Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Unionists must not repeat mistakes of 1918 and accept mandate of Irish people

Brexiteers who reject the backstop are guilty of disrespecting the Good Friday Agreement, says Alban Maginness

Eamon De Valera’s by-election win foreshadowed the rise of Sinn Fein as a political force in Ireland. The party emphatically ended the dominance of the Parliamentary Party in 1918
Eamon De Valera’s by-election win foreshadowed the rise of Sinn Fein as a political force in Ireland. The party emphatically ended the dominance of the Parliamentary Party in 1918

Given the momentous event that was the 1918 general election in Ireland, it is strange that its commemoration is so low-key. But, as President Michael D Higgins has rightly said, the election was a "milestone in Irish history".

As President Higgins also observed, the results of the election represented the greatest single shift in parliamentary representation and also foreshadowed divisions that would deepen on the island.

He darkly remarked: "The poignancy of the 1918 election was the failure to respect its mandate, which would result in the War of Independence and the tragic Civil War."

This seminal event - the last all-Ireland general election - led to the formation of the Irish Free State and the setting up of Northern Ireland and thus the tragic partitioning of this island into two separate political entities for the past 97 wasted years.

The election was called just after the end of the First World War and was the first general election since 1910. Between 1910 and 1918, Ireland had undergone enormous upheavals, including the brutal upheaval of the Great War, the Easter Rising of 1916 and the shelving by the British Government of the Home Rule Act of 1914.

In addition, the election was held under a radically new electoral franchise, where all men over 21 could vote and some women over 30, who had property rights, were entitled to vote as well. The new, expanded electorate increased to almost two million people from 700,000.

The election was a test of electoral strength between the moderate Home Rule Irish Parliamentary Party and the new revolutionary Sinn Fein, with its aim of an Irish republic, independent of and separated from Great Britain and the British Crown.

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The Irish Parliamentary Party had dominated Irish nationalist politics for the previous 40 years. Despite the split over Charles Stewart Parnell's divorce, they had successfully reunited and became a formidable political machine. They maintained their political supremacy right up to the Easter Rising.

Against all the odds in 1914, they succeeded in winning Home Rule for Ireland from the British Government at Westminster with the passage of Home Rule Act, even though its implementation was delayed until the war was concluded.

Between 1917 and 1918, there had been a series of by-elections in which Sinn Fein leaders, such as Eamon De Valera, were successful in defeating candidates from the seemingly all-powerful Irish Parliamentary Party.

This was an ominous sign of some decline in its support. But, on the eve of the general election, it was still not clear which of the two parties would come out on top.

In the event, it was the republican Sinn Fein party that decisively humiliated the Irish Parliamentary Party, winning 73 out of the 105 seats in Ireland. The old Parliamentary Party were reduced to a mere six seats, with five of them in Ulster due, in the main, to a pact brokered by senior Catholic bishops between Sinn Fein and the Parliamentary Party.

This was done to prevent a split in the vote between the two nationalist parties that might have led to unionist candidates winning by default in certain seats. Nonetheless, unionists did well, coming in second overall and winning 29 seats, mostly in Ulster.

However, a victorious Sinn Fein rightly claimed that they had democratically won the right, through an overwhelming national mandate from the Irish electorate, to officially declare and establish an Irish Republic.

Today, many unionists and Conservatives emphasise the immutability of the Brexit mandate, which was determined by the consultative referendum on the European Union in 2016, yet these same politicians - even today - are reluctant to recognise the clear national mandate given to Sinn Fein in 1918.

It was the failure by the British Government to respect the democratic mandate of the Irish people that led to the disastrous division of Ireland.

It was not until June 1998 that there was a similar national expression of political opinion in Ireland, north and south, in the referendums on the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement, crucially and importantly, received overwhelming support throughout Ireland and established a new basis for building an agreed and peaceful political future.

It is this important and binding national mandate that is often ignored, or bluntly disrespected, by Brexiteers in relation to the issue of the backstop. And, as Johnston McMaster shrewdly asks unionists in his thoughtful new book, Reimagining the Future, what of the future? If the day came and the majority here voted for change, would unionists " ... accept the democratic outcome with the same insistence that they apply to the UK vote as a whole to leave Europe?"

Hopefully, modern-day unionists would not repeat the tragic mistake of 1918 and reject the clear and overwhelming democratic mandate of the Irish people.

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