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McAliskey, Bernadette Devlin (1947—)

McAliskey, Bernadette Devlin (1947—)

Irish socialist republican who was a prominent and well-remembered figure in the 1960s civil-rights campaign in Northern Ireland . Name variations: Bernadette Devlin; Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey. Pronunciations Mack-AL-is-KEE. Born Bernadette Josephine Devlin at Cookstown, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, on April 23, 1947; daughter of John James Devlin and Elizabeth Bernadette Devlin, both ofCookstown; educated at St. Patrick's Academy, Dungannon, County Tyrone, and at Queen's University, Belfast; married Michael McAliskey, on April 23, 1973; children: Roisin McAliskey (b. August 1971); Deirdre McAliskey (b. 1976); Fintan McAliskey (b. 1979).

Became a founder-member of the People's Democracy movement (1968); took part in the civil-rights march from Belfast to Derry (January 1969); elected to British House of Commons and sat for Mid-Ulster constituency (1969–74); unsuccessfully contested European election (1979) and Irish Republic's election (1982); narrowly survived assassination attempt (1981); campaigned against extradition from Irish Republic to Northern Ireland (1987–88); was opposed to the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993; continued to take an active part in socialist republican politics.

A relative silence surrounded Bernadette Devlin McAliskey in the last decade of the 20th century, but it was a silence which deepened her mystique and copperfastened her image as the popular champion of nationalist Derry during the ferment of 1969–70. One of the new university-educated generation of Roman Catholics, a woman from a poor background, a product of a people the quality of whose lives had been destroyed by barbaric discriminatory policies, Bernadette Devlin in her 22nd year became a living symbol both of Northern Ireland's most intractable political problems and of the need for and inevitability of change.

I am not a politician but a political thinker.

—Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

"Change" had never been part of any government's agenda in the society into which she was born at Cookstown, County Tyrone, on April 23, 1947. Northern Ireland itself had been the outcome of a refusal on the part of its Protestant and Presbyterian majority to acquiesce in a transfer of political power which would have placed them under a Roman Catholic-dominated government. The settlement which the Unionists negotiated in 1921 allowed them to remain part of the United Kingdom and to separate politically from the new Irish Free State which was set up and governed largely by nationalists. Fear of possible treachery from the large minority of Catholic nationalists who lived in the new Northern Ireland fused with a sectarian bitterness that already was centuries old, and successive governments operated a policy of covert and often open discrimination against Catholics in practically all areas of social and political life.

Bernadette's childhood was marked by an awareness of the muted ineffectual hostility of her Catholic community towards the Unionist regime. The history of the government's policy had been written clearly across her own family. Her father, born a decade before the Northern Irish State itself, had been one of the upwardly mobile Catholics of the period who by his own initiative had freed himself from an unpropitious background to become a skilled carpenter. The uncertainties of the Ulster economy, which had often forced John James Devlin to seek temporary employment in England, were exacerbated for the Devlins by an inexplicable (and still unexplained) official view that he was a "Political Suspect." This damning cachet on his insurance card (which had to be presented to every prospective employer) meant that Bernadette saw her much-loved father "only at Christmas and Easter and occasional weekends in between." Bernadette's mother Elizabeth Devlin came from a middle-class, almost affluent, background. Not surprisingly, her marriage to a carpenter whose father had been a streetsweeper was ill-received by her family, whose barbed attitude was to remain a feature of McAliskey's childhood memories.

Her father's experience of a segregated State and Ulster's segregated school system fused to form and define Bernadette's political outlook. The seeds of awareness were sown early, and childhood bedtime stories were laced with accounts of the oppressed Irish and their English oppressors: "In our family we developed an unconscious political consciousness from listening to the story of our country," she wrote. She was nine when the Irish Republican Army began an ill-organized and episodic guerilla campaign against the Ulster government. It lasted for six years, ending in failure, but provided for the young Bernadette a realistic backdrop to the songs, stories and lore of conflict.

But the schools were the principal battleground in the struggle for the hearts and minds of Ulster's youth. On the Catholic side of the divide, religion and Irish nationalism were skillfully combined and extolled, by the religious teaching orders in particular. By the time she came under the tutelage of Mother Benignus , vice-principal at St. Patrick's Academy in Dungannon, Bernadette and her peers already knew "what we were for and against." The school, like many others of a republican slant, survived almost independently in a postwar society where state-supported education had become the norm. To Mother Benignus, the government was English-based and therefore was The Enemy. Despite recurring financial difficulties, an apparently lax disciplinary system, and a poor social cachet, the academy fostered a strong sense of identity and cultural values that bred a certain academic excellence. Sadly, Mother Benignus' religious, even more than her political, views, made her part of the on-going problem and no part of any solution: "She didn't hate Protestants," writes McAliskey, "but her view was that you couldn't very well put up with them."

But McAliskey was bright and able. She won coveted prizes for proficiency in the Irish language (which in most instances was not spoken at home and had to be learned) and was one of those who formed an unofficial senior pupils' common room in which "we analyzed the situation in Northern Ireland and discussed why most of us were going to leave it." Even at that age, the pupils were conscious that their future presented a stark choice: either they could leave Ulster and so leave the problem behind them, or become Catholic-trained teachers in Catholic schools and so help perpetuate it.

McAliskey chose not to leave Ulster. So, to examine the problem more thoroughly (and so also to avoid becoming an immediate obvious part of it), she became one of the first generation of Catholics to attend Queen's University in Belfast. Later she would recall that she had gone there "with some vague notion of being able, one day, to improve some aspect of life in Northern Ireland." In 1966, a period when students throughout the world saw themselves as a potential instrument of social and political change, student life at Queen's was repressed, intellectually timid, and socially unimaginative. McAliskey toured all the various student groups and societies with growing frustration. Even the Republican Club "didn't seem to have anything but an existence." Only the Folk Music Society which, significantly, articulated both black civil-rights concerns and Belfast's unemployment problem, displayed any promise of things to come.

It seems unsurprising, therefore, that Bernadette arrived at her first civil-rights march through reading about its imminence in a newspaper. Rising Catholic expectations in an improved economic climate which was not including them, a growing liberal and secular atmosphere, and the entry into office of Prime Minister Terence O'Neill, whose strategic (and slow) liberalizing policy barely concealed an odd political vacuity, all combined with several other factors to lead to the setting-up of the Civil Rights Association in April 1967. The British governing system, which has always emphasized the virtues of leading from

the top, has likewise always been wary of attempts to reverse the emphasis by those who would lead from below. The Ulster government had even greater reason to be wary of those "below," and reacted unwisely (though very much in character) when challenged by a civil-rights body which based its methods on those of black counterpart organizations in America. Certainly both black and white inhabitants of Alabama at that time would have recognized certain familiar aspects in the police attack on civil-rights demonstrators in Derry in October 1968, a fateful occasion to which McAliskey was an uninjured witness. For Bernadette, within the space of a few minutes, State repression ceased to be merely the manipulation of economic resources or the bureaucratic hostility of faceless civil servants; it was a physically violent, bloody reality, measured finally in the smug partisanship of Protestant hospital staff and in the "evil" delight on the faces of the attacking policemen. For her fellow students at Queen's also, the ill-fated march was a watershed: "People were talking and thinking about the society they were living in—not as an intellectual exercise, but realistically and emotionally as if it mattered."

Further determined, though less bloody, attempts by the police to obstruct civil-rights marches led to the formation of a body equally determined that the marches should proceed. The People's Democracy movement set its sights on an end to the gerrymandering system by which Northern Ireland maintained the essentially non-Catholic character of its establishment; repeal of the Special Powers legislation which enabled the police to protect the wellbeing of the establishment in as forceful a manner as they considered necessary; an end to discrimination in housing and employment; and, above all, the right to publicly pursue these objectives. More immediately, a four-day march across the province from Belfast to Derry was planned for the New Year 1969.

The march was successful in the short-term sense, in that it stirred the popular imagination; but in Ulster that stirring had more than one meaning. On the one hand, the small group of 20 or so students had swelled to many hundreds by the time it reached its destination. On the other hand, the loyalist community was sufficiently alarmed by this unprecedented display of Catholic solidarity that the march was attacked at several points, most memorably and most violently at Burntollet Bridge outside Derry. The incident was particularly notable for the passive acquiescence, and occasionally even the active participation, of the police. McAliskey was among the injured, though she managed to continue on to Derry.

Popular awareness of the People's Democracy was now at such a pitch that, when an election was called for February 1969, the movement attempted to take on the establishment within the confines of its own rules. McAliskey, who contested the South Derry constituency against a government minister, lost the election but took over a third of the votes. A month later, a by-election in Mid-Ulster (this time for the British House of Commons in Westminster rather than Northern Ireland's Parliament at Stormont) brought her victory against the widow of a Unionist MP (member of Parliament). Of the several voices in the British House of Commons which were raised in condemnation of the Stormont regime during those years, hers was the most rancorous, the most unrestrained, and the best remembered.

When the rising political tension of the previous several months finally erupted into unprecedented rioting and destruction in the summer of 1969, both Derry and McAliskey became high-profile features of the media coverage. In a sea of unknown persons manning the makeshift barricades, hers was the familiar face behind the megaphone, urging on the defenders of the Bogside against the police, "making sure that everybody had two petrol-bombs." The media continued its close pursuit as she conducted a tour of American cities which resulted in a largesse of £84,000 for the relief of those who had suffered in Ulster's summer of unrest. In November, she published an autobiography which became a classic document of the early "Troubles" era. She increased her majority in the general election of 1970, but little more than a week later she was jailed for her activities on the barricades the previous year. She returned to her post in October 1970, but while she had remained near the center of the storm, the very complexities of the tempest were causing the media focus to shift.

Her energy seemed unabated even by the birth of her daughter Roisin in August 1971, and she took a prominent role in publicizing and protesting against the abuses which accompanied the imposition of internment that same month. Possibly her last memorable appearances during this period were on Bloody Sunday when she addressed the crowd, some of whom became victims of the paratroopers' fire, and two days later, when, as parliamentary speaker for the public's outrage, she physically attacked the Home Secretary during a House of Commons debate. She married Michael McAliskey, a schoolteacher, in April 1973.

The clear anti-Unionist ticket of previous elections was wrecked in February 1974, when the Catholic-dominated center-left Social, Democratic and Labour Party fielded their own candidate, thus splitting the vote and allowing McAliskey's Mid-Ulster seat to be retaken by an extreme Unionist. Those close to her, however, were aware that her growing disillusionment with public life had contributed to the event. In the increasingly polarized state of Ulster politics during the 1970s, her republican socialism seemed too anodyne to the extremists, while her occasional endorsements of the Provisional IRA as fighters of British imperialism alienated the middle classes as well as some working-class Catholics who had experienced the complexities of life under the IRA's stewardship. On one hand, she dismissed the Peace Movement as "dishonest," but conversely she was unable to find an acceptable niche in the increasingly popular Sinn Fein movement. Ultimately, her attempt at contesting the European election of 1979 in order to publicize and defend republican prisoners who were seeking political status, was relatively a lone one. The republican movement refused to support her, and she lost heavily.

An end of a more decisive nature came very close in February 1981, when loyalist gunmen, incensed by her continuing loud support for republican prisoners, almost succeeded in murdering both McAliskey and her husband. Despite the severity of their injuries, the government used her six-month prison sentence of 1970 as an excuse to refuse her any financial compensation. Her efforts to return to "institutional" politics, however, continued to fail; in particular, her bid for a seat in the Irish Dail (parliament) of southern Ireland in 1982 when she attempted to unseat the Taoiseach (prime minister) Charles J. Haughey, came to nothing. She remained the unbowed champion of the republican cause in its broadest and most traditional sense. She spoke against the extradition of wanted republicans from the safety of southern Ireland to the custody of the Belfast authorities in 1987–88, and was one of those who helped to establish a group to preserve in the Irish Constitution the articles (2 and 3) which assert the southern Republic's territorial claim to Northern Ireland. Official confusion as to her precise status within republican circles was demonstrated in 1993 when the British Broadcasting Company was forced to revoke a decision to include her in a legal voice-ban which hampered both republican and loyalist broadcasts until the ceasefire of the following year. She was among the first in republican circles to reject the Downing Street Declaration.

It was, however, her statement at the funeral of the controversial Dominic McGlinchy that he was "the finest republican the struggle has ever produced," an assertion made perhaps with regard more to the distant than to the recent past, that drew her back into the headlines. The journalists rediscovered a woman who had gained nothing and had lost much through her life in socialist republicanism, but who believed in it more passionately than ever. While acutely aware of her "legend," she was dismissive of it as a mere media creation; historical realities for her transcended such chimera. Far from reading the only other account of her life (written in the mid-1970s), she has never read the published version of her own autobiography. When she was first elected to Westminster, she had insisted that she had not intended merely "to join your club." In retrospect, she still maintains that all her elections were fought "on a tactical basis" and "for a specific purpose." She was never a politician but rather "a political thinker." The long-ago refusal of Queen's University to allow her the degree which she had largely earned still rankles. She feels no bitterness against her would-be assassins (one of whom has since been murdered), even though her husband, already made redundant through government economic cutbacks, has not worked since that fateful morning. She resents, however, the necessity to move from the countryside into a built-up urban area which was a consequence of the attack.

McAliskey, Roisin (1971—)

Irish activist . Born in August 1971; daughter of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and Michael McAliskey.

In 1997, ill and pregnant, Roisin McAliskey was jailed in connection with an Irish Republican Army mortar attack on a British army base in Osnabrueck, northwest Germany. There were no injuries. Protesters were convinced that she was being held in solitary confinement in Holloway Prison without bail in direct retaliation against her mother.

History may well remember Bernadette Devlin McAliskey as the one Ulster idealist for whom conformity and compromise were never real options. Even in 1996–97, when the shooting stopped, the unsullied clarity and essential historicity of her vision of the Irish conflict was a disturbing reminder to those who were tempted to accept less than that which they knew to be their due.


Devlin, Bernadette. The Price of My Soul. Andre Deutsch: London, 1969.

Target, G.W. Bernadette: The Story of Bernadette Devlin. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.

suggested reading:

Bell, J. Bowyer. The Irish Troubles: A Generation of Violence, 1967–1972. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1993.

Farrell, Michael. Northern Ireland: The Orange State. London: Pluto Press. 1976.

Gerard O'Brien , Senior Lecturer in History, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland

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