Issue 3-2023-200dpi

12 August 1999 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The East Clare By-election

BUOYED ON by the tremendous result in getting Joe McGuinness elected on 9 May 1917, the Sinn Féin election machine was eagerly awaiting further contests. They didn't have long to wait. Even prior to release of the sentenced 1916 POWs on 16 June, republicans in Ireland had already become immersed in the next electoral battle and their candidate still hadn't been told.

As Eamonn de Valera emerged along with the other POWs from Pentonville Prison in London, he was handed a telegram informing him that he was the Sinn Féin candidate in the forthcoming by-election in the constituency of East Clare. The vacancy in the single-seat constituency had arisen when, on 7 June, as part of the First World War Messines campaign battle at Wytschaete, in Belgium, the death occurred of the East Clare MP, Major Willie Redmond of the 6th Royal Irish Regiment and the brother of the Irish Independence Party leader.

Redmond died along with tens of thousands of other Irish men who volunteered to fight for Britain in the First World War. The majority of those who came from a nationalist background did so in the misguided belief that they would be furthering ``the cause of the small nations''. This was a belief instilled in them in no small measure by the likes of Willie Redmond, his brother John and the other MPs of the Irish Independence Party.

Willie Redmond had been MP for the constituency since 1892 and had been returned unopposed since 1900. His party pulled out all the stops to hold on to this seat, having already suffered two defeats at the hands of Sinn Féin and hoping to cash in on his memory. On 17 June, the Irish Independence Party held a public `funeral' [Redmond was buried near Lorcre in Belgium] through the streets of Ennis. A hearse, drawn by four horses, carried an empty coffin while the Ennis National Volunteers marched with draped flags.

Opinion turning

Back in Westminster, the British government, the unionists and his own party colleagues used his death to try to bolster the Irish Convention, which Prime Minister Lloyd George was forcing on the Irish people [more on that later].

A former prime minister, Herbert Asquith, said that the success of the convention would be ``the best and most enduring tribute and monument we can raise to [Willie Redmond's] memory''.

The London Times spoke of Willie Redmond's ``voice from the grave, calling upon the coming convention to work hard for a decision''.

Laurence Ginnell, the nationalist MP who had supported Count Plunkett earlier in the year, lamented the fact that he had not died not for Ireland. After de Valera's victory he resigned his seat in the House of Commons and joined Count Plunkett, Joe McGuinness and Eamonn de Valera as abstensionist MPs for Ireland.

Sinn Féin was not put off by the huge effort being made by the Redmondites to retain the seat. It was said that the activities of Sinn Féin as a whole were transferred to Clare until polling day. They were also buoyed by the fact that, even prior to Willie Redmond's death, opinion in the main town in the constituency was turning against the Irish Parliamentary Party.

A few days before Willie Redmond's death, Ennis Rural District Council passed a motion which called for the Irish Parliamentary Party MPs ``to resign their seats in parliament as they no longer represent the views and wishes of the Irish people either at home or abroad''.

Military precision

Polling day was 10 July and the Republican Movement mobilised its followers in the area with a campaign said to have been conducted with military precision. It was conducted as a military operation by the Volunteers more so than Sinn Féin. Eamonn de Valera spoke everywhere in Volunteer uniform and Volunteer companies marched to and from his meetings which ended with the singing of The Soldier's Song.

There was no ambiguity in where de Valera stood. ``He stood there for a principle - for the Irish Republic'' and that ``he owed his allegiance only to the Irish Republic'' and put it up to the Redmondite candidate, Patrick Lynch, a well-known figure in the area, by asking:

``Did the people want an absolutely sovereign Irish nation or a province or a fraction of a province''?

(More on the campaign in East Clare, 1917, next week.)

An Phoblacht
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