Irish general election, 1918
105 of the 707 seats to the House of Commons
Results of the 1918 election in Ireland. Sinn Féin MPs refused to sit in the House of Commons and instead formed Dáil Éireann. The Irish Parliamentary Party, Irish Unionist Alliance, Labour Unionist Party and an Independent Unionist MP remained in Westminster.
The Irish general election of 1918 was that part of the 1918 United Kingdom general election which took place in Ireland. It is now seen as a key moment in modern Irish history 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 significant electoral success. In Ulster, however, the Unionist Party was the most successful party.
In the aftermath of the elections, Sinn Féin's elected members refused to attend the British Parliament in Westminster (London), and instead formed a parliament in Dublin, the First Dáil (Irish for "Assembly"), which declared Irish independence as a republic. The Irish War of Independence was conducted under this revolutionary government who sought international recognition, and set about the process of state-building.
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 105 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 Irish nationalists, who sat together in the British House of Commons as the Irish Parliamentary Party.
The IPP strove for Home Rule, that is, limited self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom, and had been supported by most Irish people, especially the Catholic majority. Home Rule was opposed by most Protestants in Ireland, who formed a majority of the population in the northern province of Ulster but a minority in the rest of Ireland, 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, largely due to Ulster Unionists' 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 limited 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 Unionists 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 four by-election successes in 1917 in which Count Plunkett, Joseph McGuinness, de Valera and W. T. Cosgrave were each elected, although it lost three by-election in early 1918 before winning two more with Patrick McCartan and Arthur Griffith. In at least one case there were allegations of electoral fraud. 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, there was a dramatic generational change because of World War I, which meant that 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 election saw, in particular:
- All voters between the 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 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 that 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 granted voting rights to women (albeit only those over 30) for the first time, and gave all men over 21 and military servicemen over 19 a vote in parliamentary elections without property qualifications. The Irish electorate increased from around 700,000 to about two million.
Overall, a new generation of young 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.
- 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 (within the framework of the United Kingdom), as opposed to using separatist physical force if required.
- The electorate had become enamoured by 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 a temporary form of partition in 1914, as a measure to pacify Ulster loyalists, Sinn Féin felt that this would worsen and prolong any differences between north and south
- In contrast to the IPP, Sinn Féin were 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 the jurisdiction of 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 defend a republic with 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.
- Unionist opinion from fear of Home Rule, or worse separation, solidified after the Rising and its vote was enhanced, aided in Ulster by the increased electorate. This was the first election since the Ulster Covenant, the formation of the Ulster Volunteers (UVF) and the Battle of the Somme.
- 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 little account was taken of its reservations to what it contended would be Catholic rule from Dublin
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 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 (which returned a Unionist), the University of Dublin (which returned two Unionists) and the National University of Ireland (which returned a member of Sinn Féin).
Of the 105 seats in Ireland, twenty-five were uncontested for a number of reasons, not least that the IPP and Sinn Féin had been finding common ground in the immediately previous period. In some cases it was because there was a certain winner in Sinn Féin. 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 Féiners from running. For whatever reason, in the 73 constituencies in which Sinn Féin candidates were elected 25 were returned unopposed (17 were in Munster). The uncontested constituencies that Sinn Féin won subsequently showed high levels of support for republican candidates.
Sinn Féin candidates won 73 seats out of 105, 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 republicans and unionists, the election was seen as a landslide victory for Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin received 46.9% of votes island-wide, and 65% of votes in the area that became the Irish Free State. However, the 46.9% is not the total result of the overall success of Sinn Féin. That figure only accounts for 48 seats that they won because in 25 of the other constituencies the other parties did not contest them, and Sinn Féin won them unopposed. Most of these constituencies were Sinn Féin strongholds. It is estimated that, had the 25 seats been contested, Sinn Féin would have received at least 53% of the vote island-wide. However, this is a conservative estimate and the percentage would likely have been higher. Sinn Féin also did not contest four seats due to a deal with the IPP (see below). Labour, who had pulled out in the south under instructions to 'wait', polled better in Belfast than Sinn Féin.
The Irish Unionist Party won 22 seats and 25.3% of the vote island-wide, becoming the second-largest party in terms of MPs. The success of the unionists, who won 26 seats overall, was largely limited to Ulster. Otherwise, southern unionists were elected only in the constituencies of Rathmines and the University of Dublin which returned two.
In Ulster (nine-counties), Unionists won 23 out of the 38 seats with Sinn Féin gaining ten and the Irish Parliamentary Party five. There was a limited electoral pact brokered by Roman Catholic Cardinal Michael Logue between Sinn Féin and the Nationalist IPP in eight seats, after nominations closed. Sinn Féin, remarkably successfully, instructed its supporters to vote IPP in Armagh South (79 SF votes), Down South (33 SF votes), Tyrone North-East (56 SF votes) and Donegal East (46 SF votes). Armagh South had no Unionist candidate. The IPP instructed its supporters to vote Sinn Féin in Fermanagh South (132 IPP votes) which had no Unionist candidate, and Londonderry City (120 IPP votes) where Eoin MacNeill narrowly beat the Unionist. Sinn Féin was given a clear run in Tyrone North-West against a Unionist when no IPP candidate stood. The discipline of voters when faced with two rival nationalist candidates and with only a post-nomination pact in these six cases was impressive. The pact broke down in Down East where a Unionist won as the IPP candidate refused to participate and split the Catholic vote. There was no pact in Belfast Falls which Joe Devlin (IPP) won with 8,488 votes against 3,245 for Eamon de Valera (SF) although no Unionist stood. Monaghan North was won by Sinn Féin’s Ernest Blythe in a three-cornered fight against both IPP and Unionist candidates. In the Monaghan South, and Donegal North, South, and West seats, despite no Unionist standing, Sinn Féin won all four against IPP candidates. Sinn Féin took the two (uncontested) Cavan seats. Unionists won a majority of the Ulster seats and eight of the nine in Belfast.
In the six Ulster counties which formed the future Northern Ireland, the percentage vote totals were: Unionists 66%, Nationalists 30.7%, and Labour etc. 3.3%.
The IPP suffered a catastrophic defeat and even its leader, John Dillon, was not re-elected. It won only six seats in Ireland, its losses exaggerated by the "first-past-the-post" system which gave it a share of seats far short of its much larger share of the vote (21.7%) and the number of seats it would have won under a "proportional representation" ballot system. All but one of its seats were in Ulster. The 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 Redmond. Four of their Ulster seats were part of the deal to avoid unionist victories which saved some for the party but may have cost it the support of Protestant voters elsewhere. The 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 island. The party was represented in Westminster by seven MPs because T. P. O'Connor won due to emigrant votes in Liverpool. The remnants of the IPP in time became the Nationalist Party (Northern Ireland) under the leadership of Joseph Devlin.
|| % Votes
(since Dec. 1910)
| % of
|Sinn Féin[nb 1]||de Valera, ÉamonÉamon de Valera||476,087||46.9||46.9||73||73||69.5|
|Irish Unionist||Carson, EdwardEdward Carson||257,314||25.3||N/A||22||5||20.9|
|Irish Parliamentary||Dillon, JohnJohn Dillon||220,837||21.7||21.9||6||67||5.7|
|Independent Unionist||—[nb 2]||9,531||0.9||0.9||1||1||0.95|
Aftermath and legacy
On 21 January 1919 thirty (out of 105 elected) members representing thirty constituencies answered the roll of Dáil Éireann the Irish for "Assembly of Ireland". Invitations to attend the Dáil had been sent to all 104 men and one woman who had been elected on 14 December 1918. Eoin MacNeill had been elected for both Londonderry City and the National University of Ireland. Thirty-three republicans were unable to attend as they were in prison, most of them without trial since the previous May 17. Pierce McCann (of Tipperary East) who died in prison would have brought the total to thirty-four. Of the 73 republicans elected, most had fought in the Easter Rising.
In accordance with the Sinn Féin manifesto, their elected members refused to attend Westminster, having instead formed their own parliament. Dáil Éireann was, according to John Patrick McCarthy, the revolutionary government under which the Irish War of Independence was fought and which sought international recognition. Maryann Gialanella Valiulis says that having justified its existence, the Dáil provided itself with a theoretical framework and set about the process of state-building.
The British administration and unionists 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 a new state, the Irish Republic.
On the same day, in unconnected circumstances, two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary guarding gelignite were killed in the Soloheadbeg Ambush 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, 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. 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, would hold 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, which first enjoyed substantial electoral success in 1918.
|Arthur Griffith||Sinn Féin||Cavan East and also
Tyrone North West (contest)
|Éamon de Valera||Sinn Féin||Clare East and also
Mayo East (contest)
|Terence MacSwiney||Sinn Féin||Cork Mid|
|Michael Collins||Sinn Féin||Cork South|
|Seán Hayes||Sinn Féin||Cork West|
|Liam Mellows||Sinn Féin||Galway East and also
Meath North (contest)
|Piaras Béaslaí||Sinn Féin||Kerry East|
|Austin Stack||Sinn Féin||Kerry West|
|W. T. Cosgrave||Sinn Féin||Kilkenny North|
|Patrick McCartan||Sinn Féin||King's County|
|Count Plunkett||Sinn Féin||Roscommon North|
Elected in contests
|John Dillon||Irish Parliamentary Party||Mayo East|
- History of Ireland, notably History of Ireland (1801-1922)
- John Redmond
- Edward Carson
- Members of the 1st Dáil
- McCarthy, John Patrick (2006). Ireland: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present. Infobase Publishing. p. 236. ISBN 978-0-8160-5378-0.
- Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella (1992). Portrait of a revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the founding of the Irish Free State. University Press of Kentucky. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-8131-1791-1.
- 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.
- Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998: War, Peace and Beyond, John Wiley & Sons, 2010, p. 210. ISBN 1444324152.
- Knirck, Jason K. Imagining Ireland's Independence: The Debates Over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. p.45
- The Irish Election of 1918. ARK. Retrieved 30 December 2013.
- The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923, Michael Laffan
- The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923, Michael Laffan p. 164
- Comerford, Maire (1969). The First Dáil. Joe Clarke. p. 11.
- King's County is now known as County Offaly.
- Queen's County is now known as County Laois (old spelling, 'Leix').
Notes on election results
- The percentage of votes given is a percentage of the total number of votes cast and therefore does not take into account the preferences of voters in constituencies where no contest occurred because of the overwhelming support for Sinn Féin there. It is impossible to know with certainty what the final shares of votes cast might have been had all constituencies been contested.
- Elected independent unionist candidate was Robert Henry Woods.
- Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins
- John Patrick McCarthy, Ireland: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present
- Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, Portrait of a revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the founding of the Irish Free State
- Michael Laffan, The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923
- Maire Comerford, The First Dáil
- Dorothy Macardle, The Irish Republic (book)