There’s no question but that People’s Assemblies in one form or another are of very ancient lineage. The early Athenians are credited with the introduction of a form of direct democracy involving an Assembly where every male city citizen over the age of thirty could join in the debates. Much later an amended form of the Greek model was adopted as the Roman Senate, where membership was privileged and drawn from the ranks of a Patrician oligarchy.
Like most things Roman, this timid effort at democracy was overwhelmed by later barbarian invasion. Surprisingly, it was these very barbarians that in turn introduced a form of assembly referred to in Norse as the Thing. Not unlike the Athenians, this was an all male affair – and the Dublin version operated for hundreds of years at a locale not that far from present day College Green. I’m not sure if it was entirely coincidental but this was the area selected, early in the 18th century, as the site of the world’s first custom designed Parliament House, later known as Grattan’s Parliament. Built along Palladian lines, to the design of Architect Edward Lovett Pearse, in it we see, not just a monumental eminence and parliamentary extravagance, but a People’s Palace never fully realised.
From this historic perspective, the decision of the new Free State in 1922 to locate its Democratic Assembly, the product of a popular uprising, in the aristocratic surrounds of Leinster House (former Town House of the Dukes of Leinster) represented a perverse departure from earlier traditions and could even be viewed as a betrayal of the People’s Revolution.
To get a sense of the extent of the perversity that informed the Leinster House debacle, it’s important to appreciate that parliaments previously were essentially walk in affairs. And this is the aspect that has half-unconsciously become the dominant consideration in terms of the form and design of Parliaments as working buildings and as democratic institutions. A few examples will serve to illustrate the pattern. The Palace of Westminster sits in the heart of Whitehall and the busy life of London barrels right past the front door. It’s possible to stand right there on the Green outside, well known to millions of TV viewers, and chat to the line of visitors queuing up to visit the House and the Stranger’s Gallery. Likewise the Parliament House in Edinburgh and the Assembly Building in Wales, both modern in design and purposefully made open and accessible to all. In Douglas, Isle of Man, the House of Keys, an institution that traces its roots right back to the Viking invaders, is a walk up affair. As is the rather quaint and medieval-inspired States of Jersey. Belfast’s Stormont is a possible exception to the pattern, but this is a late legacy of the Troubles and overarching security concerns. Even so, for many years now this large estate, with Parliament Buildings at its centre, has operated as a Public Park, open to all.
So here I am, standing on Kildare Street staring past the intimidating four metre high railings that surrounds our Parliament building. Up at the main entrance, seventy metres distant and beyond the ranks of parked cars, I can just make out some political action, possibly an interview or a photocall – but because of the distance involved I can’t identify the participants. I’m not meant to. I wander around to the National Museum but from here the visual position isn’t improved and unbelievably, the railings here reach even higher. Flocks of tourists stand around, herded, sheep-like into a narrow confined space, a tight margin between the impertinent ugly railings and the Museum wall.
There’s a huge irony here, as what surrounds me was designed as public realm and large scale Cultural Quarter by the Oppressive, Victorian Imperialists that the Sinn Féiners professed to despise. But even the aristocratic Dukes of Leinster permitted the public to freely roam around the empty space that’s known today as Leinster Lawn. It took a native Rising to wreck it all and bequeath an unpleasant legacy that’s perverse, dismal, almost Ceaușescu-esque. Is there no end to our legislator’s arrogance and vanity?
Reg McCabe is a tour guide and local historian. You can follow him at @timethemetours
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