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Prelude to partition or a republic? The 1918 election in Ireland
The birth of the Irish Republic, 1916 - Lithographic print depicting a female representation of Ireland, in classical dress, holding an Irish tri-colour flag and an olive branch; she is floating above armed soldiers, grouped behind sandbags, who wear Irish Volunteer uniforms and who are engaged in battle. Photo: National Library of Ireland, PD C56

Prelude to partition or a republic? The 1918 election in Ireland

By Mark Duncan

Election day was fixed for 14 December 1918, but it took two weeks and a Christmas interval for the votes cast to be actually counted. When they were, on 28 December, the results were at once dramatic and entirely predictable.

The near obliteration of the Irish Parliamentary Party and its replacement by Sinn Féin as the political standard-bearer for Irish nationalist aspirations had been, as one leading official in Britain’s Irish administration confided at the time, a ‘foregone conclusion’. 

That it may have been, yet the scale of the electoral upheaval was no less stunning for it. In the end, Sinn Féin secured 73 of the 105 seats available for Ireland, the unionists seized 26 and the nationalists of the Irish Party, the occupiers of 75 House of Commons seats at the moment of the previous parliament’s dissolution, had been reduced to six, four of which they had been retained with the help of a church-brokered deal that applied across several Ulster constituencies. 

The Irish Party would limp on but it would be hard to quibble with subsequent assertion of the Cork nationalist MP William O’Brien that it had emerged from the election, in effect, ‘as dead as Julius Caesar’. 

A map showing the 1918 general election results in Ireland. (Image: National Library of Ireland)

The Westminster parliament was dissolved just 14 days after the armistice that brought the First World War to a close. Yet the election it signalled was no snap affair. It had been long anticipated and had been preceded by revisions to constituency boundaries and franchise reform legislation that, together, amounted to no less than a transformation in the rules of democratic engagement. Across the entirety of the United Kingdom as it was then constituted, the number of constituencies was increased from 670 to 707, with Ireland gaining an additional two seats to bring its Westminster allocation up to 105. This relatively minor adjustment was nevertheless accompanied by an internal reconfiguration of the Irish constituencies which were understood to have been to the greater benefit of unionism, given that Ulster was to be allocated four additional seats – it would return 37 members as opposed to 33 in 1910 - while the southern provinces were to be reduced by a similar amount. 

More crucial to the conduct of the election, however, was the expansion of the electorate. After decades of suffrage activism, the right to vote had been finally extended to women, albeit only to those over the age 30 who met a minimum property qualification. The Representation of the People Act, 1918, did not deliver equality of the sexes – far from it - but by extending the franchise to include certain groups of women and to virtually all men over the age of 21, it ensured a vastly enlarged electorate. In Ireland alone, the numbers entitled to vote ballooned from just under 700,000 to over 1.9 million. Although women accounted for 36% of this expanded electorate, this still meant that only 53.3% of all adult women were afforded the right to vote. In contrast, 97.5% of all adult males were now afforded such a right, up from 55.2% in 1910. Overall, as UCD political scientist John Coakley has calculated, the Irish electorate was extended by 1918 to encompass 72.6% of all those aged 21 years and over.

If, in terms of size and composition, the Irish electorate was unrecognisable to what it had been eight years before, so too were the political choices laid before that same electorate. The most significant change came in the form of the presence and profile of Sinn Féin. 

The party had been founded in 1905 but its emergence as an electoral force only occurred in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising (an event in which it had played no organisational part) when it enjoyed a slew of by-election victories that brought to national public prominence such figures as Eamon de Valera and W.T. Cosgrave. 

During the 1918 election campaign, Sinn Féin positioned itself as the principal and radical alternative to the stale and ineffectual Irish Parliamentary Party, a choice that was further crystallised by the decision of the Irish Labour Party to absent itself, despite having published its own manifesto in September 1918. Justifying its decision which its membership endorsed by a margin of four to one, Labour claimed that they alone were ‘prepared to sacrifice party in the interest of the nation in this important crisis’. 

Sinn Féin’s definition of that national interest was clear-cut. 

It was the rejection of the Home Rule cause that had been the driving force of Irish nationalism for the previous 40 years. In presenting its alternative, Sinn Féin urged voters to escape the ‘shadow of a base imperialism’ and march out ‘into the full sunlight of freedom’ by rallying around its call for an Irish Republic.

Significantly, too, the party set out the steps by which it aimed to achieve this Republic: by withdrawing from the Westminster parliament and establishing a ‘constituent assembly’ of its own; by ‘making use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise’; and finally, by appealing for the international recognition of Ireland as an independent nation at the Peace Conference that set to commence early the following year.

It was a manifesto that claimed to stand by the Proclamation of Easter 1916 and which asserted not only Irish sovereignty but equality in terms of rights and opportunities to all citizens.

This was certainly radical, but was it realistic?

Could a Republic really be delivered?

Not a chance, according to the Irish Party. While billing the election as the ‘most critical’ since the Act of Union, the party stated that it would not indulge in such deceit that held before the electorate ‘an idea and an object which they know to be impossible.’ The influential Cardinal Logue was of a similar mind and cautioned his flock against ‘ill-considered and utopian methods’, a view amplified and reiterated in the moderate nationalist press.

And then there were the unionists, who met Sinn Féin aspirations with typical defiance. 

Addressing a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in Belfast in the course of the campaign, Sir Edward Carson mocked and rejected all talk of Irish self-determination. ‘Self determination of whom and what? Self determination by the south and west of Ireland of the destinies of Ulster? Never’, he declared to the cheers to his enthusiastic followers. 

Posters used by Sinn Féin during the General Election campaign. (Image: National Library of Ireland)

But if the Sinn Féin message elicited scepticism, it equally aroused excitement. 

The party’s organisation had been strengthened as a result of the excesses of British policy on conscription and other issues during the Spring and Summer of 1918, which had the effect of driving new recruits into its rank: by the end the year, Sinn Féin would boast a network of 1,354 clubs and a membership that topped 112,000.

This organisational strength was pressed into action during the election campaign, though not always to everyone’s satisfaction. In the constituency of East Mayo where the outgoing MP and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Dillon, was fighting to fend off the challenge of the imprisoned Sinn Féin President, Eamon de Valera, the former described as ‘monstrous’ and ‘indecent’ the prospect that 500 Clare-men might travel up to the constituency to intimidate the local electorate. De Valera was contesting three constituencies (East Clare, East Mayo and Belfast Falls) and was on the ballot in a fourth (South Down), but it was the decision of the Irish Parliamentary Party not to contest 25 constituencies where they had been previously dominant, that freed Sinn Féin supporters to campaign in constituencies other than their own.

Nor was the use of intimidation as a tactic confined to any one side.

When, for instance, the supporters of de Valera did arrive, mid-campaign, into the East Mayo constituency they were met in the village of Carracastle with a barrage of bottles and missiles. Two local priests with Sinn Féin sympathies had stones hurled at their home and when attempt was even made to pull one of the Sinn Féin interlopers from his motor car, he drew a revolver and fired into the air.
This was not isolated activity on the hustings and it was with this partly in mind that the Ulster Temperance Council telegrammed the Lord Lieutenant, Sir Frederick Shaw, urging the closure of pubs on polling day lest overly enthusiastic drinking give rise to the ‘gravest consequences when popular feeling was very high’.

Shaw did not defer to the demand but nor did he dismiss outright. Instead, he chose to meet the council half-way, issuing an order under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act that licensed houses were to be closed in all areas where contested elections were occurring except between the hours of 11 am and 5 pm. 

The curtailment of licensing hours did not avert all trouble, however.

For instance, on the day before polling and after a quiet and uneventful campaign, Sinn Féin ‘peace patrols’ entered the town of Loughrea, in the South Galway constituency in a procession of cars. Alongside them were members of the Irish Volunteers wielding heavy sticks. In response, police and military were mustered to control of the streets, but even their heavy presence on polling day itself failed to prevent clashes between the ‘peace patrols’ and the supporters of the nationalist candidate. In North Fermanagh, meanwhile, the Sinn Féin candidate Kevin O’Shiel and his election agent found themselves set upon by a crowd of Unionist women and youths when leaving the post office in Ballinamallard. Mud was thrown at them, the pope was cursed and a woman attempted to strike O’Shiel with a wooden gun. And to the south, in the constituency of Waterford City, where Captain William Redmond of the Irish Parliamentary Party was facing off against Sinn Féin’s Dr. Vincent White for the second time in nine months, polling day saw scuffles in the street and damage to property as violence flared between supporters of the rival candidates and between the Irish Volunteers and the police. 

There were similar scenes and incidents in other villages, towns and constituencies, but they don’t come close to offering a complete picture of the voting day experience. 

For those previously excluded from participating in the electoral process, 14 December 1918 was an occasion for justifiable joy and celebration. In many parts of the country, women who were exercising their right to vote for the first time were reported to have turned out early and in significant numbers at polling stations. Some went alone, some walked with their husbands. On Dublin’s southside, however, a procession of women from different political traditions marched through the city streets to the polls carrying flowers and flags and behind a banner of the Irish Women’s Franchise League. Among them was a 90-year old Anna Haslam, a pioneering feminist who had helped found the Dublin’s Women’s Suffrage Association in 1876 and who was then - ‘the old suffragist in Ireland’, as one newspaper described her. In only two constituencies, however, did women have a chance to cast a vote for a woman on the ballot paper. Both stood on a Sinn Féin platform and both were veterans of the 1916 Rising. But the two candidates stood in constituencies that guaranteed vastly contrasting electoral fortunes.

Dr. Margaret Ward discusses the contribution of Irish women as voters and candidates in the 1918 election

The trade unionist champion of a workers’ republic, Winifred Carney, who polled a mere 539 votes and lost her £150 deposit, suffered for being in a unionist constituency (Belfast Victoria) with labour-leaning alternatives, but also from a lack active support from the party on whose platform she stood. In the Dublin constituency of St. Patrick’s, by contrast, Constance Markievicz, whose campaign also complained of a lack of party support, easily saw off her nationalist opponents to become the first woman elected to the House of Commons.

History-making it may have been but the unionist Belfast Newsletter believed Markievicz’s victory conferred a ‘doubtful distinction’ on Dublin as the new MP was more representative of ‘Militant Sinn Féin than of the gentler sex’. 

Markievicz, then in Holloway Prison, was one of 36 Sinn Féin candidates who contested the election from jail. 

Their incarceration did them or their party no harm and, if anything, added to the lustre of their republican appeal. Sinn Féin routed their Irish Parliamentary Party opponents in all but two constituencies where the contested against each other.

In Waterford City, Captain William Redmond defended the seat he had won in a by-election the previous March by a slim margin of 474 votes, while in Belfast Falls, Joseph Devlin comfortably saw off the challenge of Eamon de Valera, the Sinn Féin President who in East Mayo brought the long political career and short party leadership of John Dillon to an abrupt end. 

The other four seats retained by Irish parliamentary Party were all in Ulster and all in constituencies where Sinn Féin did not contest, the result of a pre-election pact negotiated with the help of the Catholic hierarchy that applied across eight constituencies and that aimed to avoid gifting seats to unionism through a split in the nationalist/republican vote. 

Notwithstanding this nationalist strategy, Unionists performed strongly in Ulster.

They won 23 of the 37 seats available for the nine county province, a return that consolidated unionism’s hold on the north-east of the country and underscored the increasing isolation of southern unionists. Still, the Belfast Newsletter offered some soothing words of comfort to the unionists outside Ulster by declaring, in the aftermath of the election, that Irish unionists as a whole ‘need not trouble themselves how the crisis inside Irish out, since their own position and their cause are stronger today than at any period since 1880, and the prospect far more promising.’ 

Whatever about the future prospects for unionism, the Irish Parliamentary Party was emerged from the election devoid of prospects at all. The Freeman’s Journal, the party’s traditional champion in print, declared that it had ‘practically ceased to exist as a Parliamentary force.’ In truth, it could hardly have hoped for any better. Its decision to abandon 25 constituencies to its Sinn Féin rivals amounted to nothing less than a capitulation in advance. These non-contested constituencies would ultimately account for more than a third of all seats won by Sinn Fein, but they would equally serve to depress Sinn Féin’s share of the overall vote. Where the Irish Party claimed 6 seats with a 21% vote share, Sinn Féin secured their 73 with a 46% vote share. Given that the republican vote reached an average of 65.3% in contested constituencies, it is likely that the party overall vote share would have been greater if there had been more such contests. 

In many ways, the results of the 1918 election were at once emphatic and inconclusive.

Yes, they underscored the dramatic shift in popular nationalist sentiment in the period since the Rising. They equally reinforced the position of Ulster unionism and exposed as fanciful the idea, earnestly propagated by the likes of John Redmond and Tom Kettle, that the shared experience of sacrifice during the First World War might unite the Irish people to a common political purpose.
Less clear from the 1918 results was where Ireland might be headed next, however.

For republicans, who moved swiftly towards the creation of the ‘constituency assembly’ that had been promised in its manifesto, questions now abounded as to how much self-determination they would be allowed to exercise. 

Would the Peace Conference, dominated by the allied powers, grant upon the Irish Republic the recognition that Sinn Fein craved? How would the British government – or for that matter, the unionists in Ulster – respond to the creation of a new parliament in Dublin and what would this mean for either it viability or legitimacy? And what did Sinn Féin mean exactly in their manifesto by such terms as the ‘’use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise.”

There were no easy or obvious answers to any of these questions as 1918 drew to a close.

The election had simultaneously delivered new political mandates, pointed Irish nationalism in the direction of independence and entrenched pre-existing divisions between Irish nationalism and unionism. To that extent, it clarified much and resolved little.

Mark Duncan is a Director of Century Ireland


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.