Sinn Féin and the conscription crisis

For the newly-galvanised party, 1918 was characterised by protest, piety, propaganda, prison and ultimately political triumph

Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond (left) with John Dillon, who succeeded him as leader, circa 1910. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In January 1918, the Daily Mail referred to the "increasing weakness" of Sinn Féin – a reminder that as far as some contemporary observers were concerned, or hoped, the Sinn Féin momentum, after an energetic 1917, had run out of steam. Three months later, however, the British government introduced the Military Service Act, raising the possibility of conscription being imposed on Ireland.

This conscription initiative was referred to by the London Times as "an act of insanity" and has been characterised by historian Senia Paseta as "the greatest and final unifying issue in pre-independent nationalist Ireland". It allowed Sinn Féin to focus on, in the words of the Mansion House Committee formed to protest against conscription, "Ireland's separate and distinct nationality" and it also helped to give more shape, determination and organisational impetus to the Sinn Féin movement. For Sinn Féin, 1918 was characterised by protest, piety, propaganda, prison and ultimately political triumph.

Figures compiled by the Royal Irish Constabulary revealed that in Munster on the last day of 1917, there were 327 Sinn Féin clubs and 23,694 members, while exactly a year later there were 416 clubs and 38,426 members. Countrywide, it was estimated membership of Sinn Féin increased from 66,270 to 112,080 over the course of that year. The conscription crisis also re-energised the party's military wing, the Irish Volunteers – in the words of Liam Deasy in Cork it "electrified" them and they were to play an important role in mobilising electoral support for Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin founder, and now its vice-president, Arthur Griffith gloated at the Irish Parliamentary Party having to make common cause with Sinn Féin during the conscription crisis and he insisted that unlike the Irish Parliamentary Party, which was belatedly converted to abstention from parliament by withdrawing from the House of Commons in protest at the threat of conscription, Sinn Féin drew its strength from the "reawakened consciousness of the national mind" and would build a party machinery to surpass the Irish Parliamentary Party's now creaking organisation.


But Griffith also spent much of that year in prison and it was up to others at liberty to build the organisation and fund it. According to the Chief Secretary's Office, £43,000 was collected in the provinces for this purpose up to June. Party propagandists, including Robert Brennan, dutifully sent Sinn Féin notes and news to provincial newspapers.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin pamphleteers churned out guides under such titles as How to form a Sinn Féin club and Work for a Sinn Féin branch. A central mission of these Sinn Féin wordsmiths was to denigrate the leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party and to decry the value or usefulness of Irish politicians toiling at Westminster. Ernest Augustus Boyd, who had worked with the British consular service, wrote a play in 1918 under the title The Worked Out Ward in which one character says of a parliamentarian "it's queer in the head you've grown from asking questions in parliament; your heart's not with your own people".

Sinn Féin Catechism

As Boyd saw it, much of the rhetoric and posturing about the destiny of small nations beloved of Sinn Féin was sentimental slop, but it had become a "literary industry" and Sinn Féin sought to exploit it to maximum effect. Darrell Figgis authored the Sinn Féin Catechism, a statement of Sinn Féin policy written in the question and answer form of a Catholic catechism and it opened with this:

Q. “What is your nationality?”

A. “I am Irish”;

followed by

Q. “What does it mean to be Irish?”

A. “It means that I am part of the Irish Nation, to which I must give my true and best service, and to which I must always be loyal.”

The catechism was also an attempt to persuade those who had doubts about Sinn Féin to be unafraid to commit themselves and freedom was defined as the moment when Ireland “will once again take her rightful place in the world”. No nation had suffered more, but Ireland had proved “unconquerable”.

In private, Figgis was worried that some of the more moderate voices in Sinn Féin were being sidelined, but the public emphasis was on one overriding mission. As PS O'Hegarty, another champion of the party described it in Sinn Féin: an Illumination, there were many sections in Sinn Féin but all were agreed on the main point: "Ireland must work out her own salvation." That sentiment also found expression in Sinn Féin's general election manifesto at the end of 1918.

Sinn Féin was well placed to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had been apparent long before 1918. Its leader John Redmond became increasingly out of touch during the war, rarely leaving London except for breaks in Aughavanagh, a former military barracks in the hills of Wicklow, which he deliberately chose as a retreat because it was remote and kept him out of reach.

As things went from bad to worse for Redmond in 1917 and into early 1918, his reaction was one of frustration, laced with a panicked snobbery, which was evident in one of the last letters he wrote before his death in March 1918. Criticising the failure of his party to unite around him as Sinn Féin sought to demolish it, he suggested the result of such disloyalty would be “universal anarchy, and, I am greatly afraid, the spread of violence and crime of all sorts, when every blackguard who wants to commit an outrage will simply call himself a Sinn Féiner and thereby get the sympathy of the unthinking crowd”.

Redmond and his colleagues, including John Dillon who succeeded him as leader, had every reason to feel aggrieved that their record in achieving practical Irish nationalist victories – in relation to land, housing and educational reform and taking Ireland within reach of Home Rule – was being ignored or traduced, but Redmond's mistake was in asserting that those embracing the new politics of resistance were dupes. In reality, they were far from "unthinking"; they were young, purposeful, and idealistic and determined to reject Redmond's generation and its politics, including support for the British war effort.

Many assertions have been made about the extent to which Redmond represented the views of the majority of Irish nationalists, but those claims need to be accompanied by significant caveats. The Irish electorate in 1910, for example, the year of the last general election before 1918, was only 700,000. By 1918, as a result of the Representation of the People Act, it was 1.9 million, with the vote now extended to men of 21 and women over the age of 30 with property qualifications. About 36 per cent of the new electorate was female. During the 1918 general election campaign, Sinn Féin made specific pleas to female and younger voters at the same time as it castigated Irish MPs at Westminster as treacherous.

‘Policy of lunatics’

In turn, Dillon characterised Sinn Féin’s insistence that its election candidates, if successful, would not take their seats in parliament as a “policy of lunatics”, but he was also honest in private about his own party’s weaknesses. His correspondence with fellow party stalwart TP O’Connor reveals how despondent the new leader was about lack of party organisation and a sense that, in his own words, his followers were already beaten “in their hearts”. He regarded those members of the party who backed away, having originally committed to stand in the general election, as demonstrating “sheer cowardice”, but he refused to fold up the party tent. One of Dillon’s major gripes was that the younger generation “are ignorant of what our movement achieved for Ireland”. But he also acknowledged “our own blunders in not realising what was going on”.

While there was some confusion about the implications of abstention from parliament, in the words of historian Nicholas Mansergh, "compromise had gone out of Irish politics". The arrests of leading Sinn Féin members on foot of the so-called "German plot" deepened that mood, a reminder that British blunders were also a great help to Sinn Féin in 1918. Walter Long, a unionist cabinet member inhabiting the British Colonial Office, had demanded "the most drastic steps should be taken to stamp out pro-German intrigues" in Ireland, and on the night of May 17th/18th, 73 prominent Sinn Féiners were arrested. The evidence that Sinn Féin was doing any plotting with Germany was embarrassingly thin; indeed, many saw it as comical. The British mistake was indulging the zealousness of those determined to thwart Sinn Féin, thereby generating martyr status for the party.

Sinn Féin was also determined to present itself as representing the interests of the working class and the need for community, not elite, mobilisation was constantly emphasised. But the labour question was a potential complication for Sinn Féin –there were tensions during this period about food and price inflation and lack of tillage land. While Sinn Féin and Labour had co-operated in some agitation, Sinn Féin president Éamon de Valera was keen to stress that in relation to such agitation Sinn Féin needed to "bide its time" and not get distracted by "side issues".

As pious Sinn Féin propagandist Aodh de Blácam put it, Sinn Féin "inevitably leads to socialism" though the "actual programme that social Gaelicism will adopt has yet to be hammered out". Another contemporary publication, Sinn Féin and the Labour Movement, argued that the Labour Party was "erroneous" in appealing to workers as a "class" – the workers were, rather, the "nation".

On April 23rd, the Labour movement demonstrated its considerable reach and influence by its organisation of a countrywide strike, but the Sinn Féin momentum ultimately sidelined the party. Trade union membership had expanded rapidly but with political opinion being polarised around the “national” question, the Labour Party faced a quandary. In September, its executive decided it would contest the general election with a radical socialist manifesto but its own fears of a poor performance, a divided party and the insistence of Sinn Féin that the interests of Ireland should not be “submerged by any class interest” led to it abstaining after a special conference. The decision of the Labour Party not to contest the general election was of great benefit to Sinn Féin; had it participated, it would undoubtedly have taken votes from Sinn Féin.

Church leaders

Younger priests were also making their presence felt as part of the republican appeal. The involvement of church leaders – some openly sceptical about Sinn Féin – in the conscription crisis had given Sinn Féin a certain respectability. Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Michael Logue may have believed Sinn Féin were "pursuers of a dream no man in his sober senses can hope to see realised" but he also brokered a deal between the Irish Parliamentary Party and Sinn Féin in Ulster over the constituencies to be contested in the general election, allowing Ulster constituencies to return five of the six Irish Parliamentary Party MPs who survived the election meltdown (the other was William Redmond in Waterford City). Logue's involvement was a propaganda gift to the Unionists with their leader Edward Carson able to claim Sinn Féin "get their orders from Cardinal Logue".

As to the election itself, research by Conor Mulvagh, a lecturer in Irish history at UCD, has highlighted that in the constituencies where the Irish Parliamentary Party faced a contest, the average electorate in 1910 had been 6,642; it was now 19,539. It had faced contests in 30 constituencies in 1910 but in 1918 that increased to 54. Historian Michael Laffan has emphasised the conclusion of an RIC inspector in Sligo: "the election results are a triumph of the young over the old".

This was an important point: the Irish Parliamentary Party was an aged party by 1918 and the average age of its MPs had risen from 40 in the 1880s to 55 in 1918. Suffragette Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was also vocal in her reminders that the party had "fought all that they could against women getting the vote" and Sinn Féin was the only party to put forward female candidates. Sinn Féin won every seat in the three southern provinces except Waterford, the Borough of Rathmines and TCD.

One of the most unusual aspects of the election was the physical absence of many candidates from the campaign trail: 36 Sinn Féin candidates were in jail; six were on the run and four were abroad. Personation was widespread but this had long been a feature of Irish elections and was hardly a defining feature in the victory of Sinn Féin. Irish Volunteers made themselves busy stewarding and canvassing and women were also visible and vocal.

While the result – Sinn Féin winning 73 seats, the Irish Parliamentary Party with six and unionists with 26 – may have been emphatic for Sinn Féin, it was not quite clear what would happen next. Sinn Féin’s manifesto had declared the right to use “any and every means necessary” to render “impotent” British rule in Ireland. What did that mean? Was the Sinn Féin philosophy, beyond abstention from Westminster, clear?

Fr Michael O’Flanagan, joint vice-president of Sinn Féin, and the most high-profile clerical champion of Sinn Féin, was reputed to have suggested after the vote: “The people have voted Sinn Féin . . . what we have to do now is explain what Sinn Féin is.” The other big question was how would the British government, flush with war victory, react? The Irish political earthquake had struck, but what its aftershocks would amount to was still a matter of uncertainty.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of Modern Irish History at UCD