"An exceedingly severe test"

The Irish Senate elections of 1925

The 1925 election for the Senate of the Irish Free State was possibly the most complex election ever carried out by the Single Transferable Vote (STV). 76 candidates ran for 19 places with an electorate of about 1,345,000.

STV with multi-member constituencies is still the system of election preferred by the Electoral Reform Society and the Liberal Democrats, within the UK; in addition to its use for all elections in the Irish Republic, Malta and Tasmania, it is used for the election of the upper house of most Australian States, the Australian Senate and the upper house of the Indian parliament. Some advocate its use for the election of some revised form of House of Lords. It is therefore very interesting to look at its performance for electing upper houses, especially under extreme conditions.

The context

The Irish Free State, consisting of the twenty-six counties which now form the Irish Republic, became fully independent in 1922. The country was over 90% Catholic, and the Protestant minority asked for and received augmented initial representation in the 60-member Senate as a concession from the new government. The Senate, which was relatively strong by the standards of Upper Houses in Europe, was to have a quarter of its membership (plus any casual vacancies) filled by elections held every three years, so its political complexion would gradually come closer to that of the country as a whole. (I have written a note on an abortive earlier design for its Senate.)

At the time of the 1925 Senate election, the lower house (the Dáil) had 153 seats. Cumann na nGaedhal, the governing party, had won 63 seats in the previous election in 1923; this had now slipped to 59 as a result of by-election losses. The largest block of opposition TDs comprised members of the wing of Sinn Féin which had been opposed to the 1921 Treaty with the British and which was led by Éamon de Valera. They had won 44 seats in 1923, and had picked up the four by-election losses for a total of 48; but their refusal to take their seats in the Dáil meant that the government had an overall majority of voting members, especially since it was usually supported by the 15 TDs of the Farmer Party. The Labour Party's 15 TDs were therefore the official opposition. The other 16 TDs included two two-man parties (one based in Cork, the other in Dublin), and a dozen other independents.

The candidates

When the Senate was first created at the end of 1922, half of its members were elected by the Dáil. These thirty Senators were assigned either three-year or nine-year terms by lot. (The other thirty senators had been nominated to either six or twelve year terms by W.T. Cosgrave, the President of the Executive Council, ie prime minister.) Four vacancies had been filled by co-option in the first three years of the Senate's existence; and in 1925 the fifteen original three-year Senators and the four co-optees now had to run for re-election.

The system of nomination was rather complex. The outgoing 19 Senators were automatically eligible for re-election. The Senate itself then selected another 19 candidates, different from the 19 outgoing candidates, by STV from a list of 29 on 2 July (the outgoing 19 were eligible to vote in this election and 18 of them did). One of the ten who were rejected, perhaps because the outgoing senators did not want their competition to be too keen, was Lady Augusta Gregory, the founder of Dublin's Abbey Theatre. On 8 July the Dáil nominated 38 candidates by the same process, selecting from 57 names that had been put forward. 21 of these were supporters of the Government. The Irish Times, reviewing the 76 candidates and anticipating the election, commented:

The vogue of the "cross-word" puzzle has died in Ireland and its successor in the public fancy has not yet arrived. These senatorial elections will fill the interval... The mental atmosphere of the Free State in September will be that of "Alice in Wonderland".

According to the Constitution, the candidates were supposed to be persons who "have done honour to the Nation by reason of useful public service or that, because of special qualifications or attainments, they represent important aspects of the Nation's life." Inevitably this was interpreted rather broadly: one candidate was a teacher who "for many years has taken [a] deep interest in public affairs"; another more modest (if geriatric) candidate had been simply "identified with public life since 1879". My personal favourite is the exotically named Valentine Patrick Emmanuel McSwiney, Marquis of Mashanaglass, who gave his occupation as "Gentleman" and had been Chamberlain of the Papal Court for sixteen years. (None of these was successful in the actual election!)

A Northern distraction

Since 1921 the six counties of Northern Ireland had also had a Parliament which included a House of Commons and a Senate. The Senate consisted of the Lord Mayors of Belfast and Derry, and twenty- four other members, elected twelve at a time by the Northern Ireland House of Commons on eight-year terms (ie 12 every four years). In July 1925 the first election of twelve new Senators was due to take place. The 6 Nationalist and 6 Sinn Fein MPs elected in 1921 had not taken their seats, so had had no Senators elected then; but in the 1925 election for the Northern Ireland House of Commons, the Unionist Party had slipped from 40 seats to 32 (out of 52), losing ground to independent candidates and the Northern Ireland Labour Party which had won three seats. Two of the Nationalist MPs were now taking part in debates, and with the help of an Independent Unionist they expected to have enough support to get a Senator elected. So when the results were declared on 14 July, everyone was surprised when eleven Unionists and one Labour candidate were successful, and the Nationalist candidate was declared to have received no votes at all!
Shortly afterwards the Parliament's Head Messenger appeared with the three missing votes. (The Northern Ireland Parliament had not yet moved to Stormont in East Belfast and was still sitting in the Presbyterian Theological College near Queen's University.) It turned out that the postal votes sent by the relevant MPs had been sent by registered mail on Saturday 11th July. 13th July is a public holiday in Northern Ireland if the 12th is a Sunday, and the Post Office did not deliver registered letters until 11 am the next working day, Tuesday 14th. As the deadline for receipt of votes was 10 am that day they had not been counted. Requests for a recount or re-election were refused.
To say that the Nationalists were dismayed is to put things mildly. Matters were not helped by an unkind remark by the Prime Minister, Sir James Craig, to the effect that the Nationalist would not have been elected anyway with only three votes out of the 41 cast. (Strictly speaking, Craig was right and even more so when one considers that it would have been three votes out of 44, not 41; it would have required considerable - though not unprecedented - solidarity of transfers between all the Unionist candidates to completely exclude the Nationalist.)
I cannot find any reason for giving the Unionists the benefit of the doubt here. Even when it came to minority representation in the insignificant body that was the Northern Ireland Senate, Craig was unable to display the remotest spark of generosity. A statesmanlike gesture would have been for one of the Unionist Senators to resign and allow a Nationalist candidate to be elected unopposed to the vacancy, but such statesmanship has historically been rare from Ulster Unionists.

Back in the Free State

There had never before been an election treating the whole 26-county area as one constituency, nor would there be again until the Presidential election of 1945 - there would not even be a nationwide plebiscite until the new constitution was adopted in 1937. Cumann na nGaedheal declined to run a party political campaign for its candidates (it had supported more than 19 candidates for the 19 places and choosing beween them might have been embarrassing), and Sinn Féin was ignoring the election; party politics were therefore not a strong feature of the campaign. A couple of issues seem to dominate Irish Times coverage of the events: the institution of separate medical lists for the Free State and United Kingdom (which the Irish Times opposed) and the proposed clamping down on the sale of alcohol (which it favoured). Another issue with which outgoing senators were associated was the Senate's constitutional dispute with the Dáil on divorce - W.B. Yeats' famous "we are no petty people" speech was made in the Senate on June 11th - which was not settled until the referendum of 1995. Bubbling away in the background, the Boundary Commission was working on the final settlement of the border between Northern Ireland and the Free State, and de Valera was attempting to manoeuvre the Republican movement into somehow taking its seats in the Dáil.

The election itself happened on a very wet day, September 17th, and since there had been so little campaigning over the previous two months it is not surprising that only 300,000 people voted, less that a quarter of the electorate. Fifty-eight blind voters turned up at one polling booth in Dublin and dictated impressive lists of preferences to the presiding officers. The greatest enthusiasm was in County Monaghan, which had an 80% turnout. About 80% of these voted for Thomas Toal, who had been Chairman of Monaghan County Council since 1900, contributing 10,000 of his poll-topping 14,000 first-preference votes (the first-preference votes were tallied by county, and then sent to Dublin for later counts). In County Louth, Sir Edward Bellingham, a local baronet, also profited from a high turnout .

The Results

The quota was 15,286, and Toal was eventually elected; but he was overtaken for first place by Major- General Sir William Hickie, who got transfers when Colonel Howard Bury (leader of the first Mount Everest expedition!) was eliminated. Hickie and Bury were thought to have had strong support from ex- servicemen, a block of voters which would normally be quenched in the Dáil elections and which had perhaps turned out disproportionately for the Senate election.The licensed trade, sensing problems ahead, firmly endorsed two candidates who were both elected; so were all three outgoing Labour Party Senators (only eight of the nineteen retiring Senators were re-elected).

Only one former Westminster MP out of four who were standing, and a similar proportion of ex-TDs were successful; the people's choice seemed not to be for professional politicians but for more nonpartisan individuals. Particularly unsuccessful were the educationalists; one teacher out of three and no university lecturers (out of two) or professors (out of three) were elected; all four candidates supported by the Gaelic League did particularly badly, including the outgoing Senator Douglas Hyde, who had perhaps done more than any other individual to get the national movement going (he did at least get elected President of Ireland unopposed in 1938). None of the three women candidates was elected. The count took two weeks to complete. There were less than 10,000 spoilt votes (3%) which is surprisingly low.


The Senate election has disappeared out of most history books (apart from the two mentioned below). As a political event it produced no significant casualties, unlike the debacle of the Boundary Commission two months later, and no drama, unlike de Valera's showdown with the Republican hard- liners and his foundation of Fianna Fáil the following year. The Irish Times commented that "Whatever the Senate election may have pilloried, it did not pillory the system of P.R. which has emerged very creditably from an exceedingly severe test."

Few modern supporters of STV would be totally enthusiastic about a nationwide constituency to elect so many representatives from so many candidates, but in fact this was the system envisaged by Thomas Hare, the originator of STV, for electing the entire Westminster Parliament. Certainly the election succeeded in representing both strong local interests (Toal and Bellingham) and smaller groups more evenly distributed geographically (the ex-servicemen, the publicans). Since the election was not a strongly partisan one (and indeed the political life of Ireland at the time was not very party-oriented) a list system would not have produced a very satisfactory result. Perhaps the Proportional Representation Society was right to call it "a triumph for P.R.".

The Cosgrave Government had spent 100,000 pounds of public money on running the election and seen little political reward for doing so. The election's potential for consolidating the new State's democratic institutions had been critically undermined by the low turnout, at a time when the Boundary Commission and the absence from the Dáil of the largest opposition party were still unresolved. In 1928 the constitution was changed to cut out the direct election of the Senate by the people; the electorate for all subsequent Senate elections until the body's abolition by de Valera in 1935 was the Dáil and the outgoing Senate, and these proved much more amenable to party management. The Irish people, left to themselves and encouraged by STV, have sometimes decided to reject rather than choose between political parties. Irish politicians tend not to like that, and are even now attempting to change the system to prevent this happening in future.

Further Reading

See also: Westminster elections 1885-1910 | The 1918 election | Dáil elections since 1918 | Westminster elections since 1920 | Senate of Southern Ireland 1921 | Irish Senate elections in 1925 | Northern Ireland House of Commons | Northern Ireland Senate

Surveys of each recent election: 2004 European | 2003 Assembly | 2001 Westminster | 2001 local govt | 2000 S Antrim | 1999 European | 1998 Assembly | 1997 local govt | 1997 Westminster | 1996 Forum | 1995 N Down | 1994 European | 1993 local govt | 1992 Westminster | 1989 European | 1989 local govt | 1987 Westminster | 1986 by-elections | 1985 local govt | 1984 European | 1983 Westminster | 1982 Assembly | 1981 local govt | 1979 European | 1979 Westminster | 1977 local govt | 1975 Convention | Oct 1974 Westminster | Feb 1974 Westminster | 1973 Assembly | 1973 local govt | Summary of all Northern Ireland elections since 1973 | Brief summary of election results 1997-2003

Other sites based at ARK: ORB (Online Research Bank) | CAIN (Conflict Archive on the INternet) | Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey

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Nicholas Whyte, 23 April 2000; last modified 17 February 2002

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