Tuesday 17 September 2019

All changed, changed utterly...

One hundred years ago, women got the vote and Sinn Féin swept to a dramatic victory in an election which proved seismic for this country, writes Andrew Lynch

Left to right: Sinn Féin's Countess Markievicz photographed with Kathleen Lynn
Left to right: Sinn Féin's Countess Markievicz photographed with Kathleen Lynn
The Irish Independent report on the opening of Dáil Éireann in 1919.
Senior members of Sinn Féin, possibly at the party's October 1919 Ard Fheis. Due to the British suppression of Sinn Féin this was the last Ard Fheis held until 1921. Included in the front row are Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Harry Boland, Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. Photo: Irish Independent/NLI Collection
Sinn Féin leaders Harry Boland, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera

Shortly before the Irish general election of December 1918, Sinn Féin supporters began singing a new song at their campaign rallies.

'When we were little children, Johnny Redmond was a fool.

He bade us to be satisfied with something called Home Rule.

But we have learned a thing or two since we went to school,

And we'll crown de Valera King of Ireland.'

In just four lines, this little ditty perfectly summed up what was arguably the most momentous electoral contest in Irish history. It effectively killed off the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which had been fighting for Home Rule at Westminster since 1874 and come agonisingly close to success.

Sinn Féin's landslide victory, meanwhile, confirmed their new status as leaders of nationalist Ireland - although the song's reference to a 'King Eamon' suggests that their followers weren't entirely sure what a republic would actually involve.

One hundred years later, historians still argue about a crucial question. Did the 1918 election result represent a mandate for those who later used violence to free Ireland from British rule? As our current 'Decade of Centenaries' winds on towards the War of Independence (1919-21) and the Civil War (1922-23), it's a debate that will soon come into focus all over again.

Long before polling day on December 14, it was clear that the 1918 election would be a seismic event. It was the first real test of public opinion since 1910, since the outbreak of World War I had put normal politics on hold.

In the words of WB Yeats, Ireland had "changed, changed utterly" during the intervening eight years and it was time for the people to have their say.

For a start, there were far more citizens eligible to cast a ballot. The British Representation of the People Act passed in February gave voting rights to all men over 21 and most women over 30. At a stroke, the Irish electorate increased from around 690,000 to 1.9 million - and of those, only an estimated 360,000 had ever voted before.

The battle for Ireland's future was fought between three main political groups. One was the Unionist Party, almost entirely concentrated in Ulster and certain Protestant areas of Dublin. Their attitude was still summed up by a postcard that had circulated some years earlier, showing a bullet-headed young boy clenching his fists and the slogan: "Who says we're to have Home Rule? Come to Belfast and we'll shew [sic] 'em."

Sinn Féin were on the other end of the spectrum. Following the Easter Rising in 1916 (which some British newspapers wrongly called a "Sinn Féin rebellion"), it had been transformed from a fringe outfit that wanted a dual monarchy into a mass movement seeking full-blown independence. One of its election posters asked the critical question: 'Is Ireland a part of England?... [If not], why should Irish Members attend the English Parliament, especially when they are outnumbered there 6 to 1?'

The IPP, which had ruled the roost for so long, now found itself caught between these two extreme positions. It was still suffering from the loss of its leader John Redmond, who had died suddenly following an intestinal operation in March. "I am a broken-hearted man," Redmond confided to a priest shortly before his death, which was hardly surprising since the Home Rule bill he pushed through the House of Commons in 1914 had been frustrated by the outbreak of world war and the Rising back home.

At times during this tense and volatile period, it seemed that even God was on Sinn Féin's side. When a by-election took place in East Cavan in June, the party's vice-president Father Michael O'Flanagan went to campaign there and blessed an old man who had been paralysed for five years. He reportedly started walking again shortly afterwards.

Inevitable triumph

On a more practical level, Prime Minister David Lloyd George made two huge mistakes in early 1918 that made Sinn Féin's triumph inevitable. Following the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin's new Bolshevik regime had pulled out of the war and allowed a million German troops to move to the western front. As a result, Lloyd George needed more troops quickly and he decided to get them by imposing conscription on Ireland.

"If he goes for it, he's ended," Michael Collins wrote gleefully in a letter to his sister. Although that was a slight exaggeration, the Chief Secretary for Ireland Henry Duke turned out to be correct when he warned Lloyd George, "We might as well recruit Germans." Sinn Féin, the IPP and the Catholic Church all came together to organise an anti-conscription pledge and a general strike that made the policy totally unworkable. Despite this nationalist unity, it was de Valera's party who took most of the credit since they had been opposed to World War I in the first place.

Angry and humiliated, the British blundered again. They ordered the arrest of more than 80 leading Sinn Féin activists, accusing them of being involved in a secret 'German plot' to start another rebellion with imported arms. The evidence for this was flimsy at best, but de Valera and others happily allowed themselves to be locked up because they knew it would swing public opinion in their favour.

William Sears, the president of North Wexford Sinn Féin, put it bluntly at a meeting in Enniscorthy. "England wanted Ireland's loyalty by kicking her before breakfast, kicking her before dinner and spitting on her at night. Do those present think that England won any loyalty in Ireland by arresting the leaders… who are dearer to the Irish people today than they have ever been?"

Another important development was Labour's decision not to contest the election at all. The party co-founded by James Connolly in 1912 was now admitting that Ireland's independence had to be won first before their fight for socialism could begin. Contrary to public belief, de Valera never actually said, "Labour must wait" - but that was certainly his attitude and he was grateful for their co-operation.

By now, a clear generation gap was starting to emerge. While the new IPP leader John Dillon was 67 in December 1918, most of Sinn Féin's heavy hitters such as de Valera (36) and Collins (28) were considerably younger. According to one police report from Mayo, "Sons are frightening their fathers as to what will happen if they don't vote Sinn Féin."

In one other important respect, Dillon and his colleagues were also on the wrong side of history. The IPP had been firmly against giving votes to females, with Dillon loftily declaring, "Women's suffrage will, I believe, be the ruin of our western civilisation." As the feminist campaigner and Sinn Féin activist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington pointed out, "Women are now citizens and they have tenacious memories."

One of Sinn Féin's biggest election promises was that they would secure Ireland a place at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. They were inspired by the words of US President Woodrow Wilson, who had promised self-determination for all small nations following World War I. When the time came, sadly, Ireland's self-appointed delegation was refused entry and Michael Collins became so incensed that he wanted to change President Wilson's mind by kidnapping him.

The IPP meanwhile, emphasised their greater experience and tried to depict Sinn Féin as romantic "rainbow chasers". Some of their MPs could read the writing on the wall and retired, with Swift MacNeill from South Donegal declaring that it would be "moral torture" for him to fight Sinn Féin after 31 years of service. "I have been too long a member for this constituency to be able - consistent with self-respect - to solicit votes to secure my election."

Another IPP candidate, William Doris, predicted that, "The vast majority of the boys from 21 to 30 will be against us. They appear to have gone mad and no doubt we will have all kinds of intimidation, personation etc."

Local Skirmishes

There was at least some truth to Doris's fears. As the campaign progressed, reports came in of local skirmishes with hurley sticks, stones thrown at public meetings and people being less than gently encouraged to vote the right way. While Sinn Féin were certainly guilty of dirty tricks, however, it is only fair to point out that the IPP had used exactly the same tactics in earlier contests.

On December 28, the votes were finally counted (there had been a delay to accommodate soldiers returning from Europe). An excited crowd gathered outside Sinn Féin headquarters on Harcourt St in Dublin, where the results were displayed on a noticeboard held up to a second-floor window. They turned out to be far more dramatic than almost anyone had expected.

Sinn Féin won 73 seats, sweeping the boards virtually everywhere south of Newry. The once all-powerful IPP was reduced to just six, with even John Dillon himself trounced by de Valera in east Mayo. The Unionists took 22, all in Ulster apart from Trinity College Dublin and the wealthy Dublin suburb of Rathmines.

Once again, the British had done Sinn Féin a favour because their first-past-the-post electoral system flattered the party who won most support. The vote totals were less spectacular, with Sinn Féin on 46.9pc, the Unionists 25.3c and the IPP 21.7pc. On the other hand, Sinn Féin had been given a walkover by the IPP in 25 constituencies and otherwise their overall vote share would have been more like 60pc.

One of the victors stood out for obvious reasons. Countess Constance Markiewicz became the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons (although she naturally refused to take her seat), triumphing for Sinn Féin in the inner-city constituency of St Patrick's Division. She was in prison at the time with Kathleen Clarke (widow of the 1916 leader Tom Clarke), who recalled, "Madame got so excited, she went yelling and dancing all over the place."

Over in London, meanwhile, Lloyd George was celebrating his return to 10 Downing Street. However, he was still a Liberal Prime Minister leading a coalition dominated by Conservatives such as Winston Churchill who were implacably opposed to Irish independence. This would also have profound consequences in the military and political battles that lay ahead.

The fundamental question remains: what did Sinn Féin's voters think they were voting for? De Valera had promised them a republic but he was extremely vague about what his party would do to achieve it. Father Michael O'Flanagan himself admitted afterwards, "The people have voted Sinn Féin. What we have to do now is explain what Sinn Féin is." In his 1927 book Old Ireland, the IPP-supporting barrister AM Sullivan was more explicit: "Many murderers were elected, but they had not stood as murderers."

Whatever the truth, Ireland was now a powder-keg waiting to explode. On January 21, 1919, Sinn Féin's newly elected representatives met at the Mansion House in Dublin and declared the first Dáil Éireann. Just a few hours earlier, a unit of the Irish Volunteers (soon to be renamed the IRA) ambushed and killed two policemen in Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary. The War of Independence had begun.

"We will now enter the most difficult part of our 'Decade of Centenaries'", President Michael D Higgins noted at the Dublin Festival of History last October. Election 1918 marks the entry point.

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