Election 1918 and the ‘Cause of Ireland’

13 December 2018

December 1918 was a time of great change in the world, and in Ireland.

The ‘Great War’ had just ended.

19 million dead, and more again injured.

There had never before been warfare on this scale, or with such brutality.

 

The price paid in blood accelerated the already legitimate claim by working people for political equality.

And they got the vote for the first time in the 1918 election.

 

The choice before the people was whether or not to vote for a party – nationalist or unionist – that would take its seats in London, or else to vote for the new pro-independence party, led by Éamon de Valera, which would not.

 

As a UK-wide general election, it was of course conducted using the single-seat First Past the Post voting system, not our multi-seat Single Transferable Vote.

As such, where three or four candidates were in serious contention there was a real possibility of the vote being split, which would give the seat to the leading candidate, even with only a minority of votes.

 

That was the context.

The result of the 1918 election obviously could not be known in advance.

But it could be anticipated.

 

In the December 1910 general election, Labour had taken 42 seats. Unfortunately, they were almost all in England, with a few in Scotland and Wales.

It was still a debate as to whether the cause of working people would be better served by the nascent British Labour Party or by a separate Irish party.

In 1912, in Clonmel that question was answered decisively with the foundation of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress, a single political body designed to further the interests of working people.

 

James Connolly had, of course, taken part in the 1916 Rising.

Connolly’s immortal words were that “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour.”

1916, and later 1922, split the Labour movement, especially in the North where many workers were also unionists.

 

In 1918, the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress stood aside.

This avoided any situation where the vote would be split.

As one test of that, Labour had taken 43% of the vote in Dublin College Green in the 1915 by-election.

It was certainly possible that Labour would have taken a number of seats, from all around Ireland.

 

But instead, the people were given a clear choice on the national question.

The Irish Parliamentary Party… the legacy of Parnell and Redmond… only retained 6 of out its 73 seats from the previous election.

The independence movement gained 73 MPs, while Irish Unionists had 26 MPs, five more than in 1910, including three Labour Unionist MPs who won seats in Belfast.

In this decade of centenaries, there is a need for deeper reflection on the complex and nuanced set of political preferences that prevailed in Ireland 100 years ago.

Had Labour stood candidates, this could have split the independence vote, and the overturning of the Irish Parliamentary Party would probably have been less complete.

 

More Labour MPs and fewer of de Valera’s might have been a good thing for Ireland, as things worked out:

Partition,

Civil War,

And a repressive clerical state, the legacy of which we are still unwinding.

 

But none of that was visible at the time.

In Connolly’s words, the “cause of Ireland” was to be resolved, and Labour stood aside to allow people to choose whether or not they wanted to back the drive for independence.

And Labour was not entirely absent from the First Dáil.

The leader of the Labour Party, Tom Johnson, was asked to write the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, which we will commemorate next year.

It was read into the record on 17 January 1919 pledging Labour’s values of “Liberty, Equality and Justice for all”.

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