I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized Left in a Free State

Left in a Free State

Brian M Walker
The recent one-hundredth anniversary of the 1918 general election was marked by a number of interesting articles and TV programmes. Occasionally, however, an element of hype led to errors and questionable statements. In all of the discussions prompted by the anniversary some important dimensions were ignored. The role of Southern unionists before, during and after the 1918 general election deserves attention and that is what will be discussed here. Remarkably, during the week before its Election 18 programme which covered the general election as if it were a current event, RTÉ repeatedly ran advertisements which claimed that “In 1918 the only ever 32-county general election in Irish history took place”. In fact there were nearly 30 all-Ireland general elections in the years from 1800 to 1918. This event was widely called the Sinn Féin general election because seventy-three Sinn Féin MPs were returned, but it could also be called the unionist general election because Irish unionists increased their representation by 50 per cent to their highest figure since 1880. One well-known commentator before the RTÉ programme called the 1918 election “the most important and momentous election in Ireland’s history”. Clearly it was important, but the idea that it was “the most important and momentous” must be questioned. The key general election for politics in modern Ireland was the one that took place in 1885. This was when, for the first time, all adult male householders could vote and Irish politics emerged strongly linked to division over the national question, anchored to denominational division. Subsequent extension of the franchise did not change this basic picture. As John Coakley has observed, the general election of 1885 marks “the birth of modern Irish party politics”. The nationalist party which emerged in 1885 was based very largely in the Catholic community, with key Catholic clergy support, while the unionist party, with key Orange Order support, was based very largely in the Protestant community. In succeeding decades this polarity was sometimes challenged, as by TW Russell in the North in 1906 and by William O’Brien in Co Cork at the 1910 general elections. In the long run, however, such challenges were unsuccessful. These divisions over constitutional/ national issues and religion, rather than social divisions, remained at the heart of politics in Ireland, North and South, during the twentieth century. The 1918 general election did nothing to change this picture. Its outcome was a victory for confrontation rather…

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