War of Independence: Success after success for Sinn Féin led to a clampdown

War of Independence: Success after success for Sinn Féin led to a clampdown

The party won 560 seats to control local government in every Irish city and in most Irish towns — but, by the end of the year, British forces had dashed those nationalist hopes, writes Donal Ó Drisceoil.

The success of Sinn Féin in the local elections of 1920, and the subsequent declaration of allegiance to Dáil Eireann by the vast majority of local bodies in the country, was a milestone in the republican struggle.

The elections were the first local ones since 1914 and were an opportunity for the >republican movement to copperfasten its democratic legitimacy after the famous general election victory of December 1918, which had led to the establishment of the Dáil and the declaration of Irish independence.

In 1918, Sinn Féin won a disproportionate number of seats for its vote share under the prevailing winner-takes-all or first-past-the post system.

In an effort to hobble the party, the British government introduced the proportional representation-single transferable vote (PR-STV) system for the 1920 local elections in Ireland.

This had been trialled in the one-off Sligo Corporation election of January 1919, when the combined nationalist/unionist Sligo Ratepayers’ Association won eight seats to Sinn Féin’s seven, indicating that PR might be a way of weakening the republican party.

The municipal or urban elections for the city corporations, urban district councils, and town councils were held in January 1920, followed, in June, by the rural elections for county councils, rural district councils, and boards of guardians.

The PR system was new to the electorate and its intricacies had the potential to cause much confusion, but the Local Government Board made little effort to educate voters.

Instead, this task was taken on by the Proportional Representation Society of Ireland (PRSI) and the political parties themselves, predominantly Sinn Féin.

The PRSI distributed 125,000 leaflets and pamphlets around the country, ran advertisements in the press, and displayed slides in cinemas explaining the system. 

A remarkably low spoiled-vote rate, of under 3%, attested to their success.

The PRSI’s An Elector’s Catechism, published in the press, predicted a scenario that has become a standard feature of Irish elections ever since: “Under proportional representation, a candidate is often able to secure victory at the very last moment. 

"He may creep up on the fourth, fifth, or later counts, and, although very low down on the poll after the early counts, he may find himself victorious before the close.”

The Sinn Féin programme emphasised local government reform, public health, and making local bodies the agents of the Dáil’s policy of commercial and industrial expansion.

The Nationalist Party emphasised the danger of declaring allegiance to the outlawed Dáil and thus losing vital British government funding. 

Labour’s programme was a radical, social-democratic one, centred on housing, education, and public works.

However, both it and Sinn Féin had no illusions that the vote was primarily about making the local bodies levers in the independence struggle. 

In the words of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) paper, The Watchword of Labour, “the incoming councils will be combatant rather than constructive bodies, fighting instruments rather than reform institutions.”

The turnout in the municipal elections was a very respectable 70%. 

Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party, but less emphatically than in 1918, which seemed to partially vindicate the British strategy. 

It won 560 seats. The big surprise was the showing of the Labour Party, which had sat out the 1918 general election. 

It emerged as the second-largest party, winning 394 seats.

The Unionists came third, with 368 seats, 302 of which were in Ulster. 

There was a surprisingly strong showing by the presumed-dead Nationalist Party (the former Home Rule/Irish Parliamentary Party), which secured 238 seats and outpolled Sinn Féin in first-preferences in Ulster.

War of Independence: Success after success for Sinn Féin led to a clampdown
Tomás MacCurtain was elected in the first count in Blackpool, Cork City.

Sinn Féin, and Labour, which was also pro-independence, had co-operated in many areas, and in Cork City the ITGWU and Sinn Féin ran a joint ticket, putting up a full 56 candidates for the 56 vacancies across the seven city wards.

The Labour Party candidates were nominated by the trades councils (local representative trade union bodies) across the country.

In Cork, the ITGWU insisted that Labour should declare its allegiance to the Dáil, which it refused to do, resulting in the alliance with Sinn Féin. 

Labour had three councillors returned in Cork, but the Sinn Féin/ITGWU ticket swept the board, winning almost half of all the votes and a majority of 30 of the 56 seats, including 11 of the poll-topping 14 aldermen. 

The Nationalists came second, with 16 seats.

Sinn Féin secured 43% of the votes in Dublin and won 42 of the 80 corporation seats. 

With the exception of Belfast, Sinn Féin and its allies controlled local government in every Irish city and in almost all of its towns.

Derry was a special case, and the result there was hailed as one of the most significant. 

Unionist gerrymandering traditionally ensured that, despite a 65% Catholic/nationalist majority, unionists dominated the corporation. 

In 1920, sensing that PR might offer a historic opportunity, the Nationalist Party and Sinn Féin united on a single, nationalist ticket, with the support of Labour.

The nationalists won a majority of two, leading to the historic election of the city’s first Catholic mayor since 1688.

The result was greeted by wild nationalist celebrations and, combined with numerous other, unexpected nationalist and Labour victories across the six Ulster counties that would become Northern Ireland, was seen as a major rebuff to plans for partition.

War of Independence: Success after success for Sinn Féin led to a clampdown
The council chamber at Cork City Hall during the election of the first council.

However, the Government of Ireland Act of December 1920 and the establishment of Northern Ireland, including Derry, in June 1921, put paid to the high hopes of January 1920.

PR was abolished for local elections in the North in 1922 and in 1924 unionists recaptured control of Derry Corporation.

The elections for rural bodies (county councils, rural district councils, and boards of guardians) took place in June.

These resulted in a far greater victory for Sinn Féin (running on a joint ticket with the ITGWU in several constituencies), which won just over 80% of all seats countrywide, and 94% in Munster.

Outside of Ulster, many of the seats were uncontested. 

In Ulster, the party secured 41% of the seats; the combined anti-partitionist/nationalist forces of Sinn Féin, the Nationalist Party, and Labour secured a clear majority of 55% of seats in the nine counties of Ulster.

Combining the results for the elections to all local government bodies, Sinn Féin (including Sinn Féin/ITGWU) won 69% of the seats, Unionists 12%, Labour and the Nationalist Party 7% each, and Independents (including Municipal Reform) 5%.

The vast majority of local government bodies outside of the four north-eastern counties declared allegiance to the Dáil following the elections, striking a significant symbolic blow to British authority in most of Ireland.

In Cork City, Tomás MacCurtain was elected Lord Mayor and the Tricolour was raised over City Hall.

Less than two months later, MacCurtain was dead, shot dead by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, followed, in October, by his successor, Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in prison in England.

By the year’s end, British forces had burned the city hall to the ground and when the corporation met in the city’s courthouse in January 1921, to re-elect MacSwiney’s replacement, Donal Óg O’Callaghan, as lord mayor, the meeting was raided by the police and military and nine of the republican councillors were arrested without charge and sent to internment camps.

The euphoria of a year before seemed a distant memory.

Making the case for Irish independence

War of Independence: Success after success for Sinn Féin led to a clampdown
The opening of the Sinn Féin parliament in February 1919 at the Mansion House, Dublin, which set out to act as an effective counter-state. Picture: HultonArchive/Illustrated London News/Getty

The quest for self-government was a long one, from the declaration of Dáil Eireann to the eventual talks with the British, says Arthur Mitchell.

A major development was the UK general 1918 election, in which the upstart Sinn Féin party won 70% of the seats in Ireland for the House of Commons, but about half of the popular vote.

In its campaign statement, Sinn Féin asserted that it would seek political independence and would assert this through the formation of a constituent assembly.

In anticipation of the meeting of the victorious nations of the First World War due to gather in January 1919, those Sinn Féin leaders free to act considered how to proceed.

Many party leaders, including its president, Éamon de Valera, were still in prison as a result of the ‘German plot’ arrests of the previous spring. 

When the available Sinn Féin members met in Dublin that month they declared themselves a national assembly, called Dáil Éireann.

Going beyond being merely a constituent assembly, it asserted the claim to being the parliament of an independent republic. 

Having climbed out on this limb, the party could see that there was no turning back.

The fledgling Dáil Éireann leadership was faced with the realistic situation that it could not achieve recognition of the Republic of Ireland from any established state, but it could seek public support in various countries for that position.

This it proceeded to do through a variety of publications, the dispatch of a small number of spokesmen to leading European countries and the US, and the organisation of support groups.

The Dáil’s initial action was to focus on the Allied post-war conference at Versailles outside Paris. 

Although many people in Ireland held that the Irish case for self-determination was irrefutable, this carried no weight at the conference.

When representatives of an Irish-American pressure group urged Woodrow Wilson to present the case for Irish self-determination, the US president responded that this heavy-handed assertion undermined his quiet efforts to influence the British government in regard to the matter of Irish self-government, with the British response being that this would be addressed by a new home rule bill then in preparation.

The arrival of de Valera in the US in April 1919 was followed by a campaign lasting 18 months, gaining great public attention and the raising of a publicly-subscribed $5m ‘loan’ for the cause.

As de Valera travelled the US, addressing great crowds, there was the mounting belief at home that he was sweeping American opinion before him. 

These expectations were put to the test in the summer of 1920 when, at their national conventions, neither of the main US political parties voted to support the recognition of an independent Irish republic.

With the venture to the Versailles conference ending in not-unexpected failure, George Gavan Duffy and Sean T O’Kelly turned to nurturing support from the many journalists assembled in Paris and then, over the next two years, promoting similar views in other western European capitals.

Back at home, the Dáil government set out to act as an effective counter-state.

With the election of newly-freed de Valera as president of the ministry in April 1919, there was a flurry of ‘decrees’ announcing proposed action to address matters ranging from land purchase to afforestation.

The first practical activity was to provide money for the new regime. 

Directed by Michael Collins, the Minister of Finance, the Dáil Loan campaign was a resounding success, raising £371,000; the loan effort in the US accumulated the equivalent of £750,000, only small amounts were received by the Ministry of Finance.

War of Independence: Success after success for Sinn Féin led to a clampdown

This achievement required a response from the British and on September 11, 1919, it banned both Dáil Éireann and Sinn Féin, along with several supporting organisations and weekly newspapers. 

Now the counter-state became an underground entity. 

It created a variety of offices around Dublin, co-ordinated by a network of messengers.

To direct its activities outside the capital, it employed a variety of means, including the network of Cumann na mBan members, but it relied heavily on the communications system developed by the IRA, with that force soon complaining that it was being overburdened with ordinary Dáil correspondence.

Given the inexperience of most participants, the counter-state operation had uneven results, but it worked well enough to give the appearance of an organised and effective venture. 

Employing mobility, methods of deception, and substitution of arrested officials, it defeated the strenuous efforts of Dublin Castle to effectively disrupt it.

With this renewed mandate supplied by the 1920 local elections, in which Sinn Féin was victorious, the Dáil government now swung into full operation.

With its only source of income being funds raised through the loan campaign, even at its peak of activity the Dáil government was a lean, low-cost operation, having at most 130 modestly-paid employees. 

However, the enterprise was widely supported by many volunteer Sinn Féin adherents.

As in other cases, the initiative for the formation of a separate court system was generated at the grassroots level. 

Although the Dáil cabinet had been considering the matter, a few Sinn Féin local organisations led the way in this matter.

War of Independence: Success after success for Sinn Féin led to a clampdown
Despite the introduction of proportional representation in an effort to hobble Sinn Féin, Tomás MacCurtain was elected Lord Mayor by the first Cork City Council elected by PR-STV. Picture: Cork Examiner

Popular support for such bodies quickly grew and the Dáil’s Home Affairs Department, under Austin Stack, acted to assert its authority for a system for the whole country.

Included in its structure was the formation of appeals and supreme courts. 

Local IRA volunteers acted as court officials and enforced court rulings. 

As affairs became more complex, law enforcement devolved to a rudimentary separate police force, drawn from IRA staff members.

With the forced retreat of the Royal Irish Constabulary from many parts of the countryside, the existing courts were abandoned in many locations. 

This whole development was an explicit application of the principle of Sinn Féin in operation.

At length, Dublin Castle responded by banning the Dáil courts, with many of them becoming inactive; as in other instances of Dáil activity, they resorted to undercover proceedings.

Coinciding with the emergence of the ‘people’s courts’ came a renewed land agitation. 

Under British legislation, an ongoing programme of land transfer was well underway, but there remained a range of contentious issues, among them being the slow working of the British undertaking.

Particularly in the western counties in the spring of 1920, there were cattle drives, land occupations, and forced sales, these activities often being led by local Sinn Féin members.

Up to this point, the Dáil had only committed itself to expanded land transfers in principle and had formed a small, underfunded land bank. 

It now opposed the whole agitation, which it sought to contain by the formation of a land commission, which for the time being effectively dampened down the trouble.

As a result of massive electoral support, Sinn Féin supporters won control of every county council (except the four unionist-dominated northeastern counties), which promptly gave their allegiance to Dáil Éireann.

Grand pronouncements were one thing, but this new relationship resulted in the British administration ending substantial grants to the councils. 

The Dáil’s Local Government department, under W T Cosgrave and Kevin O’Higgins, was confronted with the situation that huge reductions in country expenditures were required, with hospitals and old-age facilities being affected.

Once again, Sinn Féin had asserted its domination in the country, but there were costs to self-government.

During Sinn Féin’s effort to mobilise continuing public support, there remained a rump of adherents of the Irish Parliamentary Party who were fully in disagreement with Sinn Féin methods of action.

There also remained a substantial unionist element in the 26 counties, centered on the fringe of Ulster and in areas around Dublin. 

In relation to the powerful Catholic Church, the Dáil government avoided confrontation.

It joined with others who effectively opposed a British proposal to establish elected school boards and other measures to increase public control of the school system, but the Church hierarchy did not respond to de Valera’s plea for recognition of the Dáil’s claim to political authority.

Obviously determined to avoid infringing on the Church’s control of education, at first the Dáil cabinet only included a ministry for the promotion of the Irish language, but eventually it changed this designation to a department of education, which did little more than draw up an outline for secondary education. 

The Dáil administration had a ready ally in the leadership of the labour movement. 

War of Independence: Success after success for Sinn Féin led to a clampdown

Paralleling the rise of Sinn Féin, the trade union movement, led by the powerful Irish Transport and General Workers Union, provided crucial aid in undermining the Dublin Castle regime.

Labour leaders tried to stimulate the Dáil into at least doing something to implement the social democratic principles of the 1919 Democratic Programme, but were told that present circumstances did not allow for such activity.

The effect of the destructive and ultimately counter-productive actions of the British military in Ireland, ably chronicled by the likes of Desmond FitzGerald and Erskine Childers, convinced much of the British press to demand a halt the violence.

The truce of military operations which went into effect on July 11, 1921 allowed the Dáil government, now operating in the open, to assess and strengthen its operations.

Negotiations with the British government on constitutional issues continued for six months. 

During this period, a fateful development was the glorification of men of the IRA, which would lead some of them to believe they were the arbiters of status of the nation.

This impression was re-enforced by a flood of new members who sought to benefit from the reflected homage being paid to ‘the boys of the IRA’. 

Many young Volunteer leaders of slight political experience were elected to what was termed ‘the second Dáil’ as a result of the May 1921 elections held under the UK ‘home rule’ legislation.

With an expanded membership, for the first time there were a half- dozen women deputies, all of whom were strong supporters of the republican position.

During the truce period Erskine Childers produced a series of articles, ‘The Constructive Works of Dáil Éireann’, which effectively made the record of the alternative government.

That was the past, however; now the political future of Ireland hinged on the outcome of negotiations with British government.

This is an abridged version of Arthur Mitchell’s chapter that was first published in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution.

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