The achievement of votes for women 100 years ago is a deeply significant moment in our history. Women had yet to achieve equal voting rights, but for the first time women had the power to shape the future of their country through an election. And women were central to that election marking the moment when the Irish revolution went from a stirring ember to a roaring flame.
The dramatic breakthrough of republicanism led by Eamon de Valera in 1918 would have been a shadow of what occurred were it not for the extension of the franchise to hundreds of thousands of Irish women and men. They demanded a new way forward for our country and they were triumphant.
Just as she had been for many years before, at the very heart of events was the great patriot and humanitarian Constance Markievicz.
She was not some marginal figure, she was a leader of immense courage and determination who inspired many then and to this day.
The inspiring words we have just heard remind us of her force and how she understood that the cause of Ireland must also speak to the cause of Irishwomen.
Because she is such a major figure in how we remember those times it is easy to forget just how radical it was for a woman to be so prominent in national movements – and also how her gender was used to try to diminish her standing.
It was of course easy for predominately male observers to laugh at how she dressed in military uniform and promoted her causes.
Through a combination of their conservatism and misogyny it was easier to dismiss her than to engage with the issues which motivated her.
And we should be in no doubt that the causes which Markievicz gave so much of her life to were noble and that she has been very much on the right side of history.
As we focus on particular moments in our history it is important that we also remember the longer-term movement to which ConstanceMarkievicz, her contemporaries and many who have followed belonged to.
The struggle for women’s rights has not been measured in decades but in centuries. Each step has been hard-fought. Many steps forward have been followed by steps backward.
The first and longest battle has been fought by women demanding the right to be heard and to empower other women to have faith in their own views.
Over two-hundred years ago Maria Edgeworth, together with her highly progressive father, wrote an influential book on education which put forward the then radical idea that women and men should be educated to the same curriculum and in the spirit that everyone had something to contribute.
Sometime later she made a similar point concerning politics when she said through a heroine of her most successful novel “You cannot…. satisfy yourself with the common namby-pamby little missy phrase, ‘ladies have nothing to do with politics.’”
Markievicz’s first and longest activism was in the campaign for political rights for women. It was not uncommon for women of her class and status to be involved in this movement, but for her it was also a radicalising moment. She became actively subversive of both the class and the national identity which she grew up in.
She developed a social and national consciousness which moved her forward into direct action. In each of the great social and labour movements of her time she didn’t stand quietly on the sidelines content to murmur approval, she went out amongst the people and worked tirelessly. She was defined more by her actions than by her words.
At every stage in every organisation she belonged to or founded she was defined by her willingness to work herself to the point of exhaustion.
Of course she was different from the norm. To be born a woman in the late 19th century into landed privilege and to choose to devoteyourself to social and national causes requires a unique character.
Someone who conforms to prevailing habits and opinions will never be a revolutionary – and much of the course of human progress would have been impossible without people who can all too easily be dismissed as eccentric.
Markievicz and her fellow fighters for rights for women created the environment where the daring proclamation of the Irish Republic was addressed to all Irish people, not just men, and explicitly promised full voting rights.
Her election in the 1918 Election wasn’t unopposed or inevitable. The overwhelmingly working-class voters of Dublin’s South-West Inner City gave her two-thirds of the vote and she defeated a long-term and popular incumbent.
The following year Eamon de Valera formed his first cabinet and he made Markievicz one of the world’s first female cabinet ministers.
It is a sad reality that this bright beginning for gender equality was followed by so much disappointment.
To look at coverage of debates around the time of the Treaty you find account after account dismissing republican women in deeply misogynistic terms. I have no doubt that this created an atmosphere in which there were so many steps backwards in the following decades.
It is a deep shame that it took a further 60 years before another woman became a member of Cabinet. I am proud to be able to acknowledge the often transformative role which our party’s female cabinet ministers have played.
For example, I remember well the tremendous intellectual and moral fight of Máire Geoghegan Quinn when she faced down attempts to water-down her proposal to decriminalise homosexual activity and equalise the age of consent.
And of course Mary O’Rourke was a radical Minister for Education who was the first to begin targeting educational disadvantage and push for a new age of educational inclusivity.
Their contributions, and those of other ministers, confirm how much our politics lost by the lengthy period where women were excluded from most political roles.
And of course we lost the contributions to wider social, economic and cultural development which came from the hard reality of marginalising women’s voices in far too many areas.
Constance Markievicz was ultimately a formative leader in establishing the democratic republican tradition which has, I believe, been one of our country’s most positive features.
This is the tradition which ensured that we rejected the extremism which brought such darkness to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. It has defined this as a state which believes in international cooperation. Most of all it is a tradition which has allowed us to evolve and deliver standards of living and falls in poverty more commented on elsewhere than here.
As we have held various commemorations in the past two years we have always insisted that we accept that 1916 and the Irish revolution belongs to no party but to the Irish people.
We are proud of the central role which our founding generation played in those events, but we do not seek to claim ownership of them.
The efforts of others to distort Irish history by imposing a completely illegitimate picture of the past is something we will always fight against.
And we will never accept the attempt to rewrite history in relation to Constance Markievicz.
The simple historical fact is that we know which party is most closely linked to Constance Markievicz. She was a core leader of the effort to create a new democratic republican party dedicated to focusing on the problems of today and the future. She chaired the founding meeting of Fianna Fáil. She was returned to the Dáil to sit as a Fianna Fáil TD. When she passed away she was a member, office-holder and representative of Fianna Fáil.
So we fully welcome every commemoration of her. We respect the right of others to honour her while disagreeing with Fianna Fáil. But we will never accept the attempt to write Fianna Fáil out of the history of one of our most important founders.
I want to thank everyone involved in organising this evening’s commemoration.
This is a moment to reflect with pride on the past and also on the nature of a struggle which we have too often failed to honour with actions rather than just words.