Only the very safe can talk about wrong and right
Of those who are forced to choose, some will choose to fight
The revolutionary heroes of the left who become icons on t-shirts and posters tend to have two characteristics. They are usually men, and they are usually dead. I’m thinking Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Bobby Sands, Steve Biko. Actually, I can only think of one who continued his mystique while still alive: Nelson Mandela.
Off the top of my head it’s very hard to think of any women. Angela Davis, of course; she is still alive and still appears as an iconic poster image. And she’s been getting involved with the Occupy movement in the U.S. too.
Well, there’s someone who should appear in this pantheon, and she is still alive and has never sold out her socialist, republican, feminist credentials. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. I’m quite shocked at how unfamiliar this name seems to be to a lot of people here in Glasgow; growing up in New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s, I had heard of her. But between then and now, I’d not heard much.
Where did she go? Why has a woman who was elected to the UK Parliament at 21, who smacked the Home Secretary in the head the day after Bloody Sunday, and who was nearly assassinated in front of her children with seven bullets, dropped from view?
Why didn’t Bernadette stand in triumph with Bono and the grey-haired men who celebrated the Good Friday Agreement?
That was a question another admirably staunch Irish woman, Leila Doolan, asked herself. She approached the publicity-shy Devlin McAliskey, wanting to make a documentary about her, so that her rich, brilliant life and ideas would not disappear from Irish history, obscured behind a veil of self-serving men’s egos. Finally, they decided to work together on a film; a film that would focus on Devlin McAliskey’s ideas and activism, not her private life.
Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a local showing of this film, with the director in attendance for questions and discussion. The film is called Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey, and it showed at the Glasgow Film Theatre as part of the Document 9 Festival.*
How I long for this film to have a wider audience. What a woman. What a life.
Why are Bernadette’s ideas worth knowing today?
We have a young generation of radicals active around the world who can take inspiration and wisdom from this woman who started as a student protestor. Indeed we older ones can also take heart from Bernadette. She came from a working class community, she joined a young civil rights movement in fighting the United Kingdom establishment, she became an MP at 21, and she encountered prison, state violence and personal hardship throughout, which informed her analysis, from which she has never wavered. We have plenty to learn from Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.
This is a woman who, while she fought on the side of Northern Irish Republicans and was from a Catholic community, believes that religion is a plague on society. She went into Loyalist working class communities throughout the Troubles to make common cause from a socialist perspective. There is some great footage of this in the film. The courage and articulacy of this woman’s righteous anger throughout her career made my hair stand on end. The theatre burst into spontaneous applause on at least one occasion.
Bernadette shows her mettle in an early speech on why sectarianism is a distraction from the real issues:
She visited the U.S. early in the civil rights days and learned feminism from radical Black women. She learned to join many dots of oppression on those trips and brought those lessons back to Ireland with her. And she maintains a republican, socialist and feminist perspective to this day, working with youth in South Tyrone. She believes that political truth is contained in the bodies and minds and experiences of those who suffer at the bottom of the pile.
Why isn’t she prominent in the narrative of Northern Ireland’s “progress”?
The question is, why wouldn’t this remarkable politician join with Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley in compromising to bring the Troubles to an end? Because she would never join their “bloody club”. And by bloody club, she means the club of sell-out politicians enhancing their careers and lining their pockets by quickening the onset of neoliberal capitalism as the “saviour” of Northern Ireland. She sees the continued violence, poverty, sectarianism and encroaching racism toward outsiders in Northern Ireland as the failure of the civil rights movement to bring about the needed socialist revolution.
The question of violence
Most interesting of all to me, given the rapidly increasing use of state violence around the world against Occupy Movement, student, anti-cuts and Arab Spring protests, was Bernadette’s perspective on the use of violence to achieve political ends.
The film shows exactly what kind of state violence her community were up against as their originally peaceful civil rights movement gained momentum in the late 1960s. The threat to life and limb was real on a frequent basis. It was clear that there was no protection from anywhere except from their own. She says that she never took up arms herself at any point, but that was only because she was never forced to make that choice; there were always others to step in and do it. She will not condemn those who do make that choice, especially after personally witnessing Bloody Sunday, and nearly being assassinated in front of her children by Loyalist gunmen, with, she believes, the complicity of the British government. And when asked by the British press whether she would apologise to the Home Secretary after striking him in Parliament (he had claimed that the soldiers were fired on first during Bloody Sunday, and she, an eye witness, was not allowed to respond), she only said “He’s lucky I couldn’t get my hand on his throat”.
We need to be reminded of a quote attributed to Malcolm X, as the forces of oppression gather themselves about us from all angles:
“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” — WikiQuotes.
Some may call up the ghost of Gandhi to refute this, and they are at liberty to take the path of non-violence, come what may; this takes a courage of its own. But I defy anyone to watch this film, and not understand, that, as the song says “Only the very safe can talk about wrong and right. Of those who are forced to choose, some will choose to fight”.
What’s Bernadette doing now?
Here’s a clip of Bernadette more recently (2007) laying out the rationale for the socialist republic. Scotland take note:
These days Bernadette works for the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme. She can’t imagine walking up the steps of Stormont; too much blood was spilled in getting there, too much trauma experienced by her, her family and many others. She won’t sit on any podium with that bloody club. She hopes the younger generation will be able to take things forward.
Why we need to see this film
I came out of this film both despairing and inspired. I have no idea how to lobby to get it shown on television or more widely in cinemas, but I do believe it needs a wider audience. The younger generations fighting today need icons like Bernadette and role models like film-maker Leila Doolan. Angry, determined women sans make-up and all other artifice. Women who have faced the worst the human race has to offer and maintain their passion for bringing about a better world. Most of all, we all need to be reminded about what we are up against, as a counter to the false dreams offered by Hollywood-style narratives of individual effort overcoming the odd bad apple in the state apparatus. Real history grounded in the real world, featuring real Village Aunties.
* See comments section for clarification from Chris Bowman regarding the Document 9 Film Festival in Glasgow.