Fintan O’Toole: The 1918 election was an amazing moment for Ireland

In an act of peaceful secession, Irish people chose to be citizens, not subjects

Such is the drama of violence that it is easy to forget that the most important moment in the creation of an independent Irish State was a democratic election, held on December 14th, 1918. It was by far the biggest exercise in democracy yet staged on the island.

With the end of the first World War opening the way for the first general election in the United Kingdom since 1910, the age of mass democracy was dawning.

The Representation of the People Act almost tripled the Irish electorate from 700,000 in 1910 to 1.93 million in 1918. Women over the age of 30 and working-class men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote for the first time. The results were seismic.

The Irish Parliamentary Party, which had dominated nationalist politics since it was galvanised by Charles Stewart Parnell in the early 1880s, had won 73 of the 105 Irish seats at Westminster in 1910. It held just six in 1918, four of which, in the North, were retained as a result of a pact with Sinn Féin brokered by the Catholic primate Cardinal Logue.


Conversely, Sinn Féin won 73 seats in 1918, with Unionists taking 26, mostly in the northeast (though the unionist candidate also won Rathmines in Dublin). Ironically, Sinn Féin benefited hugely from the Westminster first-past-the-post electoral system – it won nearly three quarters of the Irish seats with just 48 per cent of the vote (65 per cent in what would become the 26 counties).

No opposition

On the other hand, Sinn Féin candidates were returned unopposed in 25 constituencies – in the entire counties of Cork, Clare and Kerry they faced no opposition at all.

But this was more than an electoral landslide. It was an act of largely peaceful secession. The successful Sinn Féin candidates would not be MPs – they would be TDs. They had asked to be elected, in effect, to a parliament that did not exist: an Irish parliament they intended to establish in Dublin. This was, above all, an imaginative and constructive act – it proposed to call into being a new democracy, using the methods of democracy itself.

And it is also all too easy forget, when we think of the big personalities who won seats on that day (Éamon de Valera, Edward Carson, Constance Markievicz, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins) that it was not they who did it.

No voice

It was primarily people who had had no voice in politics: women, the young and the poor. Not only had they not had a voice but no one in the entire line of their ancestors had ever had one.

The new thing that was happening was being done quietly, in the privacy of the polling booth, by new political actors. It was done by people who remained anonymous to history but who were nonetheless making it.

And we must not lose sight of the fact that this was a reaction, not just to the Easter Rising of 1916 and its transformative effects on public opinion, but to a far greater turmoil: the Great War that had ended just over a month previously. We take this impact for granted now, but we shouldn’t.

It might have been different. John Redmond, the Irish Party leader who died in March 1918, could have been seen in retrospect to have placed a successful bet – he had backed the British empire in 1914 by urging Irishmen to join its armed forces and the empire had won. More than 200,000 Irishmen had joined up: by far the largest military engagement in Irish history.

But this vindication had already turned sour. The 1918 election may have been a post-war event but in Ireland it was decisively shaped by anti-war sentiment.

For most of the conflict, Irishmen had been exempt from conscription. But on April 10th, 1918, in the face of the German Spring offensive, but against the strong advice of even the military authorities in Dublin, Lloyd George’s government gave itself the power to extend conscription to Ireland.

Delegates from across the spectrum of Irish nationalism, at a mass meeting at the Mansion House on April 18th, signed a pledge denouncing this move as “naked militarism” and pledged to “resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal”.

Tens of thousands of people signed the pledge outside churches on April 21st, and the Irish Trades Union Congress held a successful one-day general strike two days later.

This anti-conscription movement had two huge effects. First, the Irish Party at Westminster was humiliated by its failure to stop the legislation; its claim to hold a decisive influence over the government in London was terribly exposed. Its members walked out of the House of Commons in protest but they were made to look like they were increasingly following, not leading, Irish nationalist opinion.

Hamfisted way

Arthur Griffith’s victory for Sinn Féin over the Irish Party in the East Cavan byelection on June 20th confirmed as much. So, in its own hamfisted way, did the government’s arrest of 73 prominent Sinn Féin members the previous month.

Even more crucially, the Catholic hierarchy, having heard from a deputation from the Mansion House conference, met at Maynooth and issued a public declaration that the Irish people had “a right to resist [conscription] by every means that are consonant with the law of God”.

Even though it seldom features in popular accounts of the transformation of Irish opinion in the lead-up to the 1918 election, this was arguably a bigger and more important shift in nationalist politics even than that wrought by the 1916 Rising.

This did not mean, of course, that the church was directly backing Sinn Féin

The Catholic Church was far and away the most influential body in nationalist Ireland. The Mansion House conference had used powerful rhetoric in describing conscription as a “declaration of war on the Irish Nation” and a “direct violation of the right of small nationalities to self-determination”. For the hierarchy to endorse these sentiments and give its blessing to resistance was a decisive development.

This did not mean, of course, that the church was directly backing Sinn Féin. The Irish Parliamentary Party used the same kind of rhetoric in denying the right of Westminster to impose conscription on Ireland: “an outrage and a gross violation of the national right of Ireland.”

But with Maynooth professors publishing articles with titles such as “The Theology of Resistance”, it was not hard even for many of the clergy to conclude that if resistance and national self-determination were the order of the day, the Irish Party was old hat.


Fr Walter McDonald, a maverick Maynooth professor, wrote disapprovingly shortly after the 1918 election: "Great numbers of the junior clergy, and a considerable body of their seniors, with some even of the bishops, supported the Sinn Féin candidates, or voted for them. Some of this, I know, was bluff – asking, as I have heard one man put it, for more than they had hoped to get. Others voted Sinn Féin as for the less of two evils. But many of the priests, and perhaps some of the bishops, seem to have acted on the conviction that Ireland is de jure a fully independent nation. Is this really their teaching?"

But this teaching was where the anti-conscription campaign had led. It is striking that, in seeking to capture this anti-war sentiment, Sinn Féin was very careful not to be seen to dishonour the 200,000 Irish soldiers who had already fought and the tens of thousands who had died in British uniform.

In a pamphlet called Ireland's Case Against Conscription, published under the name of Éamon de Valera (who had been arrested and imprisoned shortly before its publication), the tone is respectful towards the "flower of our manhood", the "generous Irish youth" who had sacrificed themselves:

“Their bones today lie buried beneath the soil of Flanders, or beneath the waves of Suvla Bay, or bleaching on the slopes of Gallipoli, or on the sands of Egypt or Arabia, in Mesopotamia, or wherever the battle line extends from Dunkirk to the Persian Gulf. Mons, Ypres, will be monuments to their unselfish heroism, but the land they loved dearest on earth… still lies unredeemed at the feet of the age-long enemy.”

In contrast to its later disdain for those who had fought, Sinn Féin’s acknowledgement of their heroism and patriotism surely helped it to appeal to voters disillusioned with the war but deeply attached to the warriors.

It must also be remembered that the Sinn Féin of 1918 was a broad church of nationalists, and not a mere front for what was now being called the Irish Republican Army. Moribund before the Easter Rising, it had now become a genuine mass movement with perhaps as many as 130,000 members.

Young militants

On the one hand, the selection of its candidates was controlled by the young militants, especially Michael Collins and his sidekick Harry Boland. Only three of the party's candidates had not been gaoled or interned.

But on the other hand, Eoin Mac Neill – who had countermanded the orders for the Rising – was also a prominent figure in the reconstituted party. Its leading propagandist, Fr Michael O’Flanagan, had strongly opposed the Rising and allegedly referred to those who took part as “murderers”.

The remnants of the socialist Citizen Army had been swept up into Sinn Féin – and Labour’s decision to stand aside and give Sinn Féin a clear run was a crucial contributor to its victory.

Labour's fateful decision to stand aside had consequences from which the Irish left never recovered

Most importantly, the new Sinn Féin retained the name of the old one and therefore gave enormous prestige to Arthur Griffith, who had not been involved in the Rising, but whose brand had become attached to it. This mattered because it was Griffith’s long-term policy of passive resistance and of fighting elections on a secessionist platform in order to form an Irish parliament that proved decisive.

Fateful decisions

None of this means that the election of December 1918 can be seen as a pure and untroubled moment at which a fully-formed democracy was born. Labour’s fateful decision to stand aside had consequences from which the Irish left never recovered.

While Sinn Féin did target the new female voters with broad hints of political power in the new Ireland – “in the future the womenfolk of the Gael shall have a high place in the councils of a freed Gaelic nation” – just two of the Sinn Féin candidates were women and just one, Markievicz, was elected.

A pattern of male domination was laid down.

And of course the outcome of the election – the creation of the first Dáil in January 1919 – was a reflection of a bitterly divided “nation”. The Irish Convention, which met between July 1917 and March 1918, had been unable to forge an agreement between nationalists and unionists on the implementation of Home Rule and this effectively ended any hope of an all-Ireland settlement.

Violent rhetoric

De Valera had used violent rhetoric against Ulster unionists, calling them “a rock in the road” that nationalists must “blast… out of their path” and warning them that “as they were in the minority they had nothing to do but give way to the majority”.

This hardly made it any more likely that unionists elected in 1918 would take their seats in the new Irish parliament.

It must be remembered, too, that on the other side, many of the young recruits to the IRA remained deeply sceptical about parliamentary democracy, even after the creation of the Dáil.

Todd Andrews, afterwards a stalwart of Fianna Fáil and the State, recalled his unhappiness at being told, as a member of the IRA, to take an oath of allegiance to the Dáil: “In 1919 parliamentary democracy was a word not so often heard used as abused. The only democracy we knew of was British democracy and that had less than nothing to recommend it to us.”

That ambivalence would grow during the IRA’s guerrilla campaign and ultimately lead to the Civil War.

Unresolved contradictions

And yet, for all these unresolved contradictions and all their consequences of violence, sectarian division and patriarchal oppression, the 1918 election is still an amazing moment.

Ordinary people didn’t just vote – they changed what voting meant in Ireland. In the 26 counties at least, they collectively withdrew from the state they were in and took the great risk of imagining another. And they did it, not by killing anyone but by marking a piece of paper. They voted themselves out of the condition of subjects and into a hope of citizenship.

That hope would be disappointed and betrayed in many ways for many decades. But it never disappeared.