Truly, it marked a turning point in both British and Irish political history, not least because the first woman was elected to the House of Commons. In a sense, it was bound to: because of the First World War, the electorate hadn’t passed any verdict for a full eight years. And the electorate was bigger: women (albeit only those over 30) had their say for the very first time.
Remembered in Britain as the ‘coupon election’ because candidates for the successful Conservative-Liberal coalition received a letter of endorsement from both the Tory leader, Andrew Bonar Law, and the prime minister, David Lloyd George, it marked the eclipse of the Liberals by Labour in terms of votes, if not seats. In Ireland, of course, the ramifications of the election were to be altogether bloodier.
Glancing down the list of successful candidates is like reading a roll call of the greats of Irish history: in no particular order, Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Liam Mellows, WT Cosgrave, Seán T O’Kelly, Desmond FitzGerald, Constance Markiewicz, Eoin MacNeill, Seán MacEntee, Harry Boland, Joe Devlin, Sir Edward Carson, James Craig, Terence MacSwiney, Kevin O’Higgins and Cathal Brugha were all returned, though most chose not to take their seats.
1918 is commonly referred to as a Sinn Féin “landslide”, the reference point old-style republicans liked to refer to as legitimising a united Ireland forthwith. Certainly, to take 73 seats out of a possible 105 was a remarkable achievement.
With many seats uncontested, however, Sinn Féin’s actual vote was a more modest 47%, lower than the combined unionist and nationalist scores. Intimidation was sometimes a factor in candidates not standing, more so than electoral pacts.
Nevertheless, it seems likely Sinn Féin would have won most of the uncontested seats anyway.
The classic republican argument then — that when Ireland was asked its opinion on the matter, it voted for a united Ireland — was a serious one that could not be dismissed lightly.
Constitutional nationalists would still make several points, however, not least that 1918 did not give republicans a mandate to bring about a united Ireland by force. The Sinn Féin manifesto, it is true, had said “any and every means” were acceptable to win freedom, but the message from the election platforms was not that a guerrilla war was about to begin. The message had been — yes, force is in reserve, but it is not the weapon of first resort. On the contrary, de Valera had sought to play down military means.
Speaking in Co Leitrim in November 1917, referring to the blood sacrifice of 1916, he was quite explicit: “We can work according to the will of the Irish people; working by peaceful methods if you will... In time past it was necessary to strike, even if you knew you had to strike again, but that necessity is past, and as long as this nation is true to itself, there would be no need.”
Fr Michael O’Flanagan, Sinn Féin vice-president and hero of the North Roscommon by-election triumph, speaking in Omagh, was even more wary of resorting to the gun: “Now, is there any other method we could try on the Orangemen? I confess I don’t like the word ‘coercion’ whether it be applied in Ireland or Belgium, or any other part of the world. Forty million British people have tried to coerce four million and they have failed. The relative proportion of the forces was 10 to one, and 10 failed to coerce one — so I believe that if three million tried to coerce one million, they would fail, too. Therefore, I can see no hope of solution in coercion. You might try to get along, but in the end if the process was coercion, it would fail; and I for one hope that it would.”
Fr O’Flanagan was cheered.
Cork nationalist Serjeant AM Sullivan, in his 1927 book, Old Ireland, was perhaps brutal in his criticism of the way 1918 was interpreted: “Many murderers were elected, but they had not stood as murderers.”
Sullivan is a controversial figure, best known for his alleged mishandling of the defence of Roger Casement, but his assessment contained more than a grain of truth.
In the early part of the modern Troubles, the Provisional IRA harked back to the 1918 election as justification for its terror campaign.
Ruairi Ó Bradaigh, before he split off from Gerry Adams, commonly referred to the “Sinn Féin all-Ireland victory of 1918” — ignoring the fact that Sinn Féin won only a quarter of the seats in the nine counties of Ulster.
As early as 1985, however, under attack for betraying republican ideals, Danny Morrison, then Sinn Féin publicity director, was pouring scorn on such notions. In a fascinating pamphlet, The Good Old IRA, he made no bones about the fact that the Provos were a revolutionary minority without much popular support.
In a pointed criticism aimed at former Foreign Minister Peter Barry, he was blunt about 1918: “Nobody was asked to vote for war.” The implication was clear: the Provos might not have had much of a mandate — but that hadn’t exactly stopped the forerunners of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It is an open question, therefore: were people in 1918 voting for a war, for a 32-county unitary state, or just against conscription into the war with Germany? We can no longer ask those who voted that day what was in their minds as they cast their ballots. Still, the interpretations placed on those votes cast a long shadow.
The search for a new and better, agreed means of the Irish peoples exercising self-determination is the central theme of a compelling new book by one of the most profound and readable commentators on Anglo-Irish relations, Frank Millar.
IN Northern Ireland: A Triumph of Politics (Irish Academic Press, €24.95), a collection of seminal interviews, John Hume first expounds his crucial redefinition of self-determination, a whole decade before the unprecedented dual referendums that flowed from the Good Friday Agreement.
Hume’s thinking went on to inspire the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, the key building block of the peace process, which seemed to hark back rhetorically to 1918 but was, in truth, green on theoutside and orange on the inside.
Millar details comprehensively how others were won round to Hume’s view. He traces not merely how unionist scepticism about “the South of Ireland having a say” was overcome, but how the all-Ireland vote, old-style republicans’ strongest argument for decades, was wrested away from them and became a crucial restraint on the Sinn Féin project.
Ironically, 1918 has become something the greenest elements would rather forget because as an exercise in self-determination, it pales alongside that of 1998. Those tiny republican groups still fighting know full well they are have no legitimacy: they just don’t care.
It is a mark of how far we have come that last month former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was questioning the value of a 50% plus one vote for Irish unity. 1918 is an important part of Ireland’s past; it no longer colours our future.