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Interview with Bernadette McAliskey

This article is over 19 years, 3 months old
Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) was elected to parliament as part of the struggle in Northern Ireland in 1969. Last week she spoke to Kelly Hilditch about parliament and representing working people
Issue 1947
Part of the resistance in Derry in 1969
Part of the resistance in Derry in 1969

How were you selected as a candidate?

It wasn’t that I said, oh you know what, I’d like to be an elected representative — there were a number of coincidental things all happening at once.

The opportunity came to have one candidate who could take the seat. And I emerged as the independent unity candidate for Mid Ulster. And the fact that I was the agreed unity candidate, standing against the unionist — really the day I was selected, that was the day I was elected.

Unless people stayed at home and said, well, I’m not voting for that, it was a head count. What was interesting was that it wasn’t a normal election, it was a campaign — 98 percent of those registered voted in that election.

It was a mass campaign on both sides, and really it had nothing to do with Westminster, with British politics, or with electoral representation.

It was a phenomenon, and the end of it was that you had to go to Westminster. I really look on it as having drawn the short straw — but it was a craic.

I was very lucky in terms of the people who were around me — Paul Foot I would say was one of my main mentors.

Who did you represent in parliament?

I was elected to represent the citizens of mid Ulster, and at a constituency level I did that, to the best of my ability — the small interesting bits and pieces that people expect of their elected representative.

I saw myself as representing ideas. We set out a manifesto — very clear, very radical, it was left and

anti-imperialist. And some people read it, some people didn’t — because there were lots of different motives for voting.

But I was always very clear about the things that I believed in and the things that I stood for. And I always saw myself as representing them — that’s why I wasn’t a very good parliamentarian. I didn’t believe those ideas were negotiable — they weren’t negotiable for me. So I went into parliament the representative of Mid Ulster, and got involved in lots of other things.

Other politicians would say, “That’s not your constituency.” And I would feel, well yes it is, because my constituency, as far as I can see it, is of ideas.

What were your first impressions of the House of Commons?

The only impressive thing about the place really was the building. I discovered people didn’t like long haired, short skirted women whistling in the corridors, which was one of my early transgressions.

My political impression of it was very much coloured by my own background. This was not a place I aspired to, it was not a place I admired, it was not to me the cradle of democracy.

I was in the belly of the beast, in the enemy camp. I never established allies — that may have been a strategic error, but I never really had allies.

I had agreed to speak at a rally in Trafalgar Square in defence of Palestinian rights. But Paul Rose, who was the chair of the Labour Committee for the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, was very big on the defence of the state of Israel.

Paul then quite forcibly said, “Look, this is our bargaining chip. I control the steer in regard to Ireland. You can’t do what you like.

“Because if you go on that rally, then you can’t count on my support and you can’t count on my influence on this big committee.” So I published the correspondence in Socialist Worker.

Parliament was a megaphone which meant that what we were up to had a bigger impact — simply because we were able to work with that degree of attention.

I had the opportunity to be in England at its best, in its finest hour in terms of workers organising and anti-imperialist movements organising.

I think I had such a big impact because I was the youngest female MP ever. But also because I wasn’t the kind of person who should be the youngest MP ever.

I managed to touch a chord with whole layers of people. I was working class, I was a student, a woman. I wasn’t seen as respectable. I was also a single mother while I was in parliament — which at the time was heretic.

And I had no manners. I had no apologies to make and I had no respect for my betters, because I didn’t acknowledge the existence of betters—wiser, older, more experienced people you could learn from, yes. But people who were born better than me, no.

I think that touched a chord with a lot of young people — not to be afraid, not to be deferential and not to know your place. And it wasn’t just me, there were lots of people at that time — I was a contributor to that feeling. And it wasn’t just a phenomenon — it had politics, it dealt with class, we had ideology.

We weren’t just putting the time in between being young and being old and sensible. There were a lot of committed people, with sound ideology.

Ireland was the main thing that was happening at the time, with the whole civil rights movement. The fragmentation, the bringing in of the British army, the reintroduction of the Special Powers Act, the introduction of internment.

While I was in parliament, my specific memory of that time is the parliamentary system simultaneously doing two things.

Parliament had agreed to increase the pension rate for senior citizens, but in fact it wasn’t being increased at all.

The amount of the increase coupled with the amount of time the legislation took to get through meant that by the time the pensioners received the increase, inflation had already caught up with it. And so they were getting nothing.

A number of people, including myself, had raised this. The Labour left had raised it. But they had accepted that this was a penalty of democracy — things went slowly in parliament, you can’t help it. Of course you could help it, you could have made a significantly larger increase.

But in the midst of that discussion, parliament realised that the Special Powers Act of Northern Ireland could not actually be enforced by her majesty’s armed forces. It was a police act. It could only be enforced by the Northern Ireland police.

They discovered that at two o’clock in the afternoon, and by three thirty the next day parliament had put legislation through all the stages, including the House of Lords, not only changing the law—deeming that the British army was entitled to use the Special Powers Act — but also passing the legislation retrospectively, which was unlawful. And they did it in 24 hours.

Of course the other memory is Bloody Sunday — when I hit Mr Maudling.

I remember that as farce. The fact of it was, though, that Maudling lied in his teeth. I accused him of lying — but you’re not allowed to call ministers liars. So I was asked to leave the House, and as I walked past, I hit him.

The coverage in the British press about the violence in the Houses of Parliament — if you go back and look the entire British press considered the violence in Derry to be lawful, merited and acceptable. What was not acceptable was that I hit Maudling.

Most of what was going on in Ireland was extra-parliamentary. The 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes were major, for Ireland, politically and psychologically.

One of the things from our point of view, certainly from mine, was there was a period when you say, “The government wouldn’t do that. The government would not go that far.”

Once we came past Bloody Sunday there was nothing I did not believe the British government was capable of. Any illusions I had that it was anything other than a murdering machine were gone at that stage.

But the manner in which both Labour and the Conservative governments were able to countenance the slow dying of their victims — it’s on a different plane altogether.

When people talk about Bush and Iraq, the British administration is older and better and more ruthless, more professional than what the Americans are doing in Iraq. That kind of stuff is very deep. I don’t hate, but I don’t forgive either. That’s all I would say on that.


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