Irish (UK) general election, 1918

Irish general election, 1918
(part of United Kingdom general election, 1918)
United Kingdom
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1910 ←
14 December 1918
Members elected
→ 1921
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width="" colspan = 4 style="text-align: center" | 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 University of Dublin East Mayo
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%
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width="" colspan=4 style="text-align: center" | Results of the 1918 election in Ireland. Sinn Féin MPs refused to sit in the House of Commons and instead formed Dáil Éireann. The IPP, 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 Imperial 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 self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom and were 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 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 was finally achieved with the passing of the Home Rule Act 1914. The implementation of the Act was however temporarily postponed with the outbreak of World War I, largely due to Ulster Unionists' resistance to the Act. As the war prolonged, 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 perceived failure to have Home Rule 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 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 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 the intervening Great War of 1914-1918, 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 elections saw, in particular:

  • All voters between the 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.
  • Emigration (except to Britain) had been almost impossible during the war because of the dangerous sea lanes, which meant that tens of thousands of young people were in Ireland who in normal times would have been abroad.

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, the disappearance of much of the oldest generation of 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

  • Since the last general election in 1910 the local organisation of the previously dominant Irish Party, unchallenged for nearly a decade, had atrophied at best making defence of its seats difficult and was largely of an older generation. It had enacted the Home Rule Act in 1914 which had however been suspended during the war. Its policy had been to achieve All-Ireland self-government constitutionally (be it sovereignty within the United Kingdom in the interest of Irish unity), as opposed to using separatist physical force if required.
  • The electorate had become enamoured by Sinn Féin by the harsh response of the authorities to the Easter Rising after it had later been falsely blamed for the Rising even though it had taken no part in it. The party also took most of the credit for the successful campaign to prevent the introduction of conscription in 1918.
  • Whereas the IPP conceded a temporary form of partition in 1914, as a measure to pacify Ulster, Sinn Féin felt that this would worsen and prolong any differences between north and south.
  • In contrast to the IPP, Sinn Féin could be seen as a young and radical force. Its leaders were young militant politicians, such as Michael Collins (28) and de Valera (36), like most of the new voters and their imprisoned republican candidates.
  • The IPP led by leaders such as John Dillon, who had been in public office since the 1880s, were largely older moderate politicians, campaigning for All-Ireland Home Rule since Charles Stewart Parnell’s time, and now pressing for the implementation of the 1914 Act and a constitutional solution to have Ulster included in a Dublin parliament.
  • On the other hand, Sinn Féin represented change and a radical new policy for achieving Irish self-government outside of the UK, and many of its Volunteer wing were ready to enforce a republic through physical force. By 1918, Sinn Féin followers had come to see the gradual acquisition of All-Ireland Home Rule as an idea whose time had come and gone.
  • The Irish population were radicalised in the years of World War I. In addition to heavy losses suffered by Irish regiments, the conscription threat and British military measures, there was rapid inflation that sparked off a wave of strikes and industrial disputes. The 1918 election occurred at a time of revolution across Europe.
  • Unionist opinion from fear of Home Rule, or worse separation, solidified after the Rising and its vote was enhanced, aided in Ulster by the increased electorate. This was the first election since the Ulster Covenant, the formation of the UVF and the Battle of the Somme.
  • Sinn Féin's policy was outlined in its election manifesto, which aimed for Irish representation and recognition at any post-war peace conference. IPP policy was to leave negotiation to the British government.
  • Nearly a year earlier in January 1918 Woodrow Wilson had issued his Fourteen Points policy, which seemed to promise that self-government and self-determination would become normal policy in international relations.
  • The Ulster Unionists' resistance to All-Ireland self-government remained unresolved, and no account was taken of its reservations to what it saw as Catholic rule from Dublin.

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 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) and 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 were elected in 73 constituencies 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 Sinn Féin supporters and its Unionist opponents, the election was seen as a landslide victory for Sinn Féin.

The proportion of votes cast for Sinn Féin, namely 46.9% of votes for 48 "first past the post" seats won in the 76 constituencies it contested, is understated by the fact that 25 candidates in some of its strongest support bases were unopposed, reducing its real support level in these constituencies from a possible level of 80pc. (The party also did not contest four seats in a deal with the IPP (see below)) This is close to the total level of enjoyed by Sinn Féin's three major breakaway parties after partition. Labour who had pulled out in the south under instructions ‘to wait’ polled better in Belfast than Sinn Féin.[5]

The Irish Unionist Party won 22 seats, becoming the second largest in terms of MPs. The success of Unionists who won 26 seats overall[6] was largely limited to Ulster. In the rest of Ireland Southern Unionists were elected only in the constituencies of Rathmines and the University of Dublin. Nonetheless Unionists won 23 seats out of Ulster's 37 seats, having only had a minority previously. In the nine counties of Ulster (Cavan's two seats were uncontested) Unionists gained 58.1% of the vote. For the six counties which were to form the future Northern Ireland, the Unionist percentage was 66%.

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 a part of the arrangement brokered after nominations by Cardinal Logue between Sinn Féin and the IPP to avoid Unionist victories, a deal which saved some seats for the party but may have cost it the support of Protestant voters elsewhere. Discipline amongst nationalists was so tight that in South Down Eamon de Valera for Sinn Féin received only 33 votes - not even 1% - while in South Armagh the Sinn Féin candidate did only slightly better amassing 79 votes. 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 an election from emigrant votes in Liverpool. The remnants of the IPP in time became the Nationalist Party (Northern Ireland) under the leadership of Joseph Devlin.

Irish General Election 1918
Party Leader Seats Votes[7]
# of Seats  % of Seats # of Votes  % of Votes
Sinn Féin[7] Éamon de Valera 73 69.5 476,087 46.9
Irish Unionist Edward Carson 22 20.9 257,314 25.3
Irish Parliamentary John Dillon 6 5.7 220,837 21.7
Labour Unionist 3 2.8 30,304 3.0
Belfast Labour Party 12,164 1.2
Independent Unionist 1 0.95 9,531 0.9
Independent Nationalist 8,183 0.8
Independent Labour 659 0.1
Independents 436 0.0
Totals 105 100 1,015,515 100

Aftermath and legacy

On 21 January 1919 thirty out of a possible 105 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 Derry 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.[8]

In accordance with Sinn Féin doctrine, 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 providing itself with a theoretical framework and set about the process of state-building and appointing a ministry.[2]

However 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 new a state called the "Irish Republic".

On the same day, in unconnected circumstances, two local Irish members of the Royal Irish Constabulary guarding gelignite 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 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. 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.

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[9]
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[10]
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



  • Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins
  • John Patrick McCarthy, Ireland: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present
  • Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, Portrait of a revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the founding of the Irish Free State
  • Michael Laffan, The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923
  • Maire Comerford, The First Dail
  • Dorothy Macardle, The Irish Republic (book)

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