Analysis: The 1918 general election produced an electoral landslide in Ireland. The focus on Sinn Féin’s routing of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) in southern constituencies often overlooks the equally emphatic nature of unionism’s victory in the north, and especially in constituencies encompassing the six counties that would constitute Northern Ireland.
By modern standards the contest was notable for the high number of uncontested seats – 25 - nearly one-quarter of the total 105 Irish seats. The contrast between the three southern provinces and Ulster was notable; the two Cavan seats were the only ones in Ulster not to be contested. Nationally, the unionist share of the vote was 25 per cent, rising to 49 per cent in the nine-county province of Ulster, and 56 per cent in the six counties with the largest Protestant populations. In terms of seats this translated into twenty-three of the thirty that were situated in those six counties.
The extent of unionist dominance in Ulster could have been greater were it not for a nationalist electoral pact that was agreed through negotiations with leading members of the Catholic hierarchy including Cardinal Logue. This resulted in the IPP and Sinn Féin agreeing not to campaign actively against each other in certain Ulster constituencies where there was a nationalist electoral majority and running two rival candidates would run the risk of splitting the nationalist vote and ceding the seats to unionists.
As a result the Irish Party took seats in Armagh South, Down South, Donegal East and Tyrone North East. These were seats where the party retained support, in contrast to the collapse of its vote in the southern constituencies, where it won only one seat, that of Captain William Archer Redmond in Waterford City.
The necessity for the nationalist pact was illustrated starkly by events in the one Ulster constituency where the parties could not agree to maintain it. In Down East the Unionist David Douglas Reid took the seat with 6,007 votes, 2,231 fewer than the combined nationalist poll of 8,238. Because the nationalist electorate was fairly evenly divided – with Sinn Féin’s Russell McNabb (3,876) trailing closely behind Michael Johnston of the IPP (4,362) – the seat was ceded to the unionist who won only one-third of the votes cast under the first-past-the-post electoral system.
The residual support for the IPP in Ulster was a further reflection of the strength of unionism. Unlike the south, where the absence of any serious political opposition since the Parnell split had led to complacency, the solidity of unionism helped maintain the Irish Party organisation and its support. Two by-elections held earlier in 1918, in Armagh South and Tyrone North-East, were among the few electoral contests that the party held against the resurgent Sinn Féin between the Rising and the general election.
Another factor in the IPP’s tenacity in Ulster was Sinn Féin’s election manifesto promise to abstain from Westminster, a policy initiated in 1917 and still adhered to down to the present day. Faced with the prospect of the only Irish voices in Westminster being those of unionists, at a time when crucial legislation affecting the constitutional future of Ireland control of schools was before parliament, many Ulster nationalists voted to retain an Irish nationalist presence at Westminster.
Labour’s abstention was another notable factor in the election in urban constituencies in the south. While the Labour Party abstained officially, labour was not absent entirely. Three of the eight unionists returned for Belfast constituencies (Joseph Devlin in Belfast Falls was the city’s only nationalist MP, easily defeating Sinn Féin’s Eamon de Valera) were Labour Unionists. In an effort to harness working-class unionist support and avoid class divisions that could detract from unionist solidarity, an Ulster Unionist Labour Association had been created under the umbrella of the Ulster Unionist Council earlier in 1918. A tenth unionist seat was held in the city in the smallest of the Irish constituencies, Queen’s University, where the professor of medicine, Sir William Whitla, was returned with ease
If the 1918 election result in the Ulster constituencies consolidated unionism’s hold on Ulster electoral politics it also highlighted the retreat of unionism to Ulster, effectively casting off the remnants of southern unionism. With the exception of the rarefied constituency of Dublin University (Trinity) – which elected two unionists (Arthur Samuels and Robert Woods) – Maurice Dockerell was the only unionist to win a contested seat outside of Ulster (excluding TCD).
Unionists now had a strong hand at Westminster to argue for the best deal possible for Ulster under the new constitutional arrangement that would be fashioned during 1919 and 1920. Their position was bolstered by the outcome of the election in Britain. While the coalition led by the Liberal leader and wartime prime minister, David Lloyd George, was returned, Conservatives now formed the majority of the government. As a result when the Government of Ireland Act that partitioned Ireland was enacted in December 1920, the new home rule state of Northern Ireland comprised the six counties (Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone) that would best protect the electoral supremacy of unionism.
The 1918 general election was the last all-Ireland general election. While Sinn Féin’s displacement of the IPP as the principal force in Irish nationalist politics is often seen as its most important outcome, the impact in Ulster was equally significant for influencing the subsequent partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland.
For these reasons it was the defining moment of twentieth-century Irish political history.
Dr Marie Coleman is a Senior Lecturer in Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ