In 1969 Bernadette Devlin made history when she became the youngest woman to be elected to parliament. She was 21.
The tabloid newspapers were more interested in what she wore than her politics. But her election victory came out of the key role she played in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.
This movement fought the rotten political system that discriminated against the majority Catholic population. Catholics had the worst jobs, lived in the worst housing and received the worst education.
Police turned a blind eye—or actively participated in—violence against them.
The electoral system only allowed ratepayers or commercial property owners to vote in local elections.
Some 90 percent of commercial property in Northern Ireland was Protestant-owned.
The electoral boundaries for the Londonderry county borough council had been redrawn to ensure the election of a Unionist council, despite the Catholic majority.
Bernadette was at the centre of the civil rights movement. In August 1968 she joined the first civil rights march from Coleraine to Dungannon.
A Unionist mob, supported by the police, stopped the march from entering the town centre.
In October she travelled to Derry to join a second major civil rights march, which the Unionist regime running Northern Ireland had banned.
TV footage of police attacking the march sent shockwaves around the world.
Her experiences led her to help found the radical socialist People’s Democracy (PD) group.
On New Year’s Day 1969, PD organised a march from Belfast to Derry. Police and Unionist mobs ferociously attacked it.
In February, as the political crisis continued, Unionist prime minister Terence O’Neill resigned.
Eight PD candidates stood in the Northern Ireland-wide election that followed.
Bernadette gained the highest vote among them. This paved the way for her to stand as a unity candidate in a Westminster parliamentary by-election two months later.
She won—becoming MP for Mid Ulster.
Bernadette used her position to support workers’ struggles and civil rights campaigns. She appeared on picket lines and joined anti‑racist demonstrations across Britain.
On May Day 1969, she told Socialist Worker, “I’m against all repressive laws which attack my people —the poor, the workers and small farmers, British or Irish, Catholic or Protestant, black or white.”
Then, in August 1969, Northern Ireland exploded. Police laid siege to the Catholic Bogside area of Derry, saturating the area with tear gas.
People threw up barricades and used petrol bombs to beat the police back. Bernadette was pictured in the frontline of the resistance — a stance that saw her jailed a year later.
She was addressing the crowds in Derry on 30 January 1972—the day that would go down as Bloody Sunday—when the British army’s paratroop regiment opened fire on protesters. They killed 14 people.
The next day she was in parliament. She was the only witness present, yet she was prevented from speaking.
The man responsible for the deaths, Tory home secretary Reginald Maudling, justified the killings, saying, “When people fire on troops, when people attack soldiers with bullets and bombs, they must expect retaliation.”
Bernadette crossed the floor and punched him.
“Once we came past Bloody Sunday there was nothing I did not believe the British government was capable of,” she told Socialist Worker.
“Any illusions I had that it was anything other than a murdering machine were gone.”
Bernadette’s election wasn’t removed from struggle and it wasn’t an alternative to it. It flowed from the struggle itself.
It was a kick in the teeth to those who thought they had Northern Irish politics all stitched up.
And it brought more attention to the battles taking place outside parliament.
“I was always very clear about the things that I believed in and the things that I stood for,” Bernadette told Socialist Worker in 2005.
“And I always saw myself as representing them (the citizens of Mid Ulster)—that’s why I wasn’t a very good parliamentarian. I didn’t believe those ideas were negotiable—they weren’t negotiable for me.”