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Will we have another election? Looking back to 1927 could help us find the answer

The 1980s brought three votes in 18 months, but arguably the two general elections of 1927 offer a better parallel for the current situation, writes Ciara Meehan

Ciara Meehan

WITH THE ELECTION 2016 results not showing any clear winner or alternative coalition, there has been plenty of discussion about the possibility of another general election.

The 1980s brought three votes in 18 months, but arguably the two general elections of 1927 offer a better parallel for the current situation.

In June 1927, voters abandoned the government party (Cumann na nGaedheal, antecedents of Fine Gael) and turned to the various small parties that entered the fray.

At another election three months later, they returned to Cumann na nGaedheal.

Why? What happened to the other parties? And does this provide any indicators of what might happen in the aftermath of the current election?

The June 1927 general election returned the outgoing Cumann na nGaedheal to power, but in a minority government – a possibility now facing Fine Gael. The narrative in 1927 is not too dissimilar to current commentary.

Seats were won and lost then by margins as narrow as three votes following a campaign that was punctuated by the government’s alienation of various sectors of society.

In many ways, Cumann na nGaedheal was the author of its own misfortune.

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The government had done little to court popularity through its defeat of the Town Tenants Bill, the sabotaging of its own Gaeltacht Commission report, the harsh licensing laws that Justice Minister Kevin O’Higgins had attempted to push through the Dáil, and the barbed criticisms in the Dáil by the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs of civil servants in his own department.

Comparisons could be drawn with the Fine Gael-Labour government’s introduction and handling of the property tax and, more particularly, water charges. In 1927, as in 2016, a sense of discontent swept the country and on polling day the body politic registered a protest vote.

Number of parties

The comparisons between the June 1927 and 2016 general elections become particularly pertinent in relation to the number of competing parties. Eight parties, including the Independents, put forward 377 candidates for the June election.

Since 1923 the political arena had been enlarged to include Clann Éireann, the National League and, of course, Fianna Fáil.

Additionally, a host of candidates representing an assortment of interest groups ran under the various banners of Independent Labour, Independent Republican, the National League for the Blind, Town Tenants, Independent Business, the Irish Women’s Citizens’ Association, Protectionist Farmers, and Independent Farmers.

Of all the parties contesting the election, however, only Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil put forward enough candidates, which, if elected, would allow them to form a single party government.

Kevin O’Higgins had warned voters ‘against the danger of the country frittering away its strength by diving its support among a number of parties’, and he was adamant that, ‘there was … one thing more important than a strong opposition and that was a stable government’.

The electorate did not listen. The principal beneficiaries of the government losses in June 1927 were Labour, followed closely by the National League (made up mostly of remnants of the old Irish Party) and the Independents.

Fianna Fáil did well, but it seemed the electorate was not willing to yet overlook the party’s aversion to the Treaty, and the majority opted instead for other pro-Treaty parties.

The results of the election were far from conclusive. The result left Cumann na nGaedheal only 13% ahead of Fianna Fáil, and with less votes than Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin combined.

Even if Fianna Fáil did not enter the Dáil – the party was, at the time, exercising the Sinn Féin policy of abstention – Cumann na nGaedheal was still in a parliamentary minority of nine.

“The general public in Ireland,” wrote John Slattery to his nephew Richard Mulcahy, “are a stupid, ungrateful people”.

The last words to the electorate from WT Cosgrave, Cumann na nGaedheal leader, had been a warning:

If we go back only 50 strong I cannot form a government. Who will supply it? My advice to you is to think very seriously before you dispense with our services.

The results made clear, however, that the electorate had rejected those services. Cumann na nGaedheal failed to convince the voters, in the same way that Fine Gael did not sell its message at this election.

The matter was finally settled in late June when Cumann na nGaedheal once more took up its position on the opposition benches, the alternative parties unable to form a government.

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In a potential savvy reading of the present situation, current Health Minister Leo Varadkar remarked that it is up to the opposition parties to form a government.

If they are unable, then a Fine Gael return to power – like Cumann na nGaedheal’s in 1927 – will have greater legitimacy. Nonetheless, the minority Cumann na nGaedheal government was in a precarious position, and within three months, the Irish electorate found themselves preparing to go to the polling stations again.

The summer of 1927 could easily be described as turbulent. Kevin O’Higgins was assassinated in July, causing a crisis in which Fianna Fáil abandoned abstention, entered the Dáil and joined with the opposition in an effort to bring the government down.

Though the motion of no confidence was unsuccessful (for bizarre reasons, beyond the scope of this article), the actions of Labour and the National League, more so than Fianna Fáil, were interpreted by voters as an opportunistic grab for power.

If they had voted for the two parties as a Pro-Treaty alternative to Cumann na nGaedheal, this loose alliance with Fianna Fáil was not welcomed.

‘Help the government to finish the job’

While the country today is clearly not facing any such major crisis, the aftermath of the June 1927 election nonetheless raises questions that might be considered in light of this election.

Firstly, Labour and the National League did not repeat their June performances in the September election. Cumann na nGaedheal campaigned on the slogan ‘help the government to finish the job’, a slogan not dissimilar to Fine Gael’s ‘keep the recovery going’ in the current election.

While the 2016 version clearly did not connect with voters, it is probable that the 1927 slogan also made little impact on voters going into the September general election. Rather, it was the shocking events of the summer – coming so soon after the end of the Civil War – that helped ‘focus’ their minds.

How does that translate to 2016? The general consensus seems to be that the voters have rejected traditional party politics.

But would a tumultuous and short-lived Dáil cause people to re-think their votes? And what about those who made up their mind at the last minute in this election; would they vote differently at another?

Whatever the answers, several candidates – both victorious and unsuccessful – have commented that they will be keeping their posters, just in case.

Secondly, in addition to the events of summer 1927 causing a voter re-think, the close proximity of the two elections considerably reduced the field and therefore the number of options available.

Neither Clann Éireann, wiped out at the polls in June, nor Sinn Féin, rendered futile by its own abstentionist policies, made an appearance at the polls. The Farmers’ Party and the National League both put forward fewer candidates, as did Labour.

Money matters

With depleted coffers, smaller parties and independents did not have the resources to fight a second election so soon after the first. 265 candidates contested the September general election, a decrease of 112 since June.

That reality is something that will worry candidates at this election, who will be keeping one eye on their campaign funds.

If a second election were to occur in 2016, it is almost certain that we would see a smaller field. It is one thing to re-use posters, but mounting a whole campaign is expensive.

The financial burden of fighting another campaign would be tough on the main parties, but it could potentially preclude smaller groups and independents from standing again.

Independents were particularly strong in number at this election. If another occurs, will they be able to fight another campaign?

If not, what affect will this have on the results? The outcome of the September 1927 election was certainly clearer than June.

A smaller field in a second election in 2016 might similarly drive voters back to the main parties, but we will then be electing a Dáil truly representative of the wishes of the people?

Ciara Meehan is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Hertfordshire. Her history of Cumann na nGaedheal, The Cosgrave Party, was published by the Royal Irish Academy in 2010.

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Ciara Meehan

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