Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921

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Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921

During the period of the union the character of Irish elections changed considerably, not only in the types of constituencies and the number of electors but also in the political and social backgrounds of the MPs. Normally, Irish electoral politics were very local in nature, and it was only at times of unusual political agitation that national issues became dominant.

Under the Act of Union Ireland returned 100 MPs to the U.K. parliament at Westminster. The number increased to 105 in 1832, fell to 103 after two boroughs were disfranchised in 1870, and rose again to 105 in 1918. From 1800 to 1885 each of the thirty-two counties of Ireland returned two MPs, thirty-three towns or cities returned either one or two MPs, and Dublin University returned two MPs. From 1885 onwards seats were allocated on a roughly equal population basis, which resulted in eighty-five single-seat county constituencies, fourteen single-seat borough constituencies (with one double-seater), and two university seats. Redistribution in 1918 led to the creation of eighty single-seat county constituencies, twenty-one single-seat borough constituencies, and three university constituencies (returning four MPs).

For most of the period from 1800 to 1921 the right to vote was connected to some form of property ownership. It was restricted to males until 1918. At the beginning of this period the franchise was based mainly on the 40-shilling freeholder, but in 1829 (following Catholic Emancipation) it was limited to the 10-pound freeholder, a change that dramatically reduced the size of the Irish electorate. In 1832 the vote was extended to 10-pound householders in the boroughs, in parallel with the new urban franchise introduced in England and Wales by the Great Reform Bill of that year. In 1850 the vote was further broadened to include occupiers of property valued at 12 pounds or more for county electors and 8 pounds or more for borough electors; the borough qualification was reduced to 4 pounds in 1868. Far more important than these modest extensions, however, was the legislation of 1884 that tripled the size of the Irish electorate by granting the vote to all adult male householders. In 1918 the vote was granted to all adult males and to all females over thirty years old.

In the political system created by the Act of Union there was no religious bar to voting, but only after Catholic Emancipation in 1829 were Catholics allowed to become MPs. Until the 1880s the majority of MPs were drawn from the leading landowning families, and they were mainly members of the Church of Ireland. Beginning with the arrival of Daniel O'Connell in Parliament in 1829 there was a rise in the number of Catholic MPs, but it was not until 1874 that Catholics constituted a majority of Irish MPs. for the first time. The social status of members of the Irish contingent at Westminster was also changing as the Home Rule movement gathered momentum in the 1870s and 1880s. From the general election of 1880 onwards most Irish MPs were no longer from a landowning family.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century relatively few elections proceeded to a poll, though even without a contest an Irish election could still provoke considerable political excitement. The MPs returned to Parliament were usually identified by whether they supported or opposed the government of the day. With the rise in importance of the question of Catholic Emancipation and with the formation of the Irish Parliamentary Party led by Daniel O'Connell, national political issues became more salient and party labels started to emerge. In 1832 O'Connell's party, which sought to repeal the Act of Union, won thirty-nine seats while the Conservatives took thirty and the Whigs and Liberals captured thirty-six in total. The Conservatives wanted to protect the Anglican Church and to preserve the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland in general, whereas the Whigs and Liberals were ready to reduce Anglican privileges and to weaken the Protestant Ascendancy in various ways. From 1835 to 1841, while the Whigs were in office, the O'Connellites in Parliament supported them in return for concessions in the matters of political appointments, tithes, and municipal government. But the alliance with the Whigs hurt the O'Connellites' electoral popularity in Ireland, and after the Tories returned to office in 1841, O'Connell briefly restored the political standing of his party by leading an immense but unsuccessful popular movement for Repeal.

From O'Connell's death in 1847 until 1874 electoral politics were mostly dominated by the Liberals and Conservatives. The majority of elections went uncontested and politicians were concerned primarily with local issues. Beginning in the early 1870s, however, national issues came back into prominence. In 1874 Isaac Butt's Home Rule Party captured sixty seats, and Home Rule became the main issue at elections. Under Butt the loosely organized and not particularly zealous Home Rule MPs made little impression at Westminster, but after Charles Stewart Parnell took over the leadership of the party in 1880, he and his colleagues brought Home Rule to the center of the political stage in Britain. In the election of 1885 the nationalists under Parnell won eighty-five seats (plus one more in Liverpool), and the Conservatives and unionists (based largely in the north of Ireland) captured only eighteen seats. The Liberal leader William Gladstone embraced Home Rule early in 1886, and thus there commenced an alliance between the Liberals and Irish nationalists that was to last for three decades.

The general elections of 1885 and 1886 marked a number of important changes in the nature of Irish elections. The vast extension of the electorate in 1884, embracing many small farmers and agricultural laborers, was an enormous electoral boon to the nationalists, and their new constituency structures, based on local branches of the National League and the active support of the Catholic clergy, introduced a level of dynamic, centralized party organization that had not been seen previously at Westminster elections. The unionists also created strong local electoral organizations, in their case with close links to the Orange Order. At previous elections there had always been a certain amount of voting across denominational boundaries (for example, in support of Liberal candidates in the previous two decades), but by 1886 voters were polarized along religious lines, with Protestants supporting unionist candidates and Catholics backing nationalist ones—overwhelmingly in both cases.

Over the next three and a half decades until 1921 there was little alteration in the comparative strength of unionists and nationalists at elections, which were often uncontested, with local issues again assuming special importance. On a number of occasions, however, considerable political activity was generated at election time within the major parties. Parnell's overthrow as party leader in 1890 led to bitter rivalry among nationalist factions at the general elections of 1892 and 1895. Early in the new century the unionists witnessed heated intraparty quarrels at elections over land and labor issues.

Although the nationalist party was reunited in 1900, the failure of the Liberals in Britain to deliver Home Rule either before or during World War I helped to undermine the nationalist party, and its electoral chances were further weakened by the political blunders of the British government over the Easter Rising of 1916 and the threat of military conscription at a late stage of the war. In the general election of December 1918 the Home Rule nationalists were virtually eliminated (the number of seats they held plummeted from sixty-eight to only six). A relatively new party, Sinn Féin, which stood for independence from Britain and for abstention from Westminster, swept to victory, capturing seventy-three seats that they did not take up. Instead, Sinn Féin's successful candidates (or at least those who were not imprisoned by the British) established a revolutionary Irish parliament in Dublin (Dáil Éireann) in January 1919. Between then and the end of the union in 1921, the unionists, who had won twenty-six seats in the 1918 election, were the only representatives from Ireland sitting in the Westminster parliament, aside from the tiny remnant of Home Rule MPs who carried on for a few years after their debacle in December 1918.

SEE ALSO Catholic Emancipation Campaign; Fenian Movement and the Irish Republican Brotherhood; Great War; Griffith, Arthur; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918; Independent Irish Party; Local Government since 1800; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Redmond, John; Repeal Movement; Sinn Féin Movement and Party to 1922; Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation; Primary Documents: The Irish Parliamentary Party Pledge (30 June 1892)


Hoppen, K. Theo. Elections, Politics, and Society in Ireland, 1832–1885. 1984.

Walker, Brian M., ed. Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801–1922. 1978.

Brian Walker