PR & the Sligo borough election of 1919

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

Sligo Town Hall—in August 1917 an inquiry blamed Sligo Corporation’s poor financial situation on ‘the neglect of proper administrative procedures’. (Nick Maxwell)

Sligo Town Hall—in August 1917 an inquiry blamed Sligo Corporation’s poor financial situation on ‘the neglect of proper administrative procedures’. (Nick Maxwell)

The financial deprivations caused by the First World War accelerated the decline of the already unhealthy financial situation of Sligo Corporation. In August 1917 an inquiry blamed its poor financial situation on ‘the neglect of proper administrative procedures’. The borough’s leading ratepayers (largely Protestant) believed that they must gain political representation on the corporation in order to address the problem. Eighteen of the more prominent ratepayers (nine Protestant and nine Catholic) refused to pay charges and in November 1917 formed the Sligo Ratepayers Association (SRA).
In order to broaden its appeal amongst the nationalist majority in the town, the SRA needed the support of the Catholic Church. It came in the form of Canon P.A. Butler, who had long been involved in various political organisations in Sligo, who argued that

‘political sympathies and religious differences are happily cast aside in a common effort and whole-hearted desire to render whatever help we can to those who are charged with the destinies of this grand old town, and of safeguarding the destinies of its citizens’.

The well-known Protestant and unionist businessman Arthur Jackson was elected as its chairman. At its first meeting the SRA decided that it could achieve more by putting pressure on the corporation than by challenging it directly. On 10 November 1917 the unionist Sligo Independent appealed to the citizens of the town, ‘irrespective of creed, class, or politics, to lend their enthusiastic support and hearty co-operation to the newly formed Ratepayers Association’. Would the sitting councillors of Sligo Corporation listen to the advice of the SRA or sit tight and hope that the organisation would fade away? At first they agreed to cooperate but they refused to make any alterations to the rates.

Eventually the corporation had to accept that something had to be done and in January 1918 both parties came to an agreement. A parliamentary bill was drafted and submitted to the House of Commons that would increase the powers of the corporation and introduce a new system of election: (proportional representation), with single transferable votes (STV) and quota counting. The disadvantage of the existing ‘first-past-the-post’ system was that the votes cast for unsuccessful candidates were lost, and Protestants, c. 15% of the population of Sligo borough, found it very difficult to obtain representation on the corporation. Sligo borough was divided into three wards, each represented by eight councillors, although only two councillors in each ward had to offer themselves for election each January in a straight vote. Under the new proposals all eight councillors in each ward would have to go forward for election by PR.

Arthur Jackson, a well-known Protestant and unionist businessman from the town, was elected chairman of the Sligo Ratepayers Association.

Arthur Jackson, a well-known Protestant and unionist businessman from the town, was elected chairman of the Sligo Ratepayers Association.

At a meeting on 13 February 1918 Sligo Corporation agreed to the drafting of a parliamentary bill to use PR in local elections and to amend the Sligo Borough Improvement Act of 1869 to allow the corporation scope to adjust rates as it saw fit. In early July 1918 Thomas Scanlon, MP for North Sligo, introduced the bill to the House of Commons, and on 30 July 1918 it received the royal assent as the Sligo Corporation Act of 1918.

In early December 1918 the SRA selected eighteen candidates, eleven Protestant unionists and seven Catholic nationalists. The electoral threat they posed did not go unnoticed by other parties: D.M. Hanley, who had been unanimously elected as the town’s first Sinn Féin mayor in January 1917, made a point of publicly attacking the SRA, labelling it an ‘overwhelmingly unionist’ organisation. In fact the registered members of the SRA comprised 63 nationalists and 50 unionists. In the weeks before the election the Sligo Independent’s sympathies lay firmly with the SRA and the paper called on its readers to vote for its candidates. As Sligo town was the first municipality in the UK to employ PR, the election drew great interest from all over Britain and Ireland.

There were 24 seats on the corporation, and 48 candidates put their names forward: eighteen SRA, thirteen Sinn Féin, thirteen Labour and four independents. As a result of the media hype, turnout was very high. Of the 2,750 who were entitled to vote in the three wards, 2,208 went to the polls (80% of the electorate). The SRA fared well, receiving 823 first preferences (37% of the total vote) and eight seats (five Protestants and three Catholics were elected). Sinn Féin got 674 first preferences and seven seats; Labour 432 and five seats; and independents 279 and four seats. Sinn Féin and Labour, along with one pro-Sinn Féin independent, held thirteen seats on the new corporation, while the SRA and the other independents had eleven seats between them.
The election results attracted plenty of interest. Newspapers of all shades of opinion were quick to applaud the success of the new electoral system. The Sligo Champion declared that ‘the system has justified its adoption . . . and it is absolutely fair’. The Sligo Independent proudly stated that ‘Sligo has the honour of being the first municipality in Ireland to adopt the principle, and everyone agrees that it was a great success’. Dublin-based newspapers were equally impressed. The Irish Times argued that the election

‘has established beyond dispute two big things in favour of proportional representation. The first is that it is a thoroughly workable system . . . The other big thing—and it is really big—is the proof that in proportional representation we have the Magna Charta of political and municipal minorities’.

The Freeman’s Journal praised the fairness of the new system, saying that ‘the first elections, on the principle of proportional representation by the single transferable vote, have resulted in the fair representation of all parties’, while the Irish Independent called for PR to be introduced countrywide, arguing that

‘proportional representation has given Sligo a model council. There is no reason why it should not be equally successful in Dublin and other cities and towns in Ireland’.

The extraordinary success of the Sligo election was quickly followed by the adoption of PR at national level.

The first use of PR for the Sligo borough election of January 1919 was a significant milestone for democracy in Ireland. For Sligo the use of PR and the crisis created by the poor financial condition of the borough provided an opportunity for Protestant and Catholic businessmen to come together outside the divisive politics of unionism and nationalism, and for unionists pragmatically to accept the end of the unionist cause locally, allowing them to focus their energy on alternative political activity. HI

Patrick Deignan recently completed a PhD on ‘The Protestant community in Sligo, 1914–49’ in the Department of Modern History, NUI Maynooth.

Further reading:
J.C. McTernan, Olde Sligoe (Dublin, 1995).
C. O’Leary, Irish elections, 1918–77 (Dublin, 1979).
Sligo Champion sesquicentenary supplement, 1836–1986 (Sligo, 1986).


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