Markievicz enters Westminster

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The Dublin parliament has gifted a portrait of Irish abstentionist MP Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to Westminster, as a debate takes place over the refusal of Sinn Fein to take its seats there.

The picture, a photographic reproduction of a 1901 oil painting, was presented to the House of Commons speaker John Bercow by his Dublin counterpart, Sean O Fearghail.

The gifting of the Markievicz picture is one of the ways in which the two parliaments are marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave some Irish women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Standing in Dublin St Patrick’s division that year, Countess Markievicz was the only woman to be elected, establishing her as a major figure in the international suffrage movement.

At the time of her election, however, she was in prison having been arrested for taking part in republican activities. She celebrated the historic win from her cell, where she received a letter from 10 Downing Street - addressed “Dear Sir...” - inviting her to attend the state opening of parliament.

However, she never took her seat at Westminster and instead became a dedicated parliamentarian sitting in the First Dail in Dublin.

Mr O Fearghail said it was “very appropriate” that her portrait should hang in Westminster to mark the 100th anniversary of her election. He said he was delighted to ensure that, although Countess Markievicz did not take her seat at Westminster, she would now have a place there.

“She was a hugely complex individual, a firebrand, someone I think you would have been delighted to have known. But I think she’s also someone who made the transition from armed republicanism to the democratic, peaceful approach.”

The irony of a portrait of an abstentionist republican MP being hung at Westminster was not lost on those present as Sinn Fein comes under immense pressure to take their seven seats there.

This week, two key divisions at Westminster in support of a hard Brexit were won by just three and six votes respectively. But the long-standing policy of refusing to swear an oath to the British Crown has survived Sinn Fein’s move into the political mainstream and that stance would continue, the party said.

“Nationalism has turned its back on Westminster,” said Sinn Fein Senator Niall O Donnghaile. “Every nationalist constituency in the North elected an abstentionist MP.”

Michelle Gildernew, who is described as the second female Sinn Fein abstentionist MP elected to Westminster, welcomed the recognition of the political contribution of Countess Markievicz.

“Constance Markievicz was a revolutionary, a feminist, a socialist and an abstentionist Irish MP,” she said. “I am profoundly grateful to carry forward her radical political and social agenda.”

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