A century ago today Derry returned Eoin MacNeill to the ‘Parliamentary Borough for Londonderry’ in a nationwide landslide for Sinn Féin.
On Saturday, December 14, 1918, MacNeill defeated Irish Unionist, Robert Anderson, in the most important election in Irish history to date.
Following the poll, MacNeill, and his 72 Sinn Féin colleagues, who were returned the length and breadth of the country, refused to sit in Westminster. They instead formed the ‘First Dáil’ in early 1919 and declared the Republic that had been proclaimed in 1916, and by the Fenians back in 1867.
Before polling day the ‘Journal’ reported how an electoral pact brokered by the Donegal-born Primate of All-Ireland Cardinal Michael Logue had consolidated the nationalist vote in Derry.
The arrangement prevented what would otherwise have been a facile victory for the Unionist Mayor, Anderson.
The alliance was the fruit of London’s pig-headed attempt to conscript Irish people into the British Armed Forces from April 1918. Though the war was now over Britain had significantly changed the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy that had hitherto been implacably opposed to the radical separatism of Sinn Féin.
At a meeting of the United Irish League’s Derry Executive in Waterloo Place on Tuesday, December 10, a letter from Major William Davey, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) candidate was read out by its chair John McGonagle.
“I had an interview in Dublin last night with Mr. Dillon [John - the leader of the IPP] and having been told by him that he felt loyally bound to carry out the decision of the Conference in regard to the eight Ulster seats, I see there is no other course left me but to withdraw my candidature for Derry City,” Davey had written.
A resolution was then passed “earnestly calling for all Derry nationalists to vote for MacNeill”. Thus MacNeill was given a free run against Anderson, with Sinn Féin also guaranteed no nationalist opposition in North West Tyrone, South Tyrone and South Fermanagh. The IPP, in turn, got East Donegal, North East Tyrone, South Down and South Armagh under the deal.
Interviewed by the ‘Journal’ upon his arrival in Derry MacNeill said he was pleased at the decision of the Derry UIL and said that the “followers of the Sinn Féin policy in Ulster would honourably carry out their side in the agreement that has been arrived at.”
On the same evening “two largely attended open air meetings” were held in support of MacNeill. In Rosemount, speeches were delivered by Rev. J. O’Dogherty, C.C. St. Eugene’s, and Rev. J. McGlinchey, Dean of St. Columb’s College.
After a second meeting in the Little Diamond a “torchlight procession headed by the Hibernian Band and accompanied by the local battalion of the Irish Volunteers took place from the Bogside to the City Hotel”.
The following evening, Wednesday, December 11, MacNeill addressed “a great demonstration of Derry Nationalists in St. Columb’s Hall”.
Conscious of his audience of Hibernians, clergy and other moderate nationalists as well as Sinn Féiners, MacNeill, made much of his Irish Unionist opponent’s support for Edward Carson’s policy of aligning the Irish education system with that of England on secular grounds.
“He proposed to exclude the teaching of definite religion from schools,” said MacNeill, declaring that neither Catholics nor Protestants in Ireland wanted this.
He quickly moved to more familiar ground, however, attacking Britain over its empty promises on Home Rule.
“The day is past when any of the British parties that are not straight to the principles that they profess may expect any respect from us,” he said.
“The day is past when the people will be taken by these hypocritical professions and promises. We believe in them no longer; we have come to the same conclusion as President Wilson [US - Woodrow] not to treat with people whose word could not be trusted. By bitter and long experience we have learned that no word of a British Minister with regard to Ireland can be trusted,” he added.
Rev. P. Devlin, C.C., Waterside, supporting MacNeill, said: “Sir Robert Anderson stood for a government which held over 600 Irishmen and women in prison. John MacNeill stood for freedom, for Irish Nationalism, for Faith and Fatherland. There could be no doubting what side the good and true men and women of Derry were on.”
Polling day itself passed without incident although was remarkable, of course, in that now middle-class women over 30 had the vote for the first time.
“From the booths opened there was a steady stream of electors, in practicially every instance women being the first to record the vote. In this, however, Derry, was no exception to other constituencies for reports generally show the ladies displayed the utmost eagerness to exercise for the first time the Parliamentary franchise,” the ‘Journal’ recorded.
But strangely in such an epoch-making poll there was “little excitement in the city during the day” and “none of the tensity of feeling associated with former contests.”
Having placed their ballots the electors of Derry had to wait two weeks for the results.
By Saturday, December 30, 1918, they had their answer. Mr. Horace Bayer, the High Sheriff, read the declaration from the balcony of the Derry Courthouse in Bishop Street where the count took place.
MacNeill had narrowly won with his 7,335 votes defeating Anderson’s 7,020.
“Quickly a crowd of large dimensions had gathered, and the enthusiasm became intense. Flags were waved in triumph and the victor was carried shoulder high down Bishop Street amid scenes of the greatest rejoicing.”
MacNeill was carried all the way to St. Columb’s Hall where: “He said he was proud to be chosen as their representative at this momentous election, in which the men and women of Derry had set their seal to the covenant that Derry belonged to Ulster and Ulster to Ireland. (Cheers). They in the capital city of the North-West had done their part to defeat the plan to separate them from the country they loved, as they would do their part to defeat every future attempt of the sort. (Cheers.) That was one issue they had settled by the election.”
Rev. L. Hegarty, presiding, observed, how “the Nationalists of Derry had fought and won”.
Referring to a petiton by the defeated Unionist that MacNeill should not be returned as he had been convicted of ‘felony’. Rev. Hegarty said: “Derry were proud of their felon (cheers) and they were proud of the flag which John MacNeill had planted on the walls of Derry.”