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

The Indepenndent 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.”

4 thoughts on “Bernadette McAliskey: Return of the Roaring Girl

  1. Bernadette comes across as a real inspiration here. A real fighter for the powerless. I also admire her frank and honest assessment of what happened to her outlook after Bloody Sunday and how that event seemed to change everything for her. She’s very much operating at the local level instead of on a national platform – but she seems happy with her contribution towards changing things for the better. Keep up the struggle Bernadette. Bia Bua!

    • Bernard Devlin McAliskey is an inspiration to all of us, struggling for peace and justice globally. She is a dedicated courageous grassroots activist who has dedicated herself for the betterment of humankind. She is a fiery, passionate person who fights with others for their rights unreservedly and categorically. We need more people like her in this troubled and unjust world.

  2. I had my daughter read Devlin’s book, “The Price of My Soul”, just recently. She’s 16. I want her to see who real “heros” are and how they behave. Keep up the good work Bernard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>