come for legitimacy and connection with the citizens of the European Union.
This afternoon, we celebrated the establishment of the first democratically-elected Irish legislative assembly, the First Dáil Éireann. Its members faced extraordinary challenges – 34 deputies were, as recorded on the day during the roll call, ‘faoi ghlas ag Gallaibh’, imprisoned by the foreigner, while 3 were ‘ar díbirt ag Gallaibh’, expelled by the foreigner.
Despite the support of the majority of the people of Ireland, the British authorities refused to recognise the sovereignty of the Irish people and the legitimacy of the Dáil Éireann, which led to our difficult and protracted War of Independence.
Parliaments today, across the world, now confront challenges to their legitimacy, some new and some enduring. The realm of what is unaccountable is growing. It is publics who carry the consequences of what are unaccountable or speculative actions, but it is parliamentarians citizens will turn to voice their frustration and anger. The importance of shared information, knowledge, political and economic literacy, has become ever more important.
As a former parliamentarian for many years, I have witnessed the often-overweening power of executives, which often seek to evade scrutiny and conduct policy with as little oversight as possible.
Invocations of raison d'État, the national interest or national security are now ever more frequently deployed to simply avoid scrutiny.
That most ancient duty of parliamentarians – to hold executive power accountable to the people – remains as pressing and as important as ever.
If that duty is not exercised, in conditions of rapid change, socially, economically, and technologically, the faith of the people in parliaments will fade. Parliaments cannot afford to leak power to the realms of unaccountability. In an unrestrained, unregulated, financialised global economy parliaments will be presented as hollow, retained only for symbolism.
Over the past forty years, new centres of power and authority have emerged in the form of unaccountable private concentrations of wealth. As their influence has increased, so too has the capacity of parliaments to influence the allocation and resources diminished.
As a consequence, many of our citizens have turned away from politics, or offered their vote to those who choose to scapegoat immigrants and minority groups rather than address the structural economic problems we face.
This is, then, a time for parliaments to re-assert their authority - and we must all speak out and defend parliaments - as forums for deliberation and debate, and to re-cover their role in economic, fiscal and monetary policy.
As we mark the first century of our democracy in the Republic of Ireland, I hope that we will witness a resurgence of parliaments across the world. For the challenges we face in this new century – climate change, economic inequality, the need for sustainable development – will only be met by democratically elected representatives coming together to do the people’s work.
On behalf of the people of Ireland, I would like to thank you all for joining us on this momentous day, may I wish you all the very best in your capacity as representatives of your people and parliaments.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.