Landslide Sinn Fein victory in 1918 Irish election ‘not down to voting reform’

Some of the Sinn Fein members elected in the December 1918 election at the first Dail Eireann meeting
Some of the Sinn Fein members elected in the December 1918 election at the first Dail Eireann meeting

The landslide victory of Sinn Fein in the seminal Irish general election of 1918 was not down to electoral reforms, researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have found.

The 1918 election marked a key turning point in Irish history, as the revolutionary pro-independence party swept aside the Irish Parliamentary Party to claim 73 of the 105 Irish seats in the House of Commons.

The aftermath of the election saw Sinn Fein MPs refuse to take their seats at Westminster, choosing instead to attend the newly formed Dail Eireann which would come to be the official parliament of the Republic of Ireland.

Within two months of the election, the Irish War of Independence had begun.

Electoral reforms have long been touted as one of the factors behind the rise of Sinn Fein, but the research from Queen’s finds these reforms did not cause the rise of the radical republican party.

In early 1918, the Representation of the People Act had granted the right to vote to women aged over 30 who met a certain property requirement, and all men aged over 21. This saw Ireland’s electorate grow from 700,000 to over 1.9 million.

The changes in voting rights, and the influx of a new, younger electorate with no history of voting for the formerly dominant Irish Parliamentary Party, had often been cited as major factors in Sinn Fein’s landslide victory.

But the Queen’s research found that was not the case.

They also found that the granting of female voting rights may have, in fact, reduced the Sinn Fein vote.

And the new voters appear to have been less inclined to use their vote at all.

The research team was led by Dr Alan De Bromhead and Dr Alan Fernihough from the Centre for Economic History at Queen’s Management School in collaboration with Professor Enda Hargaden, Professor of Economics from the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee. The research study was supported by the British Academy.

Dr de Bromhead said: “The research re-evaluates an old argument in Irish political history that the changes in voting rights in 1918 drove the Sinn Fein election victory.

“Our results suggest that this was not entirely the case. Our research suggests that we must look to alternative explanations for the rise of Sinn Fein between 1916 and 1918, such as the legacy of the Easter Rising and the conscription crisis of 1918.”

He added: “Sinn Fein’s electoral success was more likely driven by a change of heart on behalf of the Irish electorate, rather than a change in its composition.”

Professor Hargaden highlighted other factors in the election: “Better agricultural land was associated with a lower Sinn Fein vote which suggests that wealthier farmers may have feared Sinn Fein’s more radical approach.”