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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 than accommodation. On one side, there was sharp conflict within the nationalist and Catholic community about how their nationalist objectives should best be understood and promoted. Electoral competition between Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party resulted in a victory for Sinn Féin and its advanced, republican aims, with the sidelining of labour. The violence which followed eventually between republicans and British forces, and then between different republican wings, would leave a dire legacy and parties split on the constitutional/national issue. Many Southern unionists were badly affected by this violence.

On the other side, in the North, there was sharp conflict in the unionist and Protestant community, especially in Belfast, where the unionist party faced a strong trade union movement and independent labour candidates. This challenge was successfully repelled at the 1918 general election. In early 1919 a massive strike in the shipyards revealed the depth of this protest. Subsequently such class unity would be lost and in the changing political scene and ensuing violence many Northern Catholics/nationalists lost their lives and homes. The party split in Northern Ireland continued along unionist/nationalist and confessional lines. The conflict and violence of the revolutionary years cemented the divisions over nationality and religion, North and South.

In all these events, however, there was one group that made some effort to escape such a political straitjacket. These were the Southern unionists. They saw themselves as Irish but also British subjects/citizens, loyal to the crown and supporters of the union. In 1910 unionists, North and South, were united in their opposition to home rule. Ulster Unionists had their own organisation in the Ulster Unionist Council. Southern unionists were involved in the Irish Unionist Alliance (IUA), which was an all- Ireland body but run by Southerners and based in Dublin.

The introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912, however, led to the signing of the Ulster Covenant and formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The idea of partition now emerged, first as a strategy to thwart home rule and then as an answer to the conflict between unionist and nationalist claims. This idea did not find favour among many Southern unionists, who feared it would leave them a small minority in a Southern state. By 1918, some Southern unionists had come round to the view that home rule was inevitable and that a settlement with parliamentary nationalists was a good idea.

At the Irish Convention of 1917-18, members of the IUA, led by Viscount Midleton (William Brodrick, created Earl of Midleton in 1920), agreed to a home rule arrangement for Ireland with rights for unionists, such as an upper house, and without partition. This idea, however, did not find favour with Ulster unionists and some nationalists and came to nothing. At the same time other Southern unionists also did not approve of such accommodation. By the general election in November there were now divisions not only between Northern and Southern unionists but also within Southern unionism between those who were prepared to accept some form of home rule and those who were still completely opposed to the idea.

These divisions were laid bare by the decision of Sir Edward Carson to give up his Dublin University seat and stand for the Belfast working class seat of Duncairn. This was not an amicable parting of the ways between the university graduate electors and Carson, who was now seen an advocate for Ulster rather than Ireland. In a letter to the press, Carson stated that “Provost Mahaffy had never been a supporter of mine and, indeed, his action at the convention, was one of the elements that led me to the conclusion that I did” ‑ a reference to Mahaffy’s support for convention proposals which Carson had opposed.

In the South, unionist candidates came forward in Cork city, Donegal East, Monaghan North, Dublin city, St Stephen’s Green, Rathmines and Pembroke divisions, and Dublin County South. Two unionists, plus an independent unionist and an independent nationalist, stood for Dublin University.

In his address for the Rathmines seat Sir Maurice Dockrell declared himself a strong supporter of the legislative union between Great Britain and Ireland. He declared opposition to “any measure involving the partition of Ireland or the coercion of our fellow countrymen in Ulster”. He then urged support for other social measures such as decent dwellings (still an issue today). In Dublin County South, Sir Thomas Robinson also declared his opposition to partition and the coercion of Ulster.

How were these two matters to be reconciled? As an editorial in The Irish Times on November 25th argued, Southern unionists were completely against partition but believed that this could only be prevented by nationalists moderating their “impossible” demands for an Irish republic rather than by coercion of Ulster, which now threatened “to secede from the rest of Ireland”. Such views, however, had little attraction to the bulk of the electorate who were drawn to the more fundamentalist views of the Sinn Féin and Ulster Unionist candidates.

In the Dublin University contest, independent unionist Sir Robert Woods stated his strong opposition to partition and called for a “settlement by consent”. WM Jellett, his unionist opponent, declared his outright opposition to home rule for any part of Ireland and declared that the only way to prevent partition was to maintain the union unchanged. He challenged Midleton’s efforts to come up with a compromise. In North Monaghan, on the other hand, ME Knight declared that he had been assured by Carson that before a bill was introduced in parliament that would exclude any part of Ulster from the United Kingdom, he would bring it first to the unionists of the area affected ‑ showing concern that a partition settlement would exclude Monaghan.

Results for the general election showed that Sinn Féin had won seventy-three seats, compared with six for the IPP. Overall, Irish unionists increased their tally of seats from seventeen to twenty-six, an increase of 50 per cent from the 1910 (December) result and the highest number since 1880. In the South two unionists, Arthur Samuels and Sir Robert Woods, were elected for Dublin University, along with Sir Maurice Dockrell for Rathmines. In four other Southern constituencies unionist candidates received over 4,000 votes each but were unsuccessful. A PR system would certainly have given Southern unionists more seats. In Britain the unionists’ allies, the conservatives in the coalition government, saw an increase from 221 to 357 out of a total of 612 seats.

In the aftermath of the general election, divisions within Southern unionism led to a split  in the IUA, with the conciliatory section under Midleton leaving to found the unionist Anti-Partition League. In October 1919 Lloyd George established a committee under Walter Long, a former South Dublin unionist MP, to bring forward new proposals for the self-government of Ireland. Given Sinn Féin’s absence fromWestminster, the Midleton group now played a role in the work that led to the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which created Northern and Southern parliaments.

This act has sometimes been called the partition act, but, as Patrick Buckland pointed out, “its framers hoped that it would eventually lead to Irish unity”. The act laid down detailed conditions for a Council of Ireland to which the two parliaments would send representatives, “with a view to the eventual establishment of a parliament for the whole of Ireland”, creating “Irish union” with links to Great Britain. This proposal, which was an effort at compromise, failed to win support from either Northern unionists or Sinn Féin supporters.

The act led to the establishment of Northern Ireland, but the Southern parliament and the other arrangements were rejected by Sinn Féin. The Irish War of Independence, between the Irish Republican Army and British crown forces, ran from early 1919 to mid-1921. In July 1921, a truce was called and subsequent negotiations led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6th, 1921 and the new Irish Free State constitution in the following year. Southern unionists under Midleton played a part in bringing about the truce but had no influence on later events.

Many Southern unionists felt betrayed by these changes. On December 16th, 1921 the leading Co Cavan unionist Lord Farnham stated that Southern unionists felt that they “were being shamelessly betrayed and abandoned”, in his case as an Ulster unionist, by both the British and Northern Ireland governments. In the end most accepted the treaty and new arrangements. On December 11th, 1921 Church of Ireland Archbishop Gregg of Dublin stated in a sermon: “We may not like the facts: many of us had no desire for a change of constitution … but it concerns us all to offer to the Irish state so shortly to be constituted our loyalty and good will.” A meeting of the board of Trinity on December 10th, 1921 supported the new settlement and declared its belief that in the building up of happier conditions in Ireland, “Trinity men should take an active and sympathetic part”.

The years of the War of Independence and the Civil War were a time of very mixed fortunes for Southern unionists. As RB McDowell pointed out, from 1918 “unionist” as a political label was supplemented or superseded by “loyalist”. Most but not all Protestants were loyalists, while there were also Catholic loyalists. Many loyalists suffered boycott or intimidation at this time. For the conciliator Midleton these events had a personal price. His soldier nephew, Grenville Peck, was killed by the IRA, who in early 1921 kidnapped his seventy-year-old cousin, the Earl of Bandon, after having burned his home. Matters became worse in the lawless state of the country in early 1922 and during the Civil War. In February 1923 the Catholic bishop of Cork, Dr Michael Cohalan, said that “Protestants have suffered severely during the period of the civil war in the South” and urged that “charity knows no exclusion of creed”. Violence or the threat of violence caused large numbers to flee the country.

At the same time, the early years of the new Southern state saw efforts by government to reach out to members of the Protestant and former unionist community. The constitution made no special allowance for minorities, but the first Irish Free State senate, formed in late 1922, included sixteen former southern unionists, nominated by WT Cosgrave, head of the government, and another seven Protestants elected. The work in the senate of these former unionists, including experienced businessmen, was important for the new state. Elaine Byrne has pointed out that “the senate performed a critical role in inaugurating, legitimizing, and consolidating many of the institutions of government”.

Finally, a comment by Southern unionist and Trinity history professor W Alison Phillips on the 1918 general election is worth noting. He saw the 1921 treaty as a surrender and a betrayal for unionists, but writing in 1923 he observed: “If the government had accepted the verdict of the Irish elections of 1918 and made it the excuse for taking the line which it adopted in 1921, it would have spared Ireland much of the bloodshed and misery, and itself the ignominy, of the years that followed.” One might also comment that if republicans had accepted the verdict of the 1922 general election, which saw majority support for the treaty, this also would have saved Ireland much bloodshed and misery.


Brian M Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen’s University of Belfast. He edited Parliamentary election results in Ireland, 1801-1922 and is author of the forthcoming book Irish history matters: commemoration, identity and politics.



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