Constance Markiewicz

Red Youth salutes the revolutionary women of the world! Our young cadre will be publishing short pieces all this week to celebrate our revolutionary heroines in the run up to International Women’s Day. Today Jamie, aged 25, discusses Constance Markiewicz.

Red Youth will be meeting to celebrate International Women’s Day on 9 March, at 1.00pm, at the CPGB-ML party centre 274 Moseley Road, Highgate, Birmingham.

I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.

– Constance Markiewicz

Revolutionary socialist was not an obvious vocational choice for Constance Markiewicz. The eldest daughter of Arctic explorer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, an Anglo-Irish protestant landlord, and Lady Georgina Gore Booth, Constance was born into relative privilege.

She was a talented artist and studied at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris, where she met her future husband, Count Kazimierz Markiewicz, a Polish nobleman.

Yet, within this affluent upbringing, there lay confronting experiences that began to shape Constance’s political outlook:

  • Her father, a wealthy landlord, offered free food to local people during the agonising and genocidal British imperialist-engineered Great Famine between 1840-52.
  • Constance and her sister Eva were childhood friends of the poet WB Yeats, who was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
  • She had interactions with progressive movements, including suffragettes, as a student in London and Paris.
  • The creation of the Gaelic League – a formally apolitical group concerned with the preservation of Irish culture, but which comprised many nationalists and future political leaders – offered further exposure to radical ideals.

And, as is claimed in folklore, Constance rented a small cottage in the countryside outside Dublin. The previous tenant, poet Padraic Colum, left behind copies of revolutionary journals such as The Peasant and Sinn Fein, which promoted Irish freedom from British imperialism.

These experiences inspired a transformation from a life of privilege to a commitment to economic, political and social equality for all.

The years 1908-09 saw a rapid development of Constance’s political activities: she joined Sinn Fein and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland); travelled to Manchester to support the suffragettes’ successful attempt to oppose Winston Churchill’s election to parliament; and – of vital importance to the cause of Irish liberation – created a paramilitary youth movement, Fianna Éireann, to educate teenage boys and girls on the use of firearms.

Soon after, in 1913, Ireland experienced the most severe industrial dispute of its history. The Dublin Lock-out was the culmination of a series of industrial struggles that aimed to win trade-union rights for workers. Irish workers lived in some of the worst conditions in all of Europe; the mix of slum housing, poor sanitation and little access to health care made the rapid spread of disease, including tuberculosis, inevitable. In this context, the workers, lacking any representation, were brutally exploited by the industrial capitalists.

James Larkin, the talented organiser and orator, recruited many into the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), and demanded improved conditions. Whilst wealthy capitalists locked unionised workers out of their jobs, starving them, and employed blackleg labour from Britain and elsewhere in Ireland, the struggle had two crucial legacies: it developed the culture of industrial action and trade unionism in Ireland; and introduced socialist ideals firmly in the context of Irish nationalism and the question of Home Rule.

Markiewicz in uniform
Markiewicz in uniform

Constance Markiewicz supported the workers throughout the seven-month lock-out by organising voluntary food production and distributing it amongst the hungry and destitute families. This activity was self-funded by selling many of her own possessions.

Markiewicz also encountered the legendary Marxist James Connolly during this period. Connolly had formed the Irish Citizens Army (ICA) to defend the workers from police brutality; several hundred had been savagely beaten by the authorities during the lock-out. She quickly joined the ICA and injected it with her interest in culture – designing a military uniform and creating songs to professionalise and inspire the army.

The Irish Citizens Army went on to play a central role in the Easter Rising of 1916. This extraordinary event, again, placed socialism and the demand for equality at the heart of the national independence movement.

Markiewicz did not assume a secondary or subservient role – as early 20th-century society may have expected – but served as an armed lieutenant, directing her own unit, supervising the barricades, personally wounding a British sniper and holding her position for six days.

The rebellion was suppressed by British bombs and the leaders surrendered after the military had destroyed large parts of Dublin. However, as with the Dublin Lock-out three years earlier, the Easter Rising’s success was not its immediate material gain, but the legacy of inspiring generations of Irish men and women to fight for freedom against British imperialism.

It also demonstrated to the people of Europe, notably the Bolsheviks of Russia, that turning your guns on your real enemy – imperialist, colonialist states – and away from other working-class people during the first world war (1914-18) was a most revolutionary act.

Markiewicz was sentenced to death, along with other leaders, including Connolly, for her role in the rebellion. This was later converted to life imprisonment after the British feared that executing a woman would prompt further social unrest. In court she proclaimed: “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.”

In the 1918 general election, after being released as part of an amnesty, Constance Markiewicz was elected as MP for Dublin St Patrick’s constituency. This made her the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons. She, in accordance with Sinn Fein policy, refused to take a seat in the British parliament.

Markiewicz Election Success
Procession to celebrate Markiewicz’s election

The remarkable life of Constance Markiewicz continues to inspire countless young people. Whilst the capitalists tolerate – and even manipulate and revere – ‘charitable’ women, they despise revolutionary ones. They fear nothing more than women who are committed to education, organisation and liberation.

Markiewicz infused national independence with socialism; republicanism with feminism; and charity with empowerment. She is an example to revolutionaries everywhere.

Britain's death squads in Ireland: what Panorama won't tell you

Two former members of British death squads in Ireland speak to the BBC’s Panorama.

In many ways, the recent BBC Panorama was an intriguing and exciting – though occasionally concerning – insight into the practices of the British army in the north of Ireland during the years of the liberation war.

The programme described how the army of occupation formed an elite undercover unit, known as the Military Reaction Force (MRF), to penetrate republican areas of Belfast in 1971. The soldiers, hand-picked from regiments across the armed forces, were tasked with carrying out surveillance on the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and assassinating certain of its key personnel.

All official records of this unit have been destroyed, but three of its members spoke candidly to the BBC – sharing anecdotes of car chases and shoot-outs, and recalling the elaborate disguises they wore to infiltrate west Belfast.

The soldiers explained that because their mission was extremely dangerous – and if caught they would have undoubtedly faced execution – it required a relaxation of normal military rules and standards. It was ultimately ethical, they maintained, because they were targeting “merciless baby-killers” who “would not think twice about killing civilians”.

Viewers could have been forgiven for thinking these were brave, courageous soldiers acting to protect British and Irish civilians against a vicious terrorist entity.

Panorama – apparently upholding the BBC’s much-vaunted tradition of ‘impartial, quality investigative journalism’ – pierced this view for a while. The reporter had gathered evidence that the Military Reaction Force had in fact been involved in the shooting and murder of civilians, in the falsification of official reports and in a range of other illegal practices.

Some of its members used the Thompson submachine gun – a weapon associated with the IRA – to sow confusion within republican communities. Others would fire indiscriminately into crowds of young men from unmarked cars, promoting suspicion of sectarian attacks. Footage of politicians falsely denying the existence of the MRF in parliament was shown. It was all very concerning, and certainly incompatible with the supposedly democratic and law-abiding values of the British military.

Yet the programme ended with the defiant soldiers stating that they were proud of their contribution – they had saved lives in an environment of indiscriminate republican carnage, they said. The audience was skilfully instructed to conclude that whilst shocking incidents of illegal practices occurred – such as the murder of civilians – these were largely isolated incidents, and located in the context of a difficult, unconventional war.

The British state would, of course, not approve of or tolerate such behaviours – and had demonstrated this by disbanding the MRF a year later. This troubling part of British military history in Ireland was now over.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The British army has always employed death squads throughout the territories that it has occupied. Last year, an archive of documents detailing the torture and execution of civilians in former colonies was unearthed. Officials had destroyed most documentation before the colonies in question achieved independence, but some files were flown back to London and stored away secretly. They were revealed not as an act of reconciliation or regret, but after victims launched a successful lawsuit to gain access to them.

From the systematic murder of communists in Malaya to the massacre of Land and Freedom Army fighters (dubbed ‘Mau Mau’ by the British occupiers) in Kenya, the ‘elimination of the colonial authority’s enemies’ was commonplace throughout the empire. Not only were ministers aware of unimaginable acts of brutality, including men being ‘roasted alive’, they actively sanctioned torture and murder on an industrial scale.

It is worth remembering that many of the officers commanding in northern Ireland in the 1970s had previously served in British colonies in Africa and Asia. In these territories, the local populations were regarded as inferior and uncivilised, and were oppressed using the most brutal methods. This culture of dehumanisation was continued in the streets of Belfast and Derry, and throughout the north.

Indeed, in 1970, Britain installed Brigadier Frank Kitson as its commander in the north. Kitson had previously received a Military Cross for his role in crushing the Kenyan uprising and was later awarded a Bar to it for brutally suppressing the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the military arm of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).

In 1971, Kitson, drawing on his colonial experiences, wrote Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping, which became the leading counterinsurgency handbook for all imperialist armies. The methodologies outlined by Kitson included increased cooperation between civil, military and police units, the creation of inter-organisational forces, the installation of provocateurs, and an established network of surveillance within ‘deviant communities’.

These tactics translated perfectly into Ireland – a country that had historical experiences of death squads in the form of the Black and Tans, and where a relationship between the state and loyalist terror groups already existed. Whilst the Military Reaction Force only lasted a little over a year, it was seen as a prototype and was soon rebranded and relaunched to continue its terrorist activities.

In October this year, one of the most significant books on the war in Ireland, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, revealed “indisputable evidence of security forces’ collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. It showed that members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police force and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) of the British army were ‘part of a loyalist gang that killed more than 100 people in one small area in the 1970s’.” (‘Disturbing book on northern Ireland killings demands greater coverage’, Guardian Greenslade blog, 25 October 2013)

This triad of oppression – police, military and loyalist death squads – unleashed horror upon republican communities all over the north of Ireland: pubs were bombed; civilians were harassed, shot and killed; republican volunteers were tortured and executed. They subjected an entire population to systematic terror without any form of accountability.

One of the soldiers interviewed by Panorama claimed that “if you take religion away, they [the IRA] were just gangsters”. On the contrary; whilst the ultimate aim of the armed republican movement was furthering the cause of Irish reunification and independence (for all Irish people, regardless of religion or heritage), it was also vital in protecting the communities that the British army was terrorising.

Similarly, despite the BBC depicting the provisional IRA as ‘cold-blooded killers’ without public support, the movement was successful in reducing the number of British soldiers on the streets of Ireland, winning a range of civil rights for republican communities, and has now evolved into a powerful political force that is moving inexorably towards achieving Irish reunification.

Panorama was not only relevant on Irish matters, however. It was, despite the propagandists’ best efforts, a useful insight into the long-established practices of systematic terror that the state unleashes upon organised resistance.

As soon as the communist movement in this country is successful in persuading a significant section of workers to make the historic break from social democracy – ie, the Labour party and parliamentary democracy – and to assume a more militant and autonomous approach aimed at overthrowing British capital, we can expect the same oppressive measures to be directed against workers at home.

The documentary, Britain’s Secret Terror Force, is currently available in Britain on the BBC iPlayer.