Donal Kennedy looks at the electoral facts surrounding Sinn Féin’s historic victory at the 1918 General Election, ninety years ago this week, and takes issue with those academics, journalists and politicians who seek to undermine its democratic legitimacy.
On 28 January 1919, exactly one week after the first meeting of Dail Eireann, a young man remarked in his diary -
“Just one thing occurs to me to mention before I put this diary away: an example of how our claim for self-determination of small nations -championed by Britain in the name of the Czechs - is misrepresented by politicians and newspapers there. In quoting statistics for last year’s general election they give the total votes cast for and against Sinn Féin only in contested elections, completely ignoring the 25 constituencies where Sinn Féin candidates were returned unopposed, thus presenting an entirely misleading picture.”
Ninety years on Irish politicians, newspapers and academics have adopted the disingenuous begrudgery of the British commentators remarked on by Edward MacLysaght, who lived from 1887 to 1986, whose character may well be remembered by some readers.
Professor Richard English of Queen’s University, Belfast, in his study of Ernie O’Malley, remarks that Sinn Féin polled “only 47 per cent” of the votes cast in Ireland. Ex-taoiseach and chancellor of the National University of Ireland, Garret Fitzgerald, I’m advised, has also made the same claim, in the Irish Times.
The party Fitzgerald led, and its predecessor, Cumann na Gael, would have been so lucky to get 47 per cent of votes cast, ever! For they never won the hearts of the Irish people. Abstentionist republicans allowed Cumann na Gael to rule from 1923 to 1932, and Fitzgerald would never have formed his first government if an IRA prisoner and an INLA prisoner hadn’t been elected to the Dail in 1981.
One Stephen King, writing in the Irish Examiner (3 December 2008) acknowledges the 25 uncontested seats but would have us believe that the Irish Parliamentary Party, some of whose members, and tens of thousands of whose supporters, had faced German artillery and machine guns for four years in France, was intimidated by a virtually totally unarmed republican movement, many of whose candidates and key workers, including Desmond Fitzgerald, Garret’s father, had meekly allowed themselves to be arrested, deported and jailed by the British.
The fact is uncontested constituencies were quite common in Ireland and Britain in 1918, as indeed they were prior to 1918.
In 1906 unionists got more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in Ireland but nationalists took the lion’s share of the seats, 84 of which were uncontested.
In 1886 unionists got more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, but nationalists got the lion’s share of the seats, 66 of which were uncontested.
Did the unionists complain, whining like Terry Molloy in On The Waterfront - “I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, coulda been somebody, not just a bum” ?
Did they, heck! Elections were of secondary interest to conservatives and unionists. Votes, Irish or British could be overruled. In 1906 the Conservative Party was reduced to about 25 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, and Arthur Balfour,who had been the prime minister, lost his seat. Unfazed, he addressed his followers saying that the party, in office or out, should control the affairs of “this Great Empire.” As the Lords, with a Conservative/unionist majority could veto Bills passed by the Commons, it was no idle boast.
When the veto was removed the Conservatives and unionists took to the para-military to complement the parliamentary road. “ A rifle in one hand and a ballot in the other” one might say.
Anyway, to dispose of the bum analysis peddled by the enemies of democracy, Sinn Féin in 1918 took 73 seats, nationalists 6 and unionists 26.
All the Unionists, except two for Dublin University (Trinity College) and one for Rathmines, then a Borough on the edge of Dublin, were in Ulster. Every other seat save Waterford in the provinces of Leinster, Connacht and Munster, went to Sinn Féin.
In those three provinces wherever Sinn Féin and the Nationalists slugged it out toe-to-toe Sinn took over 50 per cent of the votes cast in every constituency except Waterford. Five of the Nationalist seats were retained in Ulster, some of them because of an understanding with Sinn Féin aimed at keeping the Unionists out.
I believe that the Sinn Féin victory of 1918 was a popular one unequalled in these islands since. In the 12 UK general elections since 1964, where all, save the Speaker’s seat, have been contested, only once did the party which won power equal the 47 per cent of the votes cast,which Sinn Féin won in 1918 when there were so many uncontested seats. By way of contrast, the current UK government took about 32 per cent of the votes cast in 2005.