Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at an event marking the centenary of the 1918 General Election and the meeting of the First Dail, in St Nicholas Primary School Longwood , Co Meath on Monday 7 January 2019 at 8pm.
FROM WAR STRAIGHT INTO AN ELECTION
The background to this Election was the end of the Great War on 11 November 1918. A General Election, for the entire UK of Great Britain and Ireland, was called ten days later.
The UK Prime Minister, Lloyd George, had called the Election very quickly, after active hostilities ceased, to exploit the good feelings, and relief that the War had finally been brought to a victorious conclusion by the Allies.
This tactic worked. Lloyd George’s coalition of Tories and some Liberals won a landslide in Britain. The landslide went the other way in Ireland.
The War was a particular factor in the Irish election because of the conscription crisis of early 1918.
Conscription had applied on the island of Britain, but not the island of Ireland, from 1916.
The big German breakthrough of early 1918 created a panic in the UK government. Manpower was running short, and the Americans were slow arriving at the front. So, unsurprisingly, Lloyd George was under political pressure, in Scotland, Wales and England, to raise troops numbers by extending the same conscription to Ireland, as applied to them.
In March 1918 he announced his intention to do so, which caused a convulsion in Ireland.
Until this announcement, the Irish Party had been holding its own politically. It had defeated Sinn Fein in by elections to in South Armagh, East Tyrone and Waterford City early in 1918. Then Lloyd George’s threat of conscription changed all that.
It drove Irish Party voters into the arms of Sinn Fein in the second half of 1918. It forced the Irish Party to temporarily abandon Parliament in protest, thereby seeming to validate Sinn Fein’s long held policy of abstention. But then the war ended, and the threat of conscription disappeared.
If the election had been held over until the Spring of 1919, and anger had cooled about the conscription threat, the Election result in Ireland might not have been so dramatic.
WHO COULD BEST REPRESENT IRELAND IN VERSAILLES?
At the time of the December 1918 Election, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.
In Ireland in anticipation of the Peace Conference, great expectations had been raised by speeches by President Woodrow Wilson, containing strong declarations in favour of the principle of national self determination. The concept of self determination acquired a quasi religious status in some quarters. It was the core message of Sinn Fein in the election, and of its candidates here in South Meath, Eamon Duggan.
But, as President Wilson was to discover, when he got down to work in Versailles, this concept of national self determination was difficult to apply when people, with fundamentally different identities and national allegiances, lived together in the same geographic area, as was, and is still, the case in Ulster, and in many other parts of Europe, to this day.
What happens if people, who live together in the same area, self determine two contradictory outcomes?
It was not until the Sunningdale and Good Friday Agreements, of 1973 and 1998 respectively, that an attempt was made to answer that question and a partial answer provided.
In South Meath, the Sinn Fein campaign got off to a flying start. Eamon Duggan was selected early on, and was already actively campaigning while the Irish Party was still trying to find a candidate.
He launched his campaign here in Longwood at a meeting presided over by Laurence Giles, and addressed by the local PP, Father Rooney and by a JH Dixon BL.
Meanwhile, the Irish Party (or United Irish League) held its convention in the Courthouse in Dunshaughlin, attended by its outgoing MP, David Sheehy, who was an uncle of the late Conor Cruise O Brien, to select their candidate. Sheehy had been unopposed in the previous three General Elections.
The Dunshaughlin Convention was presided over by Fr Dillon, the PP of Duleek, who later went on to serve on the Irish Party campaign committee for South Meath.
It seems there was reluctance on Sheehy’s part to stand again, and there was also perhaps a wish by some of the delegates to find a younger candidate.
The convention resolved to select Lorcan Sherlock, the city Sheriff in Dublin, as its candidate and sent him a telegram inviting him to stand. He had obviously not been notified in advance, he refused to stand, and a week or more of campaign time as lost.
So a new Irish Party meeting had to be convened a week later in Kilmessan, which did not come up with a candidate either. The Kilmessan meeting asked the Party Leader, John Dillon to name a candidate for them, and he came up with Thomas Peter O Donoghue, who had no prior connection with Meath. He was from Kerry and was a native Irish speaker. But he proved to be an active campaigner in the short time available.
While the Irish Party was making up its mind, Eamon Duggan had already held successful meetings in Trim, Longwood and Kilmessan.
Duggan’s meeting in Trim, in front of the courthouse, where many election meeting have been held since, was attended by 300 people and presided over by Martin O Dwyer from Dunboyne.
In North Meath, the Irish Party had no similar difficulties getting a candidate and their candidate, Dr Cusack, was in the field early.
His opponent was Liam Mellowes of Sinn Fein.
Dr Cusack came from a Longford family.
Mellowes, like Eamon Duggan, had taken part in the 1916 Rebellion. He had been reared in England and his father had served in the British Army. Eamon Duggan’s father had served in the RIC.
In South Meath , O Donoghue’s nomination papers were signed by Thomas Halligan of Rathfeigh, Patrick Mulvaney of Ballinlogh, Dunshaughlin, Father Dillon of Duleek, and Laurence Delany of Rathfeigh.
Duggan’s nominators were all from Trim and included Bernard Reilly of Market Street and Andrew Daly. The two opposing candidates shook hands and chatted cordially when handing in their papers.
On a national level, the campaign was lively and some intimidation and impersonation took place.
Irish Party meetings were broken up in Cahir, Rathmines, Bohar in Louth, Jonesboro Co Armagh, Moate Co Westmeath, Clones, Gorey, and Castleblaney. Some Candidates who had initially agreed to stand for the Irish Party backed out in face of this activity.
During the campaign itself, the PP of Kiltimagh, Dr O Hara, told John Dillon of
“young roughs going around the roads at night saying they will burn down any house that will vote for Dillon and threatening to destroy cattle”.
On polling day, Republican “peace patrols” stood outside polling stations, and it is claimed they discouraged thousands of Irish Party supporters from going to vote.` In contrast, a large procession of voters from Ross and Ballinacree was led by their local curate into to the polling station in Oldcastle to vote for Liam Mellowes.
The Irish Party candidate in North Meath, Dr Cusack, had to abandon a public meeting in the Market Square in Navan because of barracking from a hostile crowd.
A fight broke out in Rathkenny, where rival after Mass meetings were taking place, and an Irish Party supporter, Councillor Michael Monaghan was injured. On that occasion the Sinn Fein meeting was chaired by Larry Rowan and the Irish Party one by Cormac Rowe.
On the other hand, Eamon Duggan and his Irish Party competitor TP O Donoghue each addressed meetings at the fair in Athboy in peaceful conditions, notwithstanding Athboy’s reputation as a strong Sinn Fein area.
I myself knew a man, a 1916 veteran, who was reputed to have voted 40 times for Eamon Duggan and Sinn Fein, in the names of different people. I suspect this is an exaggeration.
At national level, Sinn Fein got 46.9% of the votes cast, Unionists got 28.5% and the Irish Parliamentary Party got 21.7%.
Here in South Meath, Eamon Duggan of Sinn Fein got 70% of the vote and his Irish Party opponent, T P O Donoghue got 30%.
In North Meath, the result was slightly closer, Liam Mellowes of Sinn Fein won 65% to Dr Cusack’s 35%.
For its overall 46.9%, Sinn Fein won 73 seats, Unionists won 26 (including one in Dublin), and the Irish Party, with 21.7%, won only 6 seats……a poor outcome for a substantial vote.
These percentages do, however, understate the Sinn Fein support, because 25 seats were uncontested and won by Sinn Fein candidates unopposed. Some were uncontested because the Irish Party, in the short time available, could not find a candidate willing to stand in the heated atmosphere that had been generated.
Indeed the Irish Party has come under a lot of pressure not to contest the election at all, from former supporters like the Bishop of Raphoe. To his credit, the Irish Party Leader, John Dillon, told the bishop that “one should not abandon principles for popularity or unpopularity”
If all these 25 seats had been contested, and Sinn Fein voters in those constituencies had had to come out to vote, Sinn Fein’s overall national vote share would have been higher, probably well above 50% of the total national poll.
The system of election, the straight vote in single member constituencies, meant that Sinn Fein won more seats, and the Irish Party proportionately fewer seats, than would have been the case under Proportional Representation.
Under PR, I guess Sinn Fein might have won 60 seats, Unionists (including Labour Unionists and Independents) 26, and the Irish Party perhaps 19. Sinn Fein would still have got a land slide, but the Irish Party would not have suffered a virtual wipe out.
It is also important to point out that, among the 26 seats won by “Unionists”, 3 were won by Labour Unionists (mainly in Belfast) and one by an independent Unionist. The subsequent disappearance of Labour Unionism shows that, in some respects the sectarian divide in urban Ulster is deeper now than it was in 1918.
It is also worth mention that Southern Unionists contested the 1918 Election as such, winning seats in Trinity College and Rathmines. That bridge between the traditions lost its value after 1918.
Here in Meath, the Irish Party did slightly better than it did nationally.
Speculating before the count, with the help of party informants, the Meath Chronicle reckoned that, in North Meath, Sinn Fein got its best result in the Oldcastle area, winning by a margin of 7 to 1, and very well in Navan winning by 6 to 1. According to these pre count estimates, the Irish Party won in Wlikinstown and probably in Drumcondrath and Slane. We have no tallies from the actual counts.
Sinn Fein contested seats in Belfast, never contested by nationalists. It did very badly. Sinn Fein got only 3% of the vote in Pottinger, 4% in Victoria, 9% in Woodvale, and just 1.89% in Duncairn.
Sinn Fein’s leader, Eamon de Valera was also defeated by the Irish Party’s Joe Devlin by 72% to 27% in the Falls constituency.
This is one of the most interesting results in the whole election. It shows that northern nationalists saw more value in having MPs in Parliament in London to look after their interests, than did southern nationalists, who backed the ideal of complete separation without much thought as to where, in practice, that might leave their northern fellow nationalists.
WHAT THE PARTIES PROMISED
I would like to look into the differences in policy between Sinn Fein and the Irish Party, and reflect on how far the victors were able to go in fulfilling their promises.
As I said earlier, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.
Sinn Fein said it would withdraw Irish representatives from Westminster because, they said,
“the present Irish members of the English Parliament constitute an obstacle to be removed from the path to the Peace Conference”
Eamon Duggan, speaking in Athboy, also defended abstention from Parliament as
“a denial of the moral right of England to govern us”.
Sinn Fein condemned the Irish Party for having
“contemplated the mutilation of our country by partition”
This is a reference to the fact that John Redmond agreed in 1916 with Edward Carson to a temporary opt out from Home Rule for some Unionist majority counties in Ulster, as a price for Carson’s support for having Home Rule introduced straight away for the rest of the country.
This realistic compromise between Redmond and Carson did not go through, because it was vetoed by the Conservative elements in the War Cabinet. Lloyd George may also have been saying different things to different people.
The Sinn Fein manifesto did not say how they would avoid some form partition, or how they would enforce Dublin rule in Belfast or Portadown. In a sense, the Sinn Fein Manifesto did address, or deal seriously with, the existence of a Unionist minority in Ireland.
Instead it spoke of
“a unity in a national name, which has never been challenged”
Of course , it had been challenged, by Ulster Unionism as recently as 1911.
Ulster Unionism was either to be over ruled, or just ignored, as if it did not exist. Sinn Fein probably thought Ulster Unionists were just bluffing.
In one of his speeches, Eamon Duggan referred to Carson’s “threat of insurrection”, which he claimed
“everyone knew would never take place”.
The Sinn Fein manifesto also took a very fundamentalist view of sovereignty, which left no room for compromise afterwards.
It called for
“untrammelled national self determination”
and said it would oppose every candidate who does not accept this principle.
Sinn Fein added that that the right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence
“rests on immutable natural law and cannot be made subject to compromise”.
This explicit “no compromise” mandate was later to prove troublesome. Some members took it very seriously in 1922, and it helps explain the Civil War. The concept of “immutable natural law” had a particular religious provenance.
In the minds of some it excluded the sort of practical political compromise that Eamon Duggan himself, as a key negotiator of the Treaty of 1921, made in agreeing to that Treaty three years later.
But by this decision , Eamon Duggan saved thousands of lives.
As to the methods to be used to achieve its ambitious goals, Sinn Fein had a carefully phrased formula in its 1918 Manifesto.
It said it would use
“any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise”
That can be construed as seeking an electoral mandate for war, and was so interpreted by the IRA.
But it could also be construed as simply advocating resistance British military force (passively or otherwise), rather than initiating violence, as the IRA did at Soloheadbeg the following month.
Did the majority of the Irish people know, in December 1918, they were voting for war? It is not clear.
Reading the speeches made here in Meath during the campaign, one gets no sense that the people voting for Sinn Fein knew, or were told, they were voting for a war.
I think Sinn Fein voters probably felt they were endorsing some sabre rattling, rather than the assassinations and killings that were initiated a month later.
One thing is clear, Sinn Fein regarded the proposed form of Home Rule as inadequate.
Eamon Duggan criticised the Home Rule Act of 1914, which was already law and was due to come into force when hostilities in Europe were formally ended, as
“a travesty of Home Rule”.
Home Rule should have meant, in his view, at the very least, the return of Grattan’s Parliament.
THE IRISH PARTY
The Irish Party manifesto was published on 11 October 1918, while the Great War was still on, but rumours were circulating of imminent German collapse and of the abdication of the Kaiser.
It said that
“ the country must be prepared for a General Election about the end of November or the first week in December. This will be the most critical and fateful in its effect for the future of the country since the Union.”
It called for national unity on the basis of the policy that underlay the “New Departure” of 1879, which brought the physical force and constitutional traditions together to win Land Reform and other improvements.
It said it
“would not hold before the Irish people an ideal and an object which it knew to be impossible”.
The Irish Party committed itself to be
“an independent pledge bound party in the House of Commons taking no office under any British government and whose dominating purpose must always be the recovery of Ireland’s national rights……and a vigorous agitation on rational lines”
It defined its objects as
“the establishment of national self government for Ireland , including complete executive , legislative, and fiscal powers”
This went well beyond the Home Rule Act, which, as I have said, was already on the statute book and was due to come into effect automatically, once hostilities in Europe were formally ended, as they were in 1919 at Versailles.
The reference to fiscal powers included , inter alia, a right to charge customs duties on good coming into Ireland from Britain.
This involved withdrawing Ireland from the Anglo Irish Customs Union, which then existed, and this seems to have been a point on which both nationalist parties agreed. Both Sinn Fein and the Irish Party wanted to leave the custom union and be free to impose tariffs on British imports (and vice versa).
But the Irish Party manifesto criticised Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy which it said would
“simply hand over the representation of Ireland in the House of Commons to the followers of Sir Edward Carson”.
A similar mistake is being made by the MPs , representing the nationalist voters in the north this month.
Like Sinn Fein, the Irish Party said it would present Ireland’s case at the forthcoming Peace Conference but argued that it would have a better chance of getting a hearing from the victorious allies than Sinn Fein would.
This was realistic politics.
Germany was about to lose the War. Sinn Fein was perceived as having been allied with Germany in 1916. The reference to “our gallant allies in Europe” in the 1916 proclamation was a reference to Imperial Germany.
The Irish Party argued that sending to Versailles, Sinn Fein people, some of whom had been allied with Germany as recently as 1916, was not the best tactic. Sinn Fein’s recent favouritism towards the defeated Germans did not enhance their chances get a hearing for Ireland from the victors, especially from President Wilson and the US delegation.
This point was underlined everywhere in South Meath by the Irish Party candidate TP O Donoghue.
He campaigned throughout the constituency in a green motor, car adorned by a green flag representing Ireland, and by the Stars and Stripes, representing the US. He was symbolically demonstrating the Irish Party’s belief that it would get a better hearing from President Wilson.
At a meeting in Slane, the Irish Party candidate in North Meath, Dr Cusack told his audience that the Irish Party had already sent its representative, TP O Connor MP to meet President Wilson.
TP O Donoghue, in his campaign, also stressed the importance and value of taking seats in Parliament.
He said that the only way to defeat Carson was for Nationalists to take their seats , and be there to vote against objectionable proposals from Carson.
He told voters in Duleek that Parnell had never advocated abstention from Parliament. Taking seats in Parliament was “an important weapon” in the hands of the Irish people and ought not be given up, he said.
Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, one must conclude that the Sinn Fein policy of abstention had substantial downsides.
When the Government of Ireland Act came to be introduced in 1920, providing for the permanent partition of Ireland, there were very few Irish nationalist MPs there to object to it…just six Irish Party MPs with little influence.
The majority rule Stormont Parliament did not exist prior to 1920. It was created by this 1920 Government of Ireland Act , and, thanks to Sinn Fein abstention, there were virtually no Nationalist MPs left in Parliament to probe the dangers of this new Stormont majority rule Parliament.
A high price has also been paid for the fact that Sinn Fein, in its Manifesto, emphasised its unwillingness to compromise on what it saw as Ireland’s absolute right to 32 county self determination based on natural law.
The electorate’s support for this “no compromise” approach undoubtedly made life difficult for Eamon Duggan and the other Treaty negotiators in 1921 and contributed to the Civil War, and to much subsequent strife.
If the Irish Party’s approach, of “vigorous agitation on rational lines”, had received more electoral support, the Treaty negotiators task might have been easier.
As we cope now with the prospect of the UK leaving the EU Customs Union, it is interesting to note that one of the big differences between Home Rule and the Treaty was that the Treaty involved the Irish Free State leaving the Anglo Irish Customs Union, whereas, in deference to Ulster, the 1911/14 version of Home Rule would have kept full free trade between the two islands.
Departure from the Customs Union in 1921 turned a soft partition, into a hard partition.
The uncompromising nature of the Sinn Fein mandate, in favour of an all Ireland Republic, in its 1918 Election manifesto, was elevated to unsustainable heights in subsequent debates, and that made life difficult, even up to the present time.
There are some similarities here to the rigid interpretation, in our neighbouring island, of the Brexit referendum mandate of 2016.
Electoral mandates, however big, do not relieve the politicians who get them of the duty to be realistic about what can actually be achieved afterwards.
Neither Sinn Fein nor the Irish Party fully faced up to the Ulster problem in 1918.
Neither fully faced up to the implications of the fact that, for past four centuries, two communities, with different allegiances, have lived together, geographically intermingled, in the Irish province of Ulster.
One community feels a sense of allegiance to Britain, its monarch, its historic narrative and it flag. The other feels an allegiance to Ireland and identifies itself with different historic narrative and different symbols. The two communities have different religious allegiances too, but the disagreements between them are not primarily about religious matters, they are all about national identity.
For centuries, the contest between these two identities was a zero sum game.
Either the British identity had to win, or the Irish identity had to win.
That zero sum approach led to wars, threats of wars, or uprisings, from 1641 right up to 1998.
For the past forty years, British and Irish political leaders have been trying to find a new and different way forward.
Rather than a zero sum game, where if one identity won, the other had to lose, we sought to create conditions in which both identities could coexist comfortably together in North East Ulster, without either of them winning or losing.
Neither should feel cut off from their focus of their emotional allegiance.
The nationalists should not feel cut off from Dublin, and Unionists should not feel cut off from London or the “mainland” as they would call it.
The Belfast Agreement of 1998 achieved this. Crafted between Ireland and the UK it built structures to create a comfort zone for both communities. This was done through three interlocking structures of cooperation, namely
- power sharing within Northern Ireland,
- cooperation between North and South and
- cooperation between Dublin and London.
Preserving the Belfast Agreement is the vital task of this generation, and succeeding in that task would be the best possible way to commemorate the 1918 Election and the First Dail, and in particular to honour the memory that great peace maker, Eamon Duggan.