In 1918 all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. While the specifically British parties were the liberals and the conservatives, from the last third of the 19th century Irish nationalism had been nudging its way into the politics of the island, until it became one of the key players. So much so, that of the 105 members of the British Parliament who came from Ireland, most were members of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which advocated home rule or the political autonomy of the island from the British Crown. The largest rival of the IPP was the Irish Unionist Party, which received the explicit support of Britain’s tories. On the other hand, home rule and autonomy received more or less tepid support from the liberals, according to the political moment in Westminster.
Before I continue I would like to emphasize the similarity between the Irish situation and the current Catalan case. We must not forget that Catalonia’s political nationalism had looked carefully at what happened in Ireland, a nation with a Catholic tradition like ours. Irish nationalism also noticed the first babblings of Catalan nationalism. The name of the radical organization Nosaltres Sols was nothing more than an import of Sinn Féin, the Irish radical nationalist party that is about to make an appearance in our story.
It’s worth remembering that Sinn Féin was founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905. Griffith thought that Irish nationalism should emulate Hungary’s, which --with the Ausgleich-- had boycotted the Imperial Parliament in Vienna and created its own legislature in Budapest by means of a parliament that did not recognize Vienna’s.
After the Easter Rising of 1916, and with the crisis of the First World War, the Irish electorate went from lukewarm support for the continuity of Ireland under the Crown to support for total separation of the two nations. The elections of 1918 became, then, a different kind of vote due to the social, economic, and even cultural conditions brought about by the Great War. While the parties that supported obedience to Britain looked to attack the situation by means of typically socio-political arguments, Sinn Féin decided to deploy a strategy of converting the British parliamentary elections into a true referendum on the continuity of Ireland within the Crown. The result was overwhelmingly in favor of Sinn Féin, which obtained 46.9% of the overall vote, and 65% in the part of the island that become the Irish Free State. Of the 105 Irish seats in Westminster, 73 went to Sinn Féin.
As was pointed out to me a few days ago by Professor Paul Preston and the Irish lawyer Frank MacGabhann, this election became the true founding act of modern parliamentary Ireland. The Irish people turned legislative elections into a plebiscite on their independence, in spite of the will of the British and unionist parties. The legitimization was so great that today no-one doubts that those elections constituted the foundation of the Irish Parliament, the First Dáil.
It goes without saying that, at first, the British did not agree to recognize the result of the election as such. Today, however, nobody in the United Kingdom doubts that those elections marked a point of no return for Ireland, because a perfectly legal vote gave absolute majority support to separation. Today, de facto and de jure, the United Kingdom recognizes the result. This is the most important lesson.
Obviously, the Irish situation in 1918 and that of Catalonia in 2015 are different. The context of violence at that time has been eradicated from Europe, and social and economic conditions are indisputably better today, in spite of the recession, than back then. Well, all the better for us. To vote peacefully and without coercion, as we will do on 27 September, gives definite strength to the Catalan option for independence. As with the Irish on 14 December 1918, if we Catalans decide by an overwhelming majority to give support to the list that advocates a definitive and peaceful separation from Spain, for the good of both nations, nobody will be able to stop it. The result of a democratic election will be used democratically for a proposal as democratic as an exercise in self-determination. We Catalans asked to vote legally to decide our future, and we were denied the opportunity . It is absolutely legitimate that we now use the democratic instruments that we have within our reach to exercise this right. If the result is similar Ireland’s in 1918, we will be able to become independent.