The elec­tion of De­cem­ber 1918 was the most im­por­tant mo­ment in the cre­ation of an in­de­pen­dent Ir­ish state – the big­gest ex­er­cise in democ­racy yet staged on the is­land

100 years ago this week, in an act of peace­ful se­ces­sion, Ir­ish peo­ple chose to be cit­i­zens, not sub­jects

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Fin­tan O’Toole

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 north east (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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The out­come of the elec­tion – the cre­ation of the first Dáil in Jan­uary 1919 – was a re­flec­tion of a bit­terly di­vided ‘na­tion’


Protest meet­ing in 1918 in Bal­laghader­reen, Co Roscom­mon, against con­scrip­tion in Ire­land. In April that year, Lloyd Ge­orge’s gov­ern­ment had given it­self the power to ex­tend con­scrip­tion to Ire­land.

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