Sinn Féin’s vote in 1918

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

Sir,

—In his review of Coolacrease (HI 17.2, March/April 2009) JoostAugusteijn attempts to be fair. But he falls into a trap laid byBritish politicians and journalists, and noted by Edward MacLysaght inhis diary for 28 January 1919, exactly one week after the first meetingof Dáil Éireann:

‘In quoting statistics for last year’s general election they give thetotal votes cast for and against Sinn Féin only in contested elections,completely ignoring the 25 constituencies where Sinn Féin candidateswere returned unopposed, thus presenting an entirely misleadingpicture.’

In 1918 and for some decades before, it was common throughout theUnited Kingdom for constituencies to be uncontested. In IrelandUnionists usually did not put up candidates where they would have nochance. In both 1886 and 1906 Unionists actually collected most of thevotes cast while Nationalists took most of the seats. In 1886Nationalists took 66 uncontested seats plus many contested ones. In1906 they took 84 uncontested seats. So saying that Sinn Féin took‘only 47 per cent of the votes cast’ means nothing for 1918. It is ared herring. Their relative popularity is reflected by the fact thatthey took 73 seats to the Unionists’ 26 and the Nationalists’ 6. Theysupplanted the Nationalists who had hitherto monopolised theanti-Unionist vote. In municipal and county elections in 1920 and 1921Sinn Féin secured corresponding electoral support.
Since I came to London in 1964 there have been twelve general electionsin the UK. In only one did the winners get as much as 47 per cent ofthe popular vote. Today’s UK government holds a large majority ofCommons seats with but 35 per cent of the votes cast. In all of thosetwelve elections uncontested seats have not been a significant factor.Of 600-odd seats the outgoing Speaker sometimes is returned unopposed.
It may be a fact that the custodians of international law take nocognisance of democratic mandates, even of such a scale as Sinn Féin’sin 1918. But such custodians as the United Kingdom trace theirauthority to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which put the House ofOrange on the thrones of Great Britain and Ireland with much bloodshedin Ireland. As for the United States, it owes its internationalrecognition to the French landing at Yorktown and a battle which, if ithad gone the other way, would have seen the rebel George Washingtondangling at the end of a British rope. As for France, it owes itscurrent place among the custodians of international law to Alliedattack, which caused 3,000 civilian French fatalities on D-Day alone,not to mention almost a year’s further carnage.
Neither de Valera’s appeals to the United States nor even to the IrishCatholic hierarchy could find recognition for the authority of theIrish people and their parliament, Dáil Éireann. Whatever grudgingadvances were won needed more than the ‘X’ factor of a vote—just as didthe triumph of the Prince of Orange in his day.

—Yours etc.,
DONAL KENNEDY
London

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