Socialist Worker

Bernadette McAliskey: 'The oppressor demands loyalty'

Civil rights campaigner Bernadette McAliskey from Northern Ireland spoke at last weekend’s Marxism 2006 event in London. Here is an edited version.

Issue No. 2009

Bernadette McAliskey (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Bernadette McAliskey (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The 30 years of armed struggle and mass resistance against British rule in Ireland began with the struggle for civil rights. The struggle was about fighting against second class citizenship.

For people today it is perhaps incredible that Britain, which is terrorising Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of democracy, did not have equality in voting as late as 1968.

In order to be able to vote in Northern Ireland you had to be a property owner. So landlords owned not just property but the democratic process as well.

Northern Ireland was constructed on massive discrimination. Discrimination is not just about blatant prejudice, it has a rationale that argues that people are disloyal. It was assumed that Catholics were disloyal.

We are seeing this process repeated. Under the war on terror it is assumed that Muslims are disloyal. Because someone is Muslim we are told they cannot really be truly British. To prove that you are not disloyal you have to overtly express support for the most right wing activities of the state. Only then can you be considered truly a proper citizen.

This was the position Catholics had reached by the 1960s. The Unionists opposed the post-war reforms, such as the welfare state. They showed foresight in doing this. The poor got healthier and educated. At first the Nationalist community had an element of gratitude about the reforms.

It is similar with immigration. People coming into Britain are expected to have a perception that they they owe this country something. People are encouraged to come here so their labour can be exploited, but they are supposed to feel grateful.

The streets

In Ireland some people had a certain gratitude but they hit the glass ceiling. The next generation came along and argued that it was our right to have a decent standard of living and democracy.

The reformists had exhausted all the peaceful means of change. There was nowhere to go but the streets. All movements seem to start with a reformist saying, “Come to the streets and follow me.” They think the street is an extension of the places where they hold authority.

They don’t realise that when you are on the street a qualitative change takes place. You have space away from the physical constraints that remind you of your place in society. People look around and think that on the streets we are all equal.

Next, the police arrive. The police are great levellers. The reformists say to the police officer, “We are law abiding...” They never get to finish the sentence. The reformists then spend all their time trying to get us off the streets.

When the police charge at you, whether you’re Irish or miners or whoever, two things happen. The reformists get scared and the young people, in particular, get radicalised.

We were looking for very small things. We had no one to vote for, but we wanted the right to vote, to jobs and for somewhere to live.

The state used violence. The mass movement became reactive to what the state was doing. They threw stones at us we threw stones back. The state repressed the rights of the people.

The police have killed a man getting on a tube. They have kicked in the door of two Muslim brothers and shot one of them - for nothing.

British police have been doing that and worse in Ireland for 30 years. They will do it here if we do not stop them. This is a consequence of a system that does not allow Muslims to be “really” British.

People are slowly being asked to pick their side. To be British you have to be uncritical of the government because the government is fighting terror. That is the important lesson of what happened in Ireland. There is a new left, but there is still some life in the old left.

The CD of this and other Marxism 2006 meetings are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848.


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Sat 15 Jul 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2009
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