Ireland’s Wars: Black Whitsun And The 1921 Elections

Throughout a large portion of the Irish War of Independence, the chosen political solution of the Lloyd George administration in London, was the Government of Ireland Act, which completed a torturous run through the legislature throughout 1920, and was ready to be implemented in 1921. This law was essentially a partitioned Home Rule settlement, where separate self-governing parliaments would be set-up in new political entities, to be dubbed “Southern Ireland”, consisting of the lower 26 counties, and “Northern Ireland”, consisting of the other six in the north-east. Lloyd George and his ministers pushed hard for the implementation of the Government of Ireland Act, and to a degree the elections required for it to become a reality were rushed, on account of unionist pressure and a desire to be seen to be doing something for the larger island. However, the Act and the new parliaments would not be the solution some had hoped they would be: it was made politically impotent by the inevitable result in the south, and shown up as ineffectual policy when it came to war by the scale of the violence that revolved around it’s genesis.

There was only ever going to be one result for the elections to Southern Ireland. What remained of the Irish Parliamentary Party agreed not to put up candidates against Sinn Fein, which was both a decision to stand together in the nationalist struggle, but also a simple recognition of the reality of what was occurring in Ireland. The Irish Dominion League, a group dedicated to anti-partition views and the advocating of Dominion status for Ireland, approached unionist elements with the idea of combining forces to face Sinn Fein in the south, on a ticket based around opposing IRA violence, but the unionists weren’t interested.

Sinn Fein and the Dail decided to do what they had before, and use the elections as the method of creating a new, second, Dail, with no intentions of ever engaging with the idea of “Southern Ireland”. I say “elections”, but in the south there were none. Sinn Fein contested 124 of the 128 seats up for grabs, and nobody else went for those seats. Between the lack of viable political groupings to oppose Sinn Fein, the refusal of others, like the Labour Party, to contest, intimidation used against others who attempted to get themselves on the ballot, and the sheer sense of pointlessness of it all, the 1921 election in the southern counties was merely an exercise in Sinn Fein picking and choosing its candidates. With the exception of four seats in the University of Dublin constituency that went to Independent Unionist candidates – among them James Craig – all of the others went to Sinn Fein, and all of them without the need for any elections. Getting to the point of a vote was a victory of sorts for the British, but it was fatally undermined by the inability of that vote to actually be a contest.

As a result, a common historical error is to say that the election happened on the 13th May in the south, when this date was actually just the close of nominations. But it was a de facto election date, as no polling was actually required. Naturally, those elected refused to have anything to do with the Parliament of Southern Ireland,which met just once in somewhat farcical circumstances, its chamber consisting of the unionist MP’s and a few appointed senators, before being condemned to the footnotes of history. Instead, the Sinn Fein TD’s continued to meet as the Dail and as the government of the Republic. It is important to note that there was a certain amount of deterioration in the Sinn Fein machine over the course of the war years, and this was evident in the campaign: many candidates could be viewed as military-picked and standing under the Sinn Fein banner, which was an important thing to note, given later events. Many of the elected TD’s, up to a third, were active IRA officers: at least one was selected to serve while he was lying wounded following an ambush. This growing militarisation of the political wing of the movement would reach a bloody fruition the next year. Regardless, it remained a one party show, with de Valera retaining his leadership role, whether he was referred to as President of Dail Eireann, or the more nakedly political President of the Republic.

Of course, while all of this electoral rigmarole was ongoing, so too was the war. It may only have been a few months away from ending, but that certainly would not have seemed like a likelihood at the time, where IRA efforts to make clear their continuing campaign were arguably more noticeable than ever. So violent were the days that surrounded the close of nominations for the election of the Second Dail, from the 13th to the 15th May, that some media at the time would tie it darkly to a contemporary Christian observance, dubbing the period “Black Whitsun”.

On the day of that close of nominations an RIC Constable was mortally wounded in a shooting in Cabinteely, Dublin, dying two weeks later. An IRA Volunteer would be shot dead by Black and Tans in a reprisal shortly afterwards. On the 14th, things exploded. One of the most highly-publicised attacks of that period is one that we have talked about already: the Collins-directed attempt to spring Sean Mac Eoin from prison. Two British soldiers were killed in the course of that failed operation, ambushed on the North Circular Road of Dublin so the IRA could commandeer their armoured car.

In Innishannon, Co Cork, an RIC Constable, John Kenna, was killed by a group of IRA near his barracks. He may have been the first victim of a new policy that had been decided at the meeting where the First Southern Division had been formed, where it was agreed that as many RIC be targeted on the 14th in Cork, in reprisal for IRA prisoners who had been executed in custody. At least five more attacks happened that day in Cork, and probably more. When Sgt Joseph Coleman was shot dead in a pub in Middleton, two of the RIC who arrived at the scene were then killed when they were sent to find a priest. Three members of an RIC patrol travelling down Watercourse Road in Cork City were killed in an ambush. A lorry of Auxiliaries narrowly avoided an encounter with a larger force of IRA in Dunmanway when members of the RIC intervened. In Bandon, IRA under Tom Barry opened fire on regulars with a Lewis Gun, but there were no casualties. A group of unarmed regulars, off-duty, were lured to an ambush site by local women, before being fired upon at Furious Pier in Castletownbere: three was killed and another wounded. There was also the killing of another RIC constable in Dublin the same day, and an ambush in Drumcollogher, Limerick with the same result.

That was 14, at least. On the following day the bloodshed continued. An RIC Constable was mortally wounded just outside of Skibereen. A group of police leaving mass in Bansha, Tipperary, were fired upon, with one killed. A District Inspector, his wife, and two regulars were killed near Gort, Galway, in an ambush, before another RIC man, a member of the attending party, was killed later. An alleged spy for the Crown Forces was executed by the IRA on a Dublin golf course. There were also deaths inflicted by the Crown Forces, including a priest killed in a raid in Cork City, and three civilians killed in reprisals in Carrigtouhil.

The scale of death over the course of those three days was not entirely unprecedented, and was not, directly, meant to coincide with the election to the Southern Ireland parliament. But it is difficult, then and now, to keep the two apart. The twin poles of British position in Ireland were being the directors of a political solution and winning the war. Both were shown up as failed over the course of that weekend.The British government’s stated policy to resolve the situation politically in Ireland had resulted in the forces of republicanism winning the vast majority of seats and then refusing to take them, and at the same time any pretensions the British had to claims that they were winning the military struggle were badly exposed, and not for the first time. The RIC was not in a position whereby it could adequately defend itself from the IRA, and military regulars were not immune either. If the political aspect was being rejected, and if they could not protect their representative, constabulary or military, then what was the point of the British campaign? Undoubtedly, the events of those three days propelled the British further along the path to a truce.

Elsewhere, there was of course the election in the north, and here there actually was an election, that took place on the 24th May. The Ulster Unionist Party of James Craig was always going to be largest Ulster based party to contest, but the question was how seriously they would be opposed. The leadership of the Dail and Sinn Fein went through a debate as to how seriously they should take the Northern Ireland elections, where they were to have very substantial opposition in the form of both the entrenched Unionist Party, and the still relevant Nationalist Party of Joe Devlin, which may have been just the rump of the IPP in the north, but which was still capable of winning seats. Finances for such a campaign were tight. There was also the not inconsiderable point that contesting the election could be seen as recognising partition. Despite some reservations from de Valera and others, Sinn Fein eventually committed a great deal of resources to the campaign, with some expectation of challenging seriously, and maybe even winning the vote outright in terms of nationalist-minded candidates. The prospect of another 1918, where the choice of the people would only add to the propaganda effort of the Republic, was undeniable.

It was not to be. The Ulster Unionists swept to victory, taking advantage of the sectarian nature of the electoral divisions, the fear of what Sinn Fein represented and just old fashioned pro-union sentiment in the region. With just about 70% of the votes, all of the UUP’s 40 candidates were elected: conversely Sinn Fein got only six of their 20 candidates over the line, with several of those won by “big” names like de Valera, Collins, Griffith and MacNeill. The Nationalist Party also took six seats (despite polling less votes than Sinn Fein), which left unionists with a 28 seat majority. It was a situation that would repeat in the north for a long time. The fact that Sinn Fein ran no Ulster-based candidates had been criticised, as well as elements of their campaign aimed towards the Protestant community, that some later claimed simply drove up Unionist turnout. But it was also true that Sinn Fein simply had little presence in the north, and that a large proportion of its southern leadership had little enthusiasm for creating a presence.

It is really in this moment that partition, the issue that would dominate so much of the rest of Irish 20th century political discourse, become an ironclad reality. Forget the de facto self-government of unionists up to that point and the nominal southern acceptance of partition inherent in the later Anglo-Irish Treaty: here, the voters of north emphatically endorsed a party whose primary reason for existence was to prevent the area from being governed from Dublin. Much like the 1918 election can only be seen as an enormous endorsement of the republican platform, as vague as it sometimes was in the south, the 1921 result in the north made partition more of a practical existent thing than anything that had happened before and anything that would happen in the near future. This was something that de Valera recognised prior to the vote, noting that the failure to win less than 10 seats for Sinn Fein would make the north look like “a homogeneous political entity, which justified partition”.

So, numerous realities had been made even more clear. Sinn Fein dominance of southern politics was matched with unionist dominance of northern politics, while the volatility of the military situation was also obvious. The British did not need any more examples of that volatility really, edging ever closer now to truce terms less harsh than those they had asked for at the end of 1920. But another singular demonstration of the power of the IRA was going to come anyway. It was a demonstration that would come at a great cost for the IRA at the same time, but would be a spectacular event to match anything else, in visual terms, that had occurred up to that point. The place would be once again Dublin, and the target would be one of the centres of British administration.

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

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Black Whitsun And The 1921 Elections

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Custom House | Never Felt Better

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