The general election of 1918 was an extraordinary act of self-determination by the people. It is entirely right and appropriate that we in Dáil Éireann take this time, on the eve of the centenary, to remember and reflect on this most significant act in our journey to independence and nationhood. This week, a century ago, the voice of the people was heard as never before - not through force of arms but through the ballot box, the transformative power of participatory democracy, and pen and paper.
It was truly the first occasion in Irish history when all the people of Ireland, men and women, could take centre stage in shaping the future of their country. Like all the events we remember as part of the decade of centenaries, the election was not a simple or isolated one. It was not experienced at the time, nor can it be remembered now, through a single political perspective. It was the election which saw women vote and run for parliamentary seats for the first time, and the one which saw large swathes of Ireland’s disenfranchised poor, that is, those without property, vote for the first time, too. As a result, more than 1.9 million Irish people were able to exercise their political rights. Two thirds of them had never voted before in any election. It was truly an act of mass political participation, never witnessed before on this island.
The independence movement, or national movement, won more than two thirds of the available seats in Ireland. It was accepted as a mandate from the electorate to assemble in Dublin as Dáil Éireann, to win international recognition and start building up the institutions of what would become an independent Irish State. In another moment that broke new political ground, Countess Markievicz became the first woman elected to the Westminster Parliament, although she chose instead to take her seat as a Deputy in the Dáil.
It was also the election which saw the Irish Parliamentary Party, having dedicated so many long years of service to the establishment of a self-governing Home Rule Parliament in Dublin, eclipsed by the demand for greater self-government and overwhelmed by the events of the previous few years. It is fitting that we, the current guardians of the Irish parliamentary tradition, should acknowledge the role of that party in our nation’s story.
Of course, the 1918 election also underlined a profound political gulf on the island with the increase in seats for the Unionist Party, concentrated in the north eastern part of the island. As I said, much had passed since the last election had taken place in 1910: the 1913 Lockout, the Home Rule Crisis, the slaughter and destruction of the First World War, the Easter Rising and the executions and repression which followed, the failed Lloyd George negotiations of 1916 and an anti-climactic Irish Convention and in 1918, the mounting threat of conscription.
Through our commemorations of the centenaries of the major events of those years we have, I hope, engaged with our shared history in a way that is honest, measured, authentic and appropriate. We have done it in a way that has been open to the participation and contribution of all traditions and communities on the island. We have done it in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which was another historic moment of transformative democratic self-determination on this island.
We will soon commemorate the sitting of the First Dáil in January and other events for which the election in 1918 crucially set the stage. In the months and years to come, we will mark and reflect on the struggle for Independence; the foundation of this State; the tragedy of our Civil War; partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland; the experience of minorities and Border communities on the island in Ireland in the period 1919-1923; and finally “taking her place among the nations of the earth” when we joined the League of Nations in September 1923.
As we mark the centenaries to come, there is an even greater need for us to do so in an inclusive manner, without either apology or partisan glorification, mindful that the events surrounding the achievement of statehood did not come without a price, a very heavy price in some cases, leaving painful legacies that echo to this day. How we mark our history is a sign of how we want to live our future. Today, it is fitting that we, as a House, take this moment to recall the extraordinary achievement which the general election of 1918 represented.