Ireland’s Wars: The 1918 Election

It is one of the most noted maxims on war, perhaps said most memorably by theorist Carl von Clausewitz, that military action should always be tied to political objectives, with political direction. Otherwise, it isn’t really war, it’s just mindless, pointless violence. And political direction can, in democracies, be decided and adjudicated, only by the popular will. Ireland in late 1918 was a place headed towards a war, but the political direction, and approval, of this violence was yet to be made concretely clear.

By the time that the Conscription Crisis fizzled out in mid-summer 1918, it was clear that Home Rule as a concept was on the verge of a final defeat. Deferred at the beginning of the First World War, it was essentially deferred again towards the conclusion, when Lloyd George’s cabinet decided, in June, to quietly postpone the initiative to make conscription more palatable by introducing Home Rule along side it. It was still supposed to be introduced at the war’s end, but even if they were inclined, the British government did not give themselves the chance. The coming election would be the final judgement on Home Rule and what the Irish electorate thought of it, and was also the clear judgement of the same on Sinn Fein and its brand of more radical nationalism.

The First World War essentially ended on the 11th November 1918 with the agreement of an armistice between the Entente and and the new German government that was replacing the Imperial system. The end of the war meant that the postponement of a general election for the United Kingdom could no longer continue. Lloyd George and his coalition cabinet would also have been eager to take advantage of the good news of the war’s ending, to insure they would get to remain in power. 

The combination of the overly-harsh punitive measures following the Easter Rising, the idiotic effort to enforce conscription and finally the arrests in the wake of the “German Plot” had produced a situation where Sinn Fein appeared to have become the only game in town when it came to the cause of Irish nationalism. The Irish Parliamentary Party was reeling from affronts to moderate nationalism that the above represented, the death of John Redmond, and numerous by-election defeats.

And yet, it was fair to say that Sinn Fein lacked an unmistakable, undeniable democratic mandate. Despite their obvious popularity, surge in membership and numerous MP’s elected through by-elections, de Valera still needed that demonstration of popular will, as much for the ever more important international dimension as anything else. A long prepared peace conference was soon to be called to order in Versailles to arrange a permanent post-war settlement, and it was an ambition of de Valera and Sinn Fein for an Irish representative to be there, to make the case for an autonomous Ireland, most especially to US President Woodrow Wilson. The cornerstone of his “14 points” was the idea of self-determination for minorities, and this was something Sinn Fein wanted to exploit, even if it was only for propaganda purposes. Any Sinn Fein case would be boosted by a major electoral victory.

For Sinn Fein, the 1918 election was a de facto plebiscite on the future status of Ireland, an electoral war between the concepts of continued direct governance from London, Home Rule or complete independence. Sinn Fein campaigned on an openly republican platform that called for independence from Britain; only the censors office prevented them from going further and advocating for violent resistance as a means to achieve this.

The 1918 election was held on the 14th December. In Britain it became known as the “coupon election” owing to the letters of recommendation the coalition government sent out for selected candidates. There, the ruling coalition won a fairly handy victory, with few of the established parties giving Ireland any great deal of attention, other than to continue to support Home Rule as the solution to the unrest, but also to rule out forcing Ulster into it. In Ireland however it is known for the overwhelming victory it provided to Sinn Fein.

There were numerous factors that would contribute to what was about to occur. The first vote in eight years meant that a whole new generation of electors was about to cast their ballots for the first time, thus a huge swath of the electorate had no “loyalty” to the IPP established. Similarly, many of the older IPP voters were no longer alive. The franchise had been extended, so now men over 21 and women over 30 could vote. Combined, these two changes nearly tripled the size of the Irish electorate, from 700’000 to two million with women, for the very first time, making up a huge proportion; again, these were voters of no pre-determined loyalty. Those in uniform outside the country, who tended to be unionists or moderate nationalists, could not vote. And there was a large sympathy vote to be garnered for the numerous Sinn Fein candidates then still imprisoned as a result of the “German Plot” arrests.

In more practical terms the local “machine” of the IPP, once so dominant across the country, had become stagnant or even non-existent in parts over the course of the last number of years. The party of Redmond had become too used to routine victories going back decades. They were seen by many as the party of the past, advocating for a solution to the Irish question only a few still wanted. The younger militant candidates of Sinn Fein naturally appealed more to the younger electorate that had become so radicalised over the last two years. Sinn Fein’s candidates were usually chosen for their militant nature; in most cases, the moderates who were in the vein of Arthur Griffith, were not permitted to stand for the party.

It must also be remembered that Sinn Fein was not a one-issue party. Indeed, in ways that would become obvious a few years later, the Sinn Fein of 1918 was a large tent, with an overarching Catholic nationalist viewpoint. They were involved in drives for local government reform, with agrarian agitation and land seizures to the west and with the boycotting of RIC. Even before the vote, it could be seen that Sinn Fein and their supporters were essentially in control of some parts of Ireland, where British authority had started to collapse. Ever and anon, the key message of Sinn Fein, receited at local meetings, campaign rallies and on the doorsteps, like a prayer, was that of “the Republic”, a promised land of freedom that, as of yet, lacked real substance in terms of the exact political structure the party intended for it to take. At the time, this suited Sinn Fein. Three years later, what the Irish people had and hadn’t been promised in December 1918 would become a very important topic of conversation.

There were 105 seats up for grabs that day. Before votes were counted 67 of them were held by the IPP under John Dillon, 17 by the Unionists under Edward Carson, 6 by Sinn Fein under de Valera, with the reminder divided between the All-for-Ireland League of William O’Brien, the Liberal Party and various Independents. Across the country there would be accusations of voter fraud and intimidation aimed at all parties by all the others, sometimes with a great deal of truth, but not to the degree that it could be said to have had a significant impact on the result. Bands of Sinn Fein and IPP supporters did exchange gunfire very briefly in Waterford in one incident, and fights with hurleys, rocks and other makeshift weapons between factions were reported, most especially in Ulster.  Sinn Fein certainly made good use of the Irish Volunteers, as campaigners, as a propaganda symbol, as protection for candidates and at rallies, and as an escort for ballot boxes.

When the votes were cast and the counting was over, Sinn Fein had won 73 of the available seats. The Unionists, and politically similar entities, won 26, almost entirely in Ulster. The IPP managed a measly six returned, five of them in Ulster, with Dillon among those who lost out, defeated by none other than de Valera himself. Only in two places did an IPP candidate beat a Sinn Fein one, in Waterford, the seat of the Redmonds, and in West Belfast.

To say that this result was a shockwave to Irish politics would be apropos. No other election in the history of the state has resulted in such a monumental shift in political alignment. Sinn Fein became the dominant force in Ireland, making what we recognise as the south practically a one-party area. The IPP, who had dominated Irish politics for so long, was essentially destroyed, dissolving itself shortly after the election, with its remaining northern MP’s soon to reconstitute as the Nationalist Party. The Unionists held sway in significant parts of the north, foreshadowing the split that was to come.

There are some significant caveats to be attached to Sinn Fein’s result however. The British method of electing MP’s, “first-past-the-post”, benefited Sinn Fein hugely, giving them a share of seats that did not match their vote total. For 46.88% of the popular vote, Sinn Fein won nearly 70% of the seats. The IPP, in comparison, won just under 6% of the seats despite getting over 20% of the vote. The baffling inequalities provided by “FPTP” have continued to the modern day, but 1918 was a striking example of how one-sided it could become.

Many of the Sinn Fein’s MP’s, among them de Valera, Griffith, Cosgrave and Plunkett, ran unopposed. Four of their MP’s won seats in two constituencies. In constituencies that were perceived as Sinn Fein strongholds, they were often unopposed because a contest was seen as pointless, and in four constituencies in the north they ran without contest in an erstwhile deal with the IPP, who feared a split vote would allow Unionists to take nationalist seats. Several IPP MP’s did not contest owing to retirement. The Labour Party, which would become an established force in Irish politics sooner rather than later, also largely choose not to contest any seats, at the urging of Sinn Fein, who did not want class distinctions and workers rights to impact their perceived plebiscite on independence. And the Cork-based All-For-Ireland League did not contests seats either, bowing to the inevitable in a way the IPP was unable to. As such, Sinn Fein were given a very easy task.

At the same time, it is important not to under-estimate or even dismiss the scale of Sinn Fein’s achievement. Nearly one in every two voters in Ireland had given them the nod, and many of the conditions that had resulted in their landslide were not some random aberration, but the result of Sinn Fein’s own active campaigning and ability to take advantage of the political and cultural zeitgeist, in ways the IPP were not capable of anymore. In December 1918 they reaped the rewards of much hard work over the previous two years.

Notable first time MP’s included Terence McSwiney, Liam Mellows, Sean T. O’Kelly, Desmond FitzGerald, Eoin MacNeill, Sean MacEntee, Harry Boland, Cathal Brugha Michael Collins and, perhaps most notably, Constance Markievicz, the first woman ever elected to the British parliament (sometimes conveniently forgotten by those who should know better, as she did not take her seat). As was clear, and as it would remain for decades, being a veteran of the Easter Rising counted for a lot. These were now the new elite of Irish nationalist politics.

None of Sinn Fein’s elected members would take their seats of course. Those that were not then imprisoned had something very different in mind. As far as they were concerned, the people had voted for independence and a republic. Now, Sinn Fein was going to give them one. But before we get to that topic, we need to take a step back, and look at the post-Rising resurrection of the Irish Volunteers under a new generations leadership, soon to adopt the more famous moniker that has lasted down the years.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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