The general election of June 1922 had the potential to present a clear picture of support for the divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty. However, that potential was undone by a Sinn Féin electoral pact intended to deflect an internecine conflict that had been growing more likely over the preceding six months. In the first of two articles, Dr John Burke explores the so-called pact election that preceded the Civil War.
Photo: Seán MacEoin, pictured on the right with John McCormack, ran as a pro-Treaty Sinn Féin candidate in the Longford-Westmeath constituency.
In December 1921, the signing of the Treaty resulted in a schism in the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.), Sinn Féin and Dáil Éireann. The pro-Treaty side promoted the view that the agreement, notwithstanding its oath of fidelity to the King of England and security concessions to Britain, was the best that could have been negotiated. The anti-Treaty side saw the agreement as a betrayal of those who had pledged an oath and fought and died for the Irish Republic. The vote on 7 January 1922 that saw the Treaty accepted narrowly by Dáil Éireann crystallised the political split. The Provisional Government provided for under the Treaty was established on 16 January and it was immediately derided by opponents as illegitimate.
Midland T.D.s were representative of the cross-section of opinion that influenced the Dáil vote. Roscommon’s Count Plunkett and Westmeath’s Laurence Ginnell were clear and consistent in their hatred for the Treaty, setting themselves in opposition to the influential Athlone-based Seán MacEoin. Other views were more confusing, with, for example, the Roscommon electorate having to discern the true position of Harry Boland who initially supported the Treaty before denouncing it, Andrew Lavin who criticised it before supporting it and Daniel O’Rorke who mired himself in ambiguity by voting for the Treaty while making it clear that he preferred anti-Treaty leader Éamon de Valera’s alternative, Document No. 2.
Political and military disunity had regional variations. The I.R.A. in Dublin and in the south of Ireland opposed the Treaty, while in Westmeath and the wider midlands, the majority of the I.R.A. supported it, due, in part, to MacEoin, the fêted commander of the I.R.A.’s War of Independence campaign in County Longford. Support among the civil populace in the region was high, with the transfer from the British to the Irish of military and police barracks at Athlone, Longford and Roscommon during February and March lauded by Treaty-supporting local politicians as tangible positive consequences. However, the handover of the military barracks at Mullingar saw anti-Treaty soldiers refuse to admit Provisional Government troops, an indication that broad support for the Treaty among non-combatants had limited powers of persuasion.
Moves towards political reconciliation were seen at the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis of 22-23 February 1922. In the event, all that was achieved was an agreement to postpone the general election that the Treaty required. Such temporising did not assuage the anger of the anti-Treaty I.R.A. which convened a convention in March and established an I.R.A. Army Executive, a counterbalance to the Provisional Government. The increasing tension alarmed the mostly pro-Treaty Roman Catholic clergy and civilians, whose relief at the end of the War of Independence was being eroded by the increasing threat of a violent clash between the two sides.
The days after the convention amplified fears. In Athlone, Seán MacEoin thwarted anti-Treaty moves to seize the military barracks there, expelling anti-Treaty officers who then commandeered the nearby Royal Hotel. Two separate stand-offs between the sides on the town’s main street soon followed, with the intercession of Franciscan friars required to check moves towards violence. Greater consolidation of the republican position nationally saw the Four Courts in Dublin seized by anti-Treaty forces on the 13 April who then designated it their headquarters. Just two weeks later, escalating tensions resulted in the killing in Athlone of General George Adamson, a pro-Treaty ally of MacEoin’s. The muscular investigation that followed led to two further fatalities in Mullingar and promoted feelings of great concern among political leaders on both sides of the Treaty debate. They realised that the finally scheduled general election had the potential to promote animus to the point of realising civil war. Leaders on both sides agreed to talks.
The Provisional Government’s Michael Collins agreed a seven-point electoral pact with Éamon de Valera. In summary, it provided for all Sinn Féin T.D.s, both pro-and anti-Treaty, to run on the same ticket in numbers equal to their existing strengths in Dáil Éireann. A joint panel would see candidates canvass together, appear on the same platform at rallies, and, at least in theory, not campaign on the merits and demerits of the Treaty. The desire for an uncontested return for all incumbents (or, in cases where T.D.s would or could not run, ideologically-aligned replacements) was something that suited the anti-Treaty side more than the pro-Treaty side; the former’s strength inside the Dáil was not a proportionate reflection of the popularity of their Treaty position among the Irish electorate.
A disingenuous invite to contest the election was extended to third parties. The Labour Party, Farmers’ Party and Independents mostly supported the Treaty and both sides in Sinn Féin were aware that external candidates could threaten their stratagem. The pact had presumptively provided for the creation of a coalition government constituted solely from Sinn Féin ranks and so the party needed to dissuade interference. Third parties were accused of undermining the ‘national’ movement and both sides of Sinn Féin accused such candidates of seeking to ‘engender bitterness and promote discord’. Pressure saw many withdraw and when nominations closed on the 6 June 1922, just fifty-four non-Sinn Féin candidates remained. In a legislature comprised of 128 seats, Sinn Féin was then certain to secure a majority and be able to form the coalition government.
The anti-democratic tone of the pact discomfited many, not least among them Arthur Griffith, the Provisional Government president, the Roman Catholic Hierarchy and the British government. Indeed, the British adopted greater rigidity during spring negotiations on the Irish Free State constitution, which resulted in it taking a more anti-republican tone. To limit its influence on voters, Collins delayed publishing the constitution until election day, just two days after he delivered the first of two speeches in Cork that heard him undermine the pact and counsel voters to vote howsoever they desired. While the muted press response to his speeches likely ensured that voting motivations were only slightly affected nationally, his call is one of the many influences on the election that must be considered, even in midlands constituencies.
The pact limited the avenues of democratic expression available to the electorate at the ballot box. In cases where the number of candidates and seats were equal as a result of the pact, it denied that right to expression altogether. What remained to be seen was whether those voters who could exercise their franchise would trust the Sinn Féin stratagem that sought to avoid violence and reaffirm the party’s claim to being the true national movement.
Dr John Burke is the author of Roscommon, the Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Four Courts Press, 2021)
UCD Archives, MacEoin Papers, P151/1809; Irish Times; Irish Independent; Westmeath Independent; Offaly Independent; Roscommon Herald; Roscommon Journal; 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); Michael Gallagher, ‘The pact general election of 1922’, in Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 21, No. 84 (1981); Bill Kissane, The Politics of the Irish Civil War (Oxford, 2007); Charles Townshend, The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence (London, 2013); Brian M. Walker (ed.), Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland: 1801-1922 (Dublin, 1978); Brian M. Walker (ed.), Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland: 1918-92 (Dublin, 1992); www.electionsireland.org (accessed 18-21 Oct. 2013); www.oirechtas.ie/members-hist (accessed 18-21 Oct. 2013);
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 25/10/2022