Both pro- and anti- Treaty candidates agreed not to make the Treaty a key part of their campaigns in the 1922 general election. But how did the public respond to this? Bill Kissane explains.
During the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the winter of 1921 it was agreed that an election should soon take place in the territory of the new Irish Free State. There can scarcely have been a more important vote. Churchill impressed on the Irish Provisional Government the need to get an electoral mandate for the course of action they were taking.
Held on 16 June 1922, 'the pact election' was followed by the outbreak of civil war on 28 June. Had this election provided a mandate for the Treaty, and thus justified this civil war or was the vote rather for coalition government and peace?
The Collins/de Valera Electoral Pact
Each time the Treaty was put to the vote in 1922 differences were amplified. First the Dáil cabinet, then the Dáil itself, then the electorate divided on the issue. In an effort to maintain unity, Collins and de Valera agreed on 18 May 1922 to put forward an agreed slate of Sinn Féin candidates for the June election and to form a coalition government afterwards.
The Provisional Government had originally proposed that ‘a plebiscite on the issue of acceptance or rejection of the Treaty shall be held’. So, the pact was a concession on Collins's part; would it deprive the electorate of their say on the Treaty?
Both the Treaty sides would be represented on the joint panel for the new Dáil in the same proportion as they were represented in the existing Dáil. This (second) Dáil had been elected during the War of Independence (1919-1921), and with most seats uncontested, the 1920 election had elected a parliament more radical than its electorate. Accordingly, pro-treatyites believed that,
‘There is a real necessity, also, to meet that body of opinion in the country, which considers that the present Dáil is not, in any sense of the word, sufficiently representative and to show them that, taking cognizance of the national position, we have interfered with the electorate’s full right only to the most limited possible extent.’
Clause four of the pact stated, ‘that every and any interest is free to go up and contest the election equally with the National-Sinn Féin panel’. This guaranteed the electorate a much wider choice than in 1920.
The pact was probably the only way an election could be held. But its viability was linked to efforts to maintain army unity within the IRA, and these eventually failed. On 22 February the election had been postponed for three months, and Collins hoped in time to produce a constitution that was acceptable to all republicans.
This would also facilitate a coalition government, but the Treaty obliged all members of the Irish Provisional Government to sign acceptance of the agreement. Given this stipulation, it would be no easy task to find a constitutional formula capable of bridging the divide.
The vote: did the public take sides?
When the electoral results became known most observers saw an electoral landslide for the Treaty. The election returned pro-Treaty Sinn Féin as the largest group with 58 out of 128 seats, while the anti-Treatyites got 36 seats, a significant loss of 22.
The Provisional Government naturally claimed a mandate to implement the Treaty. And the many successful ‘third party’ candidates indicated a broader desire for peace. Collins commented
‘The election was declared to be one in which the Treaty issue was not being decided. The people have chosen to declare otherwise. The Government made the pact with the anti-Treaty Party, believing that only by doing so could an election be held at all. The Pact appeared to muzzle the electorate. The Electorate have not allowed it to muzzle them’.
Collins's claim was that the voters broke the pact, but the panel candidates largely adhered to it during the electoral campaign. And since pro-Treaty Sinn Féin had gained no parliamentary majority, a coalition could still be formed with the anti-treaty side when the new parliament met on 1 July. Panel candidates had been returned in a majority of 72 per cent, and historian Dorothy Macardle later suggested that the adherence to the pact was an example of the Irish uniting in the face of British imperialism.
An oath to the Crown
The eighteen Labour candidates had also pledged to support the pact. Yet the coalition idea had been dealt a blow. The constitution was published on the morning of the election and, like the Treaty, it required an oath to the Crown on the part of T.D.s. The anti-treatyites had already rejected this.
Had the voting public taken sides? The high degree of transfers between the two Treaty sides suggests solid support for the coalition idea. Yet voters tended to transfer their preferences within their Treaty side when there was a second pro- or anti-treaty candidate available to receive them. So, a partisan cleavage around the Treaty was being formed.
Moreover, a large number of anti-treatyites from the Second Dáil had failed to get re-elected when faced with opposition. These included prominent republicans like Countess Markiewicz and Liam Mellows. So, while there was no plebiscite on the Treaty, the anti-treatyites polled badly.
De Valera now regretted signing the pact: opposition to the Treaty could now be represented as opposition to the will of the people. The Provisional Government, following a British ultimatum, began shelling the Four Courts on the morning of 28 June. This finally torpedoed the coalition government idea.
A snapshot of a fickle electorate
The pact election was held under the STV electoral system, and the transfers provide a snapshot of the electorate as it was at the foundation of the state. Forty per cent of the first preference vote went to ‘third party’ ie. non- Sinn Féin candidates or independents. Since these had mostly been won at the expense of anti-treaty candidates, socio-economic concerns trumped nationalist issues.
Seventeen of Labour’s eighteen candidates were returned: remarkably, in Wexford Sinn Féin’s combined first preference vote was only around a third. It is tempting to see two competing visions of democracy at work: one seeing elections in terms of expressing the national will, the other in terms of registering the preferences of a pluralist society.
Yet the potential for pluralism was limited. Before independence a tradition of electoral monopoly by nationalist candidates had already resulted in scores of parliamentary seats being uncontested in rural Ireland. The Treaty division made sure elections in the new state would be competitive.
Yet it we drew a line from Donegal in the north-west to Wexford in the south-east, in 1922 the third parties were weaker to the left of that line and would remain so. Moreover, anti-Treaty Sinn Féin would fare better in the August 1923 election, demonstrating that, despite their military defeat, the republican cause retained the backing of a large section of the electorate throughout the country. Labour’s non-aligned civil war stance was not rewarded in 1923.
Thus, while the 1922 election had shown a potential for pluralism, partisan attachment to the two treaty sides was strengthened by the Civil War. The snapshot provided by the pact election was thus of a fickle electorate. After Fíanna Fáil entered the Dáil in July 1927, voting behaviour soon fell back into the nationalist mold.
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.