Of those who are forced to choose: Bernadette Devlin McAliskey


Only the very safe can talk about wrong and right

Of those who are forced to choose, some will choose to fight

– lyrics from Natives, song famously sung by Christy Moore, by Paul Doran.

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.

Iconic poster Free Angela Davis, by F. Beltran, 1971

Iconic poster Free Angela Davis, by F. Beltran, 1971, from IISG on Flickr.

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?

Bono celebrating with Irish politicians

Bono celebrating the Good Friday Agreement with Irish politicians. Image from Head Down Eyes Open, blog by Conneally.

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.

Bernadette Devlin: Northern Ireland graffiti portrait, photographed by Gary Stevens

Bernadette Devlin: from a mural gracing the facade of a video store on 23rd Street near Capp in San Francisco, photographed by Gary Stevens

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.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

Recent portrait of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, by Francis McKee

* See comments section for clarification from Chris Bowman regarding the Document 9 Film Festival in Glasgow.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. babs nicgriogair
    Nov 20, 2011 @ 15:09:41

    Good write-up Sarah! Thanks for taking the time to do this. I knew the woman was ‘trouble’ when i would overhear my parents discussing the irish situation as a child in the 70s. I’m so glad she still is! Vital, wise and brave. An inspiration to us all.
    Big shout out to Leila Doolan for doggedly making this doc over several years on a shoestring – she actually reminds me of Maggie Smith with her swirling cloak! – and Paula and the Document team for having the vision to invite them over to Glesga.


  2. Liam T
    Nov 21, 2011 @ 22:15:24

    great article, really want to see this film now.

    I’ve heard a story about Bernadette McAliskey doing a meeting in Woodside Halls in Glasgow during the early 80s, which before it had even started was under siege from loyalists – those inside had to barricade themselves inside the hall, until eventually a few police showed up and scattered the attackers.


  3. Morag Eyrie
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 11:11:24

    @Babs and @Liam Thanks for your comments and reminiscences :-)


  4. Chris Bowman
    Dec 12, 2011 @ 18:52:31

    Thanks for publishing your review of ‘Bernadette’ above- I concur with most of what you have to say about it.

    Just to clarify, it was shown as part of the Document International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, Document 9- Document is an independent festival showing a wide range of films relating to all aspects of human rights at a number of venues in Glasgow, including the CCA, GMAC and the GFT- it takes place in October every year, and features debates, workshops, exhibitions and music as well as films. As such, it was one of the events for which GFT were kind enough to offer us screening room in their programme, while Document itself is an autonomous initiative.

    Bernadette herself made a personal appearance at Document to a standing room only audience in the CCA to discuss aspects of her work and thought in the context of the world we live in today. She remains an impressive and engaging speaker.

    Thanks also to Babs for namechecking Document in the response above.


    • Morag Eyrie
      Dec 12, 2011 @ 19:00:55

      Hi Chris, thanks for your comment, and apologies for not getting it right about the film festival. Found it quite hard a few weeks after the fact to find accurate information. Will update the post.

      One of the friends I went with (not Babs) was at the personal appearance of Bernadette at the CCA- I was really jealous! He said she was amazing,


  5. Catherine
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 16:44:07

    Hello to you my niece from Canada. How proud I am to have you as my niece, someone who continues to advocate for social justice openly. If my understanding is correct your Scotish ancesters who came to Canada in the mid 1800’s were teaching literacy and working in the slums of Glasgow. Is it in our genes?

    I have been concerned and active in many causes over my long life and certainly remember the times of Bernadette Devlin, a very brave woman. And an example for us all then too.

    Carry on.


  6. mhairi
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 01:25:06

    I had the very real pleasure of meeting Bernadette last night when she spoke in Glasgow about Marian Price. She’s really quite a remarkable woman and its both amazing and horrifying that still after all these years she is speaking out about internment in Northern Ireland.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to Village Aunties and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 783 other followers

%d bloggers like this: