A Militant Sense Of Superiority Over Democratic Authority

Jim Duffy, writing on the centenary of the First Dail.

Interesting if rather odd ceremony commemorating the First Dáil today.

A couple of points are worth mentioning. Sinn Féin won an overwhelming majority of the seats, but that wasn't reflective of public opinion, but because of the First Past the Post electoral system which conjures up landslide majorities (as Thatcher showed) on minority votes. Sinn Fein had massive support, but less than 1 in 2 of the votes cast in the election. Sinn Féin's actual support was 47%, so under a proportional system it would have won 49 seats of the 105, not the 73 First Past the Post delivered. The Irish Parliamentary Party would have won 23 seats, not 6, while the Irish Unionist Party would have won 26 seats, not 22.

Knowing the full degree of public support is complicated by the fact that a significant number of seats were uncontested. Why they were uncontested is itself contested. Sinn Féin activists said it was because Nationalists were unwilling to put up candidates as they would have been beaten. Some Nationalists said they were unwilling to put their name forward because they and their families had been threatened by Volunteers.

There certainly were known threats made in the earlier by-elections. In one, when the count showed that the Irish Parliamentary Party candidate had won, a Volunteer literally put a gun against the head of the returning officer and said "think again". Needless to say, the returning officer, having had a gun at his head, declared the Sinn Féin candidate the victor even though he had fewer votes!
Even if there was no centrally organised plan to intimidate alternative candidates from running, it is highly likely some headstrong volunteers took it on themselves to stop non-Sinn Féin candidates running.

The absence of these contests probably reduced the percentage national support for both Sinn Féin and the IPP. It is likely therefore that both their national supporters were a bit higher than the 47% and 22% respectively they got. Sinn Féin's national percentage support in reality may have been circa 54% and the IPP circa 26%, with the IUP down from 25% to perhaps 18% nationally.
By any normal standards a party getting 50%+ would be remarkable. However in the context of a party claiming to represent the nation 47%, or 54%, did not reflect dominance on the scale later spin, based on the disproportional seat breakdown under FPTP, suggested, with a significant minority of perhaps 46% opposing it.

A second key fact to remember is that the republican movement was divided, as often in Irish history, between two inter-related factions: those who believed authority came from the expressed democratic will of the people. and those on the militant wing who believed they spoke for the people irrespective of the will expressed in elections. A form of dyarchy existed, and was reflected on the fact that on the day the First Dáil first met militants, without authorisation of the elected members chosen by the people, launched an attack that killed two RIC men in Soloheadbeag. A significant number of people in the democratic stream, represented in the Dáil, were fearful that they could not get the militants to accept Dáil authority and live under its jurisdiction. It wasn't until much later that the Dáil unambiguously asserted its authority over the Volunteers, by now known as the Irish Republican Army.

That militant sense of superiority over democratic authority would be central to the Civil War, as anti-Treatyites refused to accept the democratic decision of Dáil Éireann on the Treaty, with ex-President de Valera saying that the "majority have no right to do wrong". Collins himself in the lead-up to his death was showing undemocratic attitudes which made some of his colleagues fear he would set up a form of dictatorship.

So while we understandably, retrospectively validate the authority of the First Dáil as the legitimate voice of the people, at least half the electorate on that day in 1919 wouldn't have seen it that way - and that included some people who had voted for Sinn Féin in 1919 but did not support its abstentionist policies.

In every election, votes for a party comes from two sources: those who positively vote for a party to endorse it and/or its policies, and those who vote negatively for it because they find the alternative worse. Some of the latter voters are likely to have voted for Sinn Féin despite disagreeing with its policies because they couldn't stomach voting for the IPP and certainly couldn't vote for the Irish Unionists.

So even if Sinn Féin's actual real support was 54% rather than 47%, it doesn't mean all those voters backed the new parliament. Some supporters of it, and certainly a lot of nationalist newspapers, saw the First Dáil as the "Sinn Féin convention", or a bit of a PR stunt. Their attitudes may have evolved later, but when they read about the First Dáil in their papers on the 22nd January they are likely not to have viewed it as a legitimate parliament. It would take time for it to demonstrate that it really was a functioning parliament and not just the "Sinn Féin convention."

➽Jim Duffy is a writer.


  1. Henry Joy says

    Another often missed point, but one worth mentioning when considering the motivations of voters in 1918, was the resentment the electorate must have surely had towards their imperial masters for having extended the power of conscription to Ireland earlier that year.

    Though more than 200,000 men from the island of Ireland had enlisted, making it by far the largest military engagement of its history either before or since, up until April 10th the population had been spared the terror of conscription. But once that threat became real, a response came swiftly and a mere eight days later on April 18th delegates from across the spectrum of Irish nationalism convened at a mass meeting held in the Mansion House. There they formulated and signed a pledge denouncing this move as “naked militarism” and further committed themselves to “resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal”.

    For the last six months of the ‘Great War’ conscription had hung heavily over the Irish people. Sensible people can readily imagine the angst and resentment this caused among large sections of the populace: few families would have happily countenanced the thought of their young men going off to battle in foreign fields under such circumstance. So much so was the anti-war sentiment that the Catholic hierarchy rolled in behind the people, and more significantly against the colonial establishment, declaring (that) the people had “a right to resist [conscription] by every means that are consonant with the law of God”.

    Though the war had finally ended in the weeks preceding the Dec 14th 1918 general election, the bitter after-taste of the conscription threat, I’d propose, lingered strongly. The extension of the franchise to women (over 30 yrs) gave expression to the anti-war sentiment that that cohort, in the main, had no doubt strongly felt. Factoring these sensibilities into the equation, I’d propose, lessens the veracity of claims that the Sinn Féin success was solely and absolutely an expression of nationalist fervour and contend it was as much driven by prudent self-interest as it was by any vehement political aspirations.

    In summation, the lived history was in all likelihood much more complex than the peddlers of the simplistic foundation myths would try to have us believe.

  2. Henry Joy, you could make the same nuanced analysis about most if not all democratic elections, that many factors oftentimes factor into electoral outcomes. But that doesn’t necessarily lessen the legitimacy of elections in general and the Irish electoral result in particular which in 1918-1919 was “Brits out!”. And that’s despite whatever myth making or propaganda all political parties engage in before, during and after elections. Otherwise you’d be holding the Irish nation to a standard that imperial powers don’t hold themselves to.

  3. Henry Joy says


    I agree all political parties engage in myth making and propaganda. That’s why it’s useful and wise to drill down and find something solid. Jim in his article achieves this. Following on to the debacle of the IPP having failed to prevent the extension of conscription to Ireland and despite their subsequent walk-out from parliament, coupled with the Labour Party agreeing to stand aside in the Dec 1918 poll Sinn Féin polled some forty-seven per cent (47%) of the vote.

    Though a significant achievement it’s not the definitive and resounding success that Republicans insist on making it out to be. To this day they continue to ignore the nuanced complexities of our collective past. Their current leader persisting in further distortions and yet more deceit.

    Some might say it wasn’t from the wind she got that!

  4. Henry Joy, and she calls us fringe!

    “(McDonald) described Sinn Féin as ‘carrying the mantle’ of Markievicz.”

    That’s a lie so she is “carrying the mantle” of Adams and Ahern among others.

    “McDonald spoke of the need to honour ‘our Fenian dead’”.

    Except (ahem) Joseph O’Connor and all of Freddie Scap’s Fenian victims.