Saturday 17 November 2018

Sligo Protestants and the Borough Election of January 1919

Padraig Deignan has just completed a PhD in History at NUI Maynooth. The title of his thesis is 'The Protestant community in Sligo, 1914-1949. He examined the economic, social, political and cultural aspects of the Protestant community in Sligo from the o


The local and European elections took place under the proportional representation (P.R.) system and it should be remembered that on 15 January 1919 this system of election became standard practice in Ireland when the citizens of Sligo town went to the polls and wrote a new chapter in political history becoming the first electorate in Britain or Ireland to vote under the P.R. system.

The background to the use of P.R. in the Sligo borough election of January 1919 lay in the poor financial condition of Sligo Corporation. The financial deprivations caused by the First World War had proved to be a significant catalyst for accelerating the already unhealthy financial situation of the corporation. In August 1917 a Local Government Board inquiry into the corporation's financial affairs blamed the poor financial situation of the corporation on 'the neglect of proper administrative procedures'. What could be done to remedy the finances of Sligo Borough? The answer came from the group who were contributing the most towards the upkeep of the town, the top ratepayers, who were largely Protestants.

The ratepayers believed that they must achieve political representation on the corporation in order to address the financial problem of Sligo borough. At the end of 1917 eighteen of the more prominent ratepayers, nine Protestant and nine Catholic businessmen, refused to pay charges, and they publicly registered their dissatisfaction with corporation maladministration. The ratepayers also decided to take their protest further and make an organised effort to remedy the finances of the borough and in November 1917 they formed the Sligo Ratepayers Association (S.R.A.).

In order to have general appeal and win the support of the nationalist majority in the town, the members of the S.R.A. could do with the support of the Catholic hierarchy. The S.R.A. were lucky in this regard and at the first meeting of the S.R.A. a well respected member of the Catholic clergy, Canon P.A. Butler, who had long been involved in various political organisations in Sligo supported the organisation arguing that 'political sympathies and religious differences are happily cast aside in a common effort and whole hearted desire to render whatever help we can to those who are charged with the destinies of this grand old town, and of safeguarding the destinies of its citizens'.

The well-known Protestant and unionist businessman Arthur Jackson was elected as chairman of the S.R.A. At the first meeting the S.R.A. decided that it could achieve more by putting pressure on the corporation rather than challenging it directly. On 10 November 1917 the unionist Sligo Independent, appealed to the citizens of the town 'irrespective of creed, class, or politics, to lend their enthusiastic support and hearty co-operation to the newly formed Ratepayers Association'. The question now was would the sitting councillors of Sligo Corporation listen to the advice of the S.R.A. or would they sit tight and hope that the organisation melted away? It seemed that at first the corporation agreed to work with the S.R.A. However, they refused to make any alterations to the rates.

Ultimately the corporation had to accept that some kind of action was necessary and in January 1918 the corporation and the S.R.A. came to an agreement and they arranged to have a parliamentary bill drafted and submitted to the House of Commons which would increase the powers of the corporation and a new system of election to Sligo Corporation would also be introduced. The new system of election agreed upon was P.R. with Single Transferable Voting (S.T.V.) and quota counting.

The main disadvantage of the existing 'first-past-the-post' system was that the votes cast for the unsuccessful candidates were lost and Protestants, most of whose sympathies lay with Protestant/unionist candidates and who amounted to around fifteen per cent of the population of Sligo Borough, found it very difficult to obtain representation on the corporation. Sligo Borough was divided into three separate wards and eight councillors represented each ward, although only two councillors in each ward had to offer themselves for election each January and a straight vote decided the winners in each ward. P.R. would mean that all eight councillors in each ward would have to go forward for election.

At a meeting on 13 February 1918 the members of Sligo Corporation agreed to the drafting of a parliamentary bill to use P.R. in corporation elections and also to amend the Sligo Borough Improvement Act of 1869. The amendment to the act would allow the corporation much more freedom to adjust rates as they saw fit. In early July 1918 Thomas Scanlon, M.P. for north Sligo introduced the bill to the House of Commons and on 30 July 1918 it received the Royal Assent and the Sligo Corporation Act of 1918 came into operation allowing the use of P.R. in Sligo Borough elections.

Elections for Sligo Corporation were scheduled to take place on 15 January 1919 and in early December 1918 the members of the S.R.A. who were eager to participate in the election selected eighteen candidates, eleven Protestant unionists and seven Catholic nationalists. The S.R.A. would pose a threat to the other parties in the election and it was with this in mind that at the end of 1918 the mayor, D.M. Hanley, who had been unanimously elected as the town's first Sinn Féin mayor in January 1917, made a point of publicly attacking S.R.A. calling it an 'overwhelmingly unionist' organisation. However, this did not seem to be the case as sixty-three nationalists and fifty unionists were registered members of S.R.A. This indicated that the organisation appealed to both political groups and both political traditions were almost equally represented.

In the weeks before the election the Sligo Independent's sympathies lay firmly with S.R.A. and the paper called on its readers to vote for the S.R.A. candidates. As Sligo town was the first municipality in the United Kingdom to employ P.R. as an electoral system, the election drew great interest from all over Britain and Ireland. There were a total of twenty-four seats on the corporation and forty-eight candidates put their names forward. The S.R.A. fielded eighteen candidates. Sinn Féin put forward thirteen candidates, Labour also put forward thirteen candidates and four independents sought election.

As a result of the media hype, the turnout for the election had been very high. A total of 2,208 of the 2,750 who were entitled to vote in the three wards went to the polls, which represented eighty percent of the electorate. The S.R.A. had done very well at the polls and had received 823 first preference votes in all three wards, securing thirty-seven per cent of the total vote and gaining eight seats for the party, five Protestants and three Catholics were elected. Sinn Féin gained 674 first preference votes and got seven seats. Labour got 432 first preference votes and five seats while the independents got 279 first preference votes and gained four seats. Sinn Féin and Labour along with one pro-Sinn Féin independent held thirteen seats on the new corporation, while the S.R.A. and the other independents had eleven seats between them.

Since the Sligo Corporation elections were the first to use P.R. in Britain or Ireland the election results attracted plenty of interest. The Dublin and Sligo newspapers of all shades and opinions were quick to applaud the success of the new electoral system. The Sligo Champion declared that 'the system has justified its adoption … and it is absolutely fair'. The Sligo Independent proudly stated that 'Sligo has the honour of being the first municipality in Ireland to adopt the principle, and everyone agrees that it was a great success'.

The Dublin based newspapers were equally impressed and the Irish Times argued that the election 'has established beyond dispute two big things in favour of proportional representation. The first is that it is a thoroughly workable system ... The other big thing - and it is really big - is the proof that in proportional representation we have the Magna Charta of political and municipal minorities'. The Freeman's Journal praised the fairness of the new system saying that 'the first elections, on the principle of proportional representation by the single transferable vote, have resulted in the fair representation of all parties', while the Irish Independent called for P.R. to be introduced countrywide arguing that 'proportional representation has given Sligo a model council. There is no reason why it should not be equally successful in Dublin and other cities and towns in Ireland'. The extraordinary success of the Sligo election was quickly followed by the adoption of P.R. at national level.

The first use of P.R. for the Sligo borough election of January 1919 was a significant milestone for democracy in Ireland. However, importantly for Sligo the use of P.R. and the crisis created by the poor financial condition of the borough provided an ideal opportunity for Protestant and Catholic businessmen to come together outside the divisive politics of unionism and nationalism, and for unionists to pragmatically accept the end of the unionist cause locally allowing them to focus their energy into alternative political activity.