Edwina Stewart (1934–2020)

Edwina Stewart, communist and civil rights activist, died on Friday 29 May 2020, in the presence of her daughters. She had been ill for a while.

Edwina was born in East Belfast, and her family came from the radical Protestant tradition that she was proud of. Both her parents were founder-members of the Communist Party of Ireland. Edwina followed in her parents’ 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 and was a trade union activist; her mother, Sadie, was politically active, supporting the International Brigades in the anti-fascist war in Spain.

Edwina was a teacher in Ashfield Girls’ School and Comber High School. Edwina met Jimmy Stewart (1934–2013), from Ballymena, at Stranmillis Teacher Training College. They later married. Jimmy later taught in Hemsworth Square School and then in Somerdale on the Shankill Road. Jimmy later became the general secretary, and then the national chairperson, of the CPI. They had two daughters.

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, and was also active in the Irish anti-Apartheid Movement, the Campaign for Peace and Detente, and opposition to the war in Vietnam.

In 1969 Edwina was elected to the position of secretary of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, 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 Máire Drum and Bernadette Devlin (McAliskey). She was forced to leave her job at Ashfield Girls’ Secondary School, Belfast, because of pressure from the right-wing unionist pressure group Vanguard and other bodies. She said of that time: “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 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 eye witnesses who gave evidence to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, also known as the Saville Inquiry, the results of which were published on 15 June 2010, when the then British prime minster apologised on behalf of the British government, acknowledging that paratroopers had fired the first shots on fleeing unarmed civilians.

Edwina was a member of the National Executive Committee of the CPI from 1970, when the CPI unified into an all-Ireland party. She was also on the National Women’s Committee when the CPI adopted the policy of a Woman’s Right to Choose, the first political party in Ireland to do so. She leaves behind her daughters, Helen and Moya, and their families, including grandchildren as well as her sisters.