Competing Priorities and Tactics: the complex relationship between the British and Irish suffrage movements

Competing Priorities and Tactics: the complex relationship between the British and Irish suffrage movements

Professor Louise Ryan (University of Sheffield) discusses the tensions between Irish and British suffragettes and the relative priorities of nationalism, unionism and suffragism.

In July 1912, three members of the WSPU – Mary Leigh, Gladys Evans and Lizzie Baker – arrived in Dublin to carry out a militant attack on Prime Minister Asquith who was visiting the city.  The women threw a hatchet into the carriage in which Asquith and Irish nationalist leader John Redmond were travelling.  Later the women attempted to set fire to a theatre where Asquith was attending an event.  These attacks, occurring at the height of delicate Home Rule campaigning by Irish nationalists, caused shock waves in Ireland, were castigated by the Irish press and resulted in the women receiving long custodial sentences – five years in the case of Leigh and Evans.

These incidents also bring to the fore the complex and at times tense relationship between British and Irish suffrage movements. Irish suffragists had not been informed about the WSPU plans.  In the aftermath of the attacks, Irish suffragists had to bear the backlash against the suffrage cause.  This led many Irish suffrage campaigners to argue that British suffragettes were at best insensitive and at worst ignorant of the specific complexities of the Irish context.

This blog briefly explores the relations between Irish and British suffrage movements drawing on my forthcoming book on the Irish Citizen newspaper (1912-20), the only suffrage newspaper in Ireland.  It will explore the divisions and conflicting priorities beneath the surface of the movements.

In many ways there were close connections and cooperation between Irish and British suffragists. Irish activists took part in rallies around Britain, particularly in London, while British campaigners frequently visited Ireland and gave guest lectures at Irish suffrage meetings. The Pethick-Lawrences, for example, were active supporters of the Irish movement and contributed financially to the establishment of the Irish Citizen newspaper in Dublin in 1912. 

Nonetheless, relationships between the Irish and British movements can also be described as complex. On the one hand, both movements were involved in the same campaign to win votes for women from the British parliament at Westminster. On the other hand, Irish suffragists had to negotiate a very tricky path between the nationalist campaign for Irish independence, which was gathering momentum, the demands for female enfranchisement from what was widely perceived as a ‘foreign’, colonial parliament and the Unionist campaign that opposed Irish independence.  Nationalist leaders like John Redmond argued that Irish women should suspend their campaign for enfranchisement until after Irish independence and, instead, throw their weight behind the Home Rule movement.

However, many Irish suffragists were wary of such an initiative because there was no guarantee that an Irish government would enfranchise women. In addition, for Unionist women, who favoured Ireland remaining in the union with Britain, female enfranchisement was imperative in giving women a say in the future of Ireland – Home Rule or continued British rule.

The actions of the WSPU in travelling to Dublin to attack Asquith, as well as setting up branches on the island of Ireland, particularly in Belfast, angered many Irish suffragists.

Heated debates took place in the Irish Citizen.  While expressing resentment at the interference of the British militants in Irish political affairs, many Irish suffragists also expressed shock and outrage at the harsh sentences handed down to the three British suffragettes, their resultant hunger strike and forcible feeding.  In fact, several Irish suffragists, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, went on hunger strike to express their opposition to the treatment of the British militants.  It is worth noting that although Irish suffragists frequently used the hunger strike during periods of imprisonment, Leigh and Evans were the only suffragists to be forcibly fed in Irish prisons.

Overall, most Irish activists opposed the WSPU’s interventions in Ireland. In September 1913, Christabel Pankhurst wrote to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, co-founder of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, to say that the WSPU was planning to open a branch in Dublin. The Irish Citizen newspaper described this planned move as ‘regrettable’.

Mary MacSwiney, a suffragist from Cork and an outspoken campaigner for Irish independence, argued that suffragists should be mindful of the differences between the Irish and British political contexts. Hence, she insisted, different tactics and priorities were needed:

Englishwomen want the vote for themselves first and foremost. That is natural, and we applaud and sympathise with their efforts. But in order to hasten their political enfranchisement – even by a year – they would not hesitate to wreck the cause of suffrage in Ireland for a generation or more. The sooner Irishwomen open their eyes to that fact, the sooner they will get back to sane methods. What is good for England is not good for Ireland in suffrage tactics any more than in other matters; and as Irishwomen we are concerned with our own country first (Irish Citizen, 23 May 1914).

However, when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914 the WSPU suspended its militancy campaign and the Dublin branch was never established.  The suspension of the militant campaign during World War I led some Irish activists to argue that British suffragettes had decided to prioritise their nation’s needs above the campaign for female enfranchisement and that Irish suffragists should also do the same by prioritising the Irish independence movement.

Debates among Irish suffragists about the relative priorities of nationalism, unionism and suffragism continued in the following years. However, the uprising of Easter 1916, when several supporters of female enfranchisement – including the Irish Citizen editor Francis Sheehy Skeffington – were among those killed, proved to be a pivotal historical moment. Nonetheless, Irish suffragists continue to actively campaign for the vote from the parliament at Westminster. 

Irish women, alongside their British sisters, who were over the age of 30 years were eventually enfranchised as part of the Representation of the People Act in 1918.  However, Irish women had little time to savour that victory as the War of Independence erupted in 1919 and forever changed relations between the two countries.

Louise Ryan is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield. She has published widely on the Irish suffrage movement. Two of her publications are being reissued as part of the centenary of female enfranchisement. Read more of her work in Winning the Vote for Women: the Irish Citizen Newspaper and the suffrage movement in Ireland (Four Courts Press, 2018) and Irish Women and the Vote: becoming citizens (co-edited with Margaret Ward) (Irish Academic Press, 2018).

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