A global mandate: Ireland’s international struggle for self-determination
By Prof. Fearghal McGarry
The general election of December 1918 was arguably the most significant in modern Irish history. Securing a popular mandate for Sinn Féin and its objective of an Irish republic, and confirming the collapse of the Irish Parliamentary Party and its Home Rule project, it marked a decisive shift in the course of Irish politics. It also saw the consolidation of unionism in north-east Ulster, reinforcing the likelihood of partition. The election led directly to the establishment of a national parliament, Dáil Éireann, and the formation of a republican government on 21 January 1919. Though we think of these transformative events primarily in terms of their impact on Ireland, they were significantly shaped by international factors.
Called immediately after the Armistice, the 1918 election was itself a wartime event, its results delayed until late December in order to allow soldiers’ ballots to be counted. The large expansion of the UK electorate, from which Sinn Féin benefited, was another wartime measure. The effect of the Representation of the People Act, which extended the franchise to all men over 21 and women over 30 who met the property qualifications, was to increase the Irish electorate from around 700,000 to close to two million people. The issue most responsible for Sinn Féin becoming a nationally-organised movement was also directly linked to the wider war: its successful leadership of the campaign against conscription in April 1918.
International circumstances loomed large in Sinn Féin’s election manifesto which identified four means to achieve a republic: withdrawal from Westminster; utilising ‘any and every means’ to undermine British rule (an ambiguous formulation that would subsequently justify armed struggle); the establishment of a constituent assembly; and an appeal ‘to the Peace Conference for the establishment of Ireland as an Independent Nation’.
The announcement of a post-war conference to redraw Europe’s boundaries strengthened the credibility of Irish separatists (previously derided as ‘rainbow chasers’ by their moderate rivals). It also leant greater legitimacy to Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy. How could the Irish Party demand a place at an international peace conference while simultaneously ‘declaring their will to accept the status of a province’ by taking their seats at Westminster? As Sinn Féin’s manifesto argued: ‘The present Irish members of the English Parliament constitute an obstacle to be removed from the path that leads to the Peace Conference.’
The general election of 1918 saw republicans appeal for a mandate at home in order to place their case before the world: ‘vote so that President Wilson may have overwhelming proof of Ireland’s demand to be free.’ In some respects, this strategy made little sense as the Allies were unlikely to side – against Britain – with a movement that had identified itself with its ‘gallant’ German allies in 1916. In addition, self-determination had always been intended for the peoples of the defeated Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, rather than those ruled by the victors.
But in terms of both domestic politics and international propaganda, Sinn Féin’s appeal to a peace conference which had declared its intention to settle ‘the future of the Nations of the world . . . on the principle of government by consent of the governed’ was astute. Ireland had not been listed among those countries deserving independence in Wilson’s Fourteen Points but both republicans and imperialists understood the revolutionary implications of American support for a new world order determined by the principle of self-determination and the international rule of law rather than military might. Britain and France had even felt it necessary to affirm (insincerely) that governments should derive ‘their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous population’. In addition, republics – a rarity in early 20th-century Europe – were rapidly becoming the norm. In the weeks prior to the election, republics were proclaimed in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and many more would soon follow. In demanding independence, republicans understood that the tide of history was on their side.
Nor was the international ascent of national self-determination a sudden development. As early as February 1917, when Count George Noble Plunkett (running as ‘the man for the Peace Conference’) inflicted the first of a series of by-election defeats on the Irish Party, the prospect of a post-war conference bolstered advanced nationalist credibility. The United States’ entry into the war, in April 1917, had a significant impact on Irish political discourse, with the possibility of mobilising international pressure offering a more attractive route to independence than an appeal to Westminster. ‘From the time of the first declarations by Woodrow Wilson, referring to the rights of small nations’, the propagandist Patrick Little recalled, advanced nationalists ‘raised the question of the possibility of appealing to international opinion, and, especially, to support from the United States. Later on, these crystallised in a direct appeal to the Peace Conference.’ Kevin O’Shiel described how Wilson’s Fourteen Points, published in January 1918, were ‘received delightedly by a keenly interested Ireland where it became a prime text, a veritable doctrine of faith for political speakers and writers of the advanced and progressive nationalist school’.
The adoption of a republic as Sinn Féin’s formal goal also owed much to international circumstances. On his election to the presidency of Sinn Féin in October 1917, when influential figures such as Arthur Griffith had questioned the wisdom of committing to such a radical objective, Éamon de Valera declared that ‘the only banner under which our freedom can be won at the present time is the Republican banner. It is as an Irish Republic that we have a chance of getting international recognition.’ An Irish republic, it was argued, would elicit support from America, France and other republics. This ambitious appeal to international solidarity, as David Fitzpatrick noted, was central to the party’s political calculations: ‘Sinn Féin’s strategy for achieving independence was based on the belief that Britain could be induced to bend to the world, if only the world could be converted to Ireland’s cause.’
To what extent did changing public expectations, as a result of these rapidly changing international circumstances, influence the seismic electoral shift in December 1918? For many voters, the modest demand for home rule now seemed a relic of the pre-war order. The propagandist Darrell Figgis claimed that most Sinn Féin candidates’ speeches emphasised the Wilsonian rhetoric of self-determination (although not all mentioned the republic). Sinn Féin’s election leaflets highlighted how its demands had already been achieved by other peoples emerging from the wreckage of empire: ‘Poland Free! An Object Lesson For Ireland. Poland is Now Sinn Fein.’ Republicans believed that Ireland – with its common culture and clearly-defined boundaries (unionists were rarely acknowledged in such publicity) – had a far stronger case than the new ‘successor states’: ‘The Czecho-Slovaks are demanding independence. Nobody is quite sure who the Czecho-Slovaks are but the whole world knows who the Irish are.’
At 3.30 p.m. on 21 January, Sinn Féin representatives gathered in public session at Dublin’s Mansion House to proclaim the Irish Republic. Orchestrated before an audience of around 100, mainly foreign journalists, this spectacle was intended for an international, as much as a domestic, audience. The most important of the three historic documents approved that day, the Declaration of Independence, demanded ‘the recognition and support of every free nation in the world’. This symbolic proclamation followed a well-worn model which had been established by American revolutionaries in 1776, and subsequently replicated by dozens of national communities seeking independence from imperial rule. Calling ‘upon every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognising Ireland’s national status and her rights to its vindication at the Peace Congress’, the second of the three documents proclaimed, the ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’, was directly addressed to the international community. The third document, the Democratic Programme, was also calculated to win international support from labour and socialist circles. The ostentatious use of Irish, understood by only some of the deputies – and even fewer of the journalists – present, was intended for international consumption, reinforcing a central argument for nationhood: ‘Nationally, the race, the language, the customs and traditions of Ireland are radically distinct from the English. Ireland is one of the most ancient nations in Europe.’
Ultimately, republican hopes for inclusion in the peace conference were dashed. President Wilson, who was not personally sympathetic to Irish nationalism, refused to meet the Irish delegation in Paris. Realpolitik ensured that the allies – and the newly independent republics – were unwilling to intervene in what was regarded as a British question. While disappointing, none of this came as a great surprise to Sinn Féin’s leadership. A memo written by Arthur Griffith from Gloucester prison two days after the Dáil’s first meeting demonstrated the importance attached to international support as a means of achieving republican objectives. Griffith outlined how a network of Irish consuls, exploiting the strength of the diaspora, could mobilise international opinion: ‘Above all concentrate on the Peace Conference.’ Responding to scepticism from republicans about Wilson’s commitment to Ireland’s cause, however, Griffith advised that it would be ‘a mistake in tactics to suggest that Wilson is not sincere’ until Ireland’s appeal for a place at the conference was rejected.
Republican efforts to internationalise the Irish question were far from a failure. The Dáil government sent diplomats abroad, while its propagandists skilfully cultivated the international press. Advances in communications saw press reports, photographs, and newsreel of Irish atrocities rapidly circulate the globe. Populations of Irish descent were mobilised in Britain, the US, and throughout the Dominions to support (or, in the case of loyalists, to subvert) Irish independence. Though he failed to secure diplomatic recognition and divided Irish-American opinion, de Valera’s presence in the US from June 1919 to December 1920 demonstrated the importance attached to American money and power.
In other, more subterranean, ways republicans demonstrated global ambitions during these years. Founded in America, and spanning the ‘Irish world’, the Irish Republican Brotherhood offered a promising model: ‘Our dream is a world-wide organisation’, Harry Boland confided to a leading American Fenian, ‘whereby we can meet the enemy not alone in Ireland but all over the globe. Thus only can Britain be shewn the power of Ireland . . . To Australia, Canada, South Africa, India, Egypt, and Moscow our men must go to make common cause against our common foe.’ Particularly in the US, republicans campaigned effectively with other radicals, ranging from Indian anti-imperialist nationalists to black advocates for racial equality such as Marcus Garvey.
What does the importance attached by republicans to international circumstances have to tell us? It draws our attention to the outward-looking nature of Sinn Féin. It demonstrates how, in January 1919 at least, many republicans felt that the attainment of independence would rely more on politics than violence (although there were always those who felt that violence, or a combination of armed and political struggle, would prove necessary). The shooting of two policemen at Soloheadbeg, on the same day as the Dáil first met, and the ambushes and suppression of the Dáil that followed, altered calculations, but activism beyond Ireland remained an important arena of struggle over the next two years.
Republicans arguably achieved more success internationally than at home given the strength of British military resources. Concern in London about the adverse impact of republican publicity in America, and the influence of Dominion opinion, constrained Britain’s military campaign in Ireland, increasing the pressure on David Lloyd George to seek a political settlement in 1921. Combining physical force, propaganda, and political mobilisation, at home and abroad, Irish republicans fashioned a modern template for revolutionary struggle, one that would influence many anti-imperialist liberation movements over the rest of the century.
Fearghal McGarry is professor of modern Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast. He leads the AHRC-funded project, A Global History of Irish Revolution, 1916-1923, based at Queen’s University and the University of Edinburgh. Ireland’s Global Revolution will be published by History Ireland in April 2019. His most recent book is The Abbey Rebels of 1916. A Lost Revolution (2015).