The landmark general election of 1918

1918 election campaigning for general election in Ireland
Electioneering in Ennis, Co. Clare, c.1917/1918 (National Library of Ireland via Wikipedia / Flickr, Flickr Commons).

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We look at some of the factors that led to Sinn Féin’s landslide victory in the 1918 general election.

Since the 1916 Rising and subsequent executions, Sinn Féin’s popularity was on the rise. This was enhanced further in April 1918 when the British government introduced a bill that could enable military conscription in Ireland.

The anti-conscription campaign

Irish nationalists were outraged by the prospect of forced enlistment and large-scale ralies, protests and strikes were held throughout the country.

During the conscription crisis, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland also mounted an anti-conscription campaign. The anti-conscription pledge (pictured below) was taken at the church door of every parish on Sunday, 21 April 1918. In addition, church gate collections were used to raise money for a National Defence Fund, while local defence committees were established in many parishes nationwide. Meanwhile, Cathal Brugha travelled to London with a dozen Volunteers with the intention of killing members of the British cabinet if forced enlistment was imposed in Ireland.

1918 Anti-Conscription Pledge Ireland
Anti-Conscription Pledge taken at the church door of every parish on the Sunday following the Mansion House Conference in Dublin on 18 April 1918 (pic: © National Library of Ireland).

In the wake of this campaign, 80 Sinn Féin members were arrested and imprisoned without charge or trial. This injustice garnered further support for the party among the Irish people.

1918 general election

In November 1918, a few days after the Armistice, Prime Minister Lloyd George asked King George V to dissolve the parliament and call a general election for 14 December. Before the parliament dissolved, Westminster rushed through and passed the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, which stated that,

“A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament.”

The first major electoral victory for Sinn Féin came on 4 December at the close of nominations: 25 Sinn Féin candidates were immediately elected as no one had been nominated to oppose them. In Munster alone, Sinn Féin won 17 seats uncontested. Among them were Michael Collins, Terence MacSwiney, Austin Stack and Piaras Béaslaí.

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The election was a groundbreaking moment in modern Irish history that saw a landslide victory for Sinn Féin, who won 73 out of 105 seats. Only in Ulster did the Unionists perform well, winning 22 of the 37 seats. The Nationalist Party – the previously dominant party of Irish nationalism – was decimated in the election.

Female suffrage

This election was also different to all previous general elections because earlier in the year, the Representation of the People Act was passed, which granted a limited form of suffrage to Irish and British women. It entitled women over the age of 30 who owned property, were the wives of property owners or were university graduates to vote in parliamentary elections. It also granted the vote to all men over the age of 21. The gender differential in voting age arose from a fear that women voters would outnumber men, given the enormous wartime male losses.

>>> READ MORE: Who was Michael Collins’ mother? Mary Anne O’Brien explored

The struggle for female suffrage in Ireland took place against the backdrop of the broader campaign for national sovereignty, and many Irish women prioritised the nationalist cause over female suffrage.

Countess Constance Markievicz
Countess Constance Markievicz 1918 (pic: © National Library of Ireland via Wikimedia).

Seventeen women stood in the election on 14 December, with Countess Markievicz being the only woman elected that year and the first woman ever elected to the British Parliament.

The aftermath of the 1918 election

The elected Sinn Féin representatives never took their seats in Westminster in accordance with the party’s policy of abstention. The overwhelming support they received in the election provided the party with a democratic mandate to establish Dáil Éireann and proclaim Ireland a republic. Brugha had been elected TD for Waterford and became acting-president of the first Dáil. The general election of December 1918 had changed forever the Irish political landscape.

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