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SOCIETY | 4 December, 2018

Queen’s research finds electoral reforms did not cause the rise of Sinn Féin in 1918

Dail Erineann

A research study from Queen’s University Belfast has found that the 1918 electoral reforms in Britain and Ireland did not cause Sinn Féin’s subsequent electoral victory, as previously proposed.

In early 1918, the right to vote was extended to all men over 21 and women over 30 who met a property requirement. At that time Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom and saw its electorate grow from under 700,000 to over 1.9 million.

The general election of December that year saw Sinn Féin, a revolutionary independence party that had not contested the previous general election, win 73 out of 105 seats in Ireland. The previously dominant and more moderate party of Irish nationalism, the Irish Parliamentary Party, was decimated, and returned just six of the 67 seats they held prior to the vote.

The research team was led by Dr Alan De Bromhead and Dr Alan Fernihough from the Centre for Economic History at Queen’s Management School in collaboration with Professor Enda Hargaden, Professor of Economics from the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee. The research study was supported by the British Academy.

Speaking about the research findings, Dr de Bromhead from Queen’s Management School said: “The research re-evaluates an old argument in Irish political history that the changes in voting rights in 1918 drove the Sinn Féin election victory. Our results suggest that this was not entirely the case.

“Our research suggest that we must look to alternative explanations for the rise of Sinn Féin between 1916 and 1918, such as the legacy of the Easter Rising and the conscription crisis of 1918. Sinn Féin’s electoral success was more likely driven by a change of heart on behalf of the Irish electorate, rather than a change in its composition.”

The study used voting and census data for all the constituencies of Ireland to assess how changes in voting rights shaped the outcome of the election.

The key findings from the study were: 

  • There is little evidence to suggest that these ‘new voters’ can explain the Sinn Féin victory in 1918
  • The granting of female voting rights may have in fact reduced the Sinn Féin vote
  • New voters appear to have been less inclined to use their vote at all.

The researchers acknowledge that it is impossible to uncover for sure how individuals voted, however their research suggests that new voters did not by themselves determine the outcome of the election.

The Sinn Féin victory ushered in an era of revolution. Within two months of the election, Sinn Féin’s MPs had declared independence from the UK and the armed conflict that would become Ireland’s War of Independence began. 

Professor Hargaden from the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, commented: “While our research downplays the importance of the franchise extension, it highlights a number of other factors that drove voting behaviour in 1918.

“It is perhaps no surprise that religion is a strong predictor of support for both nationalist parties. Better agricultural land was associated with a lower Sinn Féin vote which suggests that wealthier farmers may have feared Sinn Féin’s more radical approach. Finally, higher female labour force participation and literacy are associated with higher turnout.”

For more information on the preliminary findings of the study, please visit: http://www.quceh.org.uk/uploads/1/0/5/5/10558478/wp18-08.pdf

ENDS...

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