When in 1829 this demand, known as Catholic Emancipation was conceded, so that Catholics (and dissenting Protestants and Jews for that matter) could hold public office, the electorate in Ireland was actually radically cut so that Catholics would not dominate Protestants.
In a population of c.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, in the short-term anyway, one step forward and two steps backwards for democracy in Ireland.
Nevertheless, the freemen’s right to vote fell before 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 and the freemen’s vote was abolished. In 1898, the franchise in local government elections was extended so that all householders 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.
In the 20 century, especially in Northern Ireland, this would emerge as an issue of serious discontent.
In 1613, in order to approve the seizure of Catholic owned land for ‘plantations’ or settlement of Protestant colonists, electoral boundaries were redrawn to give Protestants a majority.
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 Catholics and all male property holders of over 40 shillings were allowed to vote for the Irish Parliament.
The 1884 Representation of the People Act lowered the property threshold again, so that about 30% of the adult male population had the vote (compared to about 60% in England, where incomes were higher). However, outside of simply counting the franchise, other anomalies existed in terms of democracy in Ireland.
The principle of a hereditary right to vote was the principle one.
Mainly because it was recognised that to ask total war of a population entailed also giving it total representation, the vote was granted to almost all adult men and for the first time ever, to women.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.This piece therefore attempts to show the highways, byways and dead ends along the road to universal suffrage in Ireland and to trace gradual extension of the right to vote.The original Irish Parliament was an invention of the Anglo-Norman conquest.