Irish (UK) general election, 1918

From Academic Kids

The Irish general election of 1918 was that part of the 1918 United Kingdom general election that took place in Ireland. It is seen as a key defining moment in modern Irish history. This is because it saw the overwhelming defeat of the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which had dominated the Irish political landscape since the 1880s, and a landslide victory for the radical Sinn Féin party, which had never previously enjoyed significant electoral success.

The aftermath of the elections saw the convention of an extra-legal parliament, called the First Dáil, by the elected Sinn Féin candidates, and the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence.



In 1918 the whole of Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom and was represented in the British Parliament by about one hundred MPs. Whereas in Great Britain most elected politicians were members of either the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party, from 1882–1918 most Irish MPs were members of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The IPP strove for Home Rule in the form of internal self-government for Ireland, achieved by a peaceful campaign of reform. This tactic did successfully bring a Home Rule Act 1914 on to the statute books in May 1918, but with a later ammending partition of Northern Ireland bill enforced by Edward Carson's Unionist Party. The implementation of the Act was however temporarily postponed with the outbreak of World War I, expected to be over in a year, but temporarily averting civil war in Ireland. As the war prolonged, the more radical Sinn Féin began to grew in strength.

Sinn Féin was founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905. He believed that Irish nationalists should emulate Hungarian nationalists who, in the 19th century under Ferenc Deák, had chosen to boycott the imperial parliament in Vienna and unilaterally established their own legislature in Budapest. Griffith had favoured a peaceful solution based on joint monarchy with Britain. However by 1918, under its new leader Eamon de Valera, Sinn Féin had come to favour achieving separation from Britain by means of an armed uprising if necessary and the establishment of an independent republic. In the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising the party's ranks were swelled by participants and supporters of the rebellion as they were freed from British gaols and at its 1917 Árd Fheis (annual conference) de Valera was elected leader and the new, more radical policy adopted.

Prior to 1916, Sinn Féin had been a fringe movement having a limited cooperative alliance with William O'Brien MP.'s "All-for-Ireland League" and enjoyed little electoral success. However between the Easter Rising of that year and the 1918 general election the party's popularity increased dramatically. This was due to the perceived failure of the IPP to have Home Rule implemented immediately, but also popular antagonism towards the British authorities created by the execution of most of the leaders of the 1916 rebels and by their botched attempt to introduce military conscription in Ireland.

Sinn Féin demonstrated its new electoral capability in three by-election successes in 1917 in which Count Plunkett, W.T. Cosgrave and De Valera were each elected, although it did not win all by-elections in that year and in at least one case there were allegations of electoral fraud1. Overall, however, the party would benefit from a number of factors in the 1918 elections.

Changes in the electorate

The Irish electorate in 1918, as with the entire electorate throughout the United Kingdom, had changed in two major ways since the preceding general election. Firstly, because of the intervening Great War, which had been fought from 1914 to 1918, the British general election due in 1915 had not taken place. As a result, no election took place between 1910 and 1918, the longest such spell in modern British and Irish constitutional history. Thus the 1918 elections saw dramatic generational change. In particular:

  • All voters between the voting age of 21 and 29 were first time general election voters. They had no history of past voter loyalty to the IPP to fall back on, and indeed had begun their political awareness in the period of 8 years that had seen a bitter world war, the home rule controversy and the Easter Rising and its aftermath.
  • A generation of older voters, most of them IPP supporters, had died in the eight year period.

Secondly, the franchise had been greatly extended by the Representation of the People Act 1918. This increased the Irish electorate from around 700,000 to about two million. It also granted voting rights to women (albeit only those with property over 35) for the first time.

Overall, a new generation of young voters, the disappearance of much of the oldest generation of voters, and the sudden influx of women over thirty-five, meant that vast numbers of new voters of unknown voter affiliation existed, changing dramatically the makeup of the Irish electorate.

Political factors

  • Since the last general election in 1910 the local organisation of the previously dominant IPP, unchallenged for nearly a decade, had atrophied at worst and was largely elderly at best, making its defence of its seats difficult.
  • The electorate had become enamoured to Sinn Féin by the harsh response of the authorities to the Easter Rising. The party also took most of the credit for the successful campaign to prevent the introduction of conscription.
  • In contrast to the IPP Sinn Féin could be seen as a young and radical force. Its leaders were young politicians, such as Michael Collins (28) and de Valera (36), like most of the new voters, whereas the IPP was led by leaders such as John Dillon, who had been in public office since the 1880s and were largely elderly and still campaigning for home rule, as they had been since the 1870s under Isaac Butt. Therefore, whereas Sinn Féin represented change and a radical new policy for achieving Irish self-government, the IPP was still campaigning for the same issue as it has done for nearly fifty years. By 1918, Home Rule had come to be seen as an idea whose time had come and gone.

The election

Voting in most Irish constituencies occurred on 14 December, 1918. While the rest of the United Kingdom fought the 'Khaki election' on other issues involving the British parties, in Ireland four major political parties had national appeal. These were the IPP, Sinn Féin, the Irish Unionist Party and the Irish Labour Party. The Labour Party, however, decided not to take participate in the election, fearing that it would be caught in the political crossfire between the IPP and Sinn Féin; it thought it better to let the people make up their minds on the issue of Home Rule versus a Republic by having a clear two way choice between the two nationalist parties. The Unionist Party favoured continuance of the union with Britain and was supported by the Labour Unionist Party. A number of other small nationalist parties also took part.

In Ireland 105 MPs were elected from 103 constituencies. Ninety-nine seats were elected from single seat constituencies under the Single Member Plurality or 'first past the post' system. However the were also two two seat constituencies: University of Dublin, (Trinity College) elected two MPs under the Single Transferable Vote and Cork City elected two MPs under the Bloc voting system.

In addition to ordinary geographical constituencies there were three university constituencies: Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Dublin (which would return three Unionist MPs), and the National University of Ireland (which would elect a member of Sinn Féin).

Of the 105 seats in Ireland many were uncontested. In some cases this was clearly because there was a certain winner, and the rival parties decided against devoting their money and effort to unwinnable seats. However there were also allegations that republican militants had threatened potential candidates and their families to discourage non-Sinn Féin candidates from running. For whatever reason, in the 73 constituencies in which Sinn Féin candidates were elected 25 were returned unopposed.


Sinn Féin candidates were elected in 73 constituencies but three party candidates (Arthur Griffith, Eamon de Valera and Liam Mellows) were elected for two constituencies and so the total number of individual Sinn Féin MPs elected was actually 70. Despite allegations of intimidation and electoral fraud on the part of Sinn Féin supporters, the election was seen as a landslide victory for the party.

The party returned to the second largest number of seats was the Irish Unionist Party with 22 seats. The success of the Unionists was largely limited to Ulster, however, and in the rest of Ireland Unionists were elected only in the constituencies of the University of Dublin and Rathmines.

The IPP suffered a catastrophic defeat and even its leader, John Dillon, failed to be re-elected. The IPP won six seats in Ireland but was represented in parliament by seven MPs because a single IPP candidate won election in the English city of Liverpool. Nonetheless, the IPP's losses were exaggerated by the first-past-the-post system which gave it a share of seats far short of its rather larger share of the vote.

Party Seats  Votes2
Number Percent Number Percent
Sinn Féin2 73 69.5   76,087 46.9
Irish Unionist 22 20.9   257,314 25.3
Irish Parliamentary 6 5.7   220,837 21.7
Labour Unionist 3 2.8   30,304 3.0
Belfast Labour 12,164 1.2
Independent Unionist 1 0.95 9,531 0.9
Independent Nationalist 8,183 0.8
Independent Labour 659 0.1
Independent 436 0.0
Totals 105 100.0   615,515 100.0

Aftermath and legacy

After the election the elected Sinn Féin candidates, although entitled to sit as MPs in the British parliament, chose to boycott the Westminster body and instead assembled as a revolutionary parliament they called "Dáil Éireann": the Irish for "Assembly of Ireland". However Unionists and members of the IPP refused to recognise the Dáil. At its first meeting on 21 January, 1919 the Dáil issued a Declaration of Independence and proclaimed itself the parliament of new a state called the "Irish Republic".

On the same day, in unconnected circumstances, two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were ambushed and killed at Soloheadbeg, in Tipperary, by members of the Irish Volunteers. Although it had not ordered this incident the course of events soon drove the Dáil to recognise the Volunteers as the army of the Irish Republic and the ambush as an act of war against Great Britain. The Volunteers therefore changed their name, in August, to the Irish Republican Army. In this way the 1918 elections lead to the outbreak of the War of Independence.

The train of events set in motion by the elections would eventually bring about the first internationally recognised independent Irish state, in the Irish Free State established in 1922. Furthermore the leaders of the Sinn Féin candidates elected in 1918, such as de Valera, Michael Collins and W.T. Cosgrave, came to dominate Irish politics. De Valera, for example, held at least some form of elected office from his first election as an MP in a by-election in 1917 until 1973. The two major parties in the Republic of Ireland today, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are both descendants of Sinn Féin, a party that first enjoyed substantial electoral success in 1918.

Question of interpretation

The correct interpretation of the results of the 1918 general election has been the subject of some controversy. This is because Sinn Féin treated the result as a mandate from the Irish people to immediately set about establishing an independent, all-Ireland state, and to initiate a war of separation from Great Britain.

In 1921, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Ireland was divided into two separate jurisdictions: six counties in the northeast became Northern Ireland, and the rest of the country that would eventually become the modern Republic of Ireland. 1918 was therefore the last occasion on which a general election occurred across the whole of Ireland, north and south, on the same day. For this reason many radical republicans have regarded the election as conferring a mandate for a united Ireland that was still unchanged over eighty years later. Indeed the 1918 general election has become a potent symbol for militant republicans who have argued that the elections conferred legitimacy both on the anti-Treaty faction in the Irish Civil War of 1922–1923 and on the violent campaigns of later groups such as the Provisional IRA that erupted many decades later.

Critics of these interpretations make a number of arguments. Some question the legitimacy of the original mandate won by Sinn Féin. It is argued that Sinn Féin practiced widespread intimidation and electoral fraud and that this called the result into question. Some also argue that the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system and/or the large number of uncontested constituencies exaggerated the effect of the pro-Sinn Féin vote so that, while the party won around 70% of the total number of Irish seats, its share of the vote may have been less than 50% and so not have amounted to a majority.

In fact, because of the large number of uncontested constituencies, it is impossible to know with certainty what share of the vote Sinn Féin would have won had all seats been contested. However, this has not stopped some historians attempting to speculate, for example by extrapolating from the vote counts in constituencies neighbouring those that were uncontested3.

Unionists argue from a different perspective. They insist that, regardless of the result, no election result considered on an all-Ireland basis could justify the imposition of a united Ireland on the Unionist minority in the north-east. Some point to the fact that Unionists won a majority share of the vote, in both the historical northern province of Ulster and in the six counties that would later become Northern Ireland, to argue that the 1918 election in fact established a mandate for the north-east, at least, to remain within the United Kingdom.

Other arguments, leaving aside the immediate politics of 1918, dispute the capacity of any 1918 mandate for a united Ireland to legitimise acts of violence committed in later history. Although the 1918 general election was the last held throughout the whole of Ireland on a single day, in every election held since 1921 candidates advocating violent resistance to the partition of Ireland have fallen far short of winning a majority in either part of Ireland.

In 1998 both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland voted on the same day in referenda on the Belfast Agreement. Voters in both jurisdictions endorsed the agreement which, among many other provisions, enshrined the principle that a united Ireland should only be brought about by peaceful, constitutional means.

The only elections in which all of Ireland votes simultaneously are the elections to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Sinn Féin currently have 2 MEPs out of a total of 16 Irish MEPs, the only party to have MEPs on either side of the border.

Prominent candidates

Elected unopposed

Elected in contests



  1. On one occasion the 'victory' of a Sinn Féin candidate in the Longford by-election is said to have been achieved through putting a gun to the head of a returning officer and telling him to "think again" when he was about to announce an IPP victory. On doing a 'recheck' the official 'found' a new uncounted ballot papers in which votes were cast for the Sinn Féin candidate. Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins: A Biography (Hutchinson, 1990) p.67.
  2. The percentage of votes given is a percentage of the total number of votes cast and therefore does not take into account the preferences of voters in constituencies where no contest occurred. It is impossible to know with certainty what the final shares of votes cast might have been had all constituencies been contested.
  3. See for example The Irish Election of 1918 (, a paper by Nicholas Whyte discussing the level of support for Sinn Féin that can be inferred from the 1918 election results; from Northern Ireland Elections (
  4. King's County is now known as County Offaly.
  5. Queen's County is now known as County Laois (old spelling, 'Leix').

See also

Further reading

  • Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins
  • Tim Pat Coogan, Eamon de Valera
  • Robert Kee, The Green Flag
  • F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine
  • Dorothy MacCardle, The Irish Republic
  • Brian Walker, Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801–1922

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