What transpired in the Mansion House on 21 January 1919 was the very definition of sedition. It might seem surprising that the British authorities in Ireland allowed the inaugural meeting of Dáil Éireann to happen at all.
In times past, it might on its own have been enough to earn the participants a lengthy spell in gaol, or a worse fate. It was a breathtakingly audacious act. The meeting was held not in some dark back room of a distant rural public house but in one of the most magnificent buildings in the nation’s capital. Far from being a secret, it took place in the full light of day with the world’s press in attendance. The participants were not a handful of unknown figures, but the nation’s public representatives – at least, those the British had left at liberty.
Even more surprising, the regime in Dublin Castle might be said to have smoothed the republican path to the Mansion House. The Castle authorities had just revoked the provision of the Defence of the Realm Act that required Government permission for such public gatherings. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) had systematically defied this requirement when it had organised a nationwide programme of matches on “Gaelic Sunday” five months earlier. It seemed the authorities had little stomach for enforcing it on this occasion.
A new Chief Secretary, Ian Macpherson, had been appointed less than a fortnight beforehand. He decided against using any of the panoply of powers at his disposal to suppress the gathering. It is difficult to be absolutely certain as to his reasoning for doing so. It may have arisen from a disdain for the republican cause itself. Macpherson may have believed that those with responsibility for organising the proceedings were incapable doing the job properly and would discredit themselves and their campaign in the attempt. He may also have feared that suppression might generate adverse publicity at a time when the attention of the world was focussed – with much encouragement from the British themselves – on the issue of national self-determination. Given that the Prime Minister and many of his senior colleagues were in Paris for the Peace Conference, an absence of firm direction from London may also have been in the mix of reasons for the decision.
Whatever the reasoning, the day proved to be a triumph for the republicans, who stage-managed the day’s affairs with aplomb, and a serious reversal for the Government. When word came through regarding the events in Soloheadbeg on the same day, Macpherson’s judgement was even emphatically called into question. His reputation never recovered and he was replaced after less than 16 months in his post.