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Crushing Democracy

Philip O’Connor

In December 1918 the Irish electorate outside of northeast Ulster voted itself by a landslide out of the British empire and into an Irish republic. The legitimacy of doing such a thing was rejected by London, which had just fought a world war for the “freedom of small nations” but managed in the process to expand its imperial territory by a third. It outlawed the Irish parliament and, continuing an already draconian regime of arrests, imprisonment and deportations, launched a three-year campaign of repression against the democratic forces in the country that supported it. Throughout these years of unprecedented state violence against them, the Irish populace stuck stubbornly to its decision of December 1918, repeating it in successive electoral outings in 1920 and 1921. Probably no independence movement in history, anywhere, enjoyed the democratic mandate of the First Dáil. Yet the meaning of that election and of its consequences continues to be raked over and disputed.

The UK-wide election of December 1918 was not, as is often claimed, the “first post-war election”, as the war was only suspended by the armistice with Germany pending negotiation of a peace agreement. Britain’s army remained fully mobilised and was involved in continued violence in occupied territories in Europe and the Middle East, and the “hunger blockade” against Germany was intensified. The Liberal leader, David Lloyd George, fought a war election, seeking a mandate for a punitive approach to Germany, to be crowned with the hanging of the Kaiser. On Ireland, he committed to delivering some form of subservient self-government, and otherwise a policy of what he would later describe as getting “murder by the throat”. Because of the unprecedented mobilisation of British society to fight the “Great War”, which was framed as a moral crusade against evil in which Britain had no material interest, great social and democratic expectations were aroused. To meet these, an unprecedented democratisation of politics was inaugurated with the Representation of the People Act 1918, which extended the electorate from a franchise that had included just 31 per cent of adults in the election in 1910, to all males over twenty-one and females over thirty, or 75 per cent of all adults. It was thus the first real democratic election in British history. The Liberal Party went into terminal decline, and the crisis Liberal-Unionist coalition formed during the war was reconstituted, with a heavy Unionist bias, to see through the crushing of Germany, build “the land fit for heroes” at home, and see off the Irish nuisance.

The election had a very different meaning in Ireland, then still part of the United Kingdom. The “armistice” had certainly been celebrated by official Ireland and its supporters, but the great mass of unofficial Ireland stood aside and ominously awaited developments. On armistice night a triumphant mob of loyalists and servicemen had rampaged in Dublin, beating up “Sinn Féiners”, burning tricolours and ransacking the offices of the Sinn Féin bank on Harcourt Street. A journalist died of a heart attack in the melee as the British army stood by. But the imperialist triumphalism was to be short-lived: “hanging the Kaiser” had little resonance in Ireland.

Very different issues – or rather one overriding one ‑ dominated the Irish election. In a landslide victory, whose extent astonished even Republicans, Sinn Féin, which stood on the sole issue of establishing an independent republic in Ireland, won seventy-three seats (out of 105, and of the seventy-seven they contested), taking every one in the future twenty-six-county area, apart from two retained by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) ‑ one in Waterford against Sinn Féin and one in Donegal East, uncontested by Sinn Féin ‑ and two by the Unionist Party, one in Dublin-Rathmines and the other the bizarre relic of the reserved seat for Trinity College. All other twenty-four seats won by Unionists were in northeast Ulster.

The IPP was a broken force, due to Redmond’s disastrous “our war” gamble, and won just six seats. It had contested just fifty-six, but lost thirty-five of the thirty-seven contested by Sinn Féin. Of the six it retained, five were in Ulster, most in constituencies in which Sinn Féin did not challenge so as not to split the nationalist vote. The only seats the IPP won in direct contests with Sinn Féin were West Belfast and Waterford. The Republicans thus won a virtual clean sweep across the future twenty-six-county area while in the future six-county area Unionists won twenty-four seats, Sinn Féin four and the IPP four. This demonstrated that by this time, and while there might be quibbling as to where the border would run, partition was already a fact on the ground and the contest in the North followed that logic. What is important in assessing the meaning of Sinn Féin’s victory is its success in the future twenty-six-county area where it would go on to establish a republic under near war conditions.

For the resigned Freeman’s Journal, the faithful organ of the IPP to the bitter end (it finally closed in 1924), the result was “as clear as it is emphatic”: Sinn Féin had “invited the people to join to the demand for a Republic as something immediately obtainable and practicable as well as desirable”, and outside of the northeast it had won a decisive mandate for it.

One would imagine that the “clear”, “emphatic” reading of the 1918 election result by the Freeman’s Journal would be the only possible interpretation of it. After all, it represented probably the most unequivocal mandate ever given anywhere by a people to an independence movement. But no. Press commentary on the centenary has been strangely distorted, dominated by much “whatiffery”, the highlighting of secondary aspects, such as an alleged old-young divide, the role of priests, or bafflement at how the newly enfranchised women’s vote could possibly have gone as overwhelmingly as it did to Sinn Féin. There was much nit-picking about the failure of the state to live up to the hopes of the electorate, as if this had been any other election. It was presented as an event about any number of issues other than the clear single issue it was about. At the time, however, it was not only the Freeman’s Journal that saw the wood for the trees: the London Times also reported that the Irish election “was treated by all parties as a plebiscite”.

Many canards have been raised. Fintan O’Toole hinted darkly that Sinn Féin had won its landslide majority on “just 48 per cent of the vote … [while] in the entire counties of Cork, Clare and Kerry they faced no opposition at all”. Diarmaid Ferriter found “ominous” the Sinn Féin manifesto commitment that an Irish government would “use any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise”. Stephen Collins thinks the British government eventually came around to accept the mandate thanks to the pressure of British public opinion.

The Sinn Féin manifesto was indeed extraordinarily clear, and its voters could have been under no illusions as to what they were voting for. The choice, it stated, was between an independent nation state and remaining “in the shadow of a base imperialism”. The proposed state was the republic declared in 1916, and the electorate was invited to endorse “that Republic”, to be realised by its elected representatives withdrawing from Westminster and establishing an Irish parliament. A Sinn Féin government would “use every means at its disposal” to “render impotent” English rule in Ireland, take full responsibility for the administrative, security and economic governance of the country and seek recognition as an independent nation at the postwar peace conference. Far from being a non-violent “reaction” to 1916 (O’Toole) the election was the realisation by electoral mandate of the aspiration 1916 represented, and hence the democratic founding event of the modern Irish state.

Much has rightly been made of the importance of women finally achieving the franchise for national elections (they could vote in local elections since 1889 once they met the property/tenancy qualification). Alone of the parties, Sinn Féin supported women’s right to the full franchise. Though suffrage had supporters among the IPP, John Dillon, who succeeded Redmond as party leader, was a fervent opponent, stating that it would be “the ruin of our Western civilization. It will destroy the home, challenging the headship of man, laid down by God. It may come in your time – I hope not in mine.” Just two women contested the election for Sinn Féin (Hanna Sheehy Skeffington turned down a nomination), and Constance Markievicz was elected. Much is made of her being the only woman elected for Sinn Féin, but in Britain not a single woman was returned, Liberal, Tory or Labour. On de Valera’s proposal, Markievicz was appointed to cabinet, as minister for labour, a role which, despite operating underground under conditions of British military rule, she executed with great energy and to widespread acclaim. But the votes of Irish women were declared as null and void as everybody else’s when Britain refused to accept the legitimacy of the result. You could not just vote yourself out of the empire!

The election is often described as an event in a process otherwise shaped by “violence”. And indeed the election was marred by much violence. As described by Michael Laffan, himself no Republican, this took the form of crown forces breaking up election meetings, imprisoning Sinn Féin activists and seizing election literature; Sinn Féin itself, as well as many other national organisations was banned; over a hundred Sinn Féin leaders, and seventy-three of its candidates were interned; much of the country was under military rule; Republican papers were suppressed and other newspapers operated under tight censorship. The “emergency” under which British rule had operated since the start of the Great War, including the draconian Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), continued to be thoroughly implemented; this may be why many in Ireland failed to grasp that this was “a post-war election”. The censored press regurgitated the speeches of Unionist and IPP candidates, while those of Sinn Féin were heavily “redacted”, with all “seditious” material removed. Even its manifesto was only allowed be quoted from a heavily redacted Castle-approved version that deleted half the text.

Local reports from around the country to Dublin Castle from the colonial gendarmerie, the RIC, are now available on microfilm in the National Library, and they make for very educational reading. As the RIC did not regard British military and police violence as “violence” at all, these reports describe the election, apart from some outbursts of election enthusiasm and two exceptions to which we shall return, as a remarkably peaceful affair. A typical example of a contested seat, North County Dublin, involved long-serving IPP MP JJ Clancy defending his seat against the imprisoned Sinn Féiner, Swords farmer and 1916 veteran Frank Lawless. The county inspector, noting that with the exception of a few young priests the “more important RC clergy” strongly supported Clancy, reported an absence of “violence” or “intimidation”, though Sinn Féin supporters did “interrupt the meetings of their opponents a fair deal”. The labour movement formed a major element in the Sinn Féin campaign on the ground. Lawless was let out of prison for just one half-day – to attend the count – where he was declared the winner by 9,138 votes to 4,128. Clancy conceded graciously and Lawless, on being declared elected, was promptly returned to jail. One of the first to congratulate him on his “great victory” was the labour leader in north county Dublin, Archie Ahern.

The role of labour in north Dublin – particularly though far from solely through the ITGWU, the general union of James Connolly that was sweeping the industrial organisation of the country ‑ was not unique. The myth that labour had been forced “to wait”, with some historians alleging intimidation, is completely wide of the mark. In fact the party leadership had initially decided to contest, with even ITGWU leader William O’Brien favouring it. But such was the opposition in its own ranks, among whom were many active in Sinn Féin and the Volunteers, as well as many trade unionists in the North who supported the Union, that the executive of the party and TUC finally voted to abstain. Tom Johnson explained the party’s position in terms of the need for an unequivocal decision by the electorate on the issue of Irish self-determination.

Besides the widespread state violence, censorship and repression, serious election violence was recorded in just two constituencies, West Belfast and Waterford City. As contemporaty press and police reports, as well as later witness statements to the Bureau of Military History confirm, the Belfast violence was almost exclusively that of Joe Devlin’s Hibernian bully boys attacking Sinn Féin meetings. Kevin O’Shiel, who had travelled to Befast to canvass for de Valera, recalled: “I shall never forget that wild, yelling, maddened Hibernian mob that pelted us for two hours with sticks, stones, rivets, rotten eggs, dead cats and rats. Only for a strong draft of Volunteers and, later, some belated help from reinforced RIC, I doubt if any of us would have survived intact.” It was similar in Waterford City, where Sinn Féin canvassers were beaten from the streets by the heavy gang of the Redmond IPP election machine, the Ballybricken Pig Buyers Association, who controlled the city. The thuggery of the Pig Buyers was legendary. In 1892 Michael Davitt, who had come to Waterford to try to patch things up with Redmond following the Parnell split, was so appalled at their thuggery that he stood against Redmond. Later, in conceding the seat, he said he would rather lose than win by Redmond’s methods of “Terrorism and Toryism”. In 1918 Captain Willie Redmond retained the seat following a similarly brutal contest, with the Pig Buyers again to the fore, though he won only by the fairly narrow margin of 4,915 to Sinn Féin’s 4,431.

Sinn Féin was an extraordinary national movement, brought together through the Volunteers and other groupings in the wake of the Rising and following a string of by-election victories by candidates standing in support of the Republic declared in Easter 1916. It was finally formally founded in October 1917 at a conference attended by delegates from a thousand local “Republican Clubs”, which elected de Valera as its president and adopted the programme that would form the basis of its 1918 manifesto. By October 1918, the RIC already reckoned Sinn Féin membership at over 100,000, an extraordinary figure by any account, and even more so considering it was a “proscribed” organisation with activists likely to face arrest, imprisonment and worse. Contrary to a view of the 1918 election as an unconnected “interlude” between phases of violence, the British authorities were under no illusions as to the significance of the rise of Sinn Féin. Following de Valera’s by-election victory in July 1917, the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Ivor Churchill Guest (Lord Wimborne), in a secret report for cabinet not released until 1978, wrote that “The Sinn Fein victory in East Clare is a fact of cardinal importance … [I]t marks the definite failure of the policy to rehabilitate constitutional nationalism or disarm Sinn Féin defiance of English rule … [I]n a remarkably well conducted political contest … the electors, on a singularly frank issue of self-Government within the Empire versus an Independent Irish Republic, have overwhelmingly pronounced for the latter.”

Fintan O’Toole’s quibble about “uncontested seats” and Sinn Féin winning on “just 48 per cent of the vote” is surely one of the most jaded canards of them all. In the first-past-the-post system seats which were obviously going to be won by a landslide were routinely not contested. The twenty-five uncontested seats in 1918 were in Kerry, Clare and Cork, where Sinn Féin and the Volunteers were already stronger movements than anywhere else in Ireland. There is no record, even anecdotally, of anyone being prevented from standing and RIC reports make no mention of any such problems or intimidation. The IPP simply withered away. Even the RIC noted the role of many former members of the All-for-Ireland League in the new movement. Furthermore, it was only in 1892 that a majority of seats in Ireland had been contested at all – in 1866 a full eighty-six had been uncontested, seventy-four were uncontested in 1906 and forty-six in 1910. The figure for 1918 was thus the lowest proportion ever.

It is often argued that the Irish did not vote for war in 1918, and if they’d known what was to come would have acted very differently. But this does not hold up. They consciously voted for candidates, many of whom were in jail, most of whom had some connection with the 1916 Rising, and in a contest marred by extensive state violence against the independence movement. The result was thus both a vote for independence and an endorsement of what the 1916 Rising had been about. Over a year after the election, when “violence” had become even more widespread, support for advocates of independence increased in municipal elections in January 1920 to 77 per cent, in the rural council elections of June 1920 to 80 per cent, and in county council elections the same month to 83 per cent, all held under a PR system designed to stunt Sinn Féin support. The anti-independence vote was again overwhelmingly concentrated in the northeast. Of the 263 county council seats in Munster and Connacht Sinn Féin won 258 and its Labour ally five. Every county council outside the northeast voted to recognise the authority of Dáil Éireann, even though this meant immediate budget reductions and military suppression. The Dáil itself was suppressed and outlawed. From 1919, on de Valera’s insistence, the growing Volunteer movement, now increasingly engaged in countering the British suppression of Irish democratic bodies as well as taking the offensive, took an oath of allegiance to the Dáil as the democratic government of the country. When it came to the 1921 national election Sinn Féin’s candidates were returned unopposed for every constituency in the twenty-six-county area apart from the four ludicrously reserved under the 1920 “Government of Ireland Act” for Trinity College. The mass of the people thus stood by the Dáil and endorsed the actions of the Volunteers throughout the 1919-21 period and showed by their stance that they had as yet no regrets regarding their 1918 decision.

It is regularly stated that the ambush of an RIC patrol at Soloheadbeg on January 21st, 1919, “overshadowed” the first meeting that day of the new Dáil, that this incident was more important than the meeting of the Dáil, and represented the “opening shots” of the War of Independence. Dan Breen, who led the ambush, was as good a writer as he was a guerrilla leader, and he certainly capitalised on the fame the incident bestowed on him. But it was not the opening shot of any war as confrontations between Volunteers and Britain’s military/police had been escalating for over a year before, and escalated again further in response to the attempted military suppression of the 1918 election outcome. Breen and others in his Fenian mould did not believe Britain would concede to a mere election result. Can it be argued that they were wrong? Nevertheless, his action was not approved by the Dáil at the time. But since the Rising there had been several military confrontations with police and military, including some involving fatalities on either side. The Volunteers sought to arm themselves by taking guns from the armed constabulary. In the great majority of cases they were able to get away with the arms without suffering or inflicting casualties, but in some cases the police resisted and in July 1918 there was the first actual armed attack since 1916 on the police, when Volunteers ambushed two RIC men stationed to stop a feis near Ballyvourney.

But the mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers was as yet a minor event in the wholesale violence affecting the country since 1916. At the end of 1919 the Irish Bulletin, newssheet of the Dáil, compiled from official British and newspaper reports a list of actions by crown forces between May 1916 and January 1919. This included fifty-one killings, ninety-nine assaults on civilians, fifty-one proclamations and suppressions and twenty-eight newspapers suppressed, as well as an astonishing litany of 713 raids on houses, 4,785 arrests, 2,064 deportations, 1,460 sentences and 322 court-martials. The Dáil, in its “Declaration to the Nations of the World” of January 21st, 1919, accurately described conditions in the country as the “existing state of war between Ireland and England”. Dan Breen’s ambush was just an incident in a spiral of confrontation since 1916 whose pace had been set by British action.

The 1918 election was the great democratic moment on the road to independence, the unequivocal endorsement by the people of that independence in the form of the sovereign republic declared in 1916 and proposed for their democratic mandate by Sinn Féin. The British response to it, in refusing absolutely to recognise its legitimacy and criminalising its representatives and supporters alike, ensured that “violence” would ensue. The election result and the ensuing “violence” cannot be disconnected, as so many commentators seek to do. O’Toole concedes that in 1918 “ordinary people … collectively withdrew from the state they were in and took the great risk of imagining another”, but claims they “did it, not by killing anyone but by marking a piece of paper”, thus separating the “people” from the “violence”. But the two cannot be separated. He also says that their “hope would be disappointed and betrayed in many ways for many decades”, identifying the denial of the fruits of that election victory – a republic ‑ as something that happened twenty and more years later rather than focusing on its very immediate ruthless denial the very day after the election and subsequently. Britain indeed never “conceded” a sovereign Republic at all, which was only finally concretely realised with the withdrawal of the British military garrison in 1938.


Philip O’Connor is a historian and regular contributor to the Irish Political Review



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