11 December 2008 Edition
Remembering the Past: The 1918 general election
BY MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA
‘THE Great War’ (the First World War) formally ended on 11 November 1918 and on 25 November the British parliament was dissolved. A general election was called and 14 December was set for polling day. It was to be the most momentous election in Irish history.
In the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, the execution of 16 leaders and the imprisonment of hundreds of Irish nationalists in jails throughout Ireland and Britain, Sinn Féin was reorganised and began to win widespread popular support. It won four by-elections in 1917 – North Roscommon, South Longford, East Clare and Kilkenny. In October that year, Sinn Féin adopted a new constitution committed to the establishment of the Irish Republic.
The British Government in April 1918 introduced legislation to provide for conscription in Ireland. This met with mass resistance, including a general strike, the first in western Europe against the war. The Irish Parliamentary Party withdrew from Westminster in protest. Never again would a substantial body of Irish nationalists sit in the House of Commons. In May, the British Government attempted to cripple Sinn Féin by arresting hundreds of republicans for involvement in the fabricated ‘German Plot’. Most of these remained in prison during the general election and until a mass release of detainees in March the following year.
The long-time leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, had died in March 1918 and John Dillon took over as leader. He vowed to contest the general election and said his party “will not give a clear field, but will fight Sinn Féin with all the resources at its disposal”. Of the eight by-elections in 1917 and 1918, the Irish Parliamentary Party had won three. But when nominations closed it was realised that 36 former Irish Parliamentary Party MPs had failed to face their constituents, bowing to the inevitable success of the Sinn Féin candidates.
TALKS WITH LABOUR
Sinn Féin held talks on election strategy with the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party. Sinn Féin offered not to stand in a number of constituencies to give Labour a set number of seats, provided Labour candidates agreed never to attend the Westminster parliament. Labour, which was divided on the issue, would not agree and ended up not contesting the election. In any case, the vast majority of organised workers were republican supporters of Sinn Féin, taking their lead from James Connolly.
Sinn Féin contested 103 of the 105 single-seat constituencies in Ireland (the exceptions were Trinity College Dublin and North Down).
The Sinn Féin manifesto stated that the party “gives Ireland the opportunity of vindicating her honour and pursuing with renewed confidence the path of national salvation by rallying to the flag of the Irish Republic”. It was committed to establishing the Republic by withdrawing Irish representation from Westminster, using “any and every means available” to make British rule impossible, establishing a constituent assembly and appealing to the Peace Conference to recognise Ireland as an independent nation.
The manifesto was heavily censored by the British authorities when it appeared in the newspapers but the full version was widely circulated. Press censorship was only one of the many forms of repression that the British used during the election. Hundreds of republicans were in jails – including 47 of Sinn Féin’s 103 candidates. Raids and arrests were frequent, as were bans on public meetings and among those arrested during the campaign was Sinn Féin Director of Elections Robert Brennan.
The constituency of Dublin St Patrick’s Division, consisting of the south inner city, was contested by Constance Markievicz. She was in Holloway Prison in England and her election address to her constituents said:
“I have many friends in the constituency who will work all the harder for me. They know that I stand for the Irish Republic, to establish which our heroes died, and that my colleagues are firm in the belief that the freeing of Ireland is in the hands of the Irish people today.”
There was a two-week gap between polling day and the announcement of the final results on 28 December.
Sinn Féin had won an overwhelming victory, taking 73 of the 105 seats in Ireland. Unionists won 26 and the Irish Parliamentary Party six. The majority vote for Sinn Féin was 70 per cent: 24 of the 32 Counties returned only Sinn Féin TDs. Of Dublin’s 11 TDs, all but one were Sinn Féin. Constance Markievicz was the only woman elected in Ireland and Britain.
Polling day in the general election of 1918 was 14 December, 90 years ago this week.
REBEL COUNTESS: Countess Markievicz addresses Sinn Féin supporters in Kilkenny during the 1918 general election