The medieval Irish Parliament, a product of the Anglo-Norman conquest of the 12th century, was an event rather than an institution. It was called very irregularly at the pleasure of the monarch and was elected from a highly restricted franchise into two houses, the Lords and the Commons.
While parliaments could sometime act as a check on Royal power, insist on passing or repealing laws in exchange for voting for new taxation, their power was strictly limited.
The 18th century Irish Parliament
This remained the case until the early 18th century, when in 1692 the Irish Parliament –imitating its counterpart at Westminster - declared it had, ‘sole right’ to legislate for taxes in Ireland. While only four parliaments were called in the whole 17th century, the body was in session throughout the 18th, after 1703, gradually assuming more power. In 1782 it successfully asserted that the Westminster Parliament had no right to block laws passed in Ireland.
However, as the Irish elected assembly gained in power, it paradoxically became less representative. Catholics (around 80% of the population) were banned from holding public office, from the House of Commons in 1691 and from the Lords in 1716 and banned from voting altogether in 1728.
This began to change in 1793, when all male property holders, including Catholics, of over 40 shillings were allowed to vote for the Irish Parliament. Still at this stage only Protestants could hold office and constituencies were also very unevenly distributed. Some ‘rotten boroughs’ elected an MP with only a handful of votes, whereas others with an electorate of thousands also only elected one representative.
Liberal such as Henry Grattan were however, committed a reform of the Irish legislature and radicals such as the United Irishmen, to universal male franchise. Conceivably, this could have been the beginning of the evolution of an Irish democracy, but it was not to be. After the United Irish insurrection of 1798, the Irish Parliament, on the cajoling of the British government, voted itself out of existence altogether in the Act of Union in 1800.
Under the Union
Post union, people continued to vote in Ireland but the 103 Irish MPs in Westminster would forever be a minority there. 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. So, despite the extension of the right to vote in Ireland throughout the 19th century, Ireland’s elected representatives in no sense governed the country under the Union.
Until the third decade of that century, Catholics could not hold public office including the position of Member of Parliament. When in 1829 this demand, known as Catholic Emancipation was conceded, so that Catholics (and dissenting Protestants and Jews for) could hold public office.
However, in order for the Protestnat minority not to be out-voted in Ireland, in exchange for Catholic Emancipation, the electorate in Ireland was actually radically cut. In a population of about 8 million, the electorate was cut from 216,000 to 37,000 men as the property qualification for voting was raised from 40 shillings to £10 income per year.
Catholic emancipation in other words represented, one step forward and two steps backwards for democracy in Ireland.
Electoral Reform in Victorian Ireland
There was afterwards, slow, but gradual progress towards a broader franchise. In 1832 the Representation of the People 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, raising the electorate to about 16 per cent of adult men in Ireland. It was again extended slightly in 1867. In 1872 the secret ballot was introduced so people did not have to fear reprisals, especially from landlords, for their votes. The 1884 Representation of the People Act lowered the property threshold again, so that about 50% of the adult male population had the vote (compared to about 60% in England, where incomes were higher).
In local elections, voters up to the 1840s were Protestant only. This changed under the Liberal Under-Secretary for Ireland Thomas Drummond, who in 1840 reformed the election of Corporations so that voting was made on the basis of property (of over £10 per year) rather than religion.
In 1898, the franchise in local government elections was extended so that all householders (including some women) and occupants of a portion of a house could vote in local elections. 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.
1918 and after
The restricted franchise in pre-independence Ireland - no more than about 25 per cent of the adult population had the right to vote - and the practise of uncontested elections ,which were common before 1918 meant that before that year, most Irish people had never elected their political representatives.
The great watershed for democracy based on universal suffrage in Ireland came in 1918 at the end of the First World War. In the election of December 1918, the vote was granted to almost all adult men and for the first time ever, to women, over 30 with some property restrictions. In Ireland, as yet undivided, this almost tripled the electorate from 700,000 to over two million.
There were more issues involved, but the influx of new voters undoubtedly aided Sinn Fein, who won a landslide victory in 1918, running on a promise to abstain from the Parliament at Westminster to set up an Irish parliament. The revolutionary First Dail of 1918 declared an independent Irish Republic in existence.
Matters did not work out quite as they wished of course. The 1920 Government of Ireland Act created two Home Rule Parliaments, Southern Ireland based in Dublin and Northern Ireland based in Belfast. 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.
Democracy in independent Ireland
Notwithstanding the Civil War of 1922-23, the Free State did emerge as parliamentary democracy. 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.
However, some aspects of independent Ireland were actually less democratic than what had gone before. Power was stripped from local government by the Cumann na nGaedheal administration of 1923-32 and given instead to unelected ‘County Managers’. 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. Fianna Fail extended the County and City Manager system throughout the country in 1940.
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.
Democracy in Northern Ireland
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. Like the Free State it extended suffrage to all men and women over 21.
But through various means it diluted the votes of its Catholic and nationalist minority. The first of these was so-called, ‘gerrymandering’ where nationalists were grouped into constituencies for Northern Ireland elections which under-represented their voting strength.
The main area of contention was local government, especially in the west of Northern Ireland where, before gerrymandering nationalists had controlled many of the local councils in 1920. After boundaries were redrawn, they controlled virtually none. This was most pronounced in the city of Derry, where a city with a 61% nationalist majority still elected a unionist majority on the city council.
Unlike the rest of the UK since 1945, rate-payers had votes calculated according to their property. However, in the North this had aggravating effect that the mainly Protestant and unionist business community dominated local government even where Catholics were in a majority. In elections to the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont, were also two university seats at Stormont, which were elected by graduates of Queens University only and plural votes for some business owners.
For these reasons, ‘One Man One Vote’ was one of the principle demands of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, whose agitation and the state’s repressive reaction to it, touched off the conflict we still call ‘The Troubles’.
The grievances of 1969 and before regarding voting were largely resolved in the early 1970s. In April 1969 the Unionist Parliamentary Party voted by 28 to 22 to introduce universal adult suffrage in local government elections in Northern Ireland and in 1972, electoral boundaries were redrawn and many services taken under British ‘Direct Rule’, as a means of trying to defuse nationalist grievances and drain support from republican paramilitaries.
Today the right to vote in Ireland, north and south is almost universal to adult citizens. But those citizens living outside of Ireland are not permitted to vote in elections in the Republic.