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Saturday 15 December 2018

Sinn Féin victory is a triumph of young over old

The 1918 election changed the face of Ireland, leading to the creation of the first Dáil and the War of Independence

Young guns: Some of the Sinn Féin leaders at the First Dail Éireann following the December election. Many elected members were still in jail. The front row here, from left: L Ginnell, Michael Collins, Cathal Brugha, Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera, Count Eoin MacNeill, William Cosgrave and Ernest Blythe.
Young guns: Some of the Sinn Féin leaders at the First Dail Éireann following the December election. Many elected members were still in jail. The front row here, from left: L Ginnell, Michael Collins, Cathal Brugha, Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera, Count Eoin MacNeill, William Cosgrave and Ernest Blythe.
Uproar: British prime minister David Lloyd George gave Sinn Féin a massive shot in the arm in the April before the election by threatening to introduce conscription in Ireland
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In December 1918, Ireland went to the polls in the most momentous general election of the 20th century.

The old order of the Irish Parliamentary party - the once dominant grouping that had been led by Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond - was swept away in an instant by the more militant young guns of Sinn Féin.

Political figures who had been condemned by many of their compatriots during the Easter Rising were now transformed into heroes in the country's most popular political party, Sinn Féin, led by Éamon De Valera.

The landslide of Sinn Féin led directly to the foundation of the first Dáil, which was seen by the British as a clandestine assembly.

Uproar: British prime minister David Lloyd George gave Sinn Féin a massive shot in the arm in the April before the election by threatening to introduce conscription in Ireland
Uproar: British prime minister David Lloyd George gave Sinn Féin a massive shot in the arm in the April before the election by threatening to introduce conscription in Ireland

It ushered in an extended period of violence before David Lloyd George's government finally conceded a limited form of independence in 1921.

The election exposed a generation gap in Irish politics, as the young challenged their elders. There were even suggestions that these young pups were intimidating the old folk.

A police report in Mayo said: "Sons are frightening their fathers as to what will happen if they don't vote Sinn Féin."

The average age of rank-and-file Volunteers - the military wing of Sinn Féin that gradually turned into the IRA - was just 23 at the time. The Volunteers played an active role in canvassing. In February, the passing of the British Representation of the People Act had extended voting rights in general elections to women over the age of 30 meeting certain property requirements.

And it also extended the vote to men over the age of 21, a gesture that was considered a reward for their service in World War I.

Ireland had not had a general election since 1910. So, a vast number of younger voters and women had never been to the polls before.

Many older voters had viewed the prospect of women voting with disdain. John Dillon, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had warned: "Women's suffrage will, I believe, be the ruin of our western civilisation.

"It will destroy the home, challenging the headship of man, laid down by God."

Moral torture

These kinds of attitudes made the Irish Parliamentary Party seem like complacent old fogeys.

In many areas, there was not even a contest as the older nationalist party declined to put up a candidate.

The MP for South Donegal, Swift MacNeill, declined to run, saying that he would find it "moral torture" to contest the seat after 31 years as an MP.

"I have been too long a member for this constituency to be able - consistent with self-respect - to solicit votes to secure my election."

While the old party appeared to be in decline, Sinn Féin was vibrant and in the ascendant after the 1916 rebellion, as it became the rallying point for those who supported the martyred heroes of the Rising.

But the ultimate victory of Sinn Féin was not a foregone conclusion. Although they had a string of by-election wins in 1917, the Irish Parliamentary Party fought back.

In the spring of 1918, the older party won a succession of by-elections in Waterford City, the seat left vacant by the death of leader John Redmond, South Armagh and East Tyrone.

But the British government had a remarkable talent for shooting itself in the foot, and enhancing the reputation of the more militant nationalists in Sinn Féin.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George gave Sinn Féin a massive shot in the arm in April by threatening to introduce conscription in Ireland to raise more men for the war effort.

Tens of thousands of Irish men of military age were expected to put their lives at risk at the front - and there was general uproar against this policy.

As protests mounted, the British authorities then ensured that Sinn Féin would be the party associated with the campaign against conscription by rounding up prominent members, ostensibly because of a "German plot" to start an armed insurrection in Ireland.

The grounds for these arrests were regarded as spurious, and helped to enhance the influence of the more militant activists like Michael Collins, who managed to evade capture.

Conscription was ultimately shelved amid political uproar.

Locked up in jail, Sinn Féin leaders were later given credit in the election for the climbdown, even though the Irish Parliamentary Party had also been involved in the anti-conscription campaign.

Michael Collins and his friend Harry Boland, two of the rising stars of the republican movement, exerted considerable influence in deciding who would run for Sinn Féin in the election.

Preference was given to prisoners and those who had fought in the Easter Rising. De Valera was held in prison in England and stood in four constituencies, winning two of them.

Election events could be rowdy affairs during this era, but this particular campaign was said to be relatively harmonious.

On occasions, however, there was intimidation of political rivals - and both the main nationalist parties were responsible.

In Waterford, members of the Sinn Féin Volunteers who were out campaigning were fired on by ex-servicemen armed with rifles.

And the Sinn Féiner Kevin O'Shiel complained that in Belfast he was attacked by a mob from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who pelted him with sticks, stones, rotten eggs, dead cats and rats.

Sinn Féin supporters were reported to have intimidated polling officials to allow underage voting.

Although there was conventional postering and canvassing, some of the campaign techniques in 1918 would not be seen now.

At a by-election in East Cavan during the year, God seemed to intervene on behalf of Sinn Féin, when the cure of an old man with paralysis was credited to party activist Father Michael O'Flanagan, who had given him a blessing.

While the Irish Parliamentary Party ran on its record of achieving land reform and the promise of Home Rule, Sinn Féin used the lofty rhetoric of the Rising in its manifesto.

The party was giving Ireland "the opportunity of vindicating her honour and pursuing the path of national salvation by rallying to the flag of the Irish Republic".

It promised to withdraw MPs from Westminster and "to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection".

On polling day, there were plenty of reports of impersonation, with some voters going to the polls several times.

One member of the women's group Cumann na mBan boasted: "We dressed in different clothes and voted in the name of absentee voters."

Last bastions of unionism

Others boasted that they voted dozens of times, but members of the Irish Parliamentary Party could hardly complain, as it was a trick that they themselves had used.

The mid-December poll resulted in an overwhelming victory for Sinn Féin as they won 73 of Ireland's 105 seats, and 47.5pc of the vote. Outside the six counties of the north-east, the SF voted was 68pc.

Outside Ulster, Sinn Féin almost swept the boards, and won all but three constituencies. Waterford City returned John Redmond's son Willie for the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the posh suburb of Rathmines and Trinity College were the sole bastions of southern unionism.

Sinn Féin's victory was described as a "triumph of the young over the old".

The party vice-president Father Michael O'Flanagan said at the end of it all: "The people have voted Sinn Féin. What we have to do now is explain what Sinn Féin is."

@KimBielenberg

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