Edwina Stewart

Edwina Stewart

Edwina Stewart (1934 - ) and Sadie Menzies (1919-1996)

Edwina Stewart was born in East Belfast she was one of five girls, her parents came from the Protestant tradition but both were atheists and founder members of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). Edwina followed in her parent’s footsteps and joined the CPI, and it is in this capacity that she knew some of those families whose relatives went to fight fascism in Spain. Her father worked in the Shipyard but after an injury at work, he opened up a newspaper shop on Templemore Avenue with the £250 compensation money for the loss of an eye.

Her mother Sadie was politically active in 1932 unemployed supporting the International Brigades in the anti-fascist war in Spain, she was also chairperson of the Tenants Defence Federation who organised a huge campaign against the new Rent Act in 1944 and had some success with this. In the late 1940s along with Betty Sinclair, she attended an International Women’s Day event in London, and she campaigned against the marriage bar in the Civil Service in the 1950s. Sadie and Edwina were also companions on many demonstrations and events including the International Women’s Day in 1992 when she was presented with a bouquet of flowers in recognition of the work that she had done. This was held in the Belfast City Hall and was the first time that the Belfast City Council supported IWD in this way.

Edwina was a teacher in Ashfield Girls’ School and Comber High School, and in 1962 as a serving teacher, she was also a student in Commercial Studies at the ‘Tech’ in Belfast. Edwina married Jimmy Stewart from Ballymena (1934-2013) they met at Stranmillis Teacher Training College, he became a history and art teacher in Hemsworth Square School and then in Somerdale on the Shankill Road. They had two daughters Helen and Moya. Jimmy later became the General Secretary, and then the Chairperson of the CPI. Interestingly enough his married sister was married to Buster McShane who trained Mary Peters for the Olympic Games.
Edwina was a founder member of the Communist Youth League and went to the youth festival in Moscow in 1957 organised by the World Federation of Democratic Youth. The McPeake family and Mulholland School of Irish dancing were also part of the delegation. She was committed to the campaign for nuclear disarmament, helped to organise meetings with the Greenham Common women in the Grosvenor Hall in Belfast, she was also active in the Irish anti-Apartheid Movement, the Campaign for Peace and Detent and opposition the war in Vietnam.

In 1969, Edwina was elected to the position of the secretary of NICRA, which she held from 1969 until 1977 when the organisation folded. In 1972, she lost her teaching post after it was reported that she was on the speakers' platform in Derry on Bloody Sunday along with Maire Drum and Bernadette Devlin (McAliskey). She was forced to leave her teaching job at Ashfield Girls' Secondary School, Belfast, because of pressure from the right-wing unionist pressure group Vanguard and other bodies. There were demonstrations against her inside the school by pupils, and she was boycotted by other staff because of her association with NICRA.
In an interview with Marilyn Hyndman in 1996, Edwina said, “there were death threats in a local newspaper, and because the school did not know what to do with me, it was clear that I could not continue to teach there”. She said, “The campaign against me had reached a crescendo. I was attacked in a paper Sydenham Defender- I think that was the name which reported ‘the lying spokeswomen for the IRA, Maîre Drum, Bernadette Devlin and Edwina Stewart’”. She also described how her children suffered too. In a news report, she told how she had resigned and subsequently applied unsuccessfully for positions in Catholic schools. ‘"I believe the basis for the refusals was that I was a Communist and a Protestant,’ Ms Stewart said”.

She believed Bloody Sunday had effectively marked the end of the civil rights movement because people started joining the Provisional IRA in droves. Edwina was one of the many eyewitnesses who gave evidence to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry also known as the Saville Inquiry, the results of which were published on the 15th of June 2010, when the then British Prime Minister apologised in behalf of the British Government acknowledging that paratroopers had fired the first shots on fleeing unarmed civilians.

In the above interview, Edwina said that after the IRA ceasefire in 1994 Bernadette Devlin “reminded me of how I felt, that in the beginning there was preparedness among the Protestant population to accept O’Neill’s reforms package. That, of course, was before there was any violence. After the ceasefire Bernadette said that nationalists had accepted terms not as good as they were offered twenty years ago, she said the good guys lost. I would agree with that.”
After the communist congress in Belfast 1971 when the northern communists and southern communists formed the all-Ireland CPI, Edwina became the National Treasurer and a member of the National Executive Committee on the CPI. She was also on the National Women’s Committee at the time that the CPI adopted the policy of a Women Right to Choose, the first political party in Ireland to do so.

In 2006 at an International Women’s Day event in BIFHE, along with Myrtle Hill, she spoke about the Irish women who supported the Republican Government in Spain. (LW)

Hyndman Marilyn (1996) Further Afield Journeys from a Protestant past. Beyond the Pale.
Pollock Andy (19.2.1997) Voices of the Protestant left. Irish Times
Ward Margaret (Ed) (2011) Celebrating Belfast Women: a city guide through women’s eyes. Women’s Resource and Development Agency.