The auditorium in Trinity College on Friday 20th June was nearly empty at the advertised starting time for the lecture on “The Legacy of Power, Conflict and Resistance”. The start was delayed and more people came in but, by the time the speaker and the theme was introduced, the hall was still not full. That was surprising, because the speaker was Bernadette Mc Alliskey (nee Devlin), who had been at 18 years of age one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties (“Northern Ireland”), at 21 years of age elected MP for Mid-Ulster in 1969 and still, 45 years later, holding the record for the youngest woman ever elected to the British Parliament.
The same year as her election, Bernadette went to the USA to gather support for the Civil Rights movement in a trip being used by others, rumouredly, to gather funds for arms. She shocked the conservative part of Irish USA, Ancient Order of Hibernians and Democratic Party political allies, by some of her statements and actions regarding blacks and chicanos and in visiting a Black Panthers project. Bernadette returned home to serve a short prison sentence after conviction for “incitement to riot” arising from her role in the defence of Derry against police (RUC and B-Specials) and Loyalist attack.
In 1972, during her five-year tenure as a Member of Parliament, enraged by his comments about the murder a few days previously of 13 unarmed protesters (a 14th died later of his wounds) by the Parachute Regiment in Derry, she stormed up to the then British Home Secretary and, in front of a full House of Commons, slapped him in the face. Bernadette had been there in Derry that terrible day – she was to have addressed the anti-internment march upon which the Paras opened fire.
The Tyrone woman was also a founder-member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party in 1974, which she left after failing to bring the armed organisation, the Irish National Liberation Army, under party control. She continued to be a Left-Republican political activist, in particular campaigning against the treatment of Republicans on arrest and subsequently as prisoners in jail, in the H-Blocks Campaign. She learned to speak Irish. In January 1981, she and her husband Michael McAlliskey were the victims of an assassination attempt by a squad of the “Ulster Freedom Fighters” (a cover name for the Ulster Defence Association, which was not banned until 1992). They both survived, though Bernadette had been shot seven times.
In 1996, while four months pregnant, Bernadette’s daughter was arrested on a German extradition warrant, charging her with being part of a Provisional IRA mortar attack on a British Army base in Osnabruck, Germany. Although taken to England, where a judge agreed to her extradition to Germany, a long and vigorous campaign fought by Roisín’s mother and her supporters eventually defeated the extradition and Roisín gave birth to a healthy daughter.
In 1998 and for some years after, Bernadette was an outspoken critic of Sinn Féin and of their direction in the “Peace Process”, which she saw as the party coming to accept British colonialism and Irish capitalism. In 2003 she was banned by the USA and deported, widely interpreted as being due to her speaking against the Good Friday Agreement, but continued her campaigning. However in 2007, another extradition warrant was issued for her daughter Roisín on the same charges as before and the young woman became emotionally ill. The whole trauma was seen by many as a warning to Bernadette to cease criticising the “new dispensation” and subsequently she was seen to fade from the ranks of public critics of the GFA, Sinn Féin and of the treatment of Republican prisoners.
Bernadette remained active through working with migrants in a not-for-profit organisation in Dungannon. In recent years she has returned, on occasion, to the issues upon which she was so outspoken previously, for example standing surety for Marian Price’s bail to attend her sister Dolores’ funeral and speaking at the ceremony herself. Bernadette also spoke at the Bloody Sunday Commemoration/ March for Justice in January this year in Derry.
With a c.v. of that sort, one would reasonably expect a packed auditorium.
Bernadette has walked the walk and thought the thought too but she can also talk the talk. With one A4 sheet in front of her, she spoke for over an hour, hardly ever glancing at her notes. Her talk was as part of Trinity College’s MPhil Alumni Conference on ‘Power, Conflict, Resistance’ organised by the Department of Sociology for its Mphil course in “Race, Ethnicity and Conflict”.
Bernadette McAlliskey began her talk with the theme of fear of conflict, developing the thesis that this fear is inculcated in us from childhood, as conflict arises out of challenging power and hierarchy. She traced this further back to religious indoctrination where dogma is to be accepted without question and finds its reflection in all aspects of life but particularly in the political.
Talking about Tom Paine, who expounded the theory that human beings, each independently, are responsible for themselves, she stated that this is fundamental to citizenship. Some aspects of this self-responsibility are delegated to institutions when we live in large groups but any decisions made for us without our consent are “an usurpation”. Tom Paine was an English Republican, author of, among other works Common Sense (1776) and The Rights of Man (1791). He had to flee England because of disseminating his ideas, which were considered revolutionary in his time.
Much of Bernadette’s talk was given over to this theme, to the lack of consideration of women even by such as Tom Paine, and also to the racism spread by colonialism, which the Christian hierarchies condoned and even encouraged.
When she finished to sustained applause and took questions, there were two from people identifying themselves as Travellers, another from a person from an NGO working with migrants, another regarding anti-Irish racism in English colonial ideology and the continuing power of the Catholic Church in the education system.
One question seemed to throw her and she admitted that she found it difficult to answer. Ronit Lentin, Jewish author, political sociologist and critic of Israeli Zionism asked Bernadette was it not true that racism in the Six Counties came mostly from within Loyalism, allied to anti-Catholic sectarianism. Bernadette struggled in replying, at one point denying it and pointing to anti-Traveller discrimination in the ‘nationalist’ areas but following this up by observing that Travellers would only camp in or near ‘nationalist areas’ (presumably because the hostility in a ‘unionist area’ would be worse).
Bernadette then went on to recall the recent anti-Muslim remarks made by a prominent Belfast evangelist preacher, James McConnell, and how the First Minister of Stormont, Peter Robinson, had defended the evangelist’s right to free speech. Asked for his own opinion of Muslims, the First Minister had replied that he also distrusted them “if they are fully devoted to Sharia law” but would trust them to go to the shop for his groceries and to bring him back the correct change. All the examples Bernadette drew on, apart from the generalised one about Travellers in ‘nationalist’ areas, were in fact from the Unionist sector.
The final question was from an SWP activist who pointed out that the State does not admit to its institutional racism and often takes no action on racist attacks or denies that the motive for the attack was racism. The activist asked Bernadette how she thought racism can be dealt with in this context. She replied that the legal structures are there and should be used and persisted with.
It seemed a strange response from one who would have described herself in the past as a revolutionary. Earlier in her talk she herself had quoted the black Caribbean lesbian, Audre Lorde, who said that the instruments of the State could not be used to dismantle it (actually I.V. Lenin had made the same point in The State and Revolution in 1917, nor was he the first to do so). A revolutionary’s answer to that question would presumably have been that while the structures should be used in order to expose them that ultimately the capitalist State’s power is the enemy of unity among the people; disunity rather than unity among the people is in the interest of the system. Mobilisation of the people against racism and directing them towards the source of their ills, the capitalist system, and building solidarity in action, is the only realistic way forward. Perhaps Bernadette felt constrained by the academic environment in which she was speaking but that is not the answer she gave.
Interesting retrospective piece on McAlliskey’s visit to the USA in 1969: http://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/fidel-castro-in-a-miniskirt-bernadette-devlins-first-us-tour/
Interview with McAlliskey at a Scottish conference on radical independence https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4LdcnxMb9Q