The 1918 Election – an Ignored Centenary?


by Jack Lane

We have just had numerous events to commemorate the Rising and rightly so. But 1916 without the 1918 Election result would be almost a non-event and this election is not listed as one of the events that’s highlighted for commemoration during ‘the decade of Commemorations.’  In fact it is never commemorated. It was the endorsement of 1916 by the electorate in 1918 that made 1916 the event it was. Otherwise it would have been a failure like ’98, 1803, ’48, and ’67. It therefore deserves a fairly prominent commemoration. Up to a few months ago there were 974 books listed in the NLI on 1916 and well over a 1000 by now but not a single one on the 1918 Election! I wonder will there be at least one book published on it before 2018?

It is impossible to understand subsequent events such as the War of the Independence and the so-called Civil War without appreciating the 1918 Election. That was the seminal event of the period.  It endorsed the Rebellion and was the basis for Interdependence.

All the critics of 1916 who go  on about the lack of a mandate should be lauding 1918 but they are strangely muted about it. The results of   any General Election can hardly be ignored but that is exactly what happened in 1918 and the more one thinks about it the more extraordinary it becomes.

Not responding and ignoring such an event is not a case of there not being a policy – that is a very definite policy.

Here was a British General Election which produced in Ireland a unique result that I don’t think has ever been matched in what are usually called democratic countries.  Ireland was treated as one unit as it had always been and the Sinn Fein party got 73 and other nationalists 6 of the 105 seats, over 70%. It gave a clear mandate to withdraw from Westminster and set up an independent government in Dublin.

It was a first in many ways

It was an interesting Election in many ways. It was the first to be held on one day and counted all together on another day. The Electorate had increased from 31% of the population to 75% with all males over 21 and many women voting – those above 30.  Women got the vote because of how they participated in WW1 not by the suffragettes convincing everybody. The suffragettes who invented the ‘white feather’ did more than most to win the vote. Like some hard faced MPs, women ‘did well out of the war.’

The election itself was held in the widest franchise ever in which a British election was ever held. The self proclaimed ‘mother of Parliaments’ never had more people voting for it.

The result gave democratic sanction to the 1916 Rebellion and was therefore as important as the Rising itself.  If that election had not happened, the Rising would be a footnote in our history and classed as a failure.  It was the real origin of the state as we know it. The Rising was an aspiration for Independence. This was the aspiration become reality. Therefore it is the founding event of our state, of what we are.

No doubt the electorate as a whole thought that in these circumstances ‘of democracy all round’ that they only needed to vote for freedom to get it. And their message could hardly be clearer.

Critiques of the election result.

There has been a series of critiques of the Election and I should briefly mention these as they keep being repeated.


The word intimidation is thrown about and it’s always directed against Sinn Fein.  Indeed, there was massive intimidation. Sinn Fein was banned, about 100 leaders were in jail, all Republican publications banned and the rest of the press censored. Several candidates were in jail giving rise to the wonderful slogan “Put him in to get him out!” Only 29 of the elected Sinn Fein MPs were present at the opening of the Dail – the others being on the run or in Jail. Instead the Dail was proclaimed, i.e., outlawed and later suppressed.

Sinn Fein canvassers were fired on in Waterford and Sinn Feiners had to fire back. Sinn Feiners were viciously attacked in Belfast  – by Redmondites in both cases.

It was a British General Election held under strict rules. Nobody lodged a complaint – no Unionists or Home Rulers and the RIC did not  do so either.  But  such complaints were often made in the pasts and MPs  were sometimes forced to resign. It was a pretty regular occurrence.

The Government put forward no candidates – were they intimidated as well?

Sinn Fein got a minority of votes.

Because there were so many unopposed seats, 25, the suggestion is that Sinn Fein might have been defeated in theses seats. All of Kerry and all Cork County seats were unopposed. Were Unionists and Home Rulers likely to win in these? And there is no record of people being stopped from standing. In fact there were more contested seats than was normal in Irish elections. For example in the 1910 Election there were 46 uncontested seats  compared to 25 in 1918. And there were 74 in 1906 and 64 in 1886. It was only in 1892  that  the majority of seats were contested. By this logic the Unionists represented Ireland for decades!


They did not understand what they were doing

Ireland’s claim to be recognised by the Versailles Conference, in this new era of democracy and national self-determination poses problems for our modern historians. After all, several countries were recognised, Finland, Poland, Baltic States, Czechoslovakia. But not Ireland (or Vietnam.)

One argument is that the Irish did not understand the issues because they were not educated in the matter of politics. In ‘Controversial Issues in Anglo-Irish Relations, 1910-1921’ (2004) by Professor Cornelius O’Leary and Dr. Patrick Maume say:

“The mission [to Versailles] was a failure, the new regime was not admitted to the League of Nations and the report of the Paris Peace Conference made no mention of Ireland.  In spite of earlier optimism, it ought to have been clear to Sinn Fein that the delegates at the Conference were most unlikely to take any action that would antagonise Britain, and this was particularly true of President Wilson.

“It might be appropriate at this stage to advert to the ignorance of foreign (apart from British) politics on the part of Irish politicians generally.  (Even in the days of the Irish Parliament Party John Dillon was alone among the leaders with both a knowledge of and interest in foreign affairs.)  The reasons are not far to seek.  In both Great Britain and Ireland the academic study of politics was then in its infancy.  The first holder of a chair of Politics at an English university was Professor W.G.S. Adams, who as a member of Lloyd George’s “Garden Suburb” played an important role in Anglo-Irish relations between 1916 and 1918.  (It was not until 1948 that a lecturer in Political Science was appointed at a university in Dublin, Trinity College.)  Moreover, serious students in Ireland did not have access to comparative works on political systems, the first of which in English was Herman Finer’s The Governments of the Greater European Powers, published in 1931” (p.80).

So if they had read the right books they would have forced the Victors at Versailles to accept them. But the  books were  not written at the time! So there was an insuperable problem here.

Of course the US and French Republic were their model – especially by the Fenians who led the Rising. There was no need to consult books about what they wanted – it existed already  in a real sense in France and the USA.

Was it a fluke?

Did the Irish just get carried away?  This was definitely the British view.  But not only did the people defend the new government elected in 1918 they voted several times for it during the war. This again is something extraordinary. Britain cancels elections during wars. Here we kept voting. Those elections were the January 1920 Municipal Elections where Republicans got 77%; the June 1920 Rural Council Elections where they got 83%; the June 1920 County Council Elections where they got 80%; and the June 1921 General Election where they had 100% success in the 26 Counties. And they got these massive majorities despite the sudden introduction of PR which was an attempt to maximize divisions among the electorate and dilute support for Sinn Fein. These results show that it was a people’s war in a real sense and fought on full democratic grounds and the people had no regrets about their 1918 vote.

I doubt if you will anything similar happening anywhere at any time – 4 elections confirming support for a war to defend a government at war – in this case to defend the Republic.

Was it legal?

Joost Augusteyn argues that “recognition by the international community is a central element in the debate on legitimacy, and in international law, the Irish state was created by the 1921 Treaty, and not through the vote of 1918”

Peter Hart made a lot of this and that it was not legal because the Versailles Conference said so. WWI had been fought from the freedom of nations yet it was illegal to claim that freedom after fighting and voting for it!

In case people need reminding Hart’s thesis is that “…. the Dail had no legal standing and was never recognised by any foreign government. Nor did the IRA, as a guerrilla force acting without uniforms and depending on their civilian status for secrecy, meet the requirements of international law. The British government was therefore within its rights to give courts-martial the power to order executions.” (Irish Times, 23 June 1998)

“Nor were members of the IRA protected by the Hague Convention, the basis for the law of war on land. The British government and its forces were not at war in this sense. To be recognised as belligerent soldiers, the guerrillas would have had to be fighting for a responsible established state, wear a recognisable uniform or emblem, carry their arms openly, and not disguise themselves as civilians. None of these conditions applied. It is of course true that international law favours established states, but if any group can claim belligerent status when using political violence, then so can the INLA or the UVF. The Oklahoma bombers would also conceivably have a right to POW status.” (Irish Times, 22 July 1998)

The Hague Convention was drawn up by the Empires of the world in 1907 and was based on a sort of ideal version of two armies lined up like toy soldiers obeying laws.   The Irish Republic did not exist so was not a member.  The Irish met all the conditions of Convention in the 1916 rising but the British broke the first rule of the Convention in not taking prisoners of war of the entire enemy after the surrender.  All the rules were ignored in WWI and developments in spying and intelligence made the Hague Convention even more redundant than it was originally.  With the invention of concentration camps the British did not fight the Boer War according to the Hague Convention and the Black and Tans hardly met the rules. And the Convention could never be interpreted by anybody to prove that war against an elected government was legal. The UVF, INLA or the Oklahoma bombers did not win general elections.

The Context

To put the election in context. It was held after WWI which was fought, allegedly, “for the freedom of small nations”. That was why a quarter of a million Irishmen joined up and who killed and were killed by the tens of thousands for this alleged freedom. The Bolsheviks in Russia had left the war and were encouraging in every way they could national liberation and self determination in all the colonies across the world.

By the end of the war the USA had joined in on the basis of Wilson’s 14 points which essentially meant for the rights of nations to self determination.

So everyone, quite literally everyone, was for national independence.

The League of Nations was set up to promote this new world of free nations.

It was the flavour of the era.

A vote for war!

This has been put about for a long time. In 1979 Professor Cornelius O’Leary from Cork wrote a book “Irish Elections 1918-77” which says that “As is well known, the meeting of the first Dail inaugurated a two-and-a –half period of military repression and guerrilla insurgency (the War of Independence.)” p.8.

But it was not the Dail that ‘inaugurated’ or instigated the repression. The Dail was a victim of this. And that resistance to that repression could not be called an insurgency as it was an elected government being suppressed and defending itself.

This needs to be emphasised because a constant refrain is that people voted for a war. That the election and the result in themselves led to war. Professor Diarmaid Ferriter who is one of our top pop historians says in his latest book, “The war evolved from being one characterised by attacks on the RIC to being a war waged against British troops and ‘it remains very unclear as to whether this was the kind of war that people voted for at the general election of December 1918, indeed whether they had voted for any kind of war at all’”. (“A nation and not a rabble – the Irish Revolution 1913-23”)

The electorate did not vote for any kind of war, they had had enough of that in WWI and had been persuaded that it had been a war for national freedom. Unless they were crazy the electorate would not have voted for another war for the same purpose after the dreadful experiences of WWI. The mass of people thought they had fought their war for independence!

There is an attempt to give credence to this notion by the coincidence of the Soloheadbeg ambush on the day the Dail met. The impression given is that this started the war.  But a full scale war did not result and the Dail condemned it and Dan Breen and his friends were advised to leave the country – or go to Cork.  They did not choose that date – the RIC did when picking the day to move some gelignite. There was no war unleashed by this incident that year.   A few, a small minority like Dan Breen (and Sean Moylan here), had always thought the election would be ignored but they were a very small minority view. They turned out to be right but it was the British government that proved them right. The people, millions of them, were not led by Dan Breen to engage and support a war. People anywhere do not act like this. It takes quite a lot to get a whole people to engage in war at every level.

The fact is that there was a simmering ongoing war going on at the time. The situation was described as being at war by John Redmond himself saying on July 12th, 1916, that the terms of the proposed Home Rule Act amount “to a declaration of war on the Irish people, and to the announcement of a policy of coercion.”

There was in effect military government under DORA with censorship, break up of printing presses, raids, arrests, banning of meetings. Volunteers were shot trying to acquire arms; Thomas Ashe dies after forced feeding.

The British government passed a Conscription Act to apply to Ireland on April 12th, 1918; representatives of all Irish political parties, with Éamon de Valera joining John Dillon, met at the Mansion House on April 18th, 1918, and declared that the Conscription Act “must be regarded as a declaration of war on the Irish nation”.

Mulcahy went to London to kill cabinet Ministers to stop conscription, supported by Ernest Blythe. The latter also advised the shooting dead of soldiers who would engage in conscription.

This situation was made very clear when Sir John French  accepted appointment as sole Lord Lieutenant in May 1918 on condition it was as a “Military Viceroy at the Head of a Quasi-Military Government”.

French was one of the top military men of the day up there with Kitchener, Haig, etc.

There was the German Plot with arrests of all the leaders which was an excuse for war on republicans.

All this was a reaction to growing support for Sinn Fein as shown in bye elections that were encouraging non-violence.

The situation could not go on – it was bound to explode. But Soloheadbeg was not the beginning of the war. There was a war situation already. Though of course officially according to the British there was never a war in Ireland. It was only police action.


But what happened?

The Government totally ignored it.  Their attitude was that the Irish would come to their senses. They treated the result and therefore the electorate with total contempt. And contempt was the consistent view even when the Government was forced to concede a Truce two and half years later with what they had constantly described as a ‘murder gang.’

And the strangest thing is that among our modern historians and commentators this ignoring of the result is treated as normal and there is no surprise at this. We are constantly lectured and outrage is constantly invoked about awful ‘terrorists’ past and present here and elsewhere who have no respect for democracy and the rule of law, etc. etc. but there is no such outrage expressed about this blatant disregard of an election result and no awareness that such disregard has consequences. In this case it caused a war – the War of Independence. The vote and result did not cause the war – it was the reaction to it.  That was the cause and effect in this case.

The British reaction was to ignore the result and Irish will forget it. That’s what they are like. They never fought us before and had never been able to make a rebellion succeed so why would they now do so. And even when Home Rule was suspended they fought  for  us by the hundreds of thousands. After all, this was Britain at the height of its power toppling states, creating others as they wished. The world was at its feet. They could ignore this little hiccup.

But of course doing nothing is also a very definite policy  and as a deliberate a policy as doing something. In this case it meant continuing to rule the country  militarily as before and treating the attempts by those elected to do what they were elected to do as a criminal activity, with martial law, censorship, raids, court-martials etc.

What explains this attitude? In a word – utter contempt for the Irish.

And if the Irish had no self respect and did not have the courage of their voting convictions this policy of contempt would have succeeded.

So why was this clear result ignored and opposed? Ignoring the result and contusing as before was a very definite policy based on contempt for the Irish electorate.

This would never be made explicit of course, such is the not the way with sophisticated Britain politicians. So we have to go ‘behind the scenes’ to judge their policy.

Joe Devlin

One of the few members of the IPP who was returned to  Westminster demanded that  the Government explain what its policy for Ireland was in this new situation.  He kept asking over and over again and they would not  even deign to say they had a policy. And of course he was  not a Sinn Feiner or Republican. A typical exchange went as follows:


Mr. DEVLIN asked the Leader of the House when the Chief Secretary for Ireland will be in his place, and when he proposes to make a statement on the Government’s Irish policy?

Mr. BONAR LAW As soon as the Re-election of Ministers Bill has received the Royal Assent—which I fancy will be to-day—my right hon. Friend will be able to take his place. But he is at present in Ireland.

Mr. DEVLIN When will he be able to make a declaration on Irish policy?

Mr. BONAR LAW I am by no means satisfied that the time has come when a declaration would be useful.

Mr. DEVLIN Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us if the Government has an Irish policy?

Mr. BONAR LAW That must be evident.

Mr. DEVLIN  What is it?


(House of Commons, 26 February 1919 vol. 112 cc1752-3)


Devlin was physically assaulted in the House of Commons at one point when he persisted to asking these questions.

Because of this official contempt there is a need to go behind the scenes to get an understanding of the reaction.

A good source for this attitude of contempt is dairies of leading figures of the time and I will give them in chronological order to show the consistency of this attitude. These record attitudes that could not be expressed publicly but they were the real informal opinions of the government and its supporters. And these sources also show that the election was treated as if it never happened  right across the board.

Lord Haldane

Tom Jones was the ‘go to’ man or Lloyd George’s ‘gofor’ and he records a talk he had with Lord Haldane. Haldane was a longstanding establishment figure and former War Minister in the Liberal Government and a confident of all who mattered. Jones  records:

“He talked next of Ireland. Lord French has served under him for six and a half years, and having some regard for his old chief, he had invited Haldane to the Vice-Regal Lodge. Haldane went there on 16 January, (1919), stayed in the lodge for about three days, found Lord French very worried in the midst of some thirty-six departments, many of them on hardly speaking terms with each other. During his visit Haldane disappeared from the Lodge and got in touch with some Jesuits and Sinn Feiners and evolved  some scheme for conciliation by which a Committee would be set up with Haldane as Chairman whose duty it would be to do for Ireland what the Machinery of Government Committee had recently done for England, i.e., work out some scheme of administration for Ireland, on the assumption that there would be some day some Home Rule Act and some goodwill behind it. On this Committee Haldane would have put an Ulster man and De Valera himself, and he was certain from his enquiries that their co-operation could be secured. Haldane wrote a memorandum to French on these lines and French wrote to Walter Long, who in reply told him to ‘go to Hell’ or words to that effect. Then French was taken ill. (It was at this time that French tried to persuade the Cabinet to release the prisoners but was overruled by the Cabinet.). Since January the situation has become worse but Haldane thinks that his scheme might still be attempted and wants 20 minutes with the P.M. on the subject preliminary to a lunch with him, P.M., French and Macpherson. (“Whitehall Diary” 10 April 1919.)

Walter Long was in the Cabinet and considered an expert on Ireland and head of a Cabinet Committee on Ireland. Haldane’s suggestion was the least that should have happened. Some sort of Home Rule as Ireland  had been promised at the end of the war. But suddenly the people could ‘go to hell.’ It would be no ‘skin off their nose’ to have listened to Haldane’s proposal. But they would not and the government would not even consider releasing from jail those who had been elected as MPs. The attitude was – just tough it out and we will be tougher than them and they got tougher with the Tans and the Auxiliaries when other government forces began to lose ground. A well known and influential propagandist and intelligence officer, Major C.J.C. Street, put it very succinctly in one of his books: “The history of Ireland teaches that firmness on the part of its rulers is the first steps towards winning the trust of the population.”

But to everyone’s surprise the Irish took themselves seriously. And I think the Irish surprised themselves as much as they surprised everybody else. They did have the courage of their convictions and had enough self-respect to defend the mandate they had voted for.

Lloyd George

  1. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian for about 60 years, as well as owner, was a close friend of Lloyd George and he took a close interest in Ireland. On Feb 21, 1919, he met Lloyd George and talked about a letter they had both composed earlier:

“As to Ireland he stood by the terms of the letter “which you helped me to compose in this room” which contained, along with the offer of the Convention, a far-reaching scheme of Dominion Home Rule minus Customs and Excise. The Tories had agreed to that and were surprised now as to how far they had gone. But he could take no action while the condition of Ireland remained as at present…..” (21-22 Feb 1919).

This means that Lloyd George knew that some kind of response was necessary but just found an excuse not to do so. He just did not consider it in any way serious to ignore the election. But this was before the war really got going and a couple of months after the election. There could not have been a better time to do something.

On 4 June 1920, nearly a year and a half after the election, Scott records:

“Breakfasted with Lloyd George. The archbishop of York also there. Rumoured that he (LG) was casting about for a new Irish policy and I wanted to test this, but found him entirely occupied with plans for repression. There must, he regretted to say, be stronger measures….He proposed to set up a special Tribunal – a Judge to try murder cases without a jury. ‘What about evidence?’ I asked. We have got evidence he said. ‘Of informants?’ Yes, but not government agents, men who have turned King’s evidence in order to save their own lives.”

Scott referred to people he knew in Ireland who wanted a settlement and:  “He (LG) replied that the first need was to break up the murder gang. It had been done in previous cases, e.g. in the case of the Phoenix Park murderers. Governments always succeeded in the end and would succeed again….”

So, a year and half after the Election Lloyd George thought he was dealing with something like the Invincibles of forty years earlier!

He went on to talk about the Polish war against Russia and said: “Nothing is to be got by encouraging the attack of Poland (Russia). The Poles are a hopeless set of people – ‘very like the Irish, he incidentally remarked. They have quarreled with every one of their neighbours – German, Russia, Czechoslovaks, Lithuanians, Rumanians, and Ukrainians – and they are going to be beaten. Trotsky extremely able and would win.”

It was some arrogance for a British Prime Minister to accuse any country of quarrelling with its neighbors when his country had quarreled and invaded practically every country on Earth. But any argument would do when it came to dealing with the Irish and this arrogance clearly ensured that war escalated.

Lloyd George’s policy of repression led to the rather amazing situation where the future leader of the British Fascists, Oswald Mosley crossed the floor of the House of Commons on 3 November 1921 and became one of the most effective critics of the Government. He set up a Peace with Ireland Council. He was no Republican sympathizer but recognized that the Government’s policy using Black and Tans, reprisals etc. was increasing support for Independence. Even a potential fascist could see there was an alternative to this policy. He set up a Peace with Ireland Council and was praised by T.P. O’Connor, a longstanding MP as doing more than anyone else, to “break up the Black and Tan savagery.”

Even before the Election Lloyd George had expressed the following view to Maurice Hankey, the Cabinet  Secretary, who  noted in his diary of  2nd May 1918:

“…We met refugees on the road, carrying their household goods piled up on carts away south of the Somme.  I had a walk, during the repair of a tyre, with the P.M. and talked about the Irish question.  He seems to contemplate a massacre with equanimity, provided the English do not shoot first…”    (Vol. 1, p.538).” Everything indicates that he always held that view.

Why is it important today?

For my sins I got engaged a few years ago with Joe Duffy on RTE over the events in Coolacrease. He kept referring to the government at the time and I asked him which government was he talking about and he said the government. Then I realised he meant the British government and just did not acknowledge that there were two governments at the time – a legal one and an illegal one. I think this is a widely accepted attitude. In other words the 1918 Election result means nothing to them.

Then I realised the importance of this election result because if it not fully taken on board the war of Independence becomes meaningless at best and a criminal campaign at worst. It was people attacking the government! That was the British view that justified to them the terror waged the legitimate government.

But also, without fully acknowledging that election result it makes everything surrounding the called the ‘Treaty’ and the ‘civil war’ impossible to understand either.

The Republic, democratically established and defended by the people was never recognised by the British. That was the cause of the war. And all their negotiations and actions had one constant aim – how to get rid of the Republic.  The negotiations and threats associated with the so called ‘Treaty’ were to break the Republic. Then all talk about freedom to achieve freedom and stepping stones is nonsense. Freedom was voted for and existed. The whole point of the ‘Treaty’ was to abolish that freedom. If that is ignored or explained away then the subsequent history and the so called ‘civil war’ becomes meaningless. Modern Irish history becomes meaningless.

That is why the 1918 Election result and the response to it the most important event in modern Irish history.

The determination not to allow separation at all cost was well expressed in 1922 when the Free State was being set up
“The near future will show whether there is the slightest chance that moderate opinion in Ireland can even
at the eleventh hour reassert itself. If it cannot; if the last word of an overwhelming majority in the South and West of Ireland is to be the pistol of the assassin, combined with a resolute adherence to the claim for separation, then indeed dark and bloody days await us. If the attempted settlement succeeds, the friends of this country will
everywhere rejoice. If it fails, through no fault of ours, we shall resist secession as the United States resisted it that is to say, to the last man and the last sovereign. And the test of our ability to maintain order in Ireland may well prove to be the test of our claim to be the trustees of civilisation in the world.” (Points of view, Vol. 2, 1922)

This shows that the Free State was not to be a steeping to freedom. It was stepping stone back into the Empire.

Lessons for today

This election and the war that followed raise interesting questions – it set one democracy against another.  Democracy did not solve the problem then and cannot solve such problems today. Some democratic states today set themselves against governments elected democratically – see Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Ukraine, etc. When that happens it is only Bismarck’s ‘blood and iron’ that will resolve the matter. The British style reaction to Irish democracy in 1918 has not disappeared from the world – with similar results.

The above talk was given by Jack Lane at Féile Duthalla, 23rd April 2016

1 thought on “The 1918 Election – an Ignored Centenary?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.