Re-enactments can be a powerful way of telling a story and reminding an audience of the role individuals, organisations or political movements have played in the history of a nation. Sometimes such enactments can take the form of plays or movies or television specials. Occasionally someone will go to the trouble of reproducing the events surrounding a historic moment in real time. Last week RTE undertook that task with its re-enactment of the general election of 1918.
Studio presenters and outside broadcasts told the story of that defining moment in modern Irish history as if that election was taking place now with all the modern technology available to contemporary election coverage.
It was a fascinating account of 14th December 1918 told with all of the excitement and drama we have come to expect from today’s elections. For the teacher interested in persuading her or his class of the importance of history, and in particular of that general election result, or for anyone interested Irish history, the RTE programme was a unique look back at that extraordinary general election. For those of you who didn’t see it click onto RTE’s website. It is available there at www.rte.ie/eile/election-1918/
The 1918 election is remarkable for many reasons. For the first time men over the age of 21 could vote. However, women were not given the franchise on the same basis. Only women over the age of 30 who were property owners or the wives of property owners, or were university graduates could vote. Confusion over whether women could stand as candidates also meant that only a handful eventually stood. The first successful woman candidate was Countess Markievicz. In keeping with the abstentionist policy of Sinn Féin, Markievicz and her 72 male colleagues all refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the English monarchy. The results of the election didn’t become public until December 28th. Three weeks later, on January 21st 1919, those Teachta Dalai not imprisoned by the British met in the Mansion House in Dublin and established the First Dáil – the first ever democratically elected Parliament of the Irish people.
Countess Markievicz then became the first ever government Minister when she was appointed Minister for Labour.
The 1918 election was a game changer in Irish history. It was the first and only time that the people of the island of Ireland voted together in an election. It was the work of the First Dáil and guerrilla war waged by the Irish Republican Army which forced the British to the negotiating table two years later. Regrettably the opportunity to establish the Republic envisaged in the Proclamation was thwarted in the negotiations that led to the Treaty. It was signed on 6 December 1921.
The result was the imposition of partition, a two year bloody civil war, and the creation of two mean spirited deeply conservative states on the island. In the North the establishment of the Unionist dominated one party state with its sectarian policies and the application of structured political and religious discrimination in all areas of public life, including in employment, housing, investment, the law, policing, and education, created the foundation for decades of political instability and conflict.
In the Southern state the counter-revolution saw the Anglo/Irish establishment replaced by a native establishment which frequently used the Republican rhetoric of the 1916 - 1921 period. Although its leaders often spoke in glowing terms of those past generations that had fought for independence and freedom, they ultimately did little to end the shame of partition.
For the leaderships of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour partitionism became instinctive. Political life in the 26 counties was dominated by Civil War politics and the rivalry between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But as the immediate effects of the Civil War receded this rivalry turned out not to be about any ideological differences, especially around partition, but over who could wield the symbols of state and control the spoils of power. The current confidence and supply arrangement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is especially relevant to this. What difference is there really between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael? Two conservative parties, each jockeying for domination, but with no ideological differences, no desire, and no concept of what they need to do, to achieve Irish unity.
Watch their performances in the Dáil. Let Mary Lou or Pearse Doherty or any Sinn Féin TD dare talk about a referendum on Irish Unity or about the imperative of ending partition, and the vitriolic voices of opposition and condemnation echo across the chamber from the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael benches.
Partitionism is part and parcel of the politics and language of the establishment parties in the Dáil and Seanad. The word ‘Ireland’ is now used to denote just the 26 counties. Was it for this that the men and women of 1916 fought and died? Was it for this that the IRB and the United Irish Society with their clear objective of independence and freedom for Ireland, fight and die?
A few years ago Rita O’Hare and Mary Lou McDonald attended the annual St. Patrick’s Day reception hosted by the Irish Embassy in Washington. On the stage – as a backdrop for the proceedings - was a map of Ireland. Mary Lou and Rita and some of the American guests were stunned to see that it was a map of the 26 counties. The North had disappeared. It was as if some huge monster had torn a chunk out of the island leaving behind this misshapen and deformed excuse for Ireland. It was as if the island of Ireland had never existed.
The government is not alone in promoting Ireland in this way. In September 2017 there was outrage when RTE’s Late Late Show used a similarly mutilated map. RTE subsequently apologised. But that is not the end of the story. Frequently, when RTE is reporting on the weather the North once again disappears. The storms, rain, snow and sun all stop at the border. The North is either blank or non existent, as if it simply disappeared into the surrounding sea.
The 1918 election was a victory for ordinary men and women. Almost one and a half million voted for the first time. They demonstrated by their overwhelming vote of confidence in Ireland that we could reimagine a future separate from Britain, and in which nationalist and unionist and republican could live together in harmony and peace on the basis of equality. We were no longer to be subjects of the British Crown but free citizens in a free democracy.
Freedom, unity, citizenship, democracy, equality, parity of esteem, inclusiveness must be the principles that guide us in the time ahead.
This month we celebrate the centenary of the 1918 election. Next month will be the centenary of the First Dáil. If we are to honour the memory and actions of those who made those momentous events possible; if we are to succeed in achieving a New Ireland, embracing all of those citizens who live on this island, there can be no place for or tolerance of partitionism.