From the Suffrage Movement to Brexit – an unlikely connection

By Louise Ryan, BSA Publications Director

A hung parliament, an Irish party holding the balance of power, a controversial issue threatening to cause political turmoil. Sound familiar?

But no, this is not Brexit. Over 100 years ago in the early 1910s a similar situation prevailed. A minority Liberal government was supported by the Irish Parliamentary Party and the controversial issue that could potentially have brought down the government was female enfranchisement. The Irish party had other priorities – keeping Asquith in power in order to ensure that Home Rule was successfully introduced by the Liberal government.

While the British suffrage movement castigated the Irish Parliamentary Party for blocking suffrage measures, women in Ireland had to navigate a tricky path between the campaign for votes and the campaign to gain Irish independence from Britain.  Irish suffragists found themselves campaigning alongside their British colleagues and sharing many of their concerns and priorities. However, Irish suffrage activists were ever mindful of the potentially divisive situation around them.

In Ireland, the suffrage movement brought together women (and some men) from a range of political and religious backgrounds.  There were ardent unionists and nationalists within the movement, indeed sometimes even within the same local branch of a suffrage society.  In addition, there were some suffragists who were deeply distrustful of both nationalist and unionist politics.  Nonetheless, in a bid to ensure female enfranchisement with the greatest possible expediency, suffragists from across the Irish political spectrum worked to maintain a formal unity, despite their differences.  By continuing to lobby for ‘suffrage first’ from the Westminster government, Irish suffragists were frequently accused of disloyalty by nationalist politicians and elements of the press in Ireland.  Women were assured that if they prioritised the Home Rule movement, then their claims to the vote would be addressed by an Irish parliament in Dublin, after independence. The majority of Irish suffragists were sceptical about such promises and demanded immediate enfranchisement on the same terms as women in Britain.

While British and Irish suffragists worked together and mutually supported each other through visits back and forth across the Irish Sea, undoubtedly tensions also persisted.  Irish women were concerned that British activists did not always appreciate the political sensitivities in Ireland.  Militant attacks carried out by the Women’s Social and Political Union in Ireland were especially controversial and plans by the WSPU to open branches around Ireland – including in Dublin and Cork – were resented as undermining the efforts of Irish suffrage groups. 

Obviously, in the end, Irish women gained partial enfranchisement alongside British women under the terms of the Representation on the People Act in 1918. By then Home Rule was on the statute books, although its implementation had been postponed because of World War 1.   

Given the many political obstacles that Irish women had to overcome to gain the vote, it is all the more ironic that the first woman elected to the Westminster Parliament in 1918 was an Irish woman. Constance Markievicz topped the poll in Dublin, St Patrick’s Ward, with over 60% of the vote.  Of course, she did not take her seat, being a prisoner in Holloway Prison at the time of her election. Markievicz is well remembered in Ireland as a nationalist leader and, indeed, the first woman government minister in the newly established Irish Dail (parliament). However, her suffrage activism is less well-known. In fact, she was an early campaigner for women’s rights in Ireland and, along with her sister Eva Gore Booth, had set up a suffrage society, in county Sligo, in the early 1900s.

The complex relationship between nationalism and suffrage history raises issues which are still relevant for us today as Brexit negotiations raise uncomfortable and deeply controversial questions about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the common travel area, the rights of Irish citizens who live in Britain (such as myself).   I was horrified at a recent meeting of fairly senior British stakeholders and political advisors to hear the border issue repeatedly referred to as ‘the Irish problem’. Many in Ireland, however, would disagree and argue instead that this is not an Irish problem but rather a problem created by British political decision-making.

This is yet another example of history repeating itself.  While many things have changed over the last 100 years, some issues still continue to shape the political landscape and risk causing deep social divisions.

Louise Ryan is a BSA trustee and Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield. Her book Winning the Vote for Women: the Irish Citizen newspaper and the suffrage movement in Ireland (2018) is published by Four Courts Press.