Analysis: 100 years ago this week, Ireland went to the polls and ushered in a new political era

Irish people voted in greater numbers than ever before. The Irish Parliamentary Party, the dominant political force for a generation, was ruthlessly swept aside by Sinn Féin. The verdict was overwhelmingly decisive and the consequences for the future of Ireland were profound. Without question, the 1918 general election was the most momentous Irish electoral contest of the 20th century.

On 14 December 1918, just weeks after the end of the first World War, voters in Britain and Ireland went to the polls for the first time since 1910. Under the Representation of the People Act 1918, there was a near threefold increase in the size of the Irish electorate, which expanded from 700,000 to just under two million. All men over the age of 21 were entitled to vote as were women over the age of 30, subject to certain property qualifications. For the first time, over one-third of the Irish electorate was female and 75 per cent of the adult population in total could now vote.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Archives, Ernest Blythe, Robert Barton and James Ryan on what motivated them to stand for election in 1918. From An Chéad Dáil 1919 produced by Aindreas Ó Gallchóir and broadcast in January 1969

The counting of votes was delayed to allow the return of postal votes from soldiers serving overseas and the result was announced on 28 December. In Britain, David Lloyd George and the coalition government won a landslide victory, but the results were seismic in Ireland. Under the "first past the post" electoral system, Sinn Féin won three-quarters of the Irish seats at Westminster (there were 105 at the time of the election) with less than half the votes cast. Sinn Féin secured 73 seats, the Irish Parliamentary Party six and Ulster Unionists 26. Notably, the Irish Labour Party opted not to contest the election and thereby complicate the national question. Consequently, it missed a vital opportunity to appeal to a newly and massively enfranchised electorate.

The scale of Sinn Féin’s victory in what became the 26 counties was immense. In all of Leinster, Munster and Connacht, only one survivor of the Irish Parliamentary Party remained standing. This was Captain William Archer Redmond in Waterford city who had first won the seat in March 1918 in a by-election caused by the death of his father, John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Death spared him seeing the annihilation of the party.

John Dillon addresses an anti-conscription meeting in Ballaghaderreen in 1918. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

One potent example of this annihilation was in East Mayo. John Dillon had represented this constituency for 33 years and succeeded Redmond as party leader. In a staggering blow, Dillon was defeated by a two to one majority by Éamon de Valera, leader of Sinn Féin. As the Mayo News put it, the Irish Parliamentary Party was "blotted out" of public life. Resigned to widespread defeat, the party ran no candidate against Sinn Féin in 25 constituencies. Dillon lamented that the younger generation was ignorant of what his party had achieved for Ireland. After the election, the Westmeath Independent reminded its readers that "many of those who now disappear from the arena of active politics had grown grey in the service of Ireland".

However, Sinn Féin won only three seats in the territory that subsequently became Northern Ireland. There, the Ulster Unionists regained a comfortable majority and consolidated its grip on power. This has significant consequences when Ireland was partitioned under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Of the six Irish Parliamentary Party seats, four were in Ulster where Cardinal Michael Logue, Roman Catholic archbishop of Armagh, brokered an election pact between Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party. In the Falls Division in Belfast, Joseph Devlin retained a seat for the Irish Parliamentary Party in a head-to-head contest by defeating de Valera. In time, the Irish Parliamentary Party in the North became the Nationalist Party.   

Sinn Féin, like the Ulster Unionists, harnessed the electioneering and organisational power of its female members

What factors propelled Sinn Féin to victory? First of all, it was heir to the legacy of the 1916 Rising and benefitted from the radicalisation of political opinion between 1916 and 1918 which saw home rule jettisoned in favour of a demand for an Irish republic. The result of the 1918 general election was interpreted as a retrospective democratic endorsement of the Rising. Secondly, back-boned by the revamped Irish Volunteers, Sinn Féin claimed the credit for averting the threat of conscription in April 1918.

Thirdly, its electoral machine was superior. Uncontested elections had been a common feature in Ireland due to the dominance of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the 1918 general election was the first meaningful political contest in the 20th century in a quarter of Irish constituencies. The Irish Parliamentary Party’s dilapidated electoral machinery was unfit for battle and bankrupt.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Lindie Naughton on Markievicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel, her biography of the first woman elected to the British parliament

In addition, Sinn Féin, like the Ulster Unionists, harnessed the electioneering and organisational power of its female members. Although women could run for election for the first time in 1918, only two women did so for Sinn Féin: Winifred Carney in Belfast and Constance Markievicz, who was elected in Dublin. Famously, she was the first woman elected to the British parliament.

Fourth, Sinn Féin’s electoral propaganda was highly effective. It capitalised on the arrest in May of most of the Sinn Féin leadership on the pretext of involvement in a "German plot". Prison was a priceless electoral asset for the 47 Sinn Féin candidates in jail. Sinn Féin’s director of propaganda sent party notes and news pieces to provincial and local newspapers. These mercilessly depicted the Irish Parliamentary Party as conscriptionists and corruptionists. Sinn Féin swept up new voters, but it also attracted many defectors from the Irish Parliamentary Party which had little to offer Irish voters. 

Sinn Féin election posters from 1918

In early January 1919, there was an unmistakeable sense of a new political era, both in Ireland and in Europe.  Sinn Féin’s specific electoral promises were relatively simple and relatively limited. Its elected representatives would abstain from Westminster, create a constituent assembly in Dublin and appeal to the international peace conference at Versailles to have Ireland’s claims of statehood recognised. The zenith of Sinn Féin’s policy was reached on 21 January 1919 with the opening of the first Dáil. This was a political revolution.

The Freeman’s Journal, the newspaper of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was dignified in defeat. "Whatever democratic nationalists may think of the wisdom of the people’s decision, whatever their doubts about the practicability of the republican policy … as democrats, nationalists are bound now to give the republicans a fair field". The British government demurred and much blood was spilled in consequence.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ