Bernadette McAliskey interviewed

In this video from Ireland:

Veteran civil rights activist and socialist republican Bernadette McAliskey speaks at éirígí‘s James Connolly commemoration in Arbour Hill, Dublin, 12 May 2007. In this clip she talks about the nature of republican and socialist ideologies.

From British daily The Independent:

Bernadette McAliskey: Return of the Roaring Girl

Forty years ago today, a police baton charge signalled the start of the Troubles. One student on that march became an icon of rebellion. Where is she now? Cole Moreton meets… Bernadette McAliskey

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Castro in a miniskirt, they called her. A “blazing star” and “an icon of the civil rights movement”. The female face of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Republican rebel immortalised in a huge mural on the side of a house in “Free Derry“. Tourists go to see it: wee, wild Bernadette Devlin shouting through a loudhailer as smoke billows over the barricade behind her. So who is this pensioner in a lilac cardie?

“There are people who think I’m dead,” she says cheerfully, sitting in an anonymous office on an industrial estate, in a small town west of Belfast. “I like that!”

But this really is the same woman who was elected to Parliament in 1969 aged 21, the youngest female MP ever. The one who was about to make a speech to marchers in Derry in January 1972 when the Parachute Regiment opened fire, killing 14 people on what became known as Bloody Sunday. The woman who was in the Commons the next day, to hear the Home Secretary, Reggie Maudling, say the Paras had acted in self-defence. She hurled herself across the floor of the House and slapped him hard on the face, yelling, “Murderous hypocrite!”

This diminutive 61-year-old is the same woman whose maiden speech was described – by opponents – as “brilliant” and “electrifying”. Listening to a broadcast of it, a young American scholar knew he wanted to be in politics. His name was Bill Clinton.

Even now, her legend is powerful: at the Cannes film festival this year a biopic of Devlin was announced, to be called The Roaring Girl. She will be played by Sally Hawkins, star of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, apparently. But not if Bernadette Devlin McAliskey (as she has been for years) gets her way. “The whole concept is abhorrent to me,” she says, revealing that her lawyers are challenging the film. “How dare anybody make a pretend life for me while I’m still living the real one?”

She hates dwelling on the past. “I am interested in now!” So she is unlikely to be among those marking the 40th anniversary today of the first major civil rights march ever to be held in Northern Ireland. “Why celebrate 40? You only do that if you’re so full of yourself you think something must be done before you die.”

McAliskey would rather talk about present-day issues, like the treatment of migrants who come to Northern Ireland looking for work. “Disgraceful,” she says, as the director of a charity that offers them advice and help. “People who know they’re not allowed to behave badly towards each other any more have found themselves a new target.” It is a question of human rights, she says. Most things are to Bernard, as she calls herself. Most other people are wrong too, it seems, as she rages among the case files and pot plants. The Good Friday Agreement led to “fleece and consternation, not peace and reconciliation”. The “smoke and mirrors peace” was bought with European money: “The decent unemployed couldn’t cross the road for being offered work!”

She says it all with the sly look of someone who loves a battle, just like the old days … but I asked to see her. Not the other way round. She cherishes her relative obscurity, and only agreed to talk about the work of the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (Step), the network of groups and campaigners she directs from this office in Dungannon. “I’m not interested in all that ‘those were the days’ stuff.”

She can’t help herself, though. McAliskey loves to talk. The march in Derry on 5 October 1968 was, she says, “the beginning of it all. I can still see, in my mind, the absolute hatred on the faces of police officers. My understanding of the society I was in was irrevocably changed.”

It had been organised by the newly formed Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, to protest at discrimination against Catholics. Some participants have admitted they were trying to provoke the authorities. Not her. “Until then I thought of policemen as the ones who kept the rowdy drinkers in line at my grandmother’s pub.”

Newspaper reports described a baton charge by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. “This wasn’t a baton charge,” she says bitterly. “This was a pent-up hatred. This was naked violence. This was three or four men with long cudgels standing over someone on the ground and hitting and hitting them.”

This is the old Bernie Devlin, phrase-making through clenched teeth. “This was police following those who had dragged away the injured, and beating them up as well. This was a realisation that your worst enemy was in a uniform and had the power,” she almost spits it out, “to kill you.” She still feels deeply about it. “I hate them. Hate the police.” Surely she has to work with them now? “It’s not personal. But it is my deepest prejudice.”

In 1968 Devlin had just begun her last year studying psychology at Queen’s University. “I was a first-class honours profile student. Then it was all swept away. My degree and my career. It says something about the cataclysmic impact things had on me at the time that I just didn’t care.”

She started a radical student movement called People’s Democracy, and was taken up by the media. “I come from a long line of strong women,” she says. “My mother and grandmother were both widows. The level of poverty that I grew up in brings a degree of strength and creativity to women, because they have to manage.”

Remarkable things happened within a year. She was thrown out of university, but elected as a unity candidate for Mid Ulster. She wrote a book. She was carried on the shoulders of Irish Americans on a trip to New York. She was jailed for inciting a riot and served six months in prison. She also started to upset a lot of people who had voted for her. “I went away to London and knocked about with the socialists and the Gypsies and the feminists. Best education I could have. But people here said, ‘Confine yourself to our issues. And please cut your hair and lengthen your skirt. And don’t smoke.’ I said, ‘I think youse were looking for somebody else!'”

She horrified them further by having a daughter, Roisin, out of wedlock (although she married the father, Michael McAliskey. They are still together). She was defeated in the next general election, by which time Bloody Sunday had happened. “That was when the civil rights movement ended and the armed struggle began.”

How so? “That was the point of realisation for me that the penalty for demanding equal rights in your society was that your government would kill you. Then you say, ‘If it’s OK for the government to declare war on the people, the people have a right to declare war on the government.'” And on civilians? Children? She doesn’t flinch. “Right up until that point I would have openly argued all the time against armed defence, never mind armed warfare.” And then? “You couldn’t do that with any credibility after Bloody Sunday.” Many people would have taken her for an IRA apologist. “Yes they would. I never said, ‘Don’t do it.’ Because I had made that equation in my own head. That’s terrible … but that was real.”

The armed struggle hit her hard in 1981, when Ulster Freedom Fighters broke down the door of the remote family home and fired shotguns. Michael was shot twice. She was hit in the chest, arm and thigh as she went to wake up one of the three children. Roisin was nine, Deirdre five and Fintan just two. Paras happened to be watching the building, but did not prevent the loyalists going in. Three men were arrested.

“We could not go back to the house after that.” Instead they were moved to a troubled estate. “My kids would have survived the loss of their mother better than the loss of their physical security, which was home.” The damage allegedly done to Roisin was detailed in court last year, when the German government made a second attempt to extradite her for alleged involvement in an IRA attack on a British Army base in June 1996. It failed. “There was never any credible evidence against her,” insists McAliskey. “And yet a young woman gets destroyed in the middle of it.”

Destroyed? “Yeah. She battles valiantly against deep post-traumatic stress that has its origins in when we were shot, but also in the interrogation and incarceration they subjected her to [during the investigation]. They used the fear and trauma of what she went through as a child in an attempt to extricate information from her that she just did not have.”

Perhaps that was the most powerful reason for her mother’s retreat from the national stage: to recover and keep the family safe for a while. But it is also true that she never found the right party platform. Too headstrong, maybe. Too far out. So McAliskey chose to campaign locally, working with women on the estate. “We took over derelict houses, provided places to meet. Sixties stuff, really.”

It led in 1997 to the formation of Step. “We don’t confine ourselves to one area, such as housing, or legal rights, or water charges – we research and campaign across them all.” It is currently trying to help migrant workers who “just turned up here overnight in 2001”. Local farms and factories could not get enough workers. “So, one morning, 500 came from Portugal. People thought they were a peace delegation. Now, probably 20 per cent of the adults in this area were born somewhere else.”

Speaking up for them has led her into conflict again, with former allies. “People have said, ‘You were with us; now you’re with the foreigners.’ I say, ‘No. I am doing the same thing I have always done. It’s still about people having a right to fulfil their potential and not be excluded from that because of other people’s prejudice.'”

Her name still has influence, she insists. “I could call up the Deputy First Minister and tell him, ‘Straighten yourself up!'” Why doesn’t she, then? She laughs. Quarrels between Martin McGuinness and the First Minister, Peter Robinson, have left the executive unable to meet. “Nobody is making any decisions just now.”

Then why not try again to get elected and bang a few heads together? “What is the point of going into politics?” she says with a sigh. “Look at Gordon Brown. He doesn’t believe anything he used to believe in.”

Better to revolutionise lives one by one, perhaps, in the town she left to go on the march that changed her life, 40 years ago today. In the battered lobby of her office, a couple from Poland are waiting. They know little of the history of this place, or who she is. “Good,” she says briskly. “The icon was never me. People say the image has been tarnished. Do I care? I never made the image; I don’t care what happens to it. I’ve got my life to live.”

A life on the front line

1947 Born in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland

1965 Goes to Queen’s University in Belfast to read psychology

5 October 1968 Attends the first major civil rights demonstration, in Derry. Sees Royal Ulster Constabulary attack marchers with batons

1969 Starts radical student movement; attracts media attention. Thrown out of college. Jailed for incitement to riot. Writes book. Becomes youngest women ever elected to Parliament

1971 Has first of three children

1972 Attacks Home Secretary in the Commons, day after Bloody Sunday

1974 Loses seat to nationalists

1981 Shot, with husband, when loyalists break into their remote home

1998 and 2007 Successfully fights extradition of daughter Roisin to Germany, for alleged involvement in IRA attack

3 thoughts on “Bernadette McAliskey interviewed

  1. Analysis: Assassinating Rosemary Nelson’s character

    By eirigi

    On April 19, 2005 the inquiry into the death of Rosemary Nelson by a
    British-appointed inquiry team opened at Craigavon Civic Centre. The
    chairman, (Sir) Michael Morland, laid great emphasis on the
    independence of the inquiry and stated that decisions as to the work of
    the Inquiry would be “ours and ours alone”. He further stated that “we
    will resist any attempt to take over or improperly influence the
    Inquiry which may be made by any body, organisation or special interest

    Sadly, this attitude of all-knowing superiority and double-speak has
    been the hallmark of British conduct in Ireland throughout the entire
    relationship between Ireland and Britain.

    The double-speak which Morland engaged in three and half years ago was
    cruelly exposed this week. It has been laid bare by the manner in which
    the Inquiry Panel has permitted unfounded, unproven and unsubstantiated
    slanders to be made against Rosemary Nelson by members of the RUC/PSNI
    Special Branch during oral testimony to the Inquiry over the last
    number of months.

    When the Inquiry was established, its primary purpose was to consider
    the role not only of the RUC but also of the British Army, MI5 and the
    NIO in the circumstances which led up to the murder of Rosemary Nelson.
    As anyone who has followed the conduct of the Inquiry since the
    commencement of its public hearings in April this year can confirm, it
    appears that Inquiry has lost sight of that original purpose.

    Indeed, the Inquiry has permitted various RUC/PSNI and other British
    intelligence personnel, including members of Special Branch, to freely
    engage in a concerted and open campaign of slander, innuendo, and
    malicious rumour against Rosemary Nelson in order to give justification
    for her murder.

    It is worth recalling that among the original Terms of Reference set
    for this Inquiry was; to establish if “Rosemary Nelson’s death was
    facilitated by acts or omissions of the RUC, NIO, (British) Army or
    other state agency” and to ascertain “whether Rosemary Nelson was
    subject to any adverse behaviour or comments by any persons or
    organisations, including the RUC, NIO, (British) Army or other state

    Having so far failed to mount any rigorous investigation into the exact
    role of British forces or their agents in Rosemary’s murder, it should
    come as no surprise that the Inquiry has now descended into further
    ignominy by permitting a repeat of the “adverse behaviour or comments”
    to which she was subjected in life.

    Some sections of the corporate media have now joined in that descent to
    ignominy by repeating, almost as if fact, unproven and unsubstantiated
    rumours and slanders made by serving and former members of the RUC/PSNI
    – many of whom have had their identities withheld and who give what
    very tenuously passes as evidence while hidden from view behind a

    It is also noticeable that those same sections of the corporate media
    failed to give any coverage to comments made almost two weeks ago by
    Edmund Lynch, the US-based lawyer who was instrumental in pro-actively
    highlighting death threats made against Rosemary Nelson as far back as
    March 1997, a full two years before her murder. Mr Lynch raised his
    concerns to no avail at various levels within the British political and
    policing establishments in the Six Counties, and also within the
    British Cabinet itself, on numerous occasions.

    Ed Lynch summed up the present state of affairs at the Inquiry on
    November 20th when he expressed his disappointment ‘with the persistent
    and unjustified attacks by counsel and witnesses on the character of
    the deceased, Rosemary Nelson’. As Ed Lynch pointed out ‘The Inquiry
    was established to inquire into the circumstances of the killing of Ms.
    Nelson and specifically to ascertain if there was collusion in her
    death on the part of the security forces. Sadly, the proceedings have
    strayed far afield. Counsel to the Inquiry pose statements masked as
    questions which include salacious and unfounded rumours of an affair
    between Rosemary and a client. The very eager witnesses from the former
    RUC, the Special Branch and the Intelligence Service rise to the bait
    and troll in the dirty waters of character assassination.’

    It now appears that just as she was attacked by them in life, Rosemary
    Nelson is now to be attacked in death by those who are widely believed
    to have played a major role in her murder.


  2. Pingback: Ferguson, USA solidarity in Derry, Ireland | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: Irish anti Afghan war demonstration | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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