She'd Swear No Oath To An English King: Constance Markiewicz was the first woman elected to the British Parliament but was never seated because, in line with the nationalist and republican principles of the Sinn Fein Party, she refused to swear allegiance to the monarchy which had oppressed the Irish people since the 12th Century. The New Zealand Speaker's recent refusal to seat Hone Harawira until he swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II shows that the feudal traditions of our parliament still have teeth.
IT’S ONE of those trick trivia questions that always catches the pub-quiz whiz-kids off balance.
“Who was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons?”
Quick as a flash, all the amateur historians chime in with “Nancy Astor!” (the American-born Vicountess who famously declared: “Mr Churchill, if you were my husband I’d put poison in your tea.” To which Winston Churchill, even more famously, replied: “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”)
The amateur historians would, however, be wrong.
Lady Astor was indeed the first woman to take up a seat in the House of Commons (she won her husband’s old constituency of Plymouth Sutton in a by-election in 1919) but she was not the first woman to win one.
That honour belongs to Constance Markiewicz, the Irish nationalist revolutionary, who won the constituency of Dublin St Patrick’s for the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Féin, in the British General Election of 1918.
That Constance Markiewicz never took her seat in the House of Commons was due entirely to her nationalist and revolutionary republican beliefs. As a champion of Irish independence from Great Britain and a staunch republican, she was not about to swear allegiance to an English king, or a monarchy which had oppressed her people since the 12th Century.
And therein lies the insurmountable problem – as New Zealanders, witnessing the aborted swearing-in of a member of their own House of Representatives 93 years later, have discovered.
The Oath of Allegiance, like so many of the other feudal relics that still clutter this country’s constitutional arrangements, may seem to be nothing more than a harmless anachronism, but, when challenged, turns out to have a cutting edge as keen as any medieval broadsword.
LIKE IRELAND’S SINN FÉIN (“Ourselves Alone”), the newly-formed Mana Party is a revolutionary nationalist political movement seeking to bring about fundamental social, economic and political change within the framework of a constitutional monarchy.
To get around this central contradiction at the heart of Mana’s political project, it’s leader, Hone Harawira, is required to swear an oath, or make an affirmation, which he has no intention of honouring. Or, to put it more bluntly: before Mr Harawira can take up his parliamentary seat, the Speaker of the House, Dr Lockwood Smith, is requiring him to perjure himself.
The Mana Party leader is committed to establishing a bi-cultural Aotearoan republic, with the Treaty of Waitangi enshrined at the heart of its constitution.
Why, then, should he be required to “solemnly swear” to: “… be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”
The legal experts, like the Speaker, will argue that “the law is the law”. It’s a fair point, but it is also a profoundly hypocritical objection.
For many years, now, Members of Parliament who have not been able, in good conscience, to swear an oath before God, have been able to make an affirmation instead. Why then, if our legislators are willing to make provision for the tender consciences of atheists, have they not extended the same courtesy to republicans?
We know how swiftly the House of Representatives can act when it wants to (just ask the executives of Warner Bros.) so why doesn’t it allow Mr Harawira to swear to:
“ … [B]e faithful and bear true allegiance to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, that I will be honest and forthright in my efforts to advance the rights of the people of Tai Tokerau, that I will do my utmost to help all Maori people become full empowered citizens of this land and that I will do whatever I can to reduce inequalities in this country, so that all may one day be proud to call Aotearoa home.”
THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE, in deciding to stand firm on the Oath of Allegiance, has brought the evolving tradition of MPs swearing or affirming allegiance to Treaty, Nation, Democracy and Queen to an abrupt halt.
This is regrettable. Because, by re-infusing the Oath with all of its ancient, feudatory power, Dr Smith may end up driving the Mana Party to adopt the tactics of Sinn Féin in 1918.
Rather than take up her seat in the King’s parliament, Countess Markiewicz, along with dozens of other Irish MPs elected under Sinn Féin’s banner, unilaterally constituted themselves as the Dáil Éireann – the first parliament of the Irish Republic.
Thus began the Irish War of Independence.
JUST AS POWERFUL CURRENTS of water have carved out the courses of Canterbury’s rivers, powerful currents of history are carving out the future contours of the New Zealand state.
It will indeed be ironic if future pub-quiz whiz-kids identify Dr Lockwood Smith as the man whose neo-colonialist actions sparked the birth of the Bicultural Republic of Aotearoa.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 July 2011.