Study: Rising and threat of conscription key to Sinn Féin success

A protest march against conscription for the First World War in Ballaghaderreen in 1918.

The 1916 Easter Rising and the threat of conscription into the British army during the First World War were the main reasons for the emergence of Sinn Féin as a major force in Irish nationalist politics, a new study shows.

Research conducted at Queen’s University Belfast has found that electoral reforms introduced in 1918 throughout the United Kingdom did not cause Sinn Féin’s electoral victory later that year.

In early 1918, the right to vote was extended to all men over 21 and women over 30 who were property owners. As a result, Ireland saw its electorate grow from under 700,000 to over 1.9m.

The general election in December that year saw Sinn Féin win 73 out of 105 seats in Ireland, while the previously dominant party of Irish nationalism, the Irish Parliamentary Party, was decimated, and returned just six of the 67 seats they held prior to the election. The study reveals that there is little evidence to suggest that these new voters can explain the Sinn Féin victory.

Although the rising had failed militarily, the perceived severity of the British reaction in its aftermath bred discontent among many sections of the population and helped turn public opinion towards sympathy for the rebels,” says a report on the study.

“Despite the fact that Sinn Féin had very little to do with the Rising directly, they capitalised on the shift in public opinion that occurred in its aftermath.”

Attempts by British authorities to extend conscription to Ireland also boosted Sinn Féin’s profile and further undermined the IPP’s position as the preeminent force in Irish nationalist politics, say researchers.

The research team was led by Alan De Bromhead and Alan Fernihough from the Centre for Economic History at Queen’s Management School in collaboration with Enda Hargaden, professor of economics from the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee. The study was supported by the British Academy.

“The research re-evaluates an old argument in Irish political history that the changes in voting rights in 1918 drove the Sinn Féin election victory,” said Dr De Bromhead. “Our results suggest this was not entirely the case.

Our research suggests that we must look to alternative explanations for the rise of Sinn Féin between 1916 and 1918, such as the legacy of the Easter Rising and the conscription crisis of 1918. Sinn Féin’s electoral success was more likely driven by a change of heart on behalf of the Irish electorate, rather than a change in its composition.

Researchers found the attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland was, not unexpectedly, very unpopular.

“The various disparate strings of Irish nationalism were united in opposition, with the IPP even going as far as withdrawing from parliament in protest,” says the study. “Despite this demonstration, the conscription issue reinforced the link between the IPP and the war effort while Sinn Féin claimed the role of the most vociferous opponent of conscription, declaring that the conscription bill was tantamount to a declaration of war on Ireland.”

The researchers acknowledge that it is impossible to uncover for sure how individuals voted. However, their research suggests that new voters did not by themselves determine the outcome of the election.

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