Issue 1 - 2023 front

28 April 2005 Edition

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McGuinness wins South Longford - Remembering the Past


On the 8 May 1917, 88 years ago, polling in the historic South Longford by-election took place.

In 1917, the recently-released prisoners set about reorganising Sinn Féin. Their views as to future policy varied considerably. They included exponents of Arthur Griffith's dual monarchy doctrine and radical republicans who advocated an Irish republic.

Among those who supported a republican policy were Rory O'Connor, Cathal Brugha and Harry Boland. After much debate, they persuaded the national council of Sinn Féin to pursue the more republican policy.

An opportunity to put their new and radical policies to the electorate soon presented itself when a by-election was called in South Longford following the death of an Irish Parliamentary Party MP. Although Sinn Féin had won a by-election in February of that year, when Count Plunkett had taken North Roscommon, many people believed that his victory was a fluke. Plunkett had stood as an anti-Redmond Home Rule candidate and was the father of one of the executed 1916 leaders, Joseph Mary Plunkett. South Longford, therefore, would be a real test for Sinn Féin policy.

It is believed that McGuinness was selected by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. A Longford man, he was also an IRB man. He was worried that contesting the election would compromise the traditional republican attitude of contempt for "parliamentary methods''. He is said to have been "so uncompromising in his separatist principles that the suggestion of standing for election under the machinery of the British Administration was repugnant to him''.

That he was chosen as candidate was conveyed to him through the prison chaplain in Lewis Jail and he held a meeting with other POWs to discuss whether or not to allow his name go forward. Eamonn Duggan, Piaras Béaslaí, Éamonn deValera, Diarmuid Lynch and Seán McGarry felt he shouldn't contest, while Harry Boland and Thomas Ashe were in favor of running. A message was sent from the prison stating: "As regards the contesting of elections question, it is so extremely dangerous from several points of view that most of us here consider it very unwise''.

The POWs opposed it because they felt a defeat of McGuinness would be seen as a defeat of the men of 1916. Their advice was ignored. The IRB understood that selecting candidates would enable them to influence future policy towards republicanism and to negate the influence of Arthur Griffith and his dual-monarchy programme. Joe's name went before the electorate with the simply slogan: "Put him in to get him out.''

Much of the election team involved in the Roscommon election campaign, including Michael Collins, stayed and worked in the county for the duration, Collins staying in the Greville Arms run by the Kiernans.

Collins mobilised the re-formed Irish Volunteers and the hundreds of young and enthusiastic Sinn Féin workers who had poured into the constituency from all over the country as an impressive rival to John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party machine.

The Parliamentary Party threw all its resources into the battle. To combat the youthful Sinn Féin workers, John Dillon and Joe Devlin, with the acquired experience of a dozen such campaigns, led a score of MPs to the area.

The poll on 9 May was held using an old incomplete register which disenfranchised thousands of young men but in a move which is believed to have swayed away the vote from the Redmondites, three Catholic archbishops, 15 bishops, three Protestant bishops, the chairperson of county councils and other public bodies issued a manifesto on the eve of the election which came out against partition. It concluded thus:

"An appeal to the national conscience on the question of Ireland's dismemberment should meet with one answer and one answer alone. To Irish men of every creed and class and party the very thought of our country partitioned and torn as a new Poland must be one of heart-rending sorrow.''

On the first count, MacKenna was declared elected, but as Piaras Beaslaí put it, "a bundle of uncounted votes was then discovered'' and McGuinness won by 37 votes. Tim Pat Coogan, in his book on Michael Collins, quotes Alasdair MacCába saying: "I jumped up on the platform, put a .45 to the head of the returning officer, clicked back the hammer and told him to think again.''

Joseph McGuinness was returned as MP for South Longford.

McGuinness only found out he was the victor after Harry Boland "lifted'' a copy of the Irish Independent from the chaplain's office and the POWs grabbed him and carried him shoulder high around the prison yard. In a letter afterwards he said: "The fact that the children were on my side is, I take it, the most hopeful sign of all.''

Following Sinn Féin's success in the by elections of 1917, the party went on to completely annihilate the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1918 General elections by winning 73 seats. The once powerful IPP held just seven and was dissolved.

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