Sinn Féin landslide in 1918 not quite what it seemed
Homogenous desire for self-determination doubtful as SF got just 46.9% of vote
Irish troops moving over the captured German second line at Cambrai: Great War casualties and absent voters affected election results, particularly for the Irish Party and unionists. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty
The general election was held on December 14th, 1918, and a fortnight elapsed between polling and the declaration of results which were announced on December 28th.
There were 103 constituencies, with 105 seats in 1918, but 25 constituencies were uncontested giving the Sinn Féin candidate a walkover. The total electorate in contested constituencies in 1918 was 1,462,895, and the total valid poll for the 80 (including universities) contested county and borough constituencies across the provinces was 1,045,539.
The divergent policies and values of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Féin, unionists and Labour were propagated in the 1918 electoral campaign in a propaganda war that equalled any of the military upheavals in Ireland. Across many constituencies in the three southern provinces, Sinn Féin secured immense victories.
However, there were some very tight contests between Sinn Féin and the Irish Party. In Louth, John O’Kelly only marginally defeated the Irish Party’s Richard Hazleton by 255 votes; and in Wexford South Sinn Féin’s James Ryan narrowly won over Peter Ffrench. Wicklow East could have been another tight contest but the Irish Party had two candidates in the field that split the vote.
A heated contest took place in East Mayo – the home constituency of Dillon – between the constitutional leader and the president of Sinn Féin, Éamon de Valera. The Press Association referred to this as “probably the stiffest contest in Ireland”.
Dillon’s defeat was catastrophic with de Valera attaining a majority of 4,400 votes – a two to one decision. Daunted and perhaps frustrated by violence and intimidation from both sides of the nationalist divide, 8,146 potential voters abstained from the poll, part of a wider trend of abstentionism.
War and emigration
The Great War, erroneous registers, deceased voters and emigration may have caused some of the absenteeism in 1918, but can it account for figures running into the thousands? In Galway Connemara, for instance, the Sinn Féin candidate attained 11,754 and the Irish Party 3,482, where the total electorate was 24,956. Therefore, 9,720 voters did not go to the poll. There was a similar occurrence in Leitrim where Sinn Féin defeated the Irish Party candidate by a massive 14,615 votes. In this constituency, 9,272 eligible electors abstained from voting. As mentioned, in Dillon’s constituency, the total electorate was 21,635, yet 8,146 stayed away from the ballot box. The intimate reasons for voter disaffection will remain forever unknown, but a palpable spurning of both nationalist parties or a dislike of the candidates was evident. A desired (but unavailable) alternative such as Labour may have captured these votes.
Great War casualties and absent voters affected election results, particularly for the Irish Party and unionists. According to David Fitzpatrick of TCD , over the course of the war, 210,000 Volunteers had enlisted and the number of Irish deaths in the British army recorded by the registrar general was 27,405. Men, and women, who might previously have campaigned on behalf of or voted for unionism or constitutional nationalism in the 1918 election were either still at the frontline, making their way home or were killed or missing in action. Many would not return in time to cast their votes on December 14th, 1918. The Northern Whig estimated the number of absent voters was in the region of “something like 22,000”.
Voter turnout was also affected by the influenza pandemic in 1918-1919 which killed at least 20,057 and infected an estimated 800,000 people on the island
Yet, voter numbers increased in 1918 because of the Representation of the People Act and an absence of long-term emigration opportunities due to the war. According to the registrar general’s report, between 1851 and the outbreak of the Great War, annual emigration overseas never fell below 23,300 and was rarely less than 35,000. By 1918, the figures had dropped hugely, with the total number of Irish native emigrants being only 980 (442 males and 538 females) representing 0.2 per 1,000 of the estimated population. Many of these voters may have enlisted for war service, but those who did not may have been persuaded by the anti-war rhetoric in Sinn Féin propaganda.
Voter turnout was also affected by the influenza pandemic in 1918-1919 which, according to historian Ida Milne, killed at least 20,057 people and infected an estimated 800,000 people on the island. Milne’s research into the medical reports of the Adelaide Hospital in 1918 shows that, “the peak months for hospital admissions were June, and October, November and December. In many households, entire families were incapacitated by the disease”.
The enfranchisement of women over 30 (with some property qualifications) affected the election outcome. This did not bode well for the Irish Party, particularly when the Irish Women’s Franchise League at their meeting accused “Mr Dillon’s Party” of being “from the beginning hostile to their league”. They reminded that Dillon had previously stated “he hoped they [women] would never get the vote as it would mean the ‘disturbing of western civilisation’”.
Their majority in Ireland’s three southern provinces enabled the claim that the results of the “national plebiscite held under British law and British supervision” indicated the “will of the Irish people” as to the “government under which they live”. But, if Ulster’s results are added (given that this was an all-island election) then the claim of a homogenous desire for self-determination does not hold up. Furthermore, if the total votes for Irish Party candidates, the low turnout and the absent votes are calculated, and the method of the first-past-the-post voting system are taken into consideration, Sinn Féin’s “landslide” victory is questionable. The proportion of votes attained in an all-Ireland context gave Sinn Féin only 46.9 per cent of the total vote, unionists 28.5 per cent and the Irish Party 21.7 per cent – of course this does not take into account the uncontested seats.
Political transformation in Ireland was influenced by the election campaigns which inculcated the policies and beliefs of Sinn Féin and unionists into the minds of the people by propagandising ideas. The votes cast by unionists and separatists in 1918 provide evidence that strident propaganda campaigns altered public opinion. However, intimidation and violence, absent voters, a much reduced number of emigrants, and the weakness of a credible alternative political programme resulted in high voter disaffection in 1918.
Dr Elaine Callinan is a lecturer in modern Irish history at Carlow College, St Patrick’s