PETER FROST remembers a comrade and friend who died tragically young 25 years ago
Back in 1971 I was editor of the Young Communist League magazine, Challenge. I was lucky enough to interview Madge Davison, a leading young communist activist from Belfast.
Madge was in London to join one of the huge anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.
She had already gained a reputation in the anti-war movement when in May 1968 she threw herself in front of marching sailors from a US destroyer as they took part in the Belfast Lord Mayor’s parade.
I interviewed her about Northern Ireland for Challenge. Many of us characterised the six counties as Britain’s Vietnam — a country occupied by a foreign army and fighting for its own independence.
She told the young Challenge readers of the outrages being committed by British soldiers in the streets of her native Belfast, as well as of Derry and of other towns in the north of Ireland.
The people in Northern Ireland were being forced to build barricades and use petrol bombs to defend working-class areas from armed police and British soldiers harassing the local population with snatch raids and random searches and arrests.
She told us of her part of a several hundred-strong women’s march against the Falls Road curfew that had been imposed by the occupying forces of the British army.
She also spoke of her political work with the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (Nicra) where she had become a full-time organiser.
Her insights were to be proved prophetic. Just months later, on January 30 1972, the British army shot 26 unarmed civilians on the streets of Derry. Fourteen people died.
These events became known as Bloody Sunday, sometimes called the Bogside Massacre. Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers and some were shot while trying to help the wounded.
Two protesters were also injured when they were run down by army vehicles.
Davison, as a full-time organiser for Nicra, had played a leading role in organising the march.
I well remember watching the huge amount of TV news coverage of the events and seeing Davison at the heart of the action.
She went on to organise marches and protests about the Bloody Sunday murders and was a key player in getting the impressive memorial to the victims built.
As well as her leading role Nicra, Davison was a member of the national executive committee of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) and the first general secretary of its youth wing, the Connolly Youth Movement, after it became an all-Ireland body in 1970.
Davison came from a working-class Protestant background in the Shore Road area of Belfast. She was particularly proud of her Presbyterian background, of the great contributions made by her forebears in the Society of the United Irishmen.
This gave her a unique understanding that religious differences were never as important as they could sometimes seem.
She worked all her life for the unity of the Protestant and Catholic sections of the working class.
Davison was deeply influenced by another outstanding Belfast communist woman, Betty Sinclair.
Although 40 years older than Davison, she became a mentor, comrade and friend.
Davison was an outstanding internationalist. She led her Connolly Youth Movement to protest when US communist Angela Davis was framed for murder.
She had the capacity to involve a wide range of young people in progressive action. In 1973 she organised and led a 114-strong all-Ireland delegation to the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin.(pictured below).
She involved young people from the Connolly Youth Movement, the Republican Movement, Union of Students in Ireland, Young Liberals, National Federation of Youth Clubs, Irish Union of School Students, Nicra, as well as young trade unionists.
She arranged for the delegation to visit the grave of legendary Irish anti-fascist Frank Ryan (below), commander of the Connolly Column of the International Brigades.
Ryan’s grave was in Dresden but his body has since been returned to his beloved Dublin, where he has an honoured place in the republican section of Glasnevin Cemetery.
When her work with Nicra finally finished Davison went to Queen’s University, obtaining a first-class honours degree in law.
She was called to the bar in 1984, soon establishing a reputation as a human rights and women’s rights barrister.
Late in 1990 she won a senior post with the Fair Employment Agency but in January 1991 she was diagnosed with cancer. She died aged just 41 on January 27 1991.
In her all-too-short life she achieved more than many do in twice as many years. Speaking at her funeral Michael O’Riordan, then general secretary of the CPI, said: “Madge was motivated by a vision, a dream of a society in which there would be no sectarianism, no exploitation, one in which men and women would live in equality, one in which poverty would be abolished — in short, an Ireland free, united, and socialist.”
That vision is yet to be realised, but wherever that fight goes on the memory of Madge Davison will always be an inspiration.