Was Ireland a democracy in 1916?
Published 12/04/2016 | 18:40
The Easter Rising, it is often argued, had no democratic mandate. In the burning GPO, Pearse wondered if they had done the right thing after all. “After a few years” he consoled himself, “people will see the meaning of what we tried to do.”
In this heroic narrative, the brave minority showed the way to the passive majority, who would eventually be won over. And Republicans subsequently felt vindicated by the success of Sinn Fein in the General Election of 1918. Led by many veterans of the Rising, they swept aside the Irish Parliamentary Party and declared Irish independence in January 1919.
Fast forward to 1922 and the fruits of the Rising seemed a bit more problematic. The Dail accepted the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921, but the majority of the IRA did not.
So what, argued the republican purists, if the majority of the people were cowed into accepting the compromise settlement? Reacting to pro-Treaty arguments in 1922 that the Treaty was the ‘will of the people’, Republicans responded that Easter Rising too was unpopular at first.
An anti-Treaty handbill from 1922 reads, ‘if you had answered the will of the people in 1914 you would all have gone to Flanders. If you had answered the will of the people in Easter Week you would have lynched Patrick Pearse’. Civil War of course ensued between pro and anti-Treaty factions.
So it can be argued that the Rising set a precedent for undemocratic violence in twentieth century Ireland, beginning in the civil war but continuing right down to the present.
There is a wider question though, which we must address before we condemn the Rising of 1916 as undemocratic: was Ireland in fact a democracy in 1916?
The Government of Ireland
Under the Union, Ireland was an oddity. It sent elected representatives to the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster, but the government of Ireland sat in Dublin, not London and it was not elected.
It comprised of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, appointed by the Prime Minister, the under-secretary for Ireland, a senior civil servant, appointed in Whitehall, and the Governor General, the King’s representative, appointed by consultation between the British government and the monarchy.
This is important because while the legislature remained in London, the executive branch of the Irish government lay in the person of these men in Dublin. They, not any Irish elected representatives, controlled the police and military in Ireland, enforced the law and collected taxes.
So when the IRB newspaper Irish Freedom argued in 1911 “Our country is run by a set of insolent officials, to whom we are nothing but a lot of people to be exploited and kept in subjection. The executive power rests on armed force that preys on the people with batons if they have the gall to say they do not like it”, they were exaggerating but not lying.
The Irish MPs did of course have seats in Westminster, where the laws of the United Kingdom were made and they did have the muscle to get the Liberals to draft the Third Home Rule Bill in 1921 for Irish self-government.
Here too however there were problems. First, the unelected House of Lords held up the Bill for as long as it could and Ulster Unionists mobilised in arms against it. When combined with the outbreak of the First World War, this caused Home Rule to be postponed and north-east Ulster excluded in 1914. In 1916 Irish self-government looked as if it might never come to pass.
So the separatists could argue that 30 years of constitutional politics had in effect caved in to two years of militant unionist mobilisation. Why should nationalists too not reach for the gun, they argued?
The right to vote
Finally, a fact not fully appreciated today is that in the Ireland of 1916, only about one in six adults had the right to vote. No women and men only over a property threshold of £10 per year could vote; roughly 15% of the Irish adult population.
Local government was somewhat more democratic, but nevertheless voting rights were confined to property owning rate payers, so that in Dublin city for example out of a population of over 300,000 within municipal boundaries (about 170,000 more lived in the suburbs), the electorate for the Corporation was a mere 38,000 people.
None of this means that Ireland was a tyranny in 1916, or that the 1916 rebels represented the silent majority. Of the seven signatories of the Proclamation only one (James Connolly) had even run for office, in the Irish Socialist Republican Party and he had failed to be elected onto Dublin Corporation.
The people at large were never consulted before the Rising was launched.
What it does mean though, is that Ireland under the Union was not democratic by any modern understanding of the term. And it does help to explain why, when the republicans did turn a mixture of mass struggle and electoral politics in 1918, they annihilated the older nationalist party the IPP.
In 1910, the last Irish General Election before the First World War, a mere 207,598 votes were cast. In 1918, the breakthrough election for Sinn Fein, with the property restriction lifted for men, and women over 30 allowed to vote, 1,015,515 people casted their ballot. This grew to 1,786,318 votes in 1923, when all women over 21 could vote in the new Irish Free State.
This also helps us to understand not so much the Rising of 1916, as how relatively easily the Republicans were able to displace and discredit the British authorities in the years that followed. If Ireland had been a real democracy in 1916, this would not have been possible.
John Dorney is a historian, author of 'Peace After the Final Battle the Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924 (2014)' and editor of The Irish Story website.