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11.01.2016
Liberal democracy, since the end of the Cold War has been almost unchallenged as the hegemonic political idea of our age. Even the most dictatorial regimes pretend to be democratic and make noises about citizens’ equality and the rule of law. A government chosen by universal suffrage of the citizens is therefore not something to be taken for granted. But the route from monarchy to oligarchy to democracy has not been straightforward anywhere and Ireland’s story is no different in that respect.
This piece therefore attempts to show the highways, byways and dead ends along the road to universal suffrage in Ireland and to trace gradual extension of the right to vote. This remained the case until the early 18th century, when in 1692 the Parliament declared it had, ‘sole right’ to legislate for taxes in Ireland. However, as the Irish elected assembly gained in power, it paradoxically became less representative. This began to change in 1793, when Catholics and all male property holders of over 40 shillings were allowed to vote for the Irish Parliament. Conceivably, this could have been the beginning of the evolution of an Irish democracy, but it was not to be. Post union, people continued to vote in Ireland but the 103 Irish MPs in Westminster would forever be a minority there.
Moreover, until the third decade of that century, Catholics could not hold public office including the position of Member of Parliament. Catholic emancipation in other words represented, in the short-term anyway, one step forward and two steps backwards for democracy in Ireland. From before voting by secret ballot was introduced in 1872 – who each Clare elector voted for in the election of 1824. What the United Kingdom was moving towards was a system where government would represent all those who paid it taxes. In 1832 the Representation of the People (Ireland) Act slightly extended the franchise by including ?10 freeholders, those who held leases for life and leaseholders of at least 60 years. In 1850 the Reform Act gave the vote to every man with total property of 12 pounds, raising the electorate to c.16% of adult men in Ireland. However, outside of simply counting the franchise, other anomalies existed in terms of democracy in Ireland.
The 19th century saw many democratic reforms in Ireland, but at its close, still only 30% of adult men had the vote.
Today the House of Lords in Britain is of largely symbolic importance, but up to 1909 it could veto any Bill passed in the (elected) House of Commons, this affected Ireland most clearly in 1893 when the Liberal government passed the Second Home Rule Bill –granting self-government for Ireland, only to see it voted down in the Lords. The other area of hereditary voting was a relic of the medieval guilds, where ‘freemen’ – members of a guild and his male children – had the franchise in both local and general elections.
In 1898, the franchise in local government elections was extended so that all householders and occupants of a portion of a house could vote in local elections.[6] While this is often hailed, not entirely without reason, as a major breakthrough for democracy in Ireland, it did not entirely respect the principle of ‘one man one vote’, as large rate payers could sometimes exercise more than one franchise – having as many votes as they had rate-paying properties.
The great watershed for democracy based on universal suffrage in Ireland came in 1918 at the end of the First World War.
An election was held in December of that year (just one month after the end of the Great War) throughout the United Kingdom, in which the vote was extended to almost all adult males over 21 and all women over 30 with some property restrictions. Due to this and other factors such as the postponement of Home Rule, the Easter Rising and the campaign against conscription, the 1918 election in Ireland also had explosive implications in Ireland for the other facet of democracy, how much power to govern Ireland would elected representatives have?


The revolutionary First Dail of 1918 declared an independent Irish Republic in existence, whose sovereignty was based on the popular vote given to Sinn Fein the 1918 election. The 1918 Representation of the People Act tripled the electorate in Ireland and also led directly to Irish independence.
Notwithstanding the Civil War of 1922-23, the Free State did emerge as parliamentary democracy. However, some aspects of independent Ireland were actually less democratic than what had gone before. Rates and their link of the vote in local elections to property were abolished in 1977 but this also meant that local government was even more dependent now on central government funding. What was more, for some time after independence, slightly hostile attitudes towards democracy and the ability of the people to operate it, persisted for a surprisingly long time among the Irish nationalist political elite.
Though the Free State and from 1948 the Republic of Ireland have remained wedded to parliamentary democracy, one Irish political analyst identified, ‘deference to the views of established leaders and intolerance to those who dissent from these views’. Northern Ireland though, the unionist-dominated self-governing region of the United Kingdom created in 1920, had more serious problems with democracy – even leaving aside the nationalist argument that the whole entity was an undemocratic  exercise in creating an artificial unionist majority. Its government, based at Stormont, was elected to its Parliament  from 1922 until its abolition in 1972.
The other area of contention was local government, where, like the Republic in the same period (though unlike the rest of the UK since 1945), rate-payers had votes calculated according to their property.
The grievances of 1969 and before regarding voting were largely resolved in the early 1970s. Today, with a restored Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont operating since 2005, there is still arguably incomplete democracy as each Bill passed must receive, not simply an absolute majority but majorities among both unionist and nationalists representatives.
Democracy in both parts of modern Ireland is of course imperfect but it has had a very long evolution and will hopefully continue to develop in a more, not less, inclusive direction. I thank you sincerely for this concise and accurate history of the fight for universal suffrage by the majority of the Irish people . Before the First World War only a handful of states had anything approaching democratic systems by modern standards and even in the most representative republics – the USA and the French Third Republic, women were excluded. Ireland benefited from the gradual democratisation of the United Kingdom in the 19th century and after the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, that entity and its successors are one of the few examples of unbroken democratic governance throughout the 20th century. It dated back to 1297, when the Lord Chief Justice of the Lordship of Ireland, Sir John De Wolgan, first called an elected assembly of Anglo-Norman Lords, Bishops and Commoners. While only four parliaments were called in the whole 17th century, the body was in session throughout the 18th, with the sole exception of the years 1699-1703, gradually assuming more power. In 1613, in order to approve the seizure of Catholic owned land for ‘plantations’ or settlement of Protestant colonists, electoral boundaries were redrawn to give Protestants a majority.
The actual government of Ireland, based in Dublin Castle was formed by the Lord Lieutenant, the King’s representative, nominated by the Imperial government, The Chief Secretary for Ireland, an MP likewise appointed and the Under Secretary, a senior civil servant. When in 1829 this demand, known as Catholic Emancipation was conceded, so that Catholics (and dissenting Protestants and Jews for that matter) could hold public office, the electorate in Ireland was actually radically cut so that Catholics would not dominate Protestants. However it did establish the principle that all male subjects of the realm were equal before the law – a step that should not be underestimated given that it was not until three years later that slavery was abolished in British possessions in Africa and the Caribbean.
Since the guilds had matured in the age of Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, their members were all Protestant and in Dublin especially were bastions of working class Protestant resistance to electoral reform in the early 19th century. In the 20th century, especially in Northern Ireland, this would emerge as an issue of serious discontent.


Mainly because it was recognised that to ask total war of a population entailed also giving it total representation, the vote was granted to almost all adult men and for the first time ever, to women.
In Ireland, as yet undivided, this almost tripled the electorate from 700,000 to over two million[7]. The 1920 Government of Ireland Act created two Home Rule Parliaments, Southern Ireland based in Dublin and Northern Ireland based in Belfast. In 1923, the vote was extended to all women over 21 and the remaining property qualifications were also abolished. In 1973, after a referendum the vote was extended in the Republic to all adults over the age of 18. Power was stripped from local government by the Cumann na nGaedheal administration of 1923-32 and given instead to unelected ‘County Managers’.
While promises have sometimes been made about restoring power to local government, the current government (2013) has, as part of its austerity measures, proposed to abolish a range of urban and rural councils. The first of these was so-called, ‘gerrymandering’ where nationalists were grouped into constituencies for Northern Ireland elections which under-represented their voting strength.
However, in the North this had the added enervating effect that the mainly Protestant and unionist business community dominated local government even where Catholics were in a majority. It would be beneficial for our new first minister to read this and reassess her interpretation of 1916. Only after 1989, with the fall of the Soviet backed regimes in central and eastern Europe did democracy with universal suffrage become the majority political system even in Europe.
In 1782 it successfully asserted that the Westminster Parliament had no right to block laws passed in Ireland. Radicals (Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian) formed the Society of the United Irishmen, inspired by the revolution in France, to create an egalitarian, independent Irish republic, including universal male franchise. Therefore, despite the extension of the right to vote in Ireland throughout the 19th century, there remained a democratic deficit, since those elected in no sense governed the country under the Union.
One manifestation of this was the House of Lords – whose members simply inherited their seats.
This partition of Ireland was confirmed under the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, though Southern Ireland was replaced with the all-but-independent Irish Free State in all of the island outside the 6 north-eastern counties that comprised Northern Ireland.
While this was in part due to Civil War animosities, it was also due to the belief, held also by many in Cumman na nGaedheal’s main political rivals, Fianna Fail, that the County Councils and Corporations since 1898 had been nests of corruption.
This was most pronounced in the city of Derry where a city with a 61% nationalist majority still elected a unionist MP. The medieval Irish Parliament might, as it did in the 1570s, try to resist the imposition of new taxes, but no one expected it to act as the government of the country. To the extent that English control existed in Ireland outside the area around Dublin before the 17th century, it was administered by the Lord Lieutenant or more commonly the Lord Deputy. Instead the United Irish insurrection of 1798 was bloodily suppressed and just two years later the Irish Parliament, on the cajoling of the British government, voted itself out of existence altogether in the Act of Union.



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