Bernadette Devlin McAliskey: What does she think of Stormont nearly 50 years on?
Once the youngest female to take a seat at Westminster, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey is still an utterly familiar face to the people of Derry.
For the role she played in the Battle of the Bogside in 1969 she was sentenced to a short jail term in December that year on a charge of incitement to riot.
In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday she received a six month suspended sentence after crossing the floor of the House of Commons to slap British Home Secretary Reginald Mauldling in the face when he claimed the Parachute Regiment fired in self-defence.
In 1980-81 she again played a pivotal role during the republican hunger strikes of that era.
She currently co-ordinates a not-for-profit community development organisation based in Dungannon, the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEPS) and works with migrant workers to improve their treatment in Northern Ireland.
Her most recent political activity was the successful co-ordination of the campaign to have her life-long friend Eamonn McCann elected to Stormont for the People Before Profit Alliance.
The ‘Journal’ spoke to Bernadette at length whilst she was in Derry and in the first of a two part feature she outlines in her normal forthright manner, what she thinks of the political system here today, almost 50 years after she was one of the leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
“I think the thing that I keep pointing out, and I see it everywhere, especially in my day’s work - I am of a generation who saw what we would have called the injustice of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and we intended to change it and we can see that in ways it has changed but it hasn’t changed for the better.
“It is a bit like the hunger strike, because in my mind, the price that we paid for the hunger strike was so enormous it went into the psyche of people. And, what we got out of that pain, sacrifice and loss was nothing more than the restoration of the equilibrium which existed had it not taken place.
“So, the things that were restored to prisoners were the privileges that were taken from them because they had dared ask for humanitarian conditions. But, the political demands for the prisoner’s rights were never met. And, in the same way that people talk about the peace, and there’s no way any of us want to go back to war, but we started off in the civil rights movement and we didn’t start off either demanding a war or an end to a war because there wasn’t one.
“There are all kinds of reasons why that became a violent situation. And, I still hold the state responsible for that,”she said.
Asked about her take on the Peace Process and evaluating its progress since 1998, Bernadette told the ‘Journal’: “The only thing we really got out of the peace process in real sustainable terms was the absence of a context of political violence being the starting point of everybody’s life. That was in many ways the same, just as a return to the equilibrium. And then people bring up the idea of power sharing - but what power and what sharing? This is because the people who have not had the share of anything have been the most disadvantaged. They have nothing.
“It’s a bit like my present life where I recruit and interview and manage employees for an employer. I have learnt that you need to create a job for the job that needs to be done. But, if you create the job with a particular person in mind then you do the job a disservice. So at a practical level it will all fall apart if that person decides, for whatever reason, that they aren’t in that particular job.
“At a very practical level the peace process and power sharing was in fact designed for those in the middle ground. Now, in order to make it work Sinn Fein and the DUP have moved into the middle ground. That is the only reason it works.
“If Sinn Fein and the DUP had the same politics they had when John Hume and others were negotiating the peace, this thing wouldn’t work at all. So in order to make it work they have taken that middle ground.
“In a sense stolen they’ve clothes of the other two parties, except that the reality is a bit like when you take the dissension that is created when both the DUP and Sinn Fein are arguing over violence and who is to blame?
“The difference between them is that Sinn Fein politics only emerged gradually, they, at a time, didn’t have a political coherence, so they haven’t stolen the clothes they eventually just put them on.
“I used to talk about this a long time ago and it’s a culture of arrogance.
“When we were children we were told God made the world. How do we know God made the world? Because God told us he made the world. And His word is true.
“Now, when you get away from the Catechism and you learn a bit of intellectual inquiry you say that’s an interesting concept.
“Even though you may move away from it, somewhere internally is that concept, that people will tell you the truth, they wouldn’t tell you a lie. If they say they are God then they must be God. Sinn Fein works on that model.
“That if you have the Irish proclamation and the people at the GPO claimed the allegiance of every man and woman on the island, Sinn Fein do an apostolic decent argument that means that everyone in Ireland owes their loyalty to Sinn Fein.
“If you tried to argue that before a mental health tribunal you wouldn’t get away with it.
“But, of course it works because it’s a mantra that is repeated. The problem for Sinn Fein to my mind, and they are not the only ones guilty of this, is that you in order to maintain that culture and loyalty you have to stifle any degree of opposition or critical voice or dissent.
“Therefore, the problem for your own thinking is that you can now hear nothing but the reflection of your own voice.
“Sooner or later your own downfall is built into that and the thing that Sinn Fein forgets is how readily that is sooner and not later. This is because they only look at this history that suits them.
“ All the ‘Sinn Feins’ have been here before and lost and at some point you have to say that this model that Sinn Fein and the republican movement works on has an inherent flaw in it somewhere. We would have won the Rising only for… and we would have won the War of Independence only for… and we would have built the 32 county republic only for… because there was nothing wrong with what we were doing. Each time there’s an ‘only for the Brits’, ‘only for Michael Collins’, ‘only for de Valera’, ‘only for, only for’…
“And, if you look at the dissidents now they are on the next stage of that sad song, ‘only for Gerry Adams, only for Martin McGuinness…’
“That circle goes around and around and around. At some point they have to say, wait a minute, if we have been trying this particular way of working for over a hundred years and every single time that we think we have managed to do something, and I remember Tom Hartley saying it was ‘our ability to snatch political defeat from the jaws of victory,’ then you have to say there’s something wrong in the methodology.
“ It cannot be that we are creating generation after generation of people who sold us out. And, until they get around that, they will keep going around in that circle.
“The reality is that they have no ideological politics. You could at least say that the DUP have some social-economic moral, they know what they are and that they belong there on the populist right.
“When push comes to shove, parts of Sinn Fein are on the populist left and parts of Sinn Fein are on the populist right, so they only way to maintain the coherence of a party is that they don’t care what they are as long as they are in power, and that corrupts over time.
The ‘Journal’ also asked Bernadette Devlin if she is shocked that many of the issues fought against in the late 1960s are still prevalent today in Derry.
She said: ““The ‘market’ has become a great word because no one actually knows what it is.
“Think of the ‘market’ as the place where things are bought and sold. What Tories believe is that nothing matters except buying and selling and everything is commodified-labour, people who work are a commodity, people who don’t work are a burden-that is their philosophy.”
Next week....What can Stormont do to properly address the imbalances within Northern society? And why Bernadette Devlin would not countenance going there herself.