In the first of two articles, Dr John Burke explores the general election of August 1923.
W. T. Cosgrave, president of the executive council of the Irish Free State (National Library of Ireland). His newly-formed Cumann na nGaedheal party faced its first general election in August 1923.
The manner in which the Irish Civil War ended in May 1923 ensured that there was much uncertainty surrounding any political accommodation between the two sides: the Free State government under W. T. Cosgrave and republicans led by Éamon de Valera. Republicans did not actually surrender and refused to decommission their weapons, electing instead to dump them or deliver them to a trusted third party, often a priest, who would then dispose of them. The signing of a declaration that pledged the signatory not to engage in anti-government activity led to the release from detention of some republican inmates during the summer of 1923.
However, large-scale releases from prison camps such as the one in Athlone army barracks were not supported by the Free State government, which sought to avoid a return to violent confrontation and was therefore understandably nervous about the released prisoners’ potential to foment unrest. Civil war executions and the harsh treatment of Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (ATIRA) prisoners had diminished the moral authority of the government somewhat. Mobilising newly-released prisoners to spread stories of their mistreatment was a republican strategy to undermine both the Free State and local figures of authority such as General Seán Mac Eoin T.D., the commander of the National Army in Athlone who had subdued the ATIRA in the midlands and west of the country.
Despite the anger that such events generated, even amongst many that supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty, conciliation was not deemed an apposite response by Cosgrave. The June 1923 Public Order Bill actually led to additional arrests and reaffirmed the government’s dedication to counteracting republicans’ ongoing demonstrative contempt for the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and efforts to undermine the moral and political legitimacy of the Irish Free State. Unsurprisingly, tensions were running high in the weeks before the August general election.
The 1923 general election was better positioned than that of one year earlier to provide a reliable indication of the electorate’s political allegiances and priorities. The disingenuous coming together of Sinn Féin for the 1922 Pact election would not be repeated. The split in the party had fully crystallised with the formation in April 1923 of Cumann na nGaedheal under Cosgrave, a move that saw Sinn Féin then comprised solely of republicans under de Valera’s leadership.
Clear lines were drawn between the two parties in the propaganda they each deployed during election canvassing. Sinn Féin produced numerous posters that were seen in the towns and villages of Westmeath and Longford which implored the electorate to shun the Free State government for its abandonment of the Republic in favour of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Constitution. The party castigated the government: for recognising the separate state of Northern Ireland; allowing the Irish people to be burdened with massive monetary debts to Britain; its treatment of republican prisoners; and the instatement of draconian public order laws that threatened Irish people’s ‘life, liberty and property’ and which allowed ‘murder gangs’ to threaten republicans and their supporters. Sinn Féin set out that a Gaelic, self-reliant Ireland should develop a relationship with Britain based not on, ‘allegiance, but a peace based on the sovereignty and integrity of the Irish nation’. Mindful of the strong support the government enjoyed among the Roman Catholic Hierarchy and most priests, Sinn Féin couched its entreaties in God’s name and promised that Irish industry, educational systems and judicial framework would all be designed to ensure the best development of a ‘fearless’ Irish nation.
Similarly simplistic propaganda was the backbone of Cumann na nGaedheal’s campaign. The Free State, in bringing the Civil War to an end, had ‘beaten anarchy’ and by voting for the ‘Cosgrave Government’, the electorate could consign chaos and disorder to the past, along with the gun, the petrol can, the torch; murder, arson, robbery and loot; burned houses, ruined roads and railways, broken bridges and ruined trade; poverty and unemployment and the ‘Irregulars’ that promoted them. Cosgrave and his most high-profile deputies, Kevin O’Higgins and Richard Mulcahy, presented their party as not only the enforcer of good government and law and order but as the party that would provide the electorate with the ‘right to live; the right to work’, viz. the right to move on from uncertainty and fear. Cosgrave set out the immutable position of the Treaty and clearly affirmed the need for Ireland to live within the political boundaries and provisions the agreement had determined.
The greater freedom of third parties to participate ensured a more varied field than that in the election of June 1922. Adding their names to the ballot in the constituency and across the Irish Free State were members of the Labour Party, independents and the Farmers’ Party, which contained both former republicans and supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party which Sinn Féin defeated so comprehensively in December 1918. With the exception of those running for Sinn Féin, all of the candidates in the Longford-Westmeath constituency supported the Treaty, with each party canvassing on the merits of their individual interests, i.e. the promotion of improved pay and working conditions in the case of Labour and better land legislation in the case of the Farmers’ Party. Some in Sinn Féin viewed the surfeit of pro-Treaty candidates positively in the context of the proportional representation voting system: pro-Treaty votes and transfers would be more thinly spread and likely to move across parties.
An excerpt from a Cumann na nGaedheal election leaflet used during the 1923 general election (National Library of Ireland). This leaflet, published by The Kerryman newspaper, was typical of the party’s campaigning material across the country.
The votes cast for republicans however were much less likely to transfer across to candidates outside of Sinn Féin when its less popular candidates were eliminated. Admittedly, the party was hindered in Longford-Westmeath by the fact that all of the Sinn Féin candidates were debutants; the constituency’s sole anti-Treaty T.D., Laurence Ginnell, had died in Washington D.C. in April 1923. Unlike the newly-formed constituency of Roscommon which had high-profile republican candidates in Count Plunkett T.D. and Gerald Boland T.D., Longford-Westmeath had men like Conor Byrne, an Athlone-based Sinn Féin member whose prominence in the region was only recently established.
Greater continuity was seen among the candidates for the pro-Treaty side with names such as Francis McGuinness T.D. (Cumann na nGaedheal), Seán Lyons T.D. (Independent Labour) and Patrick McKenna (Farmers’ Party) presenting familiar, if not necessarily popular, names to the electorate. The ability of Sinn Féin to reassert itself in the constituency was boosted somewhat, however, by the decision of Seán Mac Eoin T.D. not to run in 1923. Mac Eoin, who had dominated the 1922 election in the constituency, was well aware that the lustre had worn off his War of Independence reputation. He had decided to concentrate on his army career. His absence opened the field and ensured a much less predictable outcome in the Longford-Westmeath constituency.
Election day of 27 August was predicted to be quite tense. Many electors had a sense of trepidation and feared the possibility of post-election hostilities and political dysfunction. Some commentators predicted low turnouts across the constituencies. Whatever the predictions and fears, it was certain that the election had the potential to define Ireland’s political development for years to come. In Longford-Westmeath and constituencies across Ireland, the clarity that many sought regarding the direction the people desired Ireland to take was something, perhaps, the electorate could deliver. In the next article, we will discuss the results of that momentous election day.
Irish Times; Irish Independent; Westmeath Independent; Offaly Independent; Roscommon Herald; Roscommon Journal. For more detail, see John Burke, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); John Burke, Roscommon, the Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Four Courts Press, 2021); Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017); Bill Kissane, The Politics of the Irish Civil War (Oxford, 2007); Brian M. Walker (ed.), Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland: 1918-92 (Dublin, 1992); www.electionsireland.org (accessed 18-21 Oct. 2013).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 16/08/2023