Analysis: New constituencies, new candidates, more party competition and a greatly expanded electorate ensured that the 1918 general election was a political event like none before, according to historians, Alyson Gray and Ben Shorten.
Click the audio above for "What the Papers Say - 1918" from RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland show.
The election campaign had dominated the newspapers – local, regional and national – for much of November and the first fortnight of December 1918, and when the results were declared at the end of that month it was more of the same.
Countless column inches were devoted to constituency reports and editorials which documented and analysed the seismic shift in Irish political direction, with the republican Sinn Féin party effectively wiping out the stalwart Irish Parliamentary Party as an electoral force.
The result was not a complete surprise.
There was a general feeling in the country that the tide was turning in favour of the republicans. Added to that, 25 contests had already been decided, with Sinn Féin candidates being returned unopposed in what the Nationalist & Leinster Times referred to as ‘bloodless victories’.
Despite this foreshadowing, the Cork Examiner described the events as having occurred ‘with the suddenness of a thunder-clap’. The Examiner believed that, even in the wake of such an emphatic win, Sinn Féin was faced with a ‘gigantic task’, and they suggested: ‘for the first time it has an opportunity of showing what constructive faculty it possesses.’
Perhaps somewhat fancifully, the paper’s editorial suggested that the Irish Parliamentary Party would, not only ‘harbour no bitterness’ towards the party that displaced them as the voice of Irish nationalism, but would get behind the new movement:
‘Young Ireland takes control with the best wishes of old Ireland, and if they can bring peace and happiness and goodwill to our people, none will bless them more fervently or hail their triumph with greater acclaim than those who have maintained the struggle through long and dark and evil days. May God grant that affairs will work out better for poor Ireland than they look at the moment as a result of the "Victory" elections.’
The Irish Times described the Irish Party’s defeat as ‘crushing and final’.
Nowhere was this made more abundantly clear than in East Mayo, where the party leaders went head to head, with Éamon de Valera easing to victory over John Dillon. The Cork Examiner reported that the turnout was relatively low in this constituency but this was owing to the prevalence of influenza and the long distance to the polling station (14 miles in some cases), which kept many families at home.
The Irish Party-aligned Freeman’s Journal, stated that the nationalist party had, ‘for the time being, practically ceased to exist as a parliamentary force’. The newspaper accepted that the Sinn Féin demand for a separate republic was clearly placed before the people and they, in turn, had given an ‘unmistakable answer’.
However, the Freeman was not convinced of the attainability of the Sinn Féin aims. ‘We remain of the opinion that an independent Irish republic is not within the field of practicable politics, or within measurable distance of that field and we are equally convinced that the freedom of Ireland cannot be extended or advanced by the methods of Sinn Féin’.
The unionist Belfast Newsletter maintained that with the triumph of Sinn Féin the split was no longer ‘between the maintenance of the Union and the imposition of Home Rule... Separation and an independent sovereignty are now openly avowed to be the aim of the Irish agitation. We have all along contended that this was the ultimate objective of the agitators in the past. Now it cannot be denied...’
Against this separatist demand stood the Unionist Party which claimed 26 seats, the great majority of them in Ulster. They were led by Dubliner Sir Edward Carson, who stood for the first time in the Belfast division of Duncairn, having represented the constituency of Trinity College since the 1890s.
The 1918 campaign saw the party shift its focus slightly which, according to the Belfast Newsletter meant that they stood ‘solid for the maintenance of the union, but with an important modification in the methods by which that policy is to be pursued. The old purely defensive, negative policy is abandoned. It gives way to an offensive and positive policy of claiming for Ulster, as Sir Edward Carson has put it, that it shall be governed and treated as Great Britain is, and shall share the benefits of all the remedial legislation passed for Great Britain.’
Dismissing the policy and objectives of Sinn Féin as ‘pure delusion’, the Newsletter lauded the new aggressive policy of Ulster unionism and added, pointedly, that Irish unionists as a whole ‘need not trouble themselves how the crisis inside Irish nationalism... works out, since their own position and their cause are stronger today than at any period since 1880, and the prospect far more promising’.
Ireland ended 1918 with a strengthened unionism and an emboldened republicanism. It was, the newspapers reveal, a country divided and with little clear sense of where it might be heading.
Alyson Gray and Ben Shorten are Content Producers for Century Ireland
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ