PR and making every vote count – An Irishman’s Diary on an election in 1920 that set the template
“The introduction of proportional representation would be a boon to smaller parties in a way that the system of first past the post in Britain could never be.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The results of the 1918 general election were a resounding victory for Sinn Féin in Ireland, but it was not as resounding as the final seat count would suggest.
Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 seats in Ireland. It won 70 per cent of the seats with 47 per cent of the vote. The party would have achieved more than 50 per cent of the vote had it contested every seat, and in what is now the Republic of Ireland it won 65 per cent of the votes cast.
Alarmed by how the British electoral system magnified majoritarian rule in Ireland, the British introduced proportional representation (PR) to give Protestants and unionists in the South and nationalists in the North a voice in elected assemblies under the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1919.
The system was first used in January 1919, just a month after the British general election. The municipal election to Sligo Corporation must rank as one of the most important local elections in Irish history because it set the template for the Irish electoral system to this day.
The election was billed as a trial for proportional representation. The Sligo Ratepayers Association (a body formed of nine Catholic and nine Protestant representatives) won eight seats to Sinn Féin’s seven. Sinn Féin and the unionist parties both finished with 27 per cent of the vote. The Labour Party won four seats.
When it was introduced nationwide in the January 1920 municipal elections, the results appeared to vindicate the introduction of PR. Sinn Féin won 42 of the 60 seats in Dublin; the Ulster Unionists won 35 of the 60 seats in Belfast.
This election was distinguished by a strong performance from the Labour Party which had sat out the 1918 general election in an act of national unity. The party won 394 seats, a credible performance behind Sinn Féin, which won 560 seats, but ahead of the unionists with 355 seats.
The pro-Home Rule Irish Party, thought dead and buried after the 1918 general election wipeout, won 238 seats. Independents (161) and municipal reformers (108) made up the rest.
It would set the template for Irish electoral politics to come. The introduction of proportional representation would be a boon to smaller parties in a way that the system of first past the post in Britain could never be.
In January 1920, Sinn Féin gained control of 172 of the 206 urban councils in Ireland including the cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Belfast was controlled by the unionists.
In Cork, Sinn Féin, which ran on a joint ticket with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), won 30 of the 55 seats and immediately swore allegiance to Dáil Éireann. The party elected Tomás Mac Curtain as the city’s lord mayor. Two months later he was shot dead by a group of RIC officers, led by District Inspector Oswald Swanzy, who was later assassinated by the IRA.
Mac Curtain’s successor as lord mayor, Terence MacSwiney would go on to become an even greater cause célèbre for the Irish independence movement when he died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in October 1920. He was already an elected MP/TD when he was returned in the Cork central ward during the January 1920 election. He was arrested in a raid on City Hall in Cork in August 1920 and went on hunger strike immediately afterwards.
The two local elections of January and June 1920 provide a useful barometer of public opinion at the time in Ireland.
It was only in January 1920 that the IRA campaign in the War of Independence began to escalate with the attacks on barracks in Co Cork.
By June 1920, after the arrival of the Black and Tans, the mood in the country became even more separatist and anti-British. Parties that were pro-independence won 83 per cent of the vote. The Sinn Féin vote strengthened greatly and it won control of every county council outside Ulster. It even managed to win 36 of the Ulster’s rural 55 districts.
The Stormont government abolished PR in 1929 for elections to the Northern Ireland parliament.
The proportional representation – single transferable vote (PR-STV) system has endured to this day in the Republic, despite two attempts by Fianna Fáil to change it. Proposals by the party in 1959 and 1968 to abolish it were roundly rejected by the electorate in referendums.
In 2011, at the behest of the Liberal Democrats, the junior party in the then-British coalition and a party which was disadvantaged by the first-past-the-post system for generations, a referendum to introduce PR to the UK was held, but it was rejected by a two-to-one majority
The PR-STV system has served Ireland better than the electoral system in Britain. It reflects the wishes of the electorate better, gives smaller parties representation and ensures that no vote is a wasted vote.
The chronic unfairness of the British electoral system is reflected in the seat differential between the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats in the last British general election. The SNP won 48 seats with 3.9 per cent of the overall vote; the Liberal Democrats won 12 seats, despite gaining three times the number of votes.
A general election in the Republic is likely to be called this week.
Whatever the outcome, the electoral system first introduced 100 years ago this month will ensure that the result is a fair one.