Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 2 January 2020
Remembering 1920: Preparing for Local Elections
A new day and year, 1 January 1920, coincided with a bringing a sense of hope and renewal at the start of a new decade. But excitement and worry existed over the pending restructuring of the local government structure in Ireland. Proportional representation was to be tested in the 1920 local elections. The “First past the Post” system of voting in the local elections ended and proportional representation introduced a system of the single transferable vote for multi-member electoral areas.
In the 1918 general elections the Sinn Féin party obtained a large margin of Irish seats in Westminster. Many seats achieved by Sinn Féin were not overtly challenged, and the elections utilised the “first past the post” system. Sinn Féin in all contested seats gained marginally less than fifty per cent of the vote. The Local Government (Ireland) Act 1919, facilitated by the British Government, promoted proportional representation as a method to lessen the strong support for Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin itself did not oppose the new system and saw it as way of moving local authorities away from swearing allegiance to the King to Dáil Éireann. Controlling local councils politically was deemed another step further to obtaining more political freedom from Westminster.
However, at a local and neighbourhood level proportional representation was a game-changer in the chance it gave candidates to be elected especially if one was transfer friendly. Proportional representations also aimed at giving representation to “all classes in proportion to their strength”. The 5 January 1920 was the deadline for nominations by interested candidates in Cork City. The Cork Examiner lists that in the city of Cork 160 candidates (with only one female, Miss Anne Sutton representing Sinn Féin and Transport Workers) were nominated for 56 vacancies in the Borough Council. The term of office was to be three years.
Over half of the outgoing members of Cork Corporation – 20 of 51 – were putting their names forward again as were the usual political interests in the guise of Sinn Féin and Transport Workers, Labour, Constitutional Nationalists, Ratepayers and commercial, and Independents. General debates/ hustings were held across the City and it was noted on more than one occasion that the varied interests involved made it difficult to forecast a result. A large proportion of the candidates had also not previously ran in local elections – mainly because it was six years since the previous local elections. However, political groups put forward as many good candidates as they could field. For example, there were 33 standing for the Nationalist ticket whilst 37 Independents put their names forward. The Cork and District Labour Council nominated 12 candidates.
Twenty-two candidates were proposed by the Cork Rate Payer’s Association. In its manifesto they noted that it more difficult to manage the affairs of an ordinary business concern than it was six years previously. War, the shortage of labour and investment plagued cities, towns and rural regions across the country. It was hoped that proportional representation would sweep progressive and business-savvy candidates into the city’s council chamber. In particular, the election aimed to capture and give a voice to those who pay rates should be entitled to be represented in the administration of municipal affairs. Such candidates would also have knowledge of controlling expenditure and to act impartially and independently in managing corporate business.
At a meeting of the Cork Ratepayers and Citizen’s Association on 1 January 1920, Sir John Scott presided with William Dorgan, solicitor, the honorary secretary. Mr Dorgan highlighted that he got substantial support financially from many ratepayers who were unable to attend their meetings. He hoped that they had a strong list of candidates who all sought to have a voice on where the city’s rates would be spent and the future striking of them. In late 1919, the rates stood at 10s 7 ¼ d in the pound. The candidates also expressed a worry about the paying back of a bank overdraft and the consideration of upping the rates even more. Housing for the working classes were also on their priority list.
Under the new division of the city’s wards the electorate was divided into seven areas – Central (10 vacancies, 37 candidates), North East (10 vacancies, 26 candidates), City Hall (6 vacancies, 18 candidates), College and Evergreen Area (11 vacancies, 30 candidates), Sunday’s Well and Blarney Street (7 vacancies, 23 candidates), Shandon (6 vacancies, 13 candidates), and Blackpool (6 vacancies, 18 candidates). The creation of the new ward boundaries complicated the situation between candidates as some outgoing councillors now had new districts to contend with. Voting lists were busy with names especially the Central Area, which had ten vacancies and 37 candidates. The area was an amalgamation of the west ward and the old city centre wards. Sinn Féin put forward a full list in every area (e.g. in Shandon, 11 candidates for the 11 seats) bar only having eight candidates for the ten seats in the North-East.
The polling day was to be on 15 January 1920 with the counting to take place in City Hall (more on this in the new few weeks). City Hall staff were to be trained in the new proportional representation model.
Happy new year to all readers of the column.
1029a. Old Cork City Hall, c.1920 (picture: Cork City Library)