Despite progress, Ireland still has a lot of catching up to do

Fine Gael TD Katie O Connell (Photo Gael)

The election of 1918 election was unique in many ways but in retrospect was a turning point in Irish history and a forerunner to establishing independence from British rule. PJ Cunningham analyses a seminal event from 100 years ago that has helped shape the Ireland of today.

Exactly a century after Ireland’s women and a substantial amount of men voted for the first time, calls were being made last week for the country to complete the democratic process begun just two years after the Easter Rising of 1916.

The 1918 election was significant on a variety of fronts; as well as allowing women over 30 and men over 21 without property to exercise their franchise under the UK Representation of People Act 1918, it was, in fact, the first time population had voted since 1910.

The above act was a long time in the making and its enactment was credited in part to Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Suffragette movement in Britain.

The political activist claimed that “you must make women count as much as men; you must have an equal standard of morals,” and fought relentlessly for the expansion of the vote beyond men of a certain standing.

This was due to the fact that the intended election year of 1915 saw the outbreak of World War 1, the following year’s ‘Rising’, as well as mass internment over the intervening period.

However, the groundbreaking 1918 hustings campaign was unique in that it allowed women to vote while also electing Constance Markievicz – who was a high-profile candidate after participating in the Easter Rising in the Dublin St Patrick’s Division.

In 1919, she became the first ever female Minister in the Dáil. This also made her the first woman elected to the UK’s House of Commons but in line with Sinn Féin abstentionist policy which persists to this day, she did not take up her seat.

She seemed relieved, writing from Holloway Prison where she was incarcerated at the time: “Oh, to have to sit there and listen to all that blither (sic)”.

Indeed, when they first Dáil met in Dublin, she was still in jail and when her name was called, she was described as being “imprisoned by the foreign enemy.”

Sinn Fein commemorations of the 1918 election taking place in Dublin last week

During that first Dáil, she served as Minister for Labour, becoming only the second female government minister in Europe to sit in cabinet.

It would be a further 59 years before Ireland would have a second female minister – Maire Geoghegan-Quinn – was appointed as Minister for the Gaeltacht at 29 years of age by the then (1979) Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey.

It was in this context that current Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan marked the centenary of the 1918 election last week by declaring that Ireland still had “unfinished democracy” because of the paucity of women numbers in the Dáil.

While there is a historic high of 35 females elected to the present Irish parliament, it still only slightly more than one in five of the current Dáil membership.

At a conference held to celebrate the 100 year birthday of those elections, ex-President Marry McAleese said we should ask what has not been done to create a culture of having more women running for electoral office in the Republic.

Both houses – the Dáil and Seanad Éireann – last week issued statements promising to enshrine the memory of the women of the suffrage movement.

This follows a jointly-established Vótáil 100 programme earlier this year to mark the occasion. The national broadcaster, RTE, also aired a 90-minute programme looking at the results of the 1918 election on a ‘live’ reportage basis.

The election threw up many remarkable facts, one of which saw Sein Féin win nearly 25 per cent of seats uncontested.

20 years after Agreement 13 months no government
Photo: Sam Boal/

The party, building on its profile from 1916, also benefitted from the first-past-the-post British system as the more traditional Irish Parliamentary Party, founded by Isaac Butt in 1874, won nearly a quarter of the popular vote but only got candidates returned in six out of the 103 constituencies.

Unlike today, back then it was commonplace for well-known candidates to run in multiple constituencies.

Eamon DeValera actually ran in four different constituencies – two in Ulster, one each in Connacht and Munster – and was returned unopposed in East Clare where he had won a by-election the previous year.

In Mayo East, de Valera went head-to-head against the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, and took 66 per cent of the votes against a candidate who had been a longtime representative of the area.

Historians have described this contest as a seminal win for the Sinn Féin organisation and they went on to take 73 seats across the country while the IPP only held onto one seat outside of Ulster, where they claimed five.

So, 1918 became a year of transformation on the Irish horizon in many ways with a huge majority of the first time young voters opting to support Sinn Féin instead of the established groupings.

Citing this, Dr Conor Mulvagh, of UCD School of History, noted that in the generational politics that exists at present, it will be interesting to gauge if the younger voters have the same transformational effect on elections and referendums, given that they were born subsequent to the delivery of the Good Friday Agreement.

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