Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at an event marking the centenary of the 1918 General Election in Ireland, in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin at 11 am on Saturday 15 December.
A DECISIVE RESULT……….WHAT THE NATIONALIST PARTIES PROMISED
The background to this Election was the end of the Great War.
The UK Prime Minister had called the Election very quickly after active hostilities ceased, to exploit the good feelings, and relief that the War had finally been brought to a victorious conclusion by the Allies.
The War was a particular factor in Ireland because of the conscription crisis of early 1918.
Conscription applied on the island of Britain, but not the island of Ireland, from 1916. The big German offensive of 1918 created a panic in the UK government. Manpower was running short, and the Americans were slow arriving at the front. So, unsurprisingly, Lloyd George was under political pressure, in Scotland, Wales and England, to extend the same conscription to Ireland as applied in the other countries.
In March 1918 he announced his intention to do so, which caused a convulsion in Ireland.
Until this announcement, the Irish Party had been holding its own politically. Sinn Fein had lost by elections to the Irish Party in South Armagh, East Tyrone and Waterford City early in 1918. Lloyd George changed all that.
His conscription threat then drove Irish Party voters into the arms of Sinn Fein in the second half of 1918. If the election had been held over until the Spring of 1919, and things had cooled down over conscription which didn’t happen anyway, the result in Ireland might not have been so dramatic.
At the time of the December 1918 Election, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.
As far as Ireland was concerned, in anticipation of the Peace Conference, great expectations had been raised by speeches by President Woodrow Wilson, containing strong declarations in favour of the principle of national self determination. The concept of self determination acquired a quasi religious status in some quarters.
As President Wilson was to discover, when he got down to work in Versailles, this concept of national self determination was difficult to apply when people, with fundamentally different identities and national allegiances, lived together in the same geographic area, as was, and is, the case in Ulster, and in many other parts of Europe, to this day.
In the 1918 Election in Ireland, Sinn Fein got 46.9% of the votes cast, Unionists got 28.5% and the Irish Parliamentary Party got 21.7%.
For this Sinn Fein won 73 seats, Unionists 26 (including one in Dublin), and the Irish Party only 6 seats ( a poor showing for 21% of the vote).
These percentages do understate the Sinn Fein support, because 25 uncontested seats were won by Sinn Fein. If these had been contested, and Sinn Fein voters in those constituencies had to come out to vote, Sinn Fein’s overall national vote share would have been higher, probably well above 50%.
On the other hand, there are credible allegations that intimidation played a part in ensuring that Sinn Fein would not face a contest in these seats. Irish Party meetings were broken up in Cahir, Rathmines, Bohar in Louth, Jonesboro Co Armagh, Moate Co Westmeath, Clones, Gorey, and Castleblaney. Candidates who had agreed to stand for the Irish Party backed out in face of this activity.
The PP of Kiltimagh, Dr O Hara, told John Dillon of
“young roughs going around the roads at night saying they will burn down any house that will vote for Dillon and threatening to destroy cattle”.
On polling day, Republican “peace patrols” stood outside polling stations, and it is claimed they discouraged thousand of Irish Party supporters from going to vote.
I owe some of this information to research done by the late Proinsias MacAonghusa, published in the “Irish Times” many years ago.
I myself knew a man , a 1916 veteran, who was reputed to have voted 40 times for Sinn Fein, in the names of different people.
Indeed the Irish Party has come under a lot of pressure not to contest the election at all, from former supporters like the Bishop of Raphoe. To his eternal credit, the Irish Party Leader, John Dillon, told the bishop that “one should not abandon principles for popularity or unpopularity”
The system of election, the straight vote in single member constituencies, meant that Sinn Fein won more seats, and the Irish Party proportionately fewer seats, than would have been the case under Proportional Representation. Under PR, I guess Sinn Fein might have won 60 seats, Unionists (including Labour Unionists and Independents) 26, and the Irish Party perhaps 19.
Under PR, Sinn Fein would still have got a land slide, but the Irish Party would not have suffered a virtual wipe out.
It is also important to point out that, among the 26 seats won by “Unionists”, 3 were won by Labour Unionists (mainly in Belfast) and one by an independent Unionist. The disappearance of Labour Unionism shows that, in some respects the sectarian divide in urban Ulster is deeper now than it was in 1918.
It is also worth mention that Southern Unionists contested the 1918 Election as such, winning seats in Trinity and Rathmines. That bridge between the traditions lost its value after 1918.
I would like to look into the differences in policy between Sinn Fein and the Irish Party, and reflect on how far the victors were able to go in fulfilling their promises.
Sinn Fein said it would withdraw Irish representatives from Westminster because, they said,
“the present Irish members of the English Parliament constitute an obstacle to be removed from the path to the Peace Conference”
As I said earlier, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.
Sinn Fein condemned the Irish Party for having
“contemplated the mutilation of our country by partition”
This is a reference to John Redmond having agreed in 1916 with Edward Carson to a temporary opt out from Home Rule for some Unionist majority counties in Ulster, as a price for having Home Rule introduced straight away for the rest of the country with Carson’s consent. This deal did not go through because it was vetoed by the Conservative elements in the War Cabinet. Lloyd George may also have been saying different things to different people.
The Sinn Fein manifesto did not address the existence of a Unionist minority in Ireland. Instead it spoke of
“a unity in a national name, which has never been challenged”
This seems to ignore the challenge posed by Ulster Unionism to the 32 county concept of the nation. Ulster Unionism was just ignored, as if it did not exist. This form of blindness to the existence of the “other” is reappearing now in the context of Brexit.
The Sinn Fein manifesto took a very fundamentalist view of sovereignty, which left no room for compromise.
It called for
“untrammelled national self determination”
and said it would oppose every candidate who does not accept this principle.
To its credit, it followed through on this commitment to oppose who did not agree with it, and contested seats in Belfast. It did very badly. Sinn Fein got 3% of the vote in Pottinger, 4% in Victoria, 9% in Woodvale and just 1.89% in Duncairn.
Sinn Fein’s leader, Eamon de Valera was also defeated by the Irish Party’s Joe Devlin by 72% to 27% in the Falls constituency.
Sinn Fein added that that the right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence
“rests on immutable natural law and cannot be made subject to compromise”.
This explicit “no compromise” mandate was later to prove troublesome. Some members took it very seriously in 1922 and it helps explain the Civil War. The concept of “immutable natural law” had a particular religious provenance.
As to the methods to be used to achieve its goals, Sinn Fein was fairly explicit.
They said they would use
“any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise”
That can be construed as seeking a mandate for war, and it was interpreted as such by the IRA.
But the sentence could also perhaps be read advocating resistance British military force (passively or otherwise), rather than initiating violence, as the IRA did at Soloheadbeg the following month.
Did the majority of the Irish people know they were voting for war?
THE IRISH PARTY
The Irish Party manifesto was published on 11 October 1918, while the Great War was still on, but rumours were circulating of imminent German collapse and of the abdication of the Kaiser.
It said that
“ the country must be prepared for a General Election about the end of November or the first week in December. This will be the most critical and fateful in its effect for the future of the country since the Union.”
It called for national unity on the basis of the policy that underlay the “New Departure” , which brought the physical force and constitutional traditions together to win Land Reform and other improvements.
It said it
“would not hold before the Irish people an ideal and an object which it knew to be impossible”
Events were to bear out the wisdom of this caution.
The Irish Party committed itself to be
“an independent pledge bound party in the House of Commons taking no office under any British government and whose dominating purpose must always be the recovery of Ireland’s national rights……and a vigorous agitation on rational lines”
It defined its objects as
“the establishment of national self government for Ireland , including complete executive , legislative, and fiscal powers”
This went well beyond the Home Rule Act, which was already on the statute book and was due to come into effect automatically one hostilities in Europe were formally ended as they were in 1919 at Versailles. The reference to fiscal powers included , inter alia, a right to charge customs duties on good coming into Ireland from Britain. This involved withdrawing Ireland from the Anglo Irish Customs Union, which then existed, and this seems to have been a point on which both nationalist parties agreed.
The Irish Party criticised Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy which it said would
“simply hand over the representation of Ireland in the House of Commons to the followers of Sir Edward Carson”.
Perhaps a similar mistake is being made today.
Like Sinn Fein, the Irish Party said it would present Ireland’s case at the forthcoming Peace Conference but added that the chance of getting a hearing would depend on the goodwill of America and the Allied dominions. This was realistic politics.
Germany was about to lose the War and the Irish Party argued that sending to Versailles people who had been allied with Germany as recently as 1916 was not best calculated to get a hearing for Ireland from the victors.
In this respect, the Irish Party Manifesto was prescient. The Irish Party might have been more successful representatives of the Irish cause in Versailles, because they had not allied themselves with the enemies of those who had won the war, at such cost.
ASSESSMENT OF THE RIVAL MANIFESTOS
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, one must conclude that the Sinn Fein policy of abstention had substantial downsides.
When the Government of Ireland Act came to be introduced in 1920, providing for the permanent partition of Ireland, there were very few Irish nationalist MPs present to object to it…just six MPs with little influence.
It is important to remember that the majority rule Stormont Parliament was created by this 1920 Act, and, thanks to Sinn Fein abstention, there were virtually no Nationalist MPs left in Parliament to probe the dangers of this new Stormont Parliament.
A high price has also been paid for the fact that Sinn Fein, in its Manifesto, emphasised its unwillingness to compromise on what it saw as Ireland’s right to self determination based on natural law.
The electorate’s support for this “no compromise” approach undoubtedly made life difficult for the Treaty negotiators in 1921 and contributed to the Civil War and to much subsequent strife.
If the Irish Party’s approach, of “vigorous agitation on rational lines”, had received more electoral support, the Treaty negotiators task might have been easier.
As we cope now with the prospect of the UK leaving the EU Customs Union, it is interesting to note that one of the big differences between Home Rule and the Treaty was that the Treaty involved the Irish Free State leaving the Anglo Irish Customs Union, whereas, in deference to Ulster, the 1911/14 version of Home Rule would have kept full free trade between the two islands.
Departure from the Customs Union turned a soft partition into a hard partition.
The uncompromising nature of the Sinn Fein mandate of the 1918 Election was elevated to unsustainable heights in subsequent debates, and that made life difficult for years to come.
There are some similarities here to the over interpretation, in our neighbouring island of the Brexit mandate of 2016.
Electoral mandates, however big, do not relieve the politicians who get them of the duty to be realistic about what can actually be achieved afterwards.