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Tuesday 23 July 2019

The 1918 election: An opportunity seized by a nation that was hungry for independence

The Sinn Fein members elected in the December 1918 election at the first Dail Eireann meeting, called by Sinn Fein on January 21, 1919. Shown are (from l to r): 1st row: L. Ginell, Michael Collins (leader of the Irish Republican Army), Cathal Brugha, Arthur Griffiths (founder of Sinn Fein), Eamon de Valera (president of the Irish Republic), Count E. MacNeill, William Cosgrave and E. Blythe; 2nd row: P. Maloney, Terence McSwiney (Lord Mayor of Dublin), Richard Mulcahy, J. O'Doherty, J. O'Mahony, J. Dolan, J. McGuinness, P. O'Keefe, Michael Staines, McGrath, Dr. B. Cussack, L. de Roiste, W. Colivet and the Reverend Father Michael O'Flanagan (vice-president of Sinn Fein); 3rd row: P. War, A. McCabe, D. Fitzgerald, J. Sweeney, Dr. Hayes, C. Collins, P. O'Maillie, J. O'Mara, B. O'Higgins, J. Burke and Kevin O'Higgins; 4th row: J. McDonagh and J. McEntee; 5th row: P. B 1919 Ireland
The Sinn Fein members elected in the December 1918 election at the first Dail Eireann meeting, called by Sinn Fein on January 21, 1919. Shown are (from l to r): 1st row: L. Ginell, Michael Collins (leader of the Irish Republican Army), Cathal Brugha, Arthur Griffiths (founder of Sinn Fein), Eamon de Valera (president of the Irish Republic), Count E. MacNeill, William Cosgrave and E. Blythe; 2nd row: P. Maloney, Terence McSwiney (Lord Mayor of Dublin), Richard Mulcahy, J. O'Doherty, J. O'Mahony, J. Dolan, J. McGuinness, P. O'Keefe, Michael Staines, McGrath, Dr. B. Cussack, L. de Roiste, W. Colivet and the Reverend Father Michael O'Flanagan (vice-president of Sinn Fein); 3rd row: P. War, A. McCabe, D. Fitzgerald, J. Sweeney, Dr. Hayes, C. Collins, P. O'Maillie, J. O'Mara, B. O'Higgins, J. Burke and Kevin O'Higgins; 4th row: J. McDonagh and J. McEntee; 5th row: P. B 1919 Ireland

Conor Mulvagh

The general election called by the British Government immediately after the WWI armistice was the first opportunity for Irish nationalists to vote since 1910.

The intervening years had seen not only the World War but the Easter Rising, executions and mass internments that saw the rise of the more radical republican Sinn Féin competing with the Irish Parliamentary Party for the nationalist vote in Ireland.

The 1918 General Election was a landmark in British and Irish electoral history. For the first time women - though not all women - were given the vote and men aged 21 and over, regardless of ownership 0f property, were enfranchised. The December 1918 election, coming so soon after the end of WWI generated unexpected changes in politics and complexities in society.

One of the least well-known facts about WWI is that Germany possessed universal male suffrage on the eve of the war whereas the United Kingdom did not.

One of the primary aims of the 1918 Representation of the People Act was to enfranchise 5.2 million new male voters as well as the nearly 8.5 million women who got the vote.

Overall, the number of voters increased four-fold to over 21 million people, more than 1.9m (9pc) of whom were living in Ireland.

Youth was a major factor in the 1918 General Election. Not only were younger, less well-off men getting the vote for the first time, but a lot more men, and women for the first time, had come of age since the previous election.

There had been two general elections in 1910; both incidentally producing almost identical results. Thanks to the 1911 Parliament Act, the next general election was due to take place by the end of 1915 but due to the war this was postponed. So, in 1918, there had not been a general election for a full eight years.

However, wartime delays were not the only reason voting was a novelty in many Irish constituencies in 1918.

The simple fact was that, across large tracts of the country, the machine politics of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the lack of concerted opposition meant many seats were "safe" seats and electoral contests were rare after the healing of the Parnell split in 1900.

With the strong exception of Ulster - where Nationalist versus Unionist contests were frequent - and South Munster where independent nationalists loyal to William O'Brien ran against the Irish party, there was a belt of constituencies stretching across Leinster and Connaught in which elections had been the exception rather than the rule since the turn of the century.

In fully 34 out of 100 Irish constituencies, there had not been an election between the turn of the century and the 1916 Rising.

There had been 10 by-elections in Ireland between the Rising and the 1918 General Election and these tell their own story. Contrary to the narrative that these by-elections spelled the annihilation of the Irish Parliamentary Party, they won in five out of 10 of the contests.

Conversely, the fact Sinn Féin were able to win first-past-the-post elections under the old restricted manhood franchise in the other five by-elections puts into question the theory that the new franchise and youth were the decisive factors for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election.

So, the reality was Sinn Féin had already harnessed the legacy of the Easter Rising and was leveraging this new republicanism into votes before the new electorate got its say at the polls.

Skipping forward to the main event, the 1918 General Election, one of the starkest facts is that almost a quarter (25) of all seats in Ireland were won by Sinn Féin uncontested.

It is impossible to infer how voters in these constituencies might have voted if they had been given an opportunity.

The first-past-the-post system played to Sinn Féin's advantage. In those constituencies where there was a contest, the IPP won 23pc of the votes but only six out of 103 seats.

John Dillon, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party since John Redmond's death in March, focused his efforts on contests he felt his party stood a chance of winning.

Dillon himself hadn't had to contest his own seat in Mayo East since 1892. His contender in 1918 was a 36-year-old who canvassed in his Volunteer uniform - Éamon de Valera.

Another unusual facet of the 1918 election was that, unlike today, well-known candidates sometimes ran in multiple constituencies.

For Sinn Féin, many of their activists were relatively unknown outside Irish Volunteer or IRB circles.

The party relied on a few more celebrity candidates in contests where a strong and well-known local activist couldn't be found. De Valera was the epitome of this. He ran in four different constituencies.

In East Clare he ran unopposed on foot of his 1917 by-election victory. In South Down, his name still appeared on the ballot despite an electoral pact between the IPP and Sinn Féin in parts of Ulster.

This had been brokered by Bishop McHugh of Derry to avoid Unionists gaining key swing seats where the nationalist vote might be split between Home Rulers and Sinn Féiners.

The third seat contested by de Valera was also in Ulster, this time a safer Nationalist seat with no fear of Unionist interloping.

In West Belfast (reconstituted as Belfast Falls), de Valera faced down Joseph Devlin, the leading Home Ruler in Ulster. Devlin ran two different grassroots Home Rule organisations, the United Irish League and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

On home turf and with his ward bosses firmly behind him, Devlin trounced de Valera 8,488 to 3,245 votes.

However, back in Mayo East, de Valera was facing down his rival party's leader. Dillon ran his constituency from Ballaghaderreen (then in Mayo) where his aunt, the former president of the Ladies Land League, Anne Deane, oversaw much of the constituency affairs for Dillon up to her death in 1905.

In spite of his longstanding representation for the constituency and his leadership of the IPP, Dillon lost and de Valera took two-thirds of the votes.

This was a signal victory for Sinn Féin. Nationally, they won 73 seats and the Irish party won six.

Only one of those six was outside of Ulster.

In Redmond's old Waterford City constituency, his war-veteran son held the seat he had won following his father's death.

In charting the transformation of Irish politics in 1918, several historians have argued the reason younger voters plumped for Sinn Féin in the ballot boxes is that they did not possess the memory of struggle which the older generation had endured through the years of land hunger, land war, and dashed hopes for Home Rule.

In the generational politics of today, it is interesting to consider the transformative effect younger voters will have on elections and referenda in the future as a generations come of age who cannot remember a life before the Good Friday Agreement.

Dr Conor Mulvagh, UCD School of History

Irish Independent

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