SEEN ON TV: Election ’18

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

Loose Horse Productions

RTÉ 1, 14 December 2018

By John Gibney

On 14 December 1918 a UK-wide general election took place in Britain and Ireland, and on 14 December 2018 RTÉ covered it. The first such election since 1910 was held within weeks of the armistice that ended hostilities in the First World War and can be seen as a watershed on a number of fronts. The Representation of the People Act had greatly increased the size of the UK electorate by extending voting rights to all men over the age of 21 and some women over the age of 30. In general terms it was a more democratic election; in political terms it was also a watershed in both islands. In Britain it marked the moment when the Labour Party began to eclipse the Liberals as the domestic political opponents of the Tories; by winning nearly 21% of votes cast, Labour supplanted Herbert Asquith’s faction of the Liberal Party (who opposed the continuation of Lloyd George’s wartime coalition) by emerging as the official parliamentary opposition. In Ireland the electoral upheaval was more profound and dramatic, as 73 of Ireland’s 105 Westminster seats were taken by the reorganised and reinvigorated Sinn Féin, running on a separatist ticket, winning 47% of the vote and sweeping aside the Irish Parliamentary Party to become the dominant voice of nationalist Ireland.

Above: In the studio—presenter David McCullough with Diarmaid Ferriter and Theresa Reidy.

The 1918 election is unquestionably one of the key moments in the Irish revolution. Its significance can sometimes be overlooked amidst an inevitable focus on dramatic set pieces like the Easter Rising. Such events lend themselves to commemoration; they are short, sharp and to the point, and can easily be marked by a single event or sequence of events a century later. It is harder to represent a process in the same way; the first Dáil, with its iconic meeting in the Mansion House and dramatic statements, may have been easy to mark, but the remarkable shift in Irish public opinion that underpinned it was trickier to summarise and explain. Given that this shift was registered in an election, Election ’18 adopted the remarkably simple conceit of covering the election in question.

Above: Sinéad O’Carroll analyses the results in Ulster. Sinn Féin wasn’t the only winner in 1918; so too were the Ulster Unionists.

Broadcast on the centenary of the election and fronted by the experienced current affairs team of David McCullough and Sinéad O’Carroll, Election ’18 was an extremely simple, appealing and effective means of exploring the 1918 election and its significance. Using a combination of studio analysis from journalists, historians and social scientists—Emma Dabiri, Anne Dolan, Mark Duncan, Diarmaid Ferriter, Pat Leahy and Theresa Reidy, amongst others—archival footage, ‘interviews’ and ‘vox pops’ in period outfit (including, inevitably, two lads on barstools) and short election-broadcast-style inserts, it replicated the type of election coverage that we are all accustomed to by now. In doing so it was faced with a challenge, the successful negotiation of which elevated this programme above many productions being made in the course of the ‘Decade of Centenaries’.

What tends to keep people watching election coverage is the inherent drama of events unfolding as they move towards an as-yet-unknown outcome. We know the result of the 1918 general election, and with hindsight comprehend its significance, but Election ’18 was set up to explore its subject in a manner that was oblivious to the outcome. This required a great deal of skill and restraint on the part of the presenters and commentators, all of whom pulled off the trick of leaving hindsight to one side (and some of whom certainly seemed to get into character).

Above: ‘Votes for women’—but very few women who could vote were in a position to cast theirs for a women.

This made for an exemplary exercise in ‘public’ history. We can, from our vantage point in the present, trace the lineage of events back to origin points, but this does not work in reverse. If a fundamental element of historical understanding is to explain why people behaved as they did at a given moment, it requires one to understand what they were faced with at that moment. This was the great strength of Election ’18: it was able to clearly explore what mattered to those who lived through the revolution (it was difficult not to think of this as a descendant of the semi-legendary 1916 drama Insurrection, originally broadcast in 1966). The scale of the Sinn Féin victory can obscure some key issues that mattered at the time, such as the generational factor in the composition of the newly expanded electorate that rejected the Irish Parliamentary Party and the relative sidelining of Labour. Then there was the position of those women who could now vote; as was pointed out, only two women stood for election in Ireland in 1918, so ironically very few women who could vote were in a position to cast theirs for a women. Alongside the much-vaunted electoral success of Constance Markievicz in Dublin, the other female Sinn Féin candidate was Winifred Carney, who lost in Belfast. This, in turn, reflected the fact that the 1918 election also saw Unionism solidify its position in the soon-to-be-partitioned north-east; Sinn Féin wasn’t the only winner in 1918.

In many constituencies their victory was immense; it is hard to quantify in others, as perhaps a third of the seats they won were uncontested. Given that many seats held by Home Rulers were also uncontested, the IPP were, in many cases, simply not capable of contesting an election against a more energetic and motivated opponent. By the time that the first Dáil convened it was obvious that Irish independence, in some form, now had an explicit mandate; the electoral shift from Home Rule to separatism between 1916 and 1918 is the single biggest and most important political transformation of the revolution.

This impressive and very engaging programme successfully probed how and why that happened, from multiple perspectives. Election ’18 was a simple idea that proved a resounding success, and it is to be hoped that the concept could be dusted down again during the ‘Decade of Centenaries’. To complement the original programme, RTÉ have also collated a very useful website with a range of articles and resources contextualising the most significant election in modern Irish history (https://www.rte.ie/eile/election-1918/).

John Gibney is a historian with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.

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