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Obituary: Edwina Stewart, communist and civil rights activist

11 May 1934-29 May 2020

EDWINA STEWART, communist and civil-rights activist, died on Friday May 29. Her daughters were with her and she had been ill for a while.

Born Edwina Menzies in East Belfast, she was proud of her family who came from the radical Protestant tradition: both her parents were founder members of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). 

Edwina followed in her parents’ footsteps and joined the Communist Party and it is in this capacity that she knew some of those families whose relatives went to fight fascism in Spain. 

Her father Eddie worked in the shipyard and was a trade-union activist. Her mother Sadie was politically active, especially supporting the International Brigades.

She also helped to organise International Women's Day in the 1940s and campaigned against the marriage bar in the Civil Service.

Edwina met Jimmy Stewart, (1934-2013) from Ballymena, at Stranmillis Teacher Training College. They later married and had two daughters, Helen and Moya. 

Edwina was a teacher in Ashfield Girls’ School and Comber High School, Jimmy taught in Hemsworth Square School and then in Somerdale on the Shankill Road. He later became the general secretary, and then the chair of the CPI.

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, who played at a Morning Star event in Manchester 1968, and Mulholland School of Irish dancing were also part of the delegation. 

Edwina was committed to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, helping 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 Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which she held 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 job at Ashfield Girls’ Secondary School, Belfast, because of right-wing unionist pressure group Vanguard and other bodies. 

Edwina 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 the 15th of 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 or the National Executive Committee of the CPI in 1970 when it unified into an all-Ireland party. She was also on the National Women’s Committee at the time 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 Eileen, Daniel, Catherine, Callum, and Tess, great grandchildren, Ruadhan and Sarah, sisters Rosie Marion Sheila and Julie.

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