The first meeting of the First Dáil, which took place on 21 January 1919, in the Mansion House, Dublin was particularly significant for the Department of Justice and Equality. The Constitution, which was proclaimed at the meeting, provided for the establishment of a Ministry of Home Affairs. Five years later, in 1924, the Department of Home Affairs was renamed the Department of Justice with the then Minister for Home Affairs, Kevin O’Higgins, becoming the first Minister for Justice.
Michael Collins was appointed the first Minister for Home Affairs, on 22 January 1919, a role he held until April of that year when he was appointed Minister for Finance. As Minister for Finance, he established the Dáil Loan which financed the work of the ‘National Civil Service’ set up by the First Dáil.
The Department of Home Affairs really came into being following Austin Stack’s succession from Arthur Griffith as Minister for Home Affairs in November 1919. The most notable achievement of the Department of Home Affairs under Minister Stack was the establishment of Courts of Arbitration (‘Dáil Courts’ or ‘Republican Courts’), on a national scale, which provided an alternative to the British court system and helped bolster the campaign for Irish sovereignty. An alternative police force, the Republican police, was also established to support the courts.
The campaign for Irish sovereignty also involved a guerrilla conflict, the War of Independence (Anglo-Irish War), which began when the First Dáil met in January 1919. Over a thousand people were killed in that war which continued until 11 July 1921, when a Truce came into effect to allow for negotiations between the Irish and British authorities.
While both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith were among the five Irish signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed on 6 December 1921, Austin Stack opposed the Treaty between Ireland and Great Britain. Minister Stack was subsequently replaced as Minister for Home Affairs on 10 January 1922 by Éamonn Duggan, a lawyer and third signatory of the Treaty.
In January 1922, the Provisional Irish Government, which was set up in accordance with the Treaty, also established a Department of Home Affairs which was distinct from the Department of Home Affairs already in existence. The Provisional Government’s Department of Home Affairs, which was also under Minister Éamonn Duggan, was given authority over the bodies which had administered functions and services in relation to the police, courts, etc., in Ireland under British authority prior to 1922.
Staff from Dublin Castle’s Chief-Secretary’s Office were transferred into the new Department, as were other civil servants formerly employed by the British authorities, and various others, including staff from the Departments established by the First Dáil. On 9 September 1922 Kevin O’Higgins was appointed Minister for Home Affairs, by which time the remaining staff of the original Department of Home Affairs had been absorbed into the new Department of Home Affairs.
By that time, however, the country was over two months into a Civil War between Irish forces for and opposed to the Treaty. That war, like the earlier War of Independence, which had concluded only just over a year earlier, claimed the lives of over a thousand people, including that of Michael Collins, at the age of 31. While the Civil War had concluded within a year, on 24 May 1923, Kevin O’Higgins was assassinated four years later, in 1927, aged 35. Two years later Austin Stack, who in 1903 had played on the Kerry football team that won the All-Ireland Final, died aged 50.
Among the notable achievements of the Department of Home Affairs between 1922 and 1924 was the establishment of a new police force, named An Garda Síochána in the Garda Síochána (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1923, and the enactment of the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, which remains fundamental to our justice system today. The Department of Home Affairs was renamed the Department of Justice under the Ministers and Secretaries Act, 1924.§
Five Ministers had served as Ministers for Home Affairs during that five-year period from 1919 – 1924, reflecting the turbulent times in the country from which the Department of Justice emerged in 1924, becoming the Department of Justice and Equality in 2011.