Irish general election, 1918

Irish general election, 1918

The Irish general election of 1918 was that part of the 1918 United Kingdom general election that took place in Ireland. It is seen as a key moment in modern Irish history. This is because it saw the overwhelming defeat of the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which had dominated the Irish political landscape since the 1880s, and a landslide victory for the radical Sinn Féin party, which had never previously enjoyed such significant electoral success.

The aftermath of the elections saw the convention of an extra-legal parliament, now known as the First Dáil, by the elected Sinn Féin candidates, and the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence.


In 1918 the whole of Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and was represented in the British Parliament by one hundred and three MPs. Whereas in Great Britain most elected politicians were members of either the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party, from the early 1880s most Irish MPs were nationalists, who sat together in the British House of Commons as the Irish Parliamentary Party. The IPP strove for Home Rule, that is self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom and were supported by most Catholics in Ireland. Home Rule was opposed by most Protestants in Ireland, who formed a majority of the population in the northern province of Ulster and favoured maintenance of the Union with Great Britain (and were therefore called Unionists). The Unionists were supported by the Conservative Party, whereas from 1885 the Liberal Party was committed to enacting some form of Home Rule. Unionists eventually formed their own representation, first the Irish Unionist Party then the Ulster Unionist Party. Home Rule was finally achieved with the passing of the Home Rule Act 1914. The implementation of the Act was however temporarily postponed with the outbreak of World War I, expected to be over in a year, but largely due to Ulster Unionist's resistance to the Act. As the war prolonged, the more radical Sinn Féin began to grow in strength.

Rise of Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin was founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905. He believed that Irish nationalists should emulate the Ausgleich of Hungarian nationalists who, in the 19th century under Ferenc Deák, had chosen to boycott the imperial parliament in Vienna and unilaterally established their own legislature in Budapest. Griffith had favoured a peaceful solution based on 'dual monarchy' with Britain, that is two separate states with a single head of state and a weak central government to control matters of common concern only. However by 1918, under its new leader Éamon de Valera, Sinn Féin had come to favour achieving separation from Britain by means of an armed uprising if necessary and the establishment of an independent republic. In the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising the party's ranks were swelled by participants and supporters of the rebellion as they were freed from British gaols and internment camps, and at its 1917 Ard Fheis (annual conference) de Valera was elected leader and the new, more radical policy adopted.

Prior to 1916, Sinn Féin had been a fringe movement having a limited cooperative alliance with William O'Brien's All-for-Ireland League and enjoyed little electoral success. However between the Easter Rising of that year and the 1918 general election the party's popularity increased dramatically. This was due to the perceived failure to have Home Rule implemented when the IPP resisted the partition of Ireland demanded by Ulster Unionist in 1914, 1916 and 1917, but also popular antagonism towards the British authorities created by the execution of most of the leaders of the 1916 rebels and by their botched attempt to introduce Home Rule linked with military conscription in Ireland (see Conscription Crisis of 1918).

Sinn Féin demonstrated its new electoral capability in three by-election successes in 1917 in which Count Plunkett, W. T. Cosgrave and De Valera were each elected, although it did not win all by-elections in that year and in at least one case there were allegations of electoral fraud. [On one occasion the 'victory' of a Sinn Féin candidate in the Longford by-election is said to have been achieved through putting a gun to the head of a returning officer and telling him to "think again" when he was about to announce an IPP victory. On doing a 'recheck' the official 'found' new uncounted ballot papers in which votes were cast for the Sinn Féin candidate. Tim Pat Coogan, "Michael Collins: A Biography" (Hutchinson, 1990) p.67.] Overall, however, the party would benefit from a number of factors in the 1918 elections.

Changes in the electorate

The Irish electorate in 1918, as with the entire electorate throughout the United Kingdom, had changed in two major ways since the preceding general election. Firstly, because of the intervening Great War, which had been fought from 1914 to 1918, the British general election due in 1915 had not taken place. As a result, no election took place between 1910 and 1918, the longest such spell in modern British and Irish constitutional history. Thus the 1918 elections saw dramatic generational change. In particular:
*All voters between the voting age of 21 and 29 were first time general election voters. They had no history of past voter loyalty to the IPP to fall back on, and indeed had begun their political awareness in the period of 8 years that had seen a bitter world war, the home rule controversy and the Easter Rising and its aftermath.
*A generation of older voters, most of them IPP supporters, had died in the eight year period.
*Emigration (except to Britain) had been almost impossible during the war because of the dangerous sea lanes, which meant that tens of thousands of young people were in Ireland who in normal times would have been abroad.

Secondly, the franchise had been greatly extended by the Representation of the People Act 1918. This increased the Irish electorate from around 700,000 to about two million. All men over 21 and military servicemen over 19 gained a vote in parliamentary elections without property qualifications. It also granted voting rights to women (albeit only those over 30) for the first time.

Overall, a new generation of young voters, the disappearance of much of the oldest generation of voters, and the sudden influx of women over thirty, meant that vast numbers of new voters of unknown voter affiliation existed, changing dramatically the make-up of the Irish electorate.

Political factors

*Since the last general election in 1910 the local organisation of the previously dominant Irish Party, unchallenged for nearly a decade, had atrophied at best making defence of its seats difficult and was largely of an older generation. It had enacted the Home Rule Act in 1914 which had however been suspended during the war. Its policy had been to achieve All-Ireland self-government constitutionally (be it sovereighty within the United Kingdom in the interest of Irish unity), as opposed to using separatist physical force if required.
*The electorate had become enamoured to Sinn Féin by the harsh response of the authorities to the Easter Rising after it had later been falsely blamed for the Rising even though it had taken no part in it. The party also took most of the credit for the successful campaign to prevent the introduction of conscription in 1918.
*Whereas the IPP conceded to a temporary form of partition in 1914, as a measure to pacify Ulster, Sinn Féin felt that this would worsen and prolong any differences between north and south.
*In contrast to the IPP Sinn Féin could be seen as a young and radical force. Its leaders were young militant politicians, such as Michael Collins (28) and de Valera (36), like most of the new voters and their imprisoned republican candidates.
*The IPP led by leaders such as John Dillon, who had been in public office since the 1880s, were largely older moderate politicians, campaigning for All-Ireland Home Rule since Charles Stewart Parnell’s time, and now pressing for the implementation of the 1914 Act and a constitutional solution to have Ulster included in a Dublin parliament.
* On the other hand, Sinn Féin represented change and a radical new policy for achieving Irish self-government outside of the UK, and many of its Volunteer wing were ready to enforce a republic through physical force. By 1918, Sinn Féin followers had come to see the gradual acquisition of All-Ireland Home Rule as an idea whose time had come and gone.
*The Irish population were radicalised in the years of World War I. In addition to heavy losses suffered by Irish regiments, the conscription threat and British military measures, there was rapid inflation that sparked off a wave of strikes and industrial disputes. The 1918 election occurred at a time of revolution across Europe.
*Sinn Féin's policy was outlined in its election manifesto, which aimed for Irish representation and recognition at any post-war peace conference. IPP policy was to leave negotiation to the British government.
*Nearly a year earlier in January 1918 Woodrow Wilson had issued his Fourteen Points policy, which seemed to promise that self-government and self-determination would become normal policy in international relations.
*The Ulster Unionists' resistance to All-Ireland self-government remained unresolved, and no account was taken of its reservations to what it saw as Catholic rule from Dublin.

The election

Voting in most Irish constituencies occurred on 14 December 1918. While the rest of the United Kingdom fought the 'Khaki election' on other issues involving the British parties, in Ireland four major political parties had national appeal. These were the IPP, Sinn Féin, the Irish Unionist Party and the Irish Labour Party. The Labour Party, however, decided not to take participate in the election, fearing that it would be caught in the political crossfire between the IPP and Sinn Féin; it thought it better to let the people make up their minds on the issue of Home Rule versus a Republic by having a clear two way choice between the two nationalist parties. The Unionist Party favoured continuance of the union with Britain (along with its subordinate, the Ulster Unionist Labour Association, who fought as 'Labour Unionists'). A number of other small nationalist parties also took part.

In Ireland 105 MPs were elected from 103 constituencies. Ninety-nine seats were elected from single seat geographical constituencies under the Single Member Plurality or 'first past the post' system. However, there were also two two-seat constituencies: University of Dublin, (Trinity College) elected two MPs under the Single Transferable Vote and Cork City elected two MPs under the Bloc voting system.

In addition to ordinary geographical constituencies there were three university constituencies: the Queen's University of Belfast and the University of Dublin (which would return two Unionist MPs), and the National University of Ireland (which would elect a member of Sinn Féin).

Of the 105 seats in Ireland twenty-five were uncontested. In some cases this was clearly because there was a certain winner, and the rival parties decided against devoting their money and effort to unwinnable seats. British government propaganda formulated in Dublin Castle and circulated through a censored press alleged that republican militants had threatened potential candidates to discourage non-Sinn Féin candidates from running. For whatever reason, in the 73 constituencies in which Sinn Féin candidates were elected 25 were returned unopposed, although the constituencies which Sinn Féin won uncontested seats were those which subsequently showed high levels of support for republican candidates.


Sinn Féin candidates were elected in 73 constituencies but four party candidates (Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera, Eoin MacNeill and Liam Mellows) were elected for two constituencies and so the total number of individual Sinn Féin MPs elected was 69. Despite the isolated allegations of intimidation and electoral fraud on the part of both Sinn Féin supporters and its Unionist opponents, the election was seen as a landslide victory for Sinn Féin.

The proportion of votes cast for Sinn Féin, namely 46.9% of votes for 48 "first past the post" seats won in the 80 constituencies it contested, is understated by the fact that 25 candidates in some of its strongest support bases were uncontested, reducing its real support level in these constituencies from a possible level of 80pc. This is close to the total level of enjoyed by Sinn Féin's three major breakaway parties after partition.

The party returned with the second-largest number of seats was the Irish Unionist Party with 22 seats. The success of the Unionists was largely limited to Ulster, however, and in the rest of Ireland Southern Unionists were elected only in the constituencies of the University of Dublin and Rathmines.

The IPP suffered a catastrophic defeat and even its leader, John Dillon, failed to be re-elected. The IPP won six seats in Ireland, all but one of which were won in Ulster. The sole exception was Waterford City, the seat previously held by John Redmond, who had died earlier in the year, and retained by his son Captain William Archer Redmond. Four of their Irish seats were a part of the arrangement brokered by Cardinal Logue between Sinn Féin and the IPP to avoid unionist victories in Ulster, a deal which saved some seats for the party but may have cost it the support of Protestant voters elsewhere. IPP came close to winning other seats in Louth and Wexford South, and in general their support held up better in the north and east of the country. The party was represented in Westminster by seven MPs because T. P. O'Connor won an election from emigrant votes in the English city of Liverpool. The IPP's losses were exaggerated by the "first-past-the-post" system which gave it a share of seats far short of its rather larger share of the vote (21.7%) and the number of seats it would have won under a "proportional representation" ballot system. The remnants of the IPP then became the Nationalist Party (Northern Ireland) under the leadership of Joseph Devlin.

Aftermath and legacy

After the election the elected Sinn Féin candidates, although entitled to sit as MPs in the British parliament, chose to boycott the Westminster body and instead assembled as a revolutionary parliament they called "Dáil Éireann": the Irish for "Assembly of Ireland". However Unionists and members of the IPP refused to recognise the Dáil. At its first meeting attended by 27 deputies (other were still imprisoned or impaired) on 21 January 1919 the Dáil issued a Declaration of Independence and proclaimed itself the parliament of new a state called the "Irish Republic".

On the same day, in unconnected circumstances, two local Irish members of the Royal Irish Constabulary guarding gelignite were ambushed and killed at Soloheadbeg, in Tipperary, by members of the Irish Volunteers. Although it had not ordered this incident the course of events soon drove the Dáil to recognise the Volunteers as the army of the Irish Republic and the ambush as an act of war against Great Britain. The Volunteers therefore changed their name, in August, to the Irish Republican Army. In this way the 1918 elections led to the outbreak of the Anglo-Irish War, wrongly giving the impression that the election sanctioned the war.

The train of events set in motion by the elections would eventually bring about the first internationally recognised independent Irish state, the Irish Free State, established in 1922. Furthermore the leaders of the Sinn Féin candidates elected in 1918, such as de Valera, Michael Collins and W.T. Cosgrave, came to dominate Irish politics. De Valera, for example, held at least some form of elected office from his first election as an MP in a by-election in 1917 until 1973. The two major parties in the Republic of Ireland today, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are both descendants of Sinn Féin, a party that first enjoyed substantial electoral success in 1918.

Question of interpretation

The correct interpretation of the results of the 1918 general election has been the subject of some controversy. This is because Sinn Féin treated the result as a unilateral mandate from the Irish people, to immediately set about establishing an independent, all-Ireland state, and to initiate an undeclared war of separation from Great Britain while totally ignoring the unresolved Ulster and Unionist situation. However, the party's Democratic Programme did not promise the electorate a war, just a 32-county Irish Republic. Further, its election Manifesto sought a place for Ireland at the peace conference, which could not be expected on launching a new war.

In 1921, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, or Fourth Home Rule Act, Ireland was divided into two separate jurisdictions: six counties in the northeast became home ruled Northern Ireland, and the rest of the country that would eventually become the modern Republic of Ireland. 1918 was therefore the last occasion on which a general election occurred across the whole of Ireland, north and south, on the same day. For this reason many republicans have regarded the election as conferring a mandate for a united Ireland that was still unchanged over eighty years later. Indeed the 1918 general election has become a potent symbol for militant republicans who have argued that the elections conferred legitimacy both on the anti-Treaty faction in the Irish Civil War of 1922–1923 and on the violent campaigns of later groups such as the Provisional IRA that erupted many decades later. However, subsequent republican legitimatism is based on the members of the Second Dáil elected in 1921.

Critics of these interpretations make a number of arguments. Some question the legitimacy of the original mandate won by Sinn Féin. It is argued that Sinn Féin practiced widespread intimidation and electoral fraud and that this called the result into question. Some also argue that the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system and/or the large number of uncontested constituencies exaggerated the effect of the pro-Sinn Féin vote so that, while the party won around 70% of the total number of Irish seats, its share of the vote may have been less than 50% and so not have amounted to a majority. Turnout in contested seats was 68%, appreciable by any standards where many were first time voters, others possibly unaware of their voting rights, even especially for such a crucial election where certainly all Sinn Féin supporters would have voted.

Because of the large number of uncontested constituencies, it is impossible to know with certainty what share of the vote Sinn Féin would have won had all seats been contested, except that it would have increased. However, this has not stopped some historians attempting to speculate, for example by extrapolating from the vote counts in constituencies neighbouring those that were uncontested. [See for example " [ The Irish Election of 1918] ", a paper by Nicholas Whyte discussing the level of support for Sinn Féin that can be inferred from the 1918 election results; from [ Northern Ireland Elections] .]

Unionists argue from a different perspective. They insist that, regardless of the result, no election result considered on an all-Ireland basis could justify the imposition of a united Ireland on the Unionist minority in the north-east. Some still point to the fact that Unionists won a majority share of the vote, in both the historical northern province of Ulster and in the six counties that would later become Northern Ireland, to argue that the 1918 election in fact established a mandate, much in accordance with the findings of the 1918 Irish Convention, for the north-east, at least, to remain within the United Kingdom.

Other arguments, leaving aside the immediate politics of 1918, dispute the capacity of any 1918 mandate for a united Ireland to legitimise acts of violence committed then or later. Although the 1918 general election was the last held throughout the whole of Ireland on a single day, in every election held since 1921 candidates advocating violent resistance to the partition of Ireland have fallen far short of winning a majority in either part of Ireland.

In 1998 both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland voted on the same day in referendums on the Belfast Agreement. Voters in both jurisdictions endorsed the agreement which, among many other provisions, enshrined the principle that a united Ireland should be brought about by only peaceful, constitutional means. Whether or not it should be prevented by only peaceful, constitutional means is still debated hotly in some circles.

Prominent candidates

Elected unopposed

* Arthur Griffith (SF) "Cavan East" (also won "Tyrone North East" in a contest)
* Éamon de Valera (SF) "Clare East" (also won "Mayo East")
* Terence MacSwiney (SF) "Cork Mid"
* Michael Collins (SF) "Cork South"
* Seán Hayes (SF) "Cork West"
* Liam Mellows (SF) "Galway East" (also won "Meath North" in a contest)
* Piaras Béaslaí (SF) "Kerry East"
* Austin Stack (SF) "Kerry West"
* W. T. Cosgrave (SF) "Kilkenny North"
* Patrick McCartan (SF) "King's County" [King's County is now known as County Offaly.]
* Count Plunkett (SF) "Roscommon North"

Elected in contests

* Hugh O'Neill (Unionist) "Antrim Mid"
* Patrick Donnelly (IPP) "Armagh South"
* Edward Carson (U) "Belfast Duncairn"
* Joseph Devlin (IPP) "Belfast Falls"
* Samuel McGuffin (Labour Unionist) "Belfast Shankhill"
* Edward Kelly (IPP) "Donegal East"
* James Craig (U) "Down Mid"
* Jeremiah McVeagh (IPP) "Down South"
* Seán T. O'Kelly (SF) "Dublin College Green"
* John J. O'Kelly (SF) "Louth"
* Desmond FitzGerald (SF) "Dublin Pembroke"
* Maurice Dockrell (U) "Dublin Rathmines"
* Joseph McGrath (SF) "Dublin St James's"
* Countess Markiewicz (SF) "Dublin St Patrick's"
* Robert Henry Woods (U) "University of Dublin"
* Pádraic Ó Máille (SF) "Galway Connemara"
* Frank Fahy (SF) "Galway South"
* Domhnall Ua Buachalla (SF) "Kildare North"
* Eoin MacNeill (SF) "Londonderry City" (also elected for the "National University of Ireland")
* Hugh Anderson (IPP) "Londonderry North"
* Denis Henry (U) "Londonderry South"
* Ernest Blythe (SF) "Monaghan North"
* Seán MacEntee (SF) "Monaghan South"
* Kevin O'Higgins (SF) "Queen's County" [Queen's County is now known as County Laois (old spelling, 'Leix').]
* Harry Boland (SF) "Roscommon South"
* Thomas Harbison (IPP) "Tyrone North-East"
* William Redmond (IPP) "Waterford City"
* Cathal Brugha (SF) "Waterford County"
* Laurence Ginnell (SF) "Westmeath"
* James Ryan (SF) "Wexford South"
* Robert Barton (SF) "Wicklow West"


*John Dillon, MP, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.


ee also

* History of Ireland, notably History of Ireland (1801-1922)
* John Redmond
* Edward Carson
* Members of the 1st Dáil

Further reading

* Tim Pat Coogan, "Michael Collins"
* Tim Pat Coogan, "Éamon de Valera"
* Robert Kee, "The Green Flag"
* Michael Laffan, "Resurrection of Ireland"
* F. S. L. Lyons, "Ireland Since the Famine"
* Dorothy Macardle, "The Irish Republic (book)"
* Brian Walker, "Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801–1922"

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