On this day 100 years ago: The Irish Free State’s first election

Pro-Treaty candidates won almost 80% of the vote in the first general election after Anglo-Irish Treaty signed

The 'magnificent discipline' of the period between 1916 and 1921, as Éamon de Valera described it, was sundered by the provisions of the treaty. File photograph: Getty Images

On June 16th 1922 Irish people went to the polls in the first election since the Irish Free State was established in provisional form through the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The State was provisional on the basis that before it came officially into being a general election had to be called, a government formed which accepted the treaty and the Dáil had to pass the Irish Free State constitution.

None of these was a given in the acrimonious and tense circumstances which prevailed in Ireland following the narrow passage of the treaty through the Dáil on January 7th, 1921, by 64 votes to 57.

The treaty had split the Republican movement dividing members of Sinn Féin, the IRA and Cumann na mBan. The “magnificent discipline” of the period between 1916 and 1921, as Éamon de Valera described it, was sundered by the provisions of the treaty which established the Irish Free State as a dominion within the British empire rather than as a republic.


The anti-treaty IRA had split from the pro-treaty IRA in March 1922 and occupied the Four Courts a month later in defiance of the Provisional government which had a very shaky mandate to govern.

Civil War

De Valera and Collins, the leaders of the pro and anti-Treaty sides respectively, agreed an election pact which was intended to maximise the Sinn Féin vote, stave off the prospect of Civil War and not make the 1922 election a proxy referendum on the treaty.

They would field candidates in constituencies according to their respective strengths in the outgoing Dáil. After the election a coalition government of the two wings of Sinn Féin would be formed, it was envisaged.

The pact angered the British government which believed the Irish public was being deprived of a proper choice. It also opened the prospect, as the British saw it, of anti-treaty ministers sitting in an Irish government in defiance of Article 17 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

On the morning of the general election the Irish Free State constitution was published in newspapers. It was not the republican constitution many had hoped it would be and the hated oath of allegiance remained.

Though many have speculated as to the timing of its publication, it could not have been published any sooner. Former negotiations between the British and Irish sides only concluded on June 15th, the day before the election.

Some 1,430,104 voters representing a turnout of 62.5 per cent voted in the election. The result was a decisive victory for those candidates who supported the treaty.

It also represented in some ways a defeat for Sinn Féin generally. Almost 40 per cent of the electorate voted for candidates other than Sinn Féin. The Labour Party, under Thomas Johnson, had its best-ever election gaining 21.3 per cent of the vote. In the absence of the anti-treaty side, the Labour Party became the official opposition in the third Dáil where they opposed many of the draconian measures advanced by the Cumann na nGaedheal government.

The Farmers’ Party, the Businessmen’s Party and Independents made up the other 18 per cent.

This was a comprehensive reminder that many in Irish life were not interested in abstruse arguments over the degree of sovereignty afforded by the treaty and wanted to address more pressing bread and butter issues.

Pro-treaty Sinn Féin got 38.5 per cent of the vote. It was a disaster for the anti-treaty Sinn Féin led by Éamon de Valera which got 21.8 per cent of the vote. Many of those who had been prominent in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, including Constance Markievicz, Margaret Pearse, the mother of Patrick and Willie Pearse, Kathleen Clarke, Erksine Childers and Liam Mellows lost their seats.

Some have argued that the failure to include women under the age of 30 in the franchise might have led to a different result, but it is difficult to see how the margin of victory could have mitigated the decisive defeat of the anti-treaty side.

De Valera blamed the rout on the threat of a renewal of hostilities by the British. “By the threat of immediate renewal of an infamous war, our people, harassed and weary and fearful of chaos, having in a majority voted as England wanted, but their hearts and their aspirations are unchanged.

“England’s gain is for the moment and England’s difficulty will still be prayed for as Ireland’s opportunity.”

There were still many who hoped after the election that the pro and anti-treaty sides could form a government and de Valera waited for the summons that never came.

The final results of the election were filtering through when Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP was shot dead outside his London home six days after the shooting.

Four Courts

This immediately precipitated an ultimatum from the British government to Michael Collins warning him to remove the anti-treaty rebels from the Four Courts or the British garrison still in Ireland would do it instead.

Electoral politics immediately were superseded by the threat of renewed hostilities between Britain and Ireland. Winston Churchill, then the chief secretary to the colonies, told the House of Commons on June 26th that the provisional Irish government had a “strengthened mandate” to act against anti-treaty rebels.

A day later the provisional government referenced the election in its own ultimatum to the anti-treaty leaders saying that it now had a mandate to act. There would be more indulgence afforded to the anti-treaty side.

“Since the close of the general election, at which the will of the people was ascertained, further grave acts against the security of persons and property have been committed in Dublin and some other parts of Ireland by persons pretending to act with authority. It is the duty of the government, to which the people have entrusted their defence and the conduct of their affairs, to protect and secure all law-abiding citizens without distinction and that duty the government will resolutely perform.”

The Civil War began on June 28th, 1922, with the shelling of the Four Courts. The third Dáil did not sit until September. The Irish Free State came into being on December 6th, 1922, a year after the treaty was signed.

While the general election did not stave off the Civil War, it established the primacy of electoral politics in Irish society. As Taoiseach Micheál Martin pointed out in his speech to the UCC conference on the Civil War, no party which advocated violence got more than 4 per cent in subsequent Irish elections.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times