The general election held on 16 June 1922 may not stand out amidst the many dramatic events of the period 1916–23. Yet, by embodying the principle that political power is determined by the support of the people at a democratic election and not by force of arms, it was that election, rather than the Civil War that followed, that set the tone for politics in the independent Irish state.
The purpose of the election was to elect members of the Third Dáil. The 1918 UK election had been regarded by nationalist Ireland as, in effect, a referendum on independence, and when Sinn Féin won virtually all the seats in the twenty-six counties, its elected representatives met in Dublin in January 1919 and constituted themselves as Dáil Éireann (the First Dáil). Elections to the 'Parliament of Southern Ireland' were mandated by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, but Sinn Féin treated these as an election to the Second Dáil.
Whereas the 1918 election had been fought under Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system, for the 1921 election PR-STV (proportional representation by the single transferable vote) was employed. Voters had no opportunity to use it, though, because every seat in the southern jurisdiction was uncontested.
In the geographical constituencies and in the National University constituency, Sinn Féin nominated as many candidates as there were seats, and since no other candidates came forward, they were all elected unopposed. In the Dublin University constituency, too, there was no contest, as the only candidates for the 4 seats were independents with a strongly unionist outlook.
Whereas Sinn Féin had presented a united ticket in 1921, by 1922 the party was riven by the disagreement over the Treaty. This was manifested by the Dáil's January 1922 vote of 64–57 in favour of the Treaty, which was followed by the resignation of the anti-Treatyites from the government. Speculation and threats of civil war were in the air.
In this context, the leaders of the two wings of the nationalist movement, Michael Collins on behalf of the pro-Treatyites and Éamon de Valera for the anti-Treatyites, signed a 'pact' under which all their candidates would run as Sinn Féin candidates rather than fighting the election as pro- or anti-Treatyites, and after the election the two wings would form a coalition government.
A handbill featuring a reprint of a cartoon by Bernard Partidge [B.P] that originally appeared in 'Punch' magazine [published 31 May 1922]. The caption on the cartoon reads:
"Messrs Collins and De Valera together: 'You belong to the greatest and most intelligent nation on earth: and you are therefore entitled to choose your own representation'.
Southern Irish elector: 'Thank you so much'
Messrs C. and de V - 'whom we have already selected for you.'
Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland
Intimidation and defiance
The pact acknowledged that other candidates were also free to stand, but it was clear that most of those in Sinn Féin hoped that they would have the field to themselves as in 1921. Nonetheless, two other parties entered the fray.
Labour, which had been left with little choice but to 'stand aside' in 1918 to allow the election to be fought solely on the national issue, now nominated eighteen candidates, and the Farmer's Party ran thirteen. There were contests in twenty of the twenty-eight constituencies; in the other eight (seven in the west of Ireland plus Dublin University), the incumbent TDs were returned without a contest.
Some of the non-Sinn Féin candidates found themselves placed under heavy pressure not to stand. The assertions from Sinn Féin that the entry of other interests would threaten national unity carried some weight, and on occasions there was outright intimidation. Both the minor parties ended up running fewer candidates than they had originally announced.
In Carlow–Kilkenny the house of the Farmers' candidate Denis Gorey was fired upon, but he stood his ground and remained in the contest. In Clare Labour's Patrick Hogan was urged to withdraw his candidacy as the nomination deadline approached, and the legal assessor even turned back the hands of his watch to give Hogan more time to make the desired decision – which, finally, he did. Independents, too, often encountered a less than warm welcome, but in the end twenty-one, all of them broadly supportive of the Treaty, stood.
Facade of unity
The campaign itself passed off reasonably peacefully, and the two wings of Sinn Féin patched up their differences, temporarily at least, often sharing platforms from which they urged voters to support the panel candidates without making the case for or against the Treaty. A common trope was the need to preserve national unity, with a degree of resentment that other candidates had chosen to exercise their right to stand.
The facade of unity brought comfort to some and the emergence of electoral contests, making explicit the divisions within Irish society – not only over the Treaty but also over social and economic issues – was unwelcome to some in Sinn Féin, partly for reasons of simple self-interest but partly too because it disrupted the simplistic vision of a monist political culture in which everyone could be assumed to have fundamentally the same outlook on life. The role of politics in enabling the negotiation and management of differences was not yet appreciated by all.
Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin candidates, possibly sensing the relative unpopularity of their cause, adhered strictly to the agreement that all Sinn Féin candidates should urge support for the Sinn Féin panel as a whole, while some of their pro-Treaty counterparts, such as Ernest Blythe and Arthur Griffith, cast off the shackles and openly extolled the merits of the Treaty.
On the eve of polling Michael Collins, addressing a meeting in Cork, advised people to 'vote for the candidates you think best of', which the anti-Treatyites claimed was a violation of the pact in that he was giving his supporters free rein to back non-Sinn Féin candidates if they wished.
The results enabled everyone to claim some degree of success. Sinn Féin as a whole won a majority of seats (94 out of 128), though its success rate was lower (60 out of 90) in the constituencies where there was a contest. Of the twenty contested constituencies, only four returned the full Sinn Féin panel intact, with twenty-seven incumbent Sinn Féin TDs being defeated. Losses were particularly heavy among the anti-Treatyites; twenty-two of their incumbents lost their seats, and not one anti-Treaty candidate headed the poll anywhere.
In the sixteen constituencies where both wings had candidates, the pro-Treatyites garnered more votes in eleven and the anti-Treatyites in just five – in each of which they had the advantage of having more candidates than the pro-Treatyites. The anti-Treatyites were particularly weak in the province of Leinster, taking only five of the forty-four seats there. Overall, Collins was entitled to claim popular endorsement of his backing for the Treaty as 'freedom to achieve freedom'.
Map showing candidates returned for each constituency in the June 1922 election in order of the seats won.
Party affiliation (if any) and whether the candidate was a sitting TD is indicated, as well as the pro-or anti-Treaty stance taken by Sinn Féin 'panel' candidates.
Of the 124 Sinn Féin TDs in the second Dáil, 118 were reselected as candidates. Two pro-Treaty TDs had died and Richard Corish stood for Labour. Paul Galligan in Cavan was replaced by pro-Treaty candidate Walter Cole due to his confused voting record (having supported the Treaty and then voted for de Valera as president), while Frank Drohan in Waterford–east Tipperary had resigned his seat as he opposed the Treaty but felt the majority of his constituents supported it.
Dan Breen (anti-Treaty) stood instead as the sole 'Joint Panel' candidate, but failed to be elected, despite having, according to himself, 'succeeded in inducing the Farmers' candidates to withdraw'. In Monaghan Seán Macentee was replaced by Patrick McCarvill, apparently due to Macentee's broken promise to resign rather than vote against the Treaty. Sinn Féin won sixty of the ninety seats it was forced to contest by the candidature of rivals, and 73 per cent of the seats overall. Labour won seventeen seats, the Farmers' Party seven, and Independents ten (including four unopposed).
Click on the map to zoom in.
Map taken from the Atlas of the Irish Revolution (CUP, 2017)
[Sources: B. Walker, Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1918–1992 (Dublin, 1992); contemporary newspaper reports; and M. Gallagher, 'The Pact General election of 1922', Irish Historical Studies, vol. xxii, no. 84 (Sept. 1979), pp. 404–21; quotation: D. Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom (Tralee, 1964), p. 168]
Where minor parties stood, they fared well. All but one of Labour's candidates were elected, and the party won over 21 per cent of the votes cast – a figure it has never achieved since. Its vote was not entirely based on its policies; in the words of one journalist, its candidate in Louth–Meath would probably win a huge vote because he was the only one 'who gave the electors a chance of breaking the cold chain of silence that has bound them since 1918'. The Farmers' Party won a seat in all but one of the constituencies it contested, and in addition ten independents, including the four unionists from Trinity College, won seats.
Looking back a century, four aspects of the 1922 election result stand out. First, the new proportional representation electoral system worked to general satisfaction; whereas Sinn Féin had virtually swept the board at the 1918 election, winning nearly all the seats in the twenty-six counties with less than two-thirds of the votes, in 1922 all parties were represented in close proportion to their electoral strength.
In addition, although the workings of PR-STV were difficult to explain, in practice voters had no difficulty in using it to the full. Second, the under-representation of women, still a feature of Irish politics in the twenty-first century, was very pronounced: only two of the 128 TDs (Mary MacSwiney and Kate O'Callaghan, both anti-Treatyites) were women.
Third, the election marked the foundation of a new and, mutatis mutandis, enduring party system. Today's Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil can both claim direct continuity from the anti-Treaty wing of Sinn Féin, as can Fine Gael (via Cumann na nGaedheal) from the pro-Treaty wing. Labour and independents are still present today; only the Farmers Party has disappeared, superseded by a powerful interest group.
And finally, and not least, even though the election was followed by the Civil War, the fact that the election took place, and that power was wielded by those who had received a mandate from the people testified to what what was termed Ireland's 'commitment to democratic values'.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.