Pre 1916, Sinn Fein rather than a fully established political party was known more as an umbrella term to label the various types of extreme nationalists in Ireland. Therefore, their rise to prominence in the 1916-18 period marked, most notably, by their success in the December 1918 General Election was extremely quick considering their political anonymity pre 1916. Undoubtedly, the Irish electorates’ growing disillusionment and frustration of the IPP was a very considerable factor when looking at the Election result. However, there are other reasons for the electoral shift between the two parties including the actions of the Liberal Government and more simply, the support for the core principles and policy of Sinn Fein themselves. Therefore, I agree with the above statement but only to an extent.
A major reason for the shift of support from the IPP to Sinn Fein in the 1918 General Election was due to the IPP and the electorate’s dissatisfaction with them as a nationalist party. Without doubt, the IPP were weakened by the postponement of Home Rule following the outbreak of World War one in 1914. One of the IPP’s core principles was the idea of achieving Home Rule for Ireland, with this postponed the IPP may have looked in the eyes of the electorate directionless and without clear-cut policy. Furthermore, the party’s deception by Lloyd-George during the 1916 Home Rule Negotiations further weakened its standing, particularly with some members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and it become wrongly associated with permanent partition. Jackson argues that the Home Rule negotiations were a ‘defining moment’ for a party already marginalised by the War.
The IPP also decided to take part in the Irish Convention which ran from July 1917 to April 1918, this was a rather foolish move for the party in hindsight as the convention failed to secure an acceptable model of Irish self-government. It became very evident to the Irish electorate therefore that Home Rule was becoming less and less likely to become a reality. Therefore, their support began to shift to Sinn Fein. In the period 1917-18 the IPP lost a series of 7 by-elections to Sinn Fein, most notably in Roscommon North with the election of Count Plunkett. However, Phoenix argues that these by-election victories for Sinn Fein over the IPP were atypical and that other factors explain the results. For example, withdrawal from Westminster, uniting with Sinn Fein and Labour at the Mansion House Conference and in April 1918 in protest of conscription appeared most hypocritical and an endorsement of Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy. However, we note that it would be a mistake to write the IPP off as an electoral force; 5 contested by-elections between December 1914 and June 1916 all saw comfortable wins for the party’s candidates.
Where the IPP seemed lacking Sinn Fein seemed to deliver; another key reason for the electoral shift- the attraction of Sinn Fein. However, we must note was wholly due to overwhelming support for their policy or was it simply the only viable alternative to the IPP. This idea is supported to a degree by Laffan who stated that up until the Roscommon North by election, although the government and IPP were disliked there was simply no viable alternative to the IPP. Nonetheless, its own appeal and efforts did succeed in boosting its support also. Undoubtedly, the ‘connection’ between Sinn Fein and the 1916 Rising boosted the party’s profile and indeed support. For example, Count Plunkett father of Joseph Plunkett in Roscommon North, Joe McGuinness in Longford South and newly-released Eamon De Valera in East Clare.
The increase of Sinn Fein clubs and their membership increased dramatically: in April 1917 there were 166 Clubs with 11,000 members by October 1917 there were 1,200 clubs with approximately 250,000 members. These clubs gave Sinn Fein, amongst other things, a good organisational base in terms of support. Unlike their IPP counterparts, the potential for internal dissension was overcome when the party was united under the leadership of De Valera. Generally speaking, a party with a seemingly unified approach will perform better electorally. The issue of Home Rule very much weakened the IPP, however, Sinn Fein on the other hand were very much strengthened in their very strong and unified in their commitment to winning an Irish Republic through a policy of abstention from Westminster. Furthermore, many people had become dissatisfied with the idea of partition and desired much more radical solutions- an Irish republic, which Sinn Fein appeared committed in delivering.
Sinn Fein also had the added advantage over the IPP of the Irish Volunteers coming under De Valera’s leadership providing them with a military wing thus making Sinn Fein look much more radical and dynamic than their IPP counterparts, therefore appealing to a much younger, militant generation. However, Bew argues that by the time of the 1918 Election Sinn Fein offered the electorate ‘the latent use of force’ but not its actual application. Sinn Fein was also credited with the successful opposition to the threat of conscription in April 1918 and also benefitted greatly from the alleged ‘German Plot’. Finally, Sinn Fein’s respectability amongst the electorate was increased by the support they received from members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, for example Archbishop Walsh of Dublin’s support for McGuinness in the Longford South by-election.
Another factor that had a considerable part to play in the victory on Sinn Fein in the General Election of 1918 was the actions of the British Government. Firstly, the imprisonment and subsequent executions of the Ringleaders of the 1916 Rising and imprisonment of 3,000 others created a mood change in Irish public opinion and set the scene for frequent coercive government action after 1916 and furthermore actually blaming Sinn Fein for the Rising provided them with a great deal of credit/glory with the Irish people. The release of the 1916 Rising provided Sinn Fein with dynamic, now more radical leadership in the form of De Valera. The feeling of martyrdom surrounding the Rising (now linked to Sinn Fein) was heightened by the death of Thomas Ashe who undertook a hunger strike in prison.
To conclude, there were three main factors which contributed to the victory of Sinn Fein in the 1918 General Election. Firstly, the mistakes of the IPP, in particular their lack of action over Home Rule, was a considerable factor in that the Irish people would shift their support electorally to a party who seemed committed to Home Rule/Republican ideas, unlike the wavering IPP. Secondly, the appeal of Sinn Fein was another factor; the party through the support of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and their rather triumphant by-election victories throughout 1916 and 1917 identified the party as both respectable and popular with the electorate.
Furthermore, many people felt that the IPP had sold out on their promises of Home Rule and desired more radical action, which Sinn Fein claimed they would deliver- an Irish republic. Thirdly, the actions of the Liberal Government, through wrongly linking Sinn Fein and the Rising and their executions of the ringleaders and imprisonment of3,000 others. Moreover, their duplicity surrounding the Lloyd-George negotiations perhaps cost them a lot of respect and legitimacy with the Irish electorate and perhaps this disillusionment with the British Government was another factor why Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy received such widespread support. Therefore, I conclude that the statement that Sinn Fein’s electoral victory in 1918 was solely down to the actions of the IPP is not absolute as it is clear that there are other reasons for this.