Irish general election, 1918

Irish general election, 1918
(part of United Kingdom general election, 1918)
United Kingdom
14 December 1918

105 of the 707 seats to the House of Commons
  First party Second party Third party
Leader Éamon de Valera Edward Carson John Dillon
Party Sinn Féin Irish Unionist Irish Parliamentary
Leader since 1917 1910 March 1918
Leader's seat Clare East and East Mayo Belfast Duncairn East Mayo (defeated)
Last election N/A 17 74
Seats before 6 17 67
Seats won 73 22 6
Seat change Increase67 Increase5 Decrease61
Popular vote 497,107 257,314 220,837
Percentage 46.9% 25.3% 21.7%

Results of the 1918 election in Ireland. Sinn Féin MPs refused to sit in the House of Commons and instead formed Dáil Éireann. The Irish Parliamentary Party, Irish Unionist Alliance, Labour Unionist Party and an Independent Unionist MP remained in Westminster.

The Irish general election of 1918 was that part of the 1918 United Kingdom general election which took place in Ireland. It is now seen as a key moment in modern Irish history 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. In Ulster, however, the Unionist Party was the most successful party.

In the aftermath of the elections, Sinn Féin's elected members refused to attend the British Parliament in Westminster (London), and instead formed a parliament in Dublin, the First Dáil (Irish for "Assembly"), which declared Irish independence as a republic. The Irish War of Independence was conducted under this revolutionary government who sought international recognition, and set about the process of state-building.[1][2]


In 1918 the whole of Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and was represented in the British Parliament by 105 MPs. Whereas in Great Britain most elected politicians were members of either the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party, from the early 1880s most Irish MPs were Irish nationalists, who sat together in the British House of Commons as the Irish Parliamentary Party.

The IPP strove for Home Rule, that is, limited self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom, and had been supported by most Irish people, especially the Catholic majority. Home Rule was opposed by most Protestants in Ireland, who formed a majority of the population in the northern province of Ulster but a minority in the rest of Ireland, and favoured maintenance of the Union with Great Britain (and were therefore called Unionists).

The Unionists were supported by the Conservative Party, whereas from 1885 the Liberal Party was committed to enacting some form of Home Rule. Unionists eventually formed their own representation, first the Irish Unionist Party then the Ulster Unionist Party. Home Rule appeared to have been finally achieved with the passing of the Home Rule Act 1914. However the implementation of the Act was however temporarily postponed with the outbreak of World War I, due to determined Ulster Unionists' resistance to the Act. As the war prolonged and with the failure to make any progress on the issue, the more radical Sinn Féin began to grow in strength.

Rise of Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin was founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905. He believed that Irish nationalists should emulate the Ausgleich of 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 'dual monarchy' with Britain, that is two separate states with a single head of state and a limited central government to control matters of common concern only. However, by 1918, under its new leader Éamon 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 internment camps, and at its 1917 Ard 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'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 failure to have the Home Rule Bill implemented when the IPP resisted the partition of Ireland demanded by Ulster Unionists in 1914, 1916 and 1917, 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 Home Rule linked with military conscription in Ireland (see Conscription Crisis of 1918).

Sinn Féin demonstrated its new electoral capability in four by-election successes in 1917 in which Count Plunkett, Joseph McGuinness, de Valera and W. T. Cosgrave were each elected, although it lost three by-elections in early 1918 before winning two more with Patrick McCartan and Arthur Griffith. In one case there were unproven allegations of electoral fraud.[3] 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, there was a dramatic generational change because of World War I, which meant that 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 election saw, in particular:

Secondly, the franchise had been greatly extended by the Representation of the People Act 1918. This granted voting rights to women (albeit only those over 30) for the first time, and gave all men over 21 and military servicemen over 19 a vote in parliamentary elections without property qualifications. The Irish electorate increased from around 700,000 to about two million.[4]

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

Political factors

The election

Election campaigning on a busy Irish street, 1918

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 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 (along with its subordinate, the Ulster Unionist Labour Association, who fought as 'Labour Unionists'). 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 geographical constituencies under the Single Member Plurality or 'first past the post' system. However, there 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: the Queen's University of Belfast (which returned a Unionist), the University of Dublin (which returned two Unionists) and the National University of Ireland (which returned a member of Sinn Féin).

Of the 105 seats in Ireland, twenty-five were uncontested for a number of reasons, not least that the IPP and Sinn Féin had been finding common ground in the immediately previous period. In some cases it was because there was a certain winner in Sinn Féin. British government propaganda formulated in Dublin Castle and circulated through a censored press alleged that republican militants had threatened potential candidates to discourage non-Sinn Féiners from running. For whatever reason, in the 73 constituencies in which Sinn Féin candidates were elected 25 were returned unopposed (17 were in Munster). The uncontested constituencies that Sinn Féin won subsequently showed high levels of support for republican candidates.


Sinn Féin candidates won 73 seats out of 105, but four party candidates (Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera, Eoin MacNeill and Liam Mellows) were elected for two constituencies and so the total number of individual Sinn Féin MPs elected was 69. Despite the isolated allegations of intimidation and electoral fraud on the part of both republicans and unionists, the election was seen as a landslide victory for Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin received 46.9% of votes island-wide, and 65% of votes in the area that became the Irish Free State.[5] However, the 46.9% is not the total result of the overall success of Sinn Féin. That figure only accounts for 48 seats that they won because in 25 of the other constituencies the other parties did not contest them, and Sinn Féin won them unopposed. Most of these constituencies were Sinn Féin strongholds. It is estimated that, had the 25 seats been contested, Sinn Féin would have received at least 53% of the vote island-wide.[6] However, this is a conservative estimate and the percentage would likely have been higher.[6] Sinn Féin also did not contest four seats due to a deal with the IPP (see below). Labour, who had pulled out in the south under instructions to 'wait', polled better in Belfast than Sinn Féin.[7]

The Irish Unionist Party won 22 seats and 25.3% of the vote island-wide, becoming the second-largest party in terms of MPs. The success of the unionists, who won 26 seats overall,[8] was largely limited to Ulster. Otherwise, southern unionists were elected only in the constituencies of Rathmines and the University of Dublin which returned two.

In Ulster (nine-counties), Unionists won 23 out of the 38 seats with Sinn Féin gaining ten and the Irish Parliamentary Party five. There was a limited electoral pact brokered by Roman Catholic Cardinal Michael Logue between Sinn Féin and the Nationalist IPP in eight seats, after nominations closed. Sinn Féin, remarkably successfully, instructed its supporters to vote IPP in Armagh South (79 SF votes), Down South (33 SF votes), Tyrone North-East (56 SF votes) and Donegal East (46 SF votes). Armagh South had no Unionist candidate. The IPP instructed its supporters to vote Sinn Féin in Fermanagh South (132 IPP votes) which had no Unionist candidate, and Londonderry City (120 IPP votes) where Eoin MacNeill narrowly beat the Unionist. Sinn Féin was given a clear run in Tyrone North-West against a Unionist when no IPP candidate stood. The discipline of voters when faced with two rival nationalist candidates and with only a post-nomination pact in these six cases was impressive. The pact broke down in Down East where a Unionist won as the IPP candidate refused to participate and split the Catholic vote. There was no pact in Belfast Falls which Joe Devlin (IPP) won with 8,488 votes against 3,245 for Éamon de Valera (SF) although no Unionist stood. Monaghan North was won by Sinn Féin’s Ernest Blythe in a three-cornered fight against both IPP and Unionist candidates. In the Monaghan South, and Donegal North, South, and West seats, despite no Unionist standing, Sinn Féin won all four against IPP candidates. Sinn Féin took the two (uncontested) Cavan seats. Unionists won a majority of the Ulster seats and eight of the nine in Belfast.

In the six Ulster counties which formed the future Northern Ireland, the percentage vote totals were: Unionists 66.0%, Nationalists 30.7%, and Labour etc. 3.3%. Sinn Féin received 19.0% of the total vote.

The IPP suffered a catastrophic defeat and even its leader, John Dillon, was not re-elected. It won only six seats in Ireland, its losses exaggerated by the "first-past-the-post" system which gave it a share of seats far short of its much larger share of the vote (21.7%) and the number of seats it would have won under a "proportional representation" ballot system. All but one of its seats were in Ulster. The exception was Waterford City, the seat previously held by John Redmond, who had died earlier in the year, and retained by his son Captain William Redmond. Four of their Ulster seats were part of the deal to avoid unionist victories which saved some for the party but may have cost it the support of Protestant voters elsewhere. The IPP came close to winning other seats in Louth and Wexford South, and in general their support held up better in the north and east of the island. The party was represented in Westminster by seven MPs because T. P. O'Connor won due to emigrant votes in Liverpool. The remnants of the IPP in time became the Nationalist Party (Northern Ireland) under the leadership of Joseph Devlin.

 Summary of 14 December 1918 Dáil Éireann and House of Commons election results
% Votes
(since Dec. 1910)
% of
Sinn Féin[nb 1] de Valera, ÉamonÉamon de Valera 476,087 46.9 Increase46.9 73 Increase73 69.5
Irish Unionist Carson, EdwardEdward Carson 257,314 25.3 N/A 22 Increase5 20.9
Irish Parliamentary Dillon, JohnJohn Dillon 220,837 21.7 Decrease21.9 6 Decrease67 5.7
Labour Unionist None 30,304 3.0 Increase3.0 3 Increase3 2.8
Belfast Labour None 12,164 1.2 Increase1.2 0 Steady0 0
Independent Unionist [nb 2] 9,531 0.9 Increase0.9 1 Increase1 0.95
Independent Nationalist 8,183 0.8 N/A 0 Decrease2 0
Independent Labour 659 0.1 Increase0.1 0 Steady0 0
Independent 436 0.1 Increase0.1 0 Steady0 0
Total 1,015,515 100 105

Aftermath and legacy

On 21 January 1919 thirty (out of 105 elected) members representing thirty constituencies answered the roll of Dáil Éireann the Irish for "Assembly of Ireland". Invitations to attend the Dáil had been sent to all 104 men and one woman who had been elected on 14 December 1918. Eoin MacNeill had been elected for both Londonderry City and the National University of Ireland. Thirty-three republicans were unable to attend as they were in prison, most of them without trial since the previous May 17. Pierce McCann (of Tipperary East) who died in prison would have brought the total to thirty-four. Of the 73 republicans elected, most had fought in the Easter Rising.[9]

In accordance with the Sinn Féin manifesto, their elected members refused to attend Westminster, having instead formed their own parliament. Dáil Éireann was, according to John Patrick McCarthy, the revolutionary government under which the Irish War of Independence was fought and which sought international recognition.[1] Maryann Gialanella Valiulis says that having justified its existence, the Dáil provided itself with a theoretical framework and set about the process of state-building.[2]

The British administration and unionists refused to recognise the Dáil. At its first meeting attended by 27 deputies (other were still imprisoned or impaired) on 21 January 1919 the Dáil issued a Declaration of Independence and proclaimed itself the parliament of a new state, the Irish Republic.

On the same day, in unconnected circumstances, two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary guarding gelignite were killed in the Soloheadbeg Ambush 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 led to the outbreak of the Anglo-Irish War, giving the impression that the election sanctioned the war.

The train of events set in motion by the elections would eventually bring about the first internationally recognised independent Irish state, the Irish Free State, established in 1922. 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, would hold 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, which first enjoyed substantial electoral success in 1918.

Prominent candidates

Elected unopposed

Name Party Constituency
Arthur Griffith Sinn Féin Cavan East and also
Tyrone North West (contest)
Éamon de Valera Sinn Féin Clare East and also
Mayo East (contest)
Terence MacSwiney Sinn Féin Cork Mid
Michael Collins Sinn Féin Cork South
Seán Hayes Sinn Féin Cork West
Liam Mellows Sinn Féin Galway East and also
Meath North (contest)
Piaras Béaslaí Sinn Féin Kerry East
Austin Stack Sinn Féin Kerry West
W. T. Cosgrave Sinn Féin Kilkenny North
Patrick McCartan Sinn Féin King's County[10]
Count Plunkett Sinn Féin Roscommon North

Elected in contests

Name Party Constituency
Hugh O'Neill Irish Unionist Alliance Antrim Mid
Patrick Donnelly Irish Parliamentary Party Armagh South
Edward Carson Irish Unionist Alliance Belfast Duncairn
Joseph Devlin Irish Parliamentary Party Belfast Falls
Samuel McGuffin Labour Unionist Belfast Shankill
Edward Kelly Irish Parliamentary Party Donegal East
James Craig Irish Unionist Alliance Down Mid
Jeremiah McVeagh Irish Parliamentary Party Down South
Seán T. O'Kelly Sinn Féin Dublin College Green
Desmond FitzGerald Sinn Féin Dublin Pembroke
Maurice Dockrell Irish Unionist Alliance Dublin Rathmines
Joseph McGrath Sinn Féin Dublin St James's
Constance Markievicz Sinn Féin Dublin St Patrick's
Robert Henry Woods Independent Unionist University of Dublin
Pádraic Ó Máille Sinn Féin Galway Connemara
Frank Fahy Sinn Féin Galway South
Domhnall Ua Buachalla Sinn Féin Kildare North
Eoin MacNeill Sinn Féin Londonderry City and also
National University of Ireland
Hugh Anderson Irish Unionist Alliance Londonderry North
Denis Henry Irish Unionist Alliance Londonderry South
John J. O'Kelly Sinn Féin Louth
Ernest Blythe Sinn Féin Monaghan North
Seán MacEntee Sinn Féin Monaghan South
Kevin O'Higgins Sinn Féin Queen's County[11]
Harry Boland Sinn Féin Roscommon South
Thomas Harbison Irish Parliamentary Party Tyrone North East
William Redmond Irish Parliamentary Party Waterford City
Cathal Brugha Sinn Féin Waterford County
Laurence Ginnell Sinn Féin Westmeath
James Ryan Sinn Féin Wexford South
Robert Barton Sinn Féin Wicklow West


Name Party Constituency
John Dillon Irish Parliamentary Party Mayo East

See also


  1. 1 2 McCarthy, John Patrick (2006). Ireland: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present. Infobase Publishing. p. 236. ISBN 978-0-8160-5378-0.
  2. 1 2 Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella (1992). Portrait of a revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the founding of the Irish Free State. University Press of Kentucky. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-8131-1791-1.
  3. 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' 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.
  4. Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998: War, Peace and Beyond, John Wiley & Sons, 2010, p. 210. ISBN 1444324152.
  5. Knirck, Jason K. Imagining Ireland's Independence: The Debates Over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. p.45
  6. 1 2 The Irish Election of 1918. ARK. Retrieved 30 December 2013.
  7. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923, Michael Laffan
  8. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923, Michael Laffan p. 164
  9. Comerford, Maire (1969). The First Dáil. Joe Clarke. p. 11.
  10. King's County is now known as County Offaly.
  11. Queen's County is now known as County Laois (old spelling, 'Leix').

Notes on election results

  1. 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 because of the overwhelming support for Sinn Féin there. It is impossible to know with certainty what the final shares of votes cast might have been had all constituencies been contested.
  2. Elected independent unionist candidate was Robert Henry Woods.


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