Legend has it that in January 1919, some members of the first Dáil, and possibly the second one too, were so unsure of the democratic process and the protection it might afford them that they felt it prudent to bring firearms to those Mansion House meetings.
Whether they anticipated a challenge from inside or outside the assembly is uncertain. Both were possible.
It may seem fatuous to compare the first, emotional meetings of a revolutionary assembly to the fate of a venerable parliament trying to survive in-house revolution decades in the distillation.
However, yesterday’s 11-0 ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court that prime minister Boris Johnson had acted unlawfully when he advised Queen Elizabeth II to suspend the House of Commons is every bit as significant in terms of democratic process and integrity.
Indeed, its emotional pitch — at a moment when Britain is more deeply divided than at any time since its own civil war — is entirely comparable to those heady days in Dublin in 1919.
The ruling was emphatic, it left no wriggle room. It was an evisceration of Johnson’s government and its handling of Brexit. It was a no-holds-barred rejection of Johnson’s attempt to yellow-card parliament so he might take Britain out of the EU without a deal by October 31 and, possibly, provoke a general election.
Once again, despite the machinations, often dishonest, of Johnson, his vabinet zealots and, most of all, his adviser Dominic Cummings, Britain’s parliamentary sovereignty has been defended and vindicated.
Sanity, such a stranger in this adventure, prevailed. That allowed Speaker John Bercow to immediately announce that the House of Commons will reconvene at 11.30am this morning.
Earlier he said the Supreme Court had “vindicated the right and duty of parliament to meet at this crucial time”, and he would consult party leaders “as a matter of urgency”.
If the ruling provoked something of a frenzy in Britain, especially among those who offer themselves as “the voice of the people” then it is not hard to imagine what it provoked in Europe.
Pity those poor Brexit negotiators who can only sit and watch as the goalposts are moved for the third time at least during these difficult divorce talks. Had Johnson anything remotely like a conscience — political or otherwise — he would have resigned after any one of his six Commons defeats, but he did not.
Even so, it is very difficult to imagine he, an ego wrapped in an ego, can withstand the tsunami of resignation calls after yesterday’s ruling. But, bizarrely, he may hang on even though he has usually walked away from every other difficult moment in his career or private life.
Will the ruling make any real difference to Brexit? Probably not. Johnson’s administration is living on borrowed time.
The date of its collapse and the ensuing election will be significant as they will define how many votes the Tories lose to the Brexit Party.
If an election is held before October 31 Johnson can say that he was stymied — betrayed even — and that he would have delivered a do-or-die Brexit but for “collaborators”.
If the election falls after October 31, the need for an interim government may arise. A coalition of some sort will seek a new exit deadline and Johnson will again sing his stabbed-in-the-back theme song and claw back more wavering Tories.
That would lead to a new Tory government and Brexit. That prospect can only be prevented by some sort of miracle from the Liberal Democrats and Greens or, the most unlikely, a wave of pragmatism sweeping over Labour which might, finally, put country before party and end Jeremy Corbyn’s preposterous sitting-on-the-fence leadership.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson, speaking in New York, said the ruling has made getting a deal harder, though he did not elaborate on how getting deal without negotiations — as is the case now — could be made harder. He also signalled that he wants a fresh prorogation ahead of the Queen’s speech.
This, in some settings, might seem playing-fields-of-Eton chutzpa, but in the real world it, sadly, seems just another throwaway line in the Carry On Boris farce destroying Britain’s reputation as a stable, moderate, and reliable force.
Does he really imagine that he exists in an orbit beyond the reach of his country’s supreme highest court? That so many others might encourage or believe that delusion shows how closely chaos looms.
There is a sting in the tail of the ruling, one as relevant in Ireland as anywhere. The confirmation of parliamentary sovereignty prioritises parliament over forces that also assume high authority — referendums, unappeasable protestors, and opaque, unaccountable media and, maybe, “the markets”.
Whether such a reaffirmation can endure when politics and politicians are held in such low esteem and when electoral systems are so vulnerable must be in doubt.
The ruling did not just sound the opening notes of The Last Post for a failed prime minister.
It, if we care to see it, also warned that we cannot ever, least of all today, take democracy for granted.