In his review of Coolacrease (HI 17.2, March/April 2009) Joost Augusteijn attempts to be fair. But he falls into a trap laid by British politicians andjournalists, noted by Edward MacLysaght in his diary for 28 January 1919, exactly one week after the first meeting of Dail Eireann.
“In quoting statistics for last year’s general election they give the total votes cast for and against Sinn Fein only in contested elections, completely ignoring the 25 constituencies where Sinn Fein candidates were returned unopposed, thus presenting an entirely misleading picture.”
In 1918 and for some decades before, it was common throughout the United Kingdom for constituencies to be uncontested. In Ireland Unionists usually did not put up candidates where they would have no chance. In both 1886 and 1906 Unionists actually collected most of the votes cast whilst Nationalists took most of the seats. In 1886 Nationalists took 66 uncontested seats plus many contested ones.In 1906 they took 84 uncontested seats. So, saying that Sinn Fein took “only 47 percent of the votes cast” means nothing for 1918. It is a red herring. Their relative popularity is reflected by the fact that they took 73 seats to the Unionists’ 26 and the Nationalists’ 6. In municipal and county elections in 1920 and 1921 Sinn Fein secured corresponding electoral support.
Since I came to London in 1964 there have been twelve general elections in the UK. In only one did the winners get as much as 47 percent of the popular vote. Today’s UK government holds a large majority of Commons seats with but 35 percent of the votes cast. In all of those twelve elections uncontested seats have not been a significant factor. Of 600 odd seats the outgoing Speaker sometimes is returned unopposed.
It may be a fact that the custodians of international law take no cognisance of democratic mandates, even of such a scale as Sinn Fein’s in 1918. But such custodians as the United Kingdom trace their authority to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which put the House of Orange on the thrones of Great Britain and Ireland with much bloodshed in Ireland. As for the United States, it owes its international recognition to the French landing at Yorktown and a battle which, if it had gone the other way, would have seen the rebel George Washington dangling at the end of a British rope. As for France, it owes its current place among the custodians of international law to Allied attack, which caused 3,000 civilian French fatalities on D-Day alone, not to mention almost a year’s further carnage.
Neither de Valera’s appeal to the United States nor even to the Irish Catholic hierarchy could find recognition for the authoity of the Irish people and their parliament, Dail Eireann. Whatever grudging advances were won needed more than the “X” factor of a vote, just as did the triumph of the Prince of Orange in his day.
Eagle-eyed readers will no doubt point out that Municipal and county (and other local) elections were held in 1920. In 1921 General Elections were held which did not detract from Sinn Fein’s support.
Thanks for this excellent analysis. I used to wonder where the rest of the votes went.