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Madge Davison Memorial Lecture, 2011

Belfast, 30 July 2011


A woman for all seasons

Avila Kilmurray


For many of those people who knew Madge Davison she will be ever associated with the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, as encapsulated by the anthem that it borrowed from the civil rights movement in the US. Madge was of the era which firmly believed in the collective power to “overcome”; but history is a fickle mistress, and while for many, Madge’s spirit embodied the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, in reality her name is rarely recorded in the written pages. For all she was a strong woman, working in an era of strong characters—who were not particularly known for either shunning the limelight or surrendering the megaphone—Madge did not force herself forward. She was always there; she was always busy organising; but she was more than happy to let others be the public face. And, as we know, history shines on those public faces, rarely on the indispensable secretary or organiser.
     But if we know Madge for the Civil Rights Movement, we also know her as a teenage member of the Communist Youth League and of Youth CND—the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. We know her as a member of the Executive of the Communist Party of Ireland and as an Irish representative at many international socialist conferences and festivals. We know her as a mature student, who graduated in law and went on to both lecture in Queen’s University, Belfast, and to practise as a barrister. We know her for the often unpopular legal cases that she championed and for her interest in women’s rights. We know her for her role on the organising committee of the June 1981 Conference on the Administration of Justice, which launched the early CAJ—Committee for the Administration of Justice—and we know her for that common-sense determination whereby she believed that cases of injustice, whether individual or collective, diminish us all.
     But we also know Madge as the daughter of Big Emily from Presbyterian Lower North Belfast; as the wife of Dubliner John Hobbs; as the mother of Jonathan and Niall; as friend over many years of Ann; as someone who collected elderflowers in the early summer to make cordial, who grew herbs on her balcony in Lenadoon, who was terrified of creepy-crawlies, and who was synonymous with home-made chocolates and pizzas.
     The title of this memorial lecture is taken from Michael O’Riordan’s obituary for Madge in 1991: she was truly “a woman for all seasons,” and unfortunately those seasons passed all too quickly.
     In the time that we have today to remember and celebrate Madge I intend to look forward as well as to look back. This is not something that I address lightly, as all of us change over time, and our views and perspectives are not immune from such change. So, in looking forward and reflecting on the issues that Madge may well feel strongly about today, I can only infer from the challenges that she prioritised during her all too brief life.
     And yet there are strong fingers of consistency pointing us to the directions that Madge was likely to travel; and for me these can be summed up by the concept of civic republicanism. Not for nothing did Madge hold Mary Ann McCracken as a role model; and she was known, on the odd occasion, to describe herself as a “communist Presbyterian.” If Madge had survived to the ripe old age of ninety-six, like Mary Ann McCracken, who would be surprised to think of her complaining cantankerously that the young ones should be out leafleting rather than preening themselves, as the ninety-year-old Mary Ann leafleted the slave ships harboured in Belfast, denouncing “the diabolical system of slavery,” while complaining about the shame that this task was left to an old woman like herself. Or to hear Madge echoing the view expressed by Mary Ann, that “this world affords no enjoyment equal to that of promoting the happiness of others.”
     Who would Madge have been leafleting today? I hazard a guess that it would have been the employers of exploited migrant labourers—the mushroom-pickers and the hired hands on fishing trawlers, or those who abuse vulnerable young women through the sex trade. She would have been exercised about our all too prevalent issues of modern slavery. She would have been spurred to fury about recent stories leaking out about institutional and clerical abuse of children and of women in the Magdalene laundries, and she would have argued that it is not sufficient to view these issues in the context of individual abusers but there is also a need to examine the structural arrangements, and power imbalances, that allowed them to flourish over such an extended period of time. Who had a vested interest to place young children and young women out of sight and out of mind and to shroud an essentially state system of banishment with moralism? Where are the current moralistic fault lines in our society? Many of them only exposed by the reality of courageous individual cases.
     Madge was born and grew up in North Belfast, within the shadow of Cave Hill. She had the lived experience of a virtual lone-parent family upbringing, as her father was forced to spend much of his working life in England in order to find employment. Madge was born into a Labour-leaning Presbyterian family and was raised in circumstances that we more readily associate with the experience of nationalist Derry of the 1950s and 60s, or republican West Belfast.
     All too often the difficulties experienced by the Protestant section of the working class have gone unrecorded, as often as not silenced by those affected themselves through their association with the Northern Ireland state. It showed a sharp insight when Betty Sinclair, as the then chairman of the Civil Rights Association, told a meeting in Dungiven in January 1969 that “if steps are to be taken in a programme of civil disobedience they must be such as to bring people together and not put them further apart. If we make one mistake we would find ourselves back on our heels.” She was undoubtedly right—although events were to overtake this caution.
     Madge attended Graymount School and became deputy head girl before leaving to take up a job in a local factory. But she also trained as a secretary, doing her shorthand and typing courses that were to stand her in good stead as an organiser. By the age of sixteen Madge was a member of CND and was out leafleting; but it was her teenage membership of the Communist Youth League that was to chart her course in life.
     How, you might ask, did a young Belfast woman from the Shore Road area come to join the Communist Youth League? Well, it is true that a couple of years earlier, in 1963, the Communist Party had launched a programme calling for an historic accommodation between Catholic and Protestant sections of the working class in order to pressurise for a democratic, progressive regime in Northern Ireland. This programme was developed within the context of the collapse of the ill-fated 1950s border campaign of the IRA and indeed the start of a period of reflection and re-evaluation within the republican movement itself. Was Madge conscious of this?—or did she read a book on Marx at this time? Unlikely; but what she was influenced by was the fact that she was raised in a Labour household, as were so many working-class Belfast families, and she talked politics with the owner of the corner shop down the road.
     Madge did not come to communism through theory but rather through her lived experience. She knew the limitations in the life opportunities and choices of the working class; she was aware of the gross injustices of an apartheid South Africa and a war-torn Vietnam. She could draw the links between her own political experience and global trends. Madge was a child of her times, but one that wanted to do something about both her local and her international circumstances.
     Ann Hope recalls first meeting Madge when they were selling newsletters and Easter lilies, respectively, outside the Linen Hall Library down the town in 1966. She remembers Madge at that time as having little or no concept of Irish history, which reflects her education in a state school. She met up with a young woman who clearly wanted to do something with her life, who had a strong sense of justice and fairness, and who wanted to make a difference. And today, as all too often local communities turn on their own young people and point the finger at anti-social behaviour or blame them for exhibiting a sectarianism that this society has visited upon them, is there a need to take stock of how we can create the conditions where motivated teenagers, as Madge once was, can find those opportunities to make a difference? In the light of what has happened recently in Norway perhaps it is insightful to reflect on a Norwegian Labour Party that has clearly long fostered its youth, not just through :diversionary activities” but through opportunities for a genuine political grounding—responding to their sense of idealism and inquiry.
     The Communist Party gave Madge that, as, for all the emphasis on theoretical purity and organisational structure, there was also an understanding of the importance of the individual; a respect for enquiry irrespective of age; and the opportunity to hone a sense of critical understanding. The ability to pick out the core contradictions in current politics and to hold a mirror to the injustices within society was a skill that Madge was quick to master.
     The Northern Ireland civil rights movement was fashioned as such a mirror by the late 1960s. In its own History of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland (1968–78), published by NICRA itself from its then office in Marquis Street, off Castle Street, it was explained that “NICRA evolved from a diverse set of political aims and ideals which slowly came together to forge a unity based on a common frustration with Unionism, a broad rejection of crude Nationalism, and a growing awareness of the need for an effective vehicle for political and legislative reform. It was essentially a product of the 60’s . . .”
     With its strong emphasis on the need for a progressive unity of democrats from both Catholic and Protestant sections of the population in the North, as well as the adoption of the non-violent ethos of the American civil rights movement, NICRA was indicative of civic republicanism. This was a break from inherited nationalist republicanism, which placed a priority emphasis on the integral territorial-bound nation-state, but instead focused on the nature of citizenship—requiring an active, inclusive and equal citizenship. It offered an open-ended ideal which argued that if we cherish our citizenship and the freedoms that such citizenship enshrines, then we have to cherish that same status and freedom for all, rooted in a concept of human rights. This goes beyond any bolstering of the concept of identity-related ethnicity that has become increasingly prevalent in Northern Ireland—with its related parity of often grudging esteem—to a politics of rights and freedoms.
     But the outworkings of the civil rights movement, all too readily denounced by the then Stormont Minister of Home Affairs, William Craig, as “an omnium-gatherum made up of the members of the Londonderry Housing Action Committee, the majority of whom are also members of the Connolly Association, of the Republican Party, which includes well-known members of the IRA and Sinn Féin, of the Young Socialists and of the Communist Party,” also touched a nerve in a society that had been flash-frozen within the politics of Unionism for half a century.
     One of those who marched in Derry in October 1968 captured the prevailing sentiment: “The great energy and joy after it . . . I don’t think anybody felt that we were going to overthrow the state but . . . the energy, the possibility of changing things here. And whatever about changing things, above all else suddenly introducing, as it were, colour to this place: that which had been an old grainy black-and-white film was now potentially Technicolor, and it was great . . .” Éamonn Deane, who was then a young teacher in Derry, went on to become organiser of the Bogside Community Association some three years later.
     Madge became active in the civil rights movement, alongside many other members of the Communist Party, but also joined in anti-Vietnam War protests, on one occasion throwing herself in the path of a squadron of US marines marching in the Lord Mayor’s Parade down Royal Avenue. But she also, along with Margaret Bruton, regularly sold the Communist Party newspaper on the “town run,” which included the Elephant Bar, the Duke of York, and finished up in Kelly’s Cellars; attended the World Youth Festival in Bulgaria (where she was berated by Bulgarian women for wearing a mini-skirt); and was active in the talks that resulted in the all-island Connolly Youth Movement, of which she became general secretary and Eddie Glackin the national chairperson.
     Interestingly, during the course of these negotiations there had been a feeling amongst some in the North that the name of the merged movement might have been the Communist Youth Movement, given the nationalist/republican connotations of Connolly—an awareness of the importance of nuance born out of the sensitivities of conflict and division. Madge also attended the Bodenstown Wolfe Tone commemorations, where she set her eye on John Hobbs, which gave rise to many subsequent hitch-hiked visits to Dublin, accompanied by Ann Hope.
     NICRA opened an office in December 1969, with Kevin McCorry becoming the organiser and Madge taking up the role as assistant. In short she typed, cajoled, telephoned, made the arrangements, planned, prepared the minutes and threatened anyone that borrowed the organisation’s megaphone and failed to return it on time that she’d have their guts for garters. She personed the office in Marquis Street, which was up the narrow stairs and invariably smelt of fish from the shop below.
     NICRA had five stated objectives:
     to defend the basic freedoms of all citizens;
     to protect the rights of the individual;
     to highlight all possible abuses of power;
     to demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly, and association; and
     to inform the public of their lawful rights.
     However, reforms can be inherently revolutionary when acting as pressure points on the contradictions of a defensive and exclusive political system. Highlighting abuses of power—both then and now—has the potential to challenge the accepted common-sense notion that the status quo is inevitable, that the official narrative is how things are and must be. Protecting the rights of the individual has the potential to question how power is configured and exercised in practice.
     It was these principles that led Madge to join the march of women in West Belfast to break the Falls curfew imposed by the British army in 1970; it was also her willingness—along with many others—to chart the individual stories of abuse that resulted in long lines of people waiting to see her at all hours of the day and night. Madge may rarely have theorised about the personal being political, but she lived it in practice.
     After Madge and John married in 1970 they had to move from her mother’s house in Pittsburgh Street when the message was delivered that “Madge and the Fenian should get out” and moved in with Ann Hope and her parents in Broadway. Ann describes the line of chairs in the hall for people who wanted help and support in lodging complaints about their treatment or were trying to find out where friends and relatives were being held who had been arrested. Internment meant that the queues grew longer, and the difficulties of taking statements were compounded by the regular three-cornered evening fire-fights between the IRA from the Falls, Loyalists from the Village, and the British army from the top of the flats.
     The story of Madge’s astonishment at Mrs Hope squirting water from a squeezy bottle on her doorstep late one night has gone down in folklore. Madge asked, “Why are you washing the doorstep at this time of night, Mrs Hope?” Which elicited the reply: “Sure this is Lourdes water, and I’m sprinkling it to keep the Brits from raiding.” There was little evidence that it worked, and Ann again tells the story of herself and Madge being arrested just after Christmas in 1970 and brought to the barracks. When a young squaddie kept pointing his rifle in their direction, Madge rolled a cigarette, fixed him with a baleful look and enquired, “What else did Santa bring you?” She was not a woman to be intimidated easily.
     Madge was not a pacifist per se, but she believed that the ongoing republican violence was counter-productive and wrong in the circumstances of Northern Ireland. Loyalist violence she regarded as beyond comment, and security-force violence as to be expected. Consequently, in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday she was to be found, within an hour of the shootings, sitting at a table in the Bogside Inn taking down statements, while the Provisional IRA were signing people up at the next table.
     She stayed true to the analysis of the Communist Party of Ireland and became a member of its National Executive Committee in the early 1970s. She was never politically sectarian, nor did she ever hide her politics. She had the ability to maintain friendships over and above the numerous political splits and divisions. She was a natural organiser and maintained NICRA as an organisation long after its political influence had waned. She had little time for the ongoing political feuding and internecine struggles, and her down-to-earth common sense readily punctured the cult of paramilitarism.
     Madge held multifaceted networks and contacts, including with individuals such as Brother Ambrose in the Cistercian monastery in Portglenone, who was more than ready to print the NICRA Newsletter for her on a regular basis. Madge never held a policy job, or received funding for advocacy work or advice support work: she just did them, alongside banging away on her old Imperial typewriter or making arrangements for a protest march. And if there is learning in this, perhaps it is that activism needs political and conceptual motivation more than specific skills: the latter can be developed in response to need. And even then, many of the intrinsic skills of activism may need to be learned but not taught in any formal sense.
     In 1978 Madge collated and filed the NICRA records for the Linen Hall Library, completed her A Levels at BIFHE, and gave birth to Jonathan. As a mature student she studied for a law degree at Queen’s and both graduated and gave birth to Niall in 1983. She rarely did things by half. Her move into law was matched by a growing interest in women’s rights, and arguably, while she was no natural feminist, she rapidly reflected the Connolly dictum that Irish women—and indeed Northern Irish women—were the slaves of slaves. This was the period of the Noreen Winchester campaign, who was imprisoned for killing her father, who had routinely committed incest over many years; it was the period when Charlotte Hutton died from septicaemia after a back-street abortion in Belfast, and when fifteen-year-old Anne Lovett was found dead with her infant in a church grotto in Co. Longford.
     Madge became a member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement but also became involved in advising and supporting work with the Rape Crisis Centre, Gingerbread, and Women’s Aid. She became involved in family law although was vaguely resentful of the prevailing sentiment that “women lawyers and family law deserved each other.” She conducted sessions on legal rights in the Falls Women’s Centre as well as teaching typing in Twinbrook. As someone who was self-confident and comfortable “in her own skin,” she was known to preface her remarks to judges with a genial “Well, the craic is this, m’lord.” At her funeral her legal colleague Barry McDonald reflected: “I wouldn’t insult Madge’s memory by saying that she was the equal of any man; I don’t know any man who was the equal of Madge.”
     As a lawyer Madge maintained her deep interest in and commitment to the rights of the individual and to using the law as an instrument to challenge perceived injustice. She was passionate about rights, including women’s right to choose their own sexuality and fertility. She contributed a chapter to an early CAJ Handbook on Civil Liberties on Family and Sexual Matters, and she took numerous cases on behalf of women who were victims of domestic violence, as well as the first case on a lesbian woman’s right to custody of her children. Her academic thesis was on abortion law reform. In this area of interest Madge would still have her work cut out today, as arguably women’s rights have become silenced through equality mainstreaming and marginalised by the greater emphasis on sectarian community divisions. The happy assumption that women’s rights are a priority that can now be safely parked is unfortunately contradicted by the life experiences of many women—individual women that Madge related to, visited at all hours of the day and night, and took cases on behalf of. Again, it was the involvement in such cases that kept her grounded in the lived realities of women who needed her expertise and support.
     Bringing that grounded experience back into the Law Department at Queen’s must have generated a frisson of excitement, as at one period in her life Madge substituted for David Trimble in delivering lectures—undoubtedly a rich opportunity to contrast and compare.
     Madge would have gloried in the years of change from 1995 to 1998. She would have thrown herself into the politics of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and the later discussions around a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. NICRA had campaigned for a Bill of Rights in the early 1970s, to be supported in 1975 by Sammy Smyth’s Ulster Citizens’ Civil Liberties draft Bill of Civil Liberties. Would Madge have felt that some of the recent divisions around the promised Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland carried overtones of déjà vu? Certainly it would not be hard to envisage her fixing Senator Mitchell or General de Chastelain with a wry smile and the enquiry, “What’s the craic, boys?” And she would have little time for what the late David Ervine characterised as the MOPE syndrome: the “most oppressed people ever.” Indeed our current assembled political class in Stormont could benefit from a smidgeon of Madge’s personal and political common sense and her instinctive activism, which said, “Got a problem? Well, either get over it or organise to do something about it.”
     Madge would have taken power-sharing to mean not merely the sharing out of power within the elected political class but rather—on the principle of subsidiarity—the sharing of power within, and between, citizens and between them and their elected representatives, and particularly those citizens that have a history of being disempowered and excluded from decision-making. She had little time for the pretensions of representative democracy, having lived within the established—and, for many, normalised—representative democracy of a pre-Troubles Stormont. If Madge was anything she was participative democracy personified—not waiting around to be invited into politics but assuming a natural role as a political human being.
     As a communist and as an activist, Madge understood power. She understood it both in the Irish context and internationally. She was a passionate supporter of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, led delegations to many socialist and communist international conferences and festivals, and enjoyed working on festival stalls at the Fête de l'Humanité in Paris. In earlier years she campaigned against the imprisonment of Angela Davis and wrote in protest to the then Governor of California, one Ronald Reagan.
     Madge believed in a politics that was active and engaged across both territorial and party boundaries. Hers was a politics that was bounded only by the imagination of how to ensure that justice and fairness can be best served, and where the potential of politics is best seen where individual citizens are given space and encouragement to participate in shared, communal activity and purpose. For Madge, citizenship was engagement with the world not just in the interests of individual advancement but in pursuit of the collective good. At core, Madge believed in the possibility of the “good society,” which maximises the opportunities for people to have real-life choices that can enable them to fulfil their potential. She realised this through her own life as a mature student; but she also envisaged it for others.
     It has been argued that a function of civic republicanism is to engage the population, as much as possible, in collective and public affairs. To be dynamic and effective, politics requires a multiplicity of voices—something that Madge moved to believe in. She was not doctrinaire by nature—although she was disciplined, a discipline that was underpinned by a sense of outrage at repeated examples of social injustice and abuse of power and authority. Madge rarely rejected a party line: she just moved beyond it—and sometimes around it—when confronting the next call to action. For her it was the human face of need that was important, not the theoretical construct. Her politics was human and warm and personal, but it was also determined.
     Much has been written and recorded about Madge as a person: about her role as a wife, a daughter, a mother, a cook, and as an individual who loved flowers and herbs and still held the aspiration to settle down in a house, with a garden, in the shadow of Cave Hill. She died before she achieved that ambition, but people still talk about her many pots of herbs on the balcony of her flat in Lenadoon and the welcome at the family home in Agincourt Avenue—although she was known to hang out of the attic window at that house in an attempt to see Cave Hill.
     Her love of good food was perhaps the one little hesitation in her international activism, as Les Allamby recounted when suggesting a boycott of Marks and Spencer’s over Israeli action in the Middle East. The proposed campaign foundered when Madge responded, “Yes, that’s all very well, but have you tasted their chicken tikka masala?” There were limits.
     She was described as having a sharp, sardonic sense of humour; certainly the laughter lines crinkled around her eyes, but she was also a clear critical thinker, along the lines that Einstein suggested when he held that “you can’t solve your problems with the thinking that caused them in the first place.”
     Madge was clear about the casual factors behind the individual problems that she was addressing, whether these were sectarianism, sexism, or sheer societal inequalities and inequities. Only weeks before her death she had been offered, and accepted, a position in the Fair Employment Commission, and she had declared her intention to learn to drive. She was in full preparation for the next phase of her life.
     In a vivid, intense and event-packed life—that was tragically short in years—there are a number of recurring themes: appreciation of the importance of individual rights, to be recognised and safeguarded by both the collective and by the use of law; acknowledgement of the sharp realities of class and gender; lack of patience for the pompous or the abstract; the identification of redressible grievances; a refusal to be constrained by territorial or communal boundaries; and an interest in what was practical and effective in order to achieve progressive change or redress of injustice. Like Woody Guthrie, Madge would argue that “any fool can make something complicated; it takes a genius to make it simple”; and invariably her ability to listen to voices that were often excluded or silenced helped her to identify issues and take action to address them; and in so doing she epitomised what has often been said of women, that they are like teabags: it is only when they are in boiling water that you realise how strong they are.
     As was pointed out in the obituaries written in her memory, Madge died in January 1991, the year that marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the United Irishmen. It was a vicious year in terms of bombings and shootings across Northern Ireland, although Madge would have welcomed the release of the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven from prison. Speaking at her funeral, Michael O’Riordan, national chairperson of the Communist Party of Ireland, quoted the call made by Joe Hill the night before his execution: “Don’t mourn: organise!” It was a particularly fitting reference in the context of Madge’s life—and would have undoubtedly influenced her view of the future.
     As the tenth anniversary history of NICRA in 1978 asserted, “when—or if—the present policy of military and legislative repression ends it will be the task of NICRA to protect and monitor human and civil rights under whatever form of government or whatever constitutional arrangement eventually exists.” Notwithstanding different organisational entities, Madge would be one of the first to argue the continuing relevance of this pledge. And while she would undoubtedly have laughed out loud at seeing previously sworn enemies becoming political allies, it is my belief that she would have been a passionate advocate of the peace process in Northern Ireland—but she would have been a sharp and clear-sighted advocate of this changing political scenario. She was never a revisionist in historical interpretation during the years of the Troubles, and it is very unlikely that she would have been a peace-process revisionist either. Instead her emphasis would continue to be focused on Where is this Bill of Rights? Is there a rights-based sense of equality that goes beyond narrow parity of esteem and that is inclusive in nature? And how can we work to ensure that both her children and her grandchildren are not condemned to the continuing narrow sectarianism that haunts a Northern Ireland that has signally failed to acknowledge and deal with the legacies of the bitterness and divisions of the past?
     Internationally she would have been appalled by Guantánamo and how easily fear and demonisation can dictate both foreign and national policies. She would have celebrated the words of the Norwegian Foreign Minister only a few nights ago when he said he was humbled when attending a service in a local mosque that Muslims did not stereotype all white Norwegians, like himself, as right-wing terrorists because of the actions of one man. She would have stretched out to look for solidarity between victims of economic and political injustice. Madge would have continued to be a quiet beacon of common-sense justice.
     There is a poem written during the Troubles by a local woman from the Cregagh Women’s Group at the time, called “Assumption.” It sums up the uncertainties at that time.
            Point your finger at my pointed toe,
            Assume my creed because I wear green,
            I dance a jig, my head reels,
            Swirling thoughts of Orange and Green,
            Prod and Taig,
            Culture and Tradition.
            I chant the sevens—
            I watch my step—
            I kick with the wrong foot.
     Madge didn’t really care what foot she kicked with as long as the target was right; but while kicking out she was as likely to offer you some freshly ground coffee and a slice of home-made tart. That was Madge: a woman for all seasons, who seeded both memories and sprouts of political change that remain relevant two decades after her passing.

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