‘Derry is part of who I am’- Bernadette Devlin

Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey. bernadette devlin.JPG
Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey. bernadette devlin.JPG

Bernadette McAliskey is the subject of the award winning documentary; ‘Notes on a Political Journey.’

The documentary film won best documentary film award at the Galway Film Fleadh, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Grierson award in London and the in-depth analysis of Mrs. Devlin-McAliskey’s career will be shown today as part of the 24th annual Foyle Film Festival. LAURENCE MCCLENAGHAN spoke to the political and community activist about her life.

The Lelia Doolan documentary mixes archive footage of a younger, firebrand McAliskey with interviews conducted over the last several years. In total the film has been in production for nine years but considering the life lived by Mrs. Devlin-McAliskey it is little wonder it took so long to complete. Coalisland born Bernadette Devlin rose to prominence during 1969’s Battle of the Bogside, after which she received a nine month prison term for incitement to riot. She served four months in jail.

A younger Bernadette Devlin reading a copy of her autobiography 'The Price of my Soul.'

A younger Bernadette Devlin reading a copy of her autobiography 'The Price of my Soul.'

A founding member of People’s Democracy, Mrs Devlin-McAliskey, was elected an MP aged just 21 years-old.

Her colourful career earned Bernadette the nickname ‘Castro in a mini-skirt’

She is still the youngest ever female to win a seat in the House of Commons.

Her time there is best remembered for crossing the floor of the House to punch Secretary of State: Reginald Malding. Bernadette lost the seat in 1974, the same year she co-founded the Irish Republican Socialist Party, though she resigned one year later.

In 1981 Bernadette, and husband Michael were shot, her eight times, him nine, by loyalists. Bernadette McAliskey is still active in public life and is a founding member of the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEP).

But what was it like watching it all recalled and analysed on the big screen?

“I do reflect on what I have done but I don’t watch myself on TV,” smiled Mrs Devlin-McAliskey.

“If I’m being honest I find it odd and embarrassing to do so. I didn’t want to make the film, Lelia deserves all the credit. She wanted me to think that it was a project which would be shown to students after I was gone.

“The skill of the movie is all hers. It is an absolutle brilliant piece of film making, I was watching thinking, how did she take this woman with the ever changing head and make it coherent?

“For a start I never realised that I changed my hair colour so often. So to see myself get fatter, thinner, more, then less stressed and to see how long I actually kept my clothes for, was all very revealing. None of that struck me until I watched the film; I must keep my dresses longer than the queen,” laughed Bernadette.

The documentary process was a battle “between two strong woman” said Bernadette but “ Leila Doolan “won in the end.

“She would cajole me into recording for future students, it was an intermittent conversation over a few years, then the narrative was condensed into two hours.”

Though she first rose to prominence in Derry Bernadette McAliskey is now the chair and a founding member of the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEPs), as well as a part time lecturer in Community Development at the University of Ulster, Magee Campus.

“I still be in and out of Derry all the time getting into any badness I can.

“At STEPS we support marginalised groups like single mothers, the long term unemployed and immigrants, which represent 10% of the population in Omagh.

There were six founding members who all had a feeling we were going to get left behind by the peace process. We came together to ensure that the vulnerable people we work with got information, understanding and guidance.”

The STEP programme now employs 30 people through its partnership work.

“Our work is like a rubix cube,” laughed Bernadette; “We look slightly different, depending on which angle you view us from.”

The one constant in her career is that Bernadette seems a willing and eager champion of the underdog.

“I think there are three resons for that,” said the life long political agitator.

“I grew up on the margins of poverty. People forget that there are a whole generation of people who did so. After I left Parliament I was frozen out of the employment market, yet I worked from I left Parliament in 1973 but I never earned!

“My family background is that my parents died young but not before my father had given me a belief and grounding in trade unionism. My mother had installed a broad sense of christianity in me. I also learnt a great deal of socialist politics. In fact, I think I may qualify as an obsessive, compulsive socialist.

“I think it just may be part of the human condition trying to make humanity better.”

A lot of that education was picked up during her time on Derry’s streets.

“Derry is part of who I am and what made me the person I am. A lot of my education happened there and it really is a big part of me.”

There was also time on the streets of New York. The civil rights campaigner was awarded the keys to the city, which she accepted before handing them over to The Black Panthers.

Asked about her time in ‘The House,’ Mrs. Devlin-McAliskey said: “Well, in many ways it was like this documentary, I never wanted to do it in the first place then suddenly I found myself in hot water.

“I never wanted to go to the Commons. I was finishing my last year at uni and wanted to attend Edinburgh University to conduct research on Autism, however I was ‘requested’ to leave Queen’s. After that there was time in jail and then the seat became empty so people thought, ‘we’ll send the mouthy one with the long hair.’

“Once I was in they didn’t know what to do with me and wanted me out again.”

Asked about the famous incident when she crossed the floor of the House of Commons to slap Reginald Maudling, the former Home Secretary, Mrs. Devlin- McAliskeys reply is, well, unrepentant.

“I didn’t slap him half hard enough. I should have caught him by the tie and choked him as well as hit him.”

Having received a six month suspension from the House it was probably best Mrs. McAliskey only struck him the once in response to his claim that paratroopers on Bloody Sunday opened fire in “self defence.”

If he was here today I would do the same thing. What people tend to forget is what happened after Bloody Sunday. The lies were ready. Maudling stood up there and lied, it wasn’t a mistake. The British Army killed people on the streets and then he lied about it. The soldiers have now taken the blame but the British Government has still to be held to account for it and I would say that they should be held to account in The Hague.”

When asked for her feelings following the apology from the British Prime Minister David Cameron on the day the Saville report was released, Mrs. Devlin-McAliskey described June 25, 2010, as “One of the loneliest days in my life.

“I was happy that the families were happy but it wasn’t alright for me. The key part was Saville didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know. The core point is that the state killed its citizens and out of that day came most of the other deaths. “We knew the dead were innocent, Derry didn’t need vindication but we needed to learn all of the people behind the decision to enact Bloody Sunday.

“Saville made Bloody Sunday a decision of the soldiers on the ground to run amok, that isn’t what happened. If I were the soldiers involved I would be as angry as I am at that finding.

The government actions on Bloody Sunday created the situation which followed for decades in the North, many more people were killed and it all followed that day.

“The government had declared war on the people in the street and as a result more people thought we’ll join the IRA, or if not join, many played a key role in sustaining the war, even at a minimum level.

“It also gave unionist paramilitary groups the green light to kill Catholics. Northern Ireland was militarised after Bloody Sunday and the government appeared to get away with it.

“All that has not been made right and the state has not acknowledged responsibility or apologised for what happened based on its decision to enact Bloody Sunday.

“Sorry doesn’t make it all right.”

Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey has been accused of many things in her career, but no one can accuse her of not caring.

‘Notes on a Political Journey’ shows at The Foyle Film Festival, Tower Hotel, today at 5pm. Director Lelia Doolan will introduce the screening and host a question and answer session afterwards.