Gerry Adams declared to an ecstatic throng outside the Sinn Fein office on the Falls Road following his triumph in the 1983 general election: “Even de Valera couldn’t win the Falls.”
De Valera, with Countess Markievitz the last living leader of the 1916 Rising, failed to win the Falls in December 1918 in the election which established Sinn Fein for a period as the dominant force in Irish nationalism.
Sinn Fein swept the old Irish Parliamentary Party aside. The 105 candidates returned across the island comprised 73 republicans, 26 unionists and six from the IPP. The Sinn Fein MPs (or as many of them as were not in prison) met in the Mansion House in Dublin 90 years ago yesterday to form the First Dail and assert their mandate to withdraw Ireland from Westminster rule.
“The whole of nationalist Ireland had gone over with foot, horse and artillery, with bag and baggage, from the camp of so-called Constitutional Home Rule to the Sinn Feiners,” wrote the Tory minister and historian Lord Cushendun. Actually, not quite the whole of nationalist Ireland.
Four of the six successful IPP candidates had been allocated seats in Ulster by Cardinal Logue, in a Church-brokered pact with Sinn Fein to ensure that the Catholic vote in the North wasn’t split. In only two constituencies on the island, then, did the constitutional nationalists see off Sinn Fein.
One was Waterford City, where the IPP candidate was Captain William Redmond. He’d fought with the Dublin Fusiliers and then the Irish Guards for the duration of the war. He’d previously been MP for East Tyrone. He was a son of John Redmond, IPP leader and local MP for 18 years until his death a few months earlier. His uncle Willie, also a MP, had been killed on the Western Front in 1917. The Redmonds were nationalist royalty. Waterford wasn’t typical, and neither was the result. Redmond registered a narrow win, 4,915 votes to 4,431.
Belfast Falls wasn’t typical, either, in a somewhat different, very northern way. The IIP candidate, ‘Wee’ Joe Devlin, was the effective boss of the party in Ulster. Sinn Fein sent in the Long Fellow to take him out.
De Valera also stood in Mayo, against the leader of the IPP, John Dillon. There, the national pattern held true. Dev defeated Dillon by almost exactly two to one — 8,843 to 4,451.
In Belfast Falls, the figures were reversed. Devlin trounced Dev, 8,488 to 3,245. This is what Gerry Adams had had in mind in his moment of victory.
The Falls result assumes added significance from the fact that that this was the outcome of the only straight fight in the North between republicanism and constitutional nationalism.
We can take it as a rough guide to the likely outcome elsewhere had the voting pact not been in place. (The roughness of the guide arises from somewhat different nationalist perspectives in Belfast and border areas.)
At any rate, this measure suggests that the Falls, historically, has been the least republican area in nationalist Ireland. Gerry Adams’ triumph in 1983 was the first Sinn Fein victory on the Falls, ever. He will have known that, too.
The line of battle in the 1918 campaign is instructive. Devlin hammered away at de Valera’s lack of understanding of the North. You can have a war for a united independent Ireland in the south and the west, he declared, but it would be a different sort of war we’d have to fight here, and we don’t want it. What we do want is respect for our identity, equality, justice, freedom from fear.
The various parties which have gathered in Dublin this week to mark the anniversary of the 1918 general election and the consequent formation of the First Dail are right to see the events as a significant moment in the narrative of Irish history. But the character of the significance may not be exactly as some in the gatherings have imagined.
What the 1918 poll suggests is that the mass of northern Catholics have never been republican, at least not in the sense in which the term is commonly used. In practice, what they have wanted has been the bigot’s boot off their necks and the British Army off their backs, within whatever constitutional arrangements would best secure this outcome.
On this reading, the IRA’s recent 25-year campaign was fought under false colours. Armed struggle matched the mood of young working class people who had felt the whip of oppression or seen their families humiliated by the uniformed forces of a hostile State.
But a united Ireland, the stated aim of the struggle, was never sine qua non. The shift in the line of Sinn Fein towards acceptance of the legitimacy of the Northern State did not come about by visionary leaders coaxing reluctant foot-soldiers away from war onto the path of peace, but, rather, by the party leadership bringing their policies deftly into alignment with the underlying views of their own rank-and-file as discovered by de Valera when he couldn’t win the Falls 90 years ago.