The last chance for peace: General Election June 1922
On 16 June 1922 the people of the new Irish Free State went to the polls to choose, for the first time, a government independent of British influence. The ‘first Irish General Election’ was notable for many other reasons. It was the first election to be held on the Proportional Representation system and was the first time that the Labour Party competed in a general election. It was also the first election to be contested by two major political parties destined to dominate Irish politics for the next 100 years, although under different names.
The election was also notable for a pact between Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, representing the pro- and anti-treaty factions of Sinn Féin, respectively. Bitterness over the Treaty was growing day by day and the prospect of facing an intimidating election campaign was daunting for all sitting T.D.s who had been returned largely unopposed in 1918 and 1921. On 20 May 1922 Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera reached an agreement on the holding of an election and the make-up of a future Irish government based on each party’s existing strength. They agreed that after the election, a coalition government sharing power would be established. Both sides would contest the elections under a shared Sinn Féin banner relative to their existing strength in the Dáil and call on the electorate to vote only for pro- or anti-Treaty candidates and ignore the bread-and-butter-issues. ‘Why you should vote for the National Panel,’ their election material stated: ‘National interests are greater than Class interests – Ireland over all.’
Not everyone was informed of the pact, and it caught members of the Provisional Government as well as the British government by surprise. (The Provisional Government was an emergency government formed for the administration of southern Ireland after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.) Collins had not consulted them in any detail about his arrangement with de Valera and president Arthur Griffith was enraged when he learned of the pact – it was undemocratic, Griffith railed. The British were also displeased, especially Winston Churchill who vehemently opposed the pact on the basis that it might result in an Irish government not fully committed to the Treaty.
The country was divided into 26 constituencies designed to return 128 T.D.s. These constituencies had originally been designated to the Southern Ireland House of Commons in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. The old 2-seat constituencies of Kildare North and Kildare South were incorporated into Kildare-Wicklow with 5 seats. Nominations closed on 6 June 1922 with 65 pro-Treaty candidates and 57 anti-Treaty candidates. The Labour Party fielded 18 candidates; Independents fielded 21, while the Farmers’ and Ratepayers’ Party put forward 13 candidates. Some candidates withdrew due to intimidation. The Kilkenny home of Denis Gorey, leader of the Farmers’ Party, was attacked but he refused to stand down in his Carlow-Kilkenny constituency. Sinn Féin was of the view that candidates from the smaller parties had no right to stand because they were not veterans of the Easter Rising or War of Independence.
In the Kildare-Wicklow constituency the five outgoing T.D.s (4 anti-Treaty and 1 pro-Treaty) were joined by five additional candidates – three Farmers’ Party and two Labour Party. The ‘National Panel’ outgoing T.D.s were: Domhnall Ua Buachalla, Art O’Connor (Kildare), Robert Barton, Erskine Childers and Christopher M. Byrne (Wicklow). Hugh Colohan (Kildare) and James Everett (Wicklow) stood for Labour, while John James Bergin and Patrick Phelan (Kildare) and Richard Wilson (Wicklow) ran for the Farmers’ Party. The Kildare constituency register had 29,591 voters, while Wicklow had 29,440 bringing the total to over 59,000 voters.
The Collins-de Valera pact was generally adhered to by both wings of Sinn Féin except in Monaghan where Eoin O’Duffy and Ernest Blythe openly campaigned on accepting the Treaty. However, when Michael Collins urged Cork voters to ‘vote for the candidates you think best of’, it was interpreted as an invitation to repudiate the election pact. On 14 June Éamon de Valera spoke at Athy and Kildare Town where many of the new Civic Guards were among the spectators. An estimated 3,000 attended a meeting in Naas where addresses were delivered by Éamon de Valera, Harry Boland, Austin Stack, Robert Barton, Eamon Aylward, Domhnall Ua Buachalla and Art O’Connor.
On 16 June the Irish people went to the polls. There was some intimidation, but less violence than expected. Except for Castledermot and Monasterevin, perfect order prevailed, and the election was fought in an agreeable manner. In Monasterevin a disagreement between pro- and anti-Treaty forces forced the polling booths to remain closed until 3 p.m. by which time most of the farmers who had come to vote at the polling station had returned home. Castledermot Sinn Féin Hall, which was being used as election rooms for the Sinn Féin panel candidates, had earlier being occupied by four anti-Treaty republicans. National troops, under Brigade-Adjt. Lillis, arrived in Castledermot on election duty and in an ensuing skirmish at the hall anti-Treaty Volunteer Thomas Dunne, was mortally wounded by a bullet from a revolver allegedly discharged accidentally. Three shots were fired, two accidentally, according to Capt. F. Lawler, who fired the fatal shot.
The election count took place in the Agricultural Buildings, Basin Street, Naas. Five seats were returned for Kildare-Wicklow constituency with total votes of 34,514: Christopher Byrne, pro-Treaty (9,170); Robert Barton, anti-Treaty (6,568); Hugh Colohan (6,522) and James Everett (5,993), Labour; Richard Wilson (6,261), Farmers’ and Ratepayers’ Party. Domhnall Ua Buachalla, Art O’Connor and Erskine Childers lost their seats. Results were not announced until 24 June and there was no doubting the wishes of the Irish people. They voted overwhelmingly for peace. Despite the Collins/de Valera Pact stating the general election was not to be decided on the issue of the Treaty, the pro-Treaty Sinn Féin party won, with 239,193 votes to 133,864 for anti-Treaty Sinn Féin. A further 247,226 people voted for other parties, all of whom supported the Treaty (except Unionist Party). The total result: pro-Treaty Sinn Féin 58, anti-Treaty Sinn Féin 36, Labour 17, Farmers’ and Ratepayers’ Party 7, Independents 10.
While the pro-Treaty party was the strongest, it did not have a majority, so the anti-Treaty party held that the outcome should be a coalition government. However, events soon overcame them.
At the Third Army Convention, held in Dublin, on 18 June, a proposal by Tom Barry to restart hostilities with the British was narrowly defeated in the face of opposition by Liam Lynch. Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows led a walk out from the convention. About half the delegates reconvened in the Four Courts, which had been occupied by an anti-Treaty force in April, and replaced Liam Lynch with Joe McKelvey as chief of staff. In Kildare Thomas Daly, president of the disgruntled faction of Civic Guards stationed in Kildare Barracks known as the Men’s Committee, met a force of anti-Treaty men from Dublin outside Kildare Town who accompanied him to the barracks. They gained entrance using the password, tied up the guards on duty and commandeered 167 rifles and 243 revolvers, and ammunition. A small number of disgruntled Civic Guards joined the anti-Treaty I.R.A. men and went to the Four Courts, Dublin. Most of the guards remained in the depot and loyal to the Provisional Government.
On 22 June Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, who had been official adviser to the Stormont Minister of Home Affairs on organisation and control of the Ulster Special Constabulary, was assassinated outside his home in London. Two members of London Battalion I.R.A., Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, were later hanged for his murder. Winston Churchill assumed that the anti-Treaty Four Courts garrison was responsible, and warned Collins that if he did not act against them, British troops would be used to re-take the Four Courts. When republicans from the Four Courts garrison arrested General J. J. O’Connell, deputy chief of staff of the National Army, the Provisional Government was left with little choice. A decision was made to clear the Four Courts, an act that ignited the flames of civil war.
Note: Election Pact leaflet, original courtesy of Local Studies, Genealogy & Archives, Kildare Library & Arts Service