by ehistoryadmin on August 20, 2016


Fierce after-Mass canvassing in Naas

Liam Kenny

Predicting elections is a risky enterprise at the best of times. But the lead-in to the General Election of 2016 has even hardened pundits floundering in a slew of indecisive polling results. Experienced election punters have been heard muttering about a “hung parliament” such is the uncertainty. Such predictions suggesting a short-lived Dáil may come as something of a shock to younger folk. The post 2000 generation has become so accustomed to recent parliaments lasting close to the full five years term that anything shorter seems bizarre. However old school electoral observers will ruefully recall the turmoil of the early 1980s when in a period of just eighteen months there were three General Elections – June 1981, February 1982, and again, November 1982.

The roller-coaster electoral cycle of the early 1980s was not the first time that Irish voters had to trek to the polls with only months separating elections. The mid 1920s have been glossed over in Irish political histories. With all the attention focussed on the years of rebellion and conflict from 1916 to 1923, the mid 1920s seem turgid by comparison. However such is an oversimplification of a period which set the template for the party line-up which has dominated Irish politics to the present day.

From the end of the civil war in 1922 the Cumann na Gaedheal Government under W.T. Cosgrave had taken on the heavy-lifting of stabilising the new Free State. Faced with rebuilding a country shattered by conflict the Cosgrave Government prioritised restoration of law-and-order and the stabilisation of Government funding. A crack-down on republican dissent and a pruning of public spending were necessary evils towards nurturing the tentative new State but were not designed to win friends at the ballot box. The fact that the Cosgrave Government was remembered for many years for cutting the old age pension shows the extent to which it had prioritised prudence over populism.

Until the mid-1920s there was little effective opposition. The Sinn Féin faction which had bitterly opposed the Treaty with the British in December 1921 had not managed to turn its passion into cohesion and its policy of abstention from the Dáil made it increasingly irrelevant. The ever supple political instincts of one Éamon de Valera saw that the abstention policy of his anti-Treaty and Sinn Féin compatriots would lead to electoral oblivion for him. He decided to abandon his scruples over taking the oath of allegiance – one of the hang-overs from the Treaty settlement – required to take a seat in the Dáil. He established Fianna Fáil  in 1926 which killed off the Sinn Féin party of the day as he took most of its elected TDs into his new party and into the Dáil.

It was against this shifting of the tectonic plates in Irish politics that the General Election of May 1927 was called. With the whiff of cordite from the civil war lingering, the contest was certain to be fierce but at least the broadsides were being fired by politicians rather than gunmen.

The local press captured the competitiveness of the hustings with a report on a good old fashioned after-Mass canvass in in May 1927. The correspondent reported that “ Naas people had an opportunity on Sunday last of hearing the issues involved in the General Election expounded from two platforms …”.  The two main parties – Cumann na Gaedheal and Fianna Fáil — had arranged public meetings in Poplar Square at the north end of the town after last Mass. It was reported that “a fair amount of the congregation” assembled in the square.  The Cumann na nGaedheal campaigners got a head start having arrived first. Its candidates spoke from motor cars decorated with the tri-colour. Immediately afterwards the Fianna Fáilers arrived having addressed after-Mass congregations in Two Mile House and Eadestown.

Mr George Wolfe, the Cumann na Gaedheal candidate, told the Naas voters that five years previously the country had emerged from a disastrous civil war in which there had been a reign of terror. Five years on, thanks to his party being in government, there was peace and security. On the economic front the great white hope of the party was the Ardnacrusha scheme – the hydro-electric scheme which would harness the Shannon and produce electric power. This spectacular project would revolutionise the industrial position of the country and give a “fillip” to enterprise.  He admitted that the Government had taken unpopular decisions. He said that it was with the greatest reluctance that they had cut the old age pension. They could not have done a more unpopular thing but they had the courage of their convictions and their cuts in spending had facilitated a reduction in income tax thus encouraging work and enterprise.

On the other side of the square the Fianna Fáil candidate, Tom Harris, lost no time in getting stuck into civil war politics reminding the audience that it was hardly a decade since the 1916 Rising when the republican rebels had struck a blow against British rule. He stressed his republican credentials by reminding voters that he himself had been a participant in that fighting in the Easter Rising. He said that Cumann na Gaedheal had defied the national sentiment and had signed the Anglo-Irish treaty which had continued British meddling in the business of the new State. He said Fianna Fáil if put in office would build up a policy of economic self-sufficiency including more tillage rather than grazing, and build the towns and cities as thriving centres of population.

When the votes were counted after the June 1927 election the result showed that de Valera had pulled off the first major electoral shock of the Irish Free State. His party, barely a year old, came within three seats of Cosgrave’s, the sitting government party. Only the vote of the Ceann Comhairle returned Cosgrave with a majority in the new Dáil but realising that this was an impossibly unstable situation he called another election just fourteen weeks later. In the September 1927 election he managed to rally his party and although de Valera came within four seats, Cosgrave forged an alliance with the Farmer’s party and Independents and held on for another five years.

Whether General Election 2016 will produce similar electoral dramatics will not be known until the ballot papers spill out on the counting tables as they did twice in 1927. Leinster Leader 16 February 2016, Looking Back, Series no: 472.

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