Bernadette Devlin: I’m uniquely qualified to bring lasting peace to Northern Ireland

Author: Interview by Peter Standford

When McGuinness was still putting his faith in the gun, mainstream Nationalist hopes for progress in the North via the ballot box were pinned on a psychology student from Queen’s University in Belfast with long, dark hair, short skirts and compelling eyes. Bernadette Devlin was elected to Westminster in April 1969 in a famous by-election at the age of just 21. She remains its youngest ever woman MP, while the turnout that day in the Mid-Ulster constituency of 91.5 per cent has never been bettered.

For the generation which was the first to take to the streets to demand civil rights ? an end to the exclusion of Catholics in the north of Ireland from jobs, decent houses and political power ? Bernadette Devlin was an icon. Her maiden speech in the Commons was described as “electrifying” by the Tory minister and parliamentary historian Norman St John Stevas. When she travelled to New York in September 1969, she was carried shoulder high by crowds in Gaelic Park as a demonstration of Irish Americans’ support for the Nationalist struggle which she had come to embody (the picture became a famous Private Eye cover).

And so inevitably to Protestants of similar vintage, she became almost the devil incarnate. In 1980 and 1981 she was prominent in rallying support for the IRA hunger strikers held in prison in the north. It was a provocation too far for her enemies. In February 1981 Loyalist gunmen broke into her remote home in Co Tyrone and came within an inch of murdering her. There was controversy because the British Army was said to be watching the property at the time of the attack. Indeed it was an Army doctor who saved her life.

In the intervening 12 years she had managed to upset almost everyone else, including her own electors in Mid-Ulster who turned her out in 1974, and Tory Home Secretary Reggie Maudling, whom she physically attacked as he sat in the chamber of the House of Commons because she claimed he had lied about the British Army’s role in the events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972 in Derry. She was there to witness 26 protesters being shot. ‘

And controversy has continued to follow her. In 2003 at Chicago airport, she was refused entry to the United States ? the country that had once lionised her ? on the grounds that she posed a risk to national security. And she continues to spearhead a high-profile campaign against the extradition to Germany of her daughter, Róisí* McAliskey, who has been accused ? wrongly her mother says ? of having links with an IRA cell that carried out a 1996 mortar attack on a British military base at Osnabrück. Though the warrant was refused by Britain in the late 1990s, and in 2000 the Crown Prosecution Service dismissed the evidence as insufficient to mount a case at home, it has recently been revived and a full court hearing is due in September.

After the assassination attempt on her, though, Bernadette Devlin ? or Bernadette Devlin McAliskey as she has been since her marriage to a schoolteacher in 1973 ? seemed by her own standards to fade from the headlines. People said that she had turned her back on activism, unwilling, as a mother of three, to risk her life again for the causes she believed in. They were right and wrong ? right that she had changed course, wrong that her courage had failed her.

If anything Devlin has taken on an even more challenging role than championing the aspirations of one group in the north of Ireland. She is now trying, as a leading community activist, to champion the aspirations of both sides. She is trying to make people break the pattern of decades if not centuries and recognise what they have in common.

And so her name can be added to the list of high-profile sectarian figures who have reinvented themselves during the Peace Process. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey the bridge builder. Her work, over the past decade, with the organisation Step has been so successful that, of late, it has been attracting international attention from those who, in very different circumstances, are seeking to establish what in currently fashionable jargon is called social cohesion.

How do the Loyalists react to the new Devlin? “I’ve been to meetings in Protestant villages,” she says, “and people sat with their heads turned away and would not look at me. And I say, ‘Look, this is now about a different way of working. There are a number of things we have to get straight here. I am going to keep coming here. That’s the thing that’s not going to stop. We have shared work to do. And if you are going to sit looking away from me all the time, you are going to get tired before me because I don’t have my neck turned. So you can either stop coming, or you can go back to the old ways and get someone to shoot me on the way here’. At that point, someone turns their head and says, ‘I never had anybody shot in my life.’ And he’s now looking at me and we start to make progress.”

Humour, a willingness to put herself on the line, stubbornness, the gift of the gab and unshakeable conviction ? all the elements that made Devlin a household name in the first place are there in the story she’s just told. She hasn’t, it seems, changed a bit. “I’m worse,” she says. “Getting older. Getting worse. And still awkward. I’ve always been awkward. And I don’t think it’s a defect. That’s the worst of my awkwardness.”

The woman who meets me in the modern factory unit that houses Step on the outskirts of Dungannon is 60 and broader than the figure who, in her heyday, featured prominently in the murals painted by Republicans on the gable-ends of segregated Catholic housing estates. Her hair is now short and her skirts long. But the passion that made her such a compelling political figure for so long remains undimmed.

Do the predominantly young workers, busy running advice clinics and computer training classes, know all about Devlin’s past? “It comes out.” She laughs, a wonderful, wheezy, je-ne-regrette-rien sort of laugh. “Recently we were contacted about a welfare matter with a prisoner. ‘Do we work with prisoners?’ I was asked. ‘We’d better because we employ them,’ I replied. ‘Who are we talking about?’ they said. ‘Well, me.'”

In December 1969, when she was already an MP, Devlin was convicted of riotous behaviour for her part in the three days of unrest in the Bogside district of Derry that finally led the British government to send in the troops. “The court wouldn’t accept my defence of necessity, that we had to keep the Loyalists out. But it went down in case law. I served six months.” She smiles. “Only a wee while.”

She came to Step in 1996. Or joined with half a dozen others from both sides of the sectarian divide to found it. Its constituency is the 50,000 people who live in the South Tyrone area, and it articulates and answers their needs, regardless of creed. Her past, Devlin is adamant, has not got in the way of her effectiveness.

“I think there are two perceptions ? the perception of me from the outside which sees the north of Ireland as ‘them’ and ‘us’, Catholics and Protestants, and me therefore as part of one side. And then there is the perception here, on the inside, which is more complex and sees me not as Catholic, but rather as a socialist, a feminist and someone who has had nothing to do with the Catholic Church for 30 years except to criticise it.

“I’m therefore an outsider and I don’t think it is any accident that I have found myself working with people on the margins.” More complex, too, she says, warming to her theme and carrying you along with her train of thought as once she used to work a crowd, is the now familiar and internationally lauded story of the Peace Process.

“There are two peace processes here,” she begins, patiently, “one top down and one bottom up. One which makes all the soundbites and generates all the headlines and one which has been very much overshadowed by the other. There’s the Peace Process that everybody sees ? the all-singing, all-dancing one. That’s the big process.”

You know at once that she has reservations about it, despite the cessation of violence, the dawning of political stability and the consequent economic prosperity that has been so noticeable as I travelled from Belfast to Dungannon: in new housing developments, new factories, new supermarkets, new hotels, new roads and new cars on those new roads. Surely she supports all that?

She wasn’t, she makes clear, ever invited to be part of it. “A number of people,” she continues, “including myself, were excluded at the very beginning of the big process in the early 1990s because we were seen as too radical, socialist or plain awkward.” There’s that word again. It wasn’t, in fact, the word used at the time. Instead, to take part at the start of the process, you had to be invited, and to be invited, you had to be part of a party. Devlin spent most of her time in Westminster sitting as an independent and, despite brief flirtations with small socialist parties subsequently, has remained very much a one-woman band politically. So she was left out.

But didn’t her own “side”, in the broadest definition of the word, want her with them in the negotiations given all she had achieved and suffered? “Now Sinn Fein did come back to me,” she confirms, “but I didn’t want to be part of it. If I’d wanted to be part of their party, I would have joined before. I wasn’t going to join to take part in discussions.”

She is not, you quickly gather, a pragmatist. It is an attractive quality in conversation but could be, I can easily imagine, infuriating if you have to work with her. Yet equally she is not one to sit back and see what happens. So she and the other “awkward people” got involved in something else altogether. European Union money had been given to promote development in the North, alongside the Peace Process. One of the strings attached demanded work to narrow the community divide. It even provided finance for that work. That is how Step and other organisations like it came into being. They were effectively an alternative Peace Process, working at the grass roots.

“I left Gerry Adams behind in 1994,” she says without any apparent bitterness. “I left him to it. I said, ‘I am not going to poke at your heels with a stick anymore. In fact, I am not going to say anything.’ And up to now, I haven’t.” Sitting with her, you realise at once how tough that self-denying ordinance must have been to live out. “I decided to concentrate on this here,” and she gestures to the busy scene outside her office door. “‘If what you want works,’ I told Mr Adams, ‘then we will all be better off if we are building from the bottom at the same time.’ And if it doesn’t, somebody has to ensure that the failure does not allow for a momentum back to war. So a number of us have been slowly closing the war door.”

Which, of course, is precisely what the participants in the “big” Peace Process say they have been doing too. Whatever the truth, the questions posed by this alternative Peace Process have been no less profound than those confronting Messrs Trimble, Paisley, Blair and Ahern (all men, Devlin is quick to point out). How, for example, do the two sides of the sectarian divide find something in common when even their citizenship remains contested between those who want to be British and those who want a united Ireland?

Progress has, inevitably, been slow, but 10 years of addressing these obstacles has, Devlin believes, borne fruit ? which is why she is now speaking out once more. “We have more experience than anyone else of trying to build cohesion where there is no delusion of shared interest. Another factor drawing outside interest to organisations like Step is its ability to include into its processes new communities, attracted to the north of Ireland by peace and a booming economy.”

There is, I begin to see, a logic to the journey Devlin has been on. What brought her into politics in the first place, back in the mid-1960s as a teenager, was the campaign for civil rights for Catholics. And now she is working on civil rights issues once more. “I came to electoral politics by default because I became part of the civil rights movement,” she says. “Left to my own devices, I might have ended up doing something like this. I wouldn’t like to see my life as a detour back to here but…” It’s a rare unfinished sentence. A rare wistful moment.

She is reluctant to go further into her reservations about the “big” Peace Process. It is too soon, she answers simply, to see how it will work out. “People say to me now, ‘Oh Bernadette don’t be hard’. And yes, there is a real buzz here now but part of that is the result of spending 10 years only seeing what is comforting and good to see.” The awkwardness of Devlin is that she will insist, while others are reaping the peace dividend, on talking up all the issues that still need to be addressed, issues which, she says, were hidden by the Troubles.

On her list is the need to end segregated schooling (“buy up all the buildings and establish integrated schools tomorrow. It was in my manifesto in the 1960s”), the abolition of the Eleven-Plus exam (“it is a violation of a child’s human rights”), better care for the disabled, and action to tackle the urban/rural divide in the North.

There seems to be a note of anger somewhere in her voice at the way things have turned out. She sighs. “When I was younger, the anger was all from the heart up. It came from my heart and it came out of my mouth. The anger has not gone away. Anger is deep-seated. It’s not all right. But it’s not personalised anger. People ask me about the things they think are most important. And I say ? which is what I feel ? Bloody Sunday was not by any stretch of the imagination the worst thing that happened to me. It was the worst thing that happened to others ? the families in Derry, for instance. If you say, ‘What is the worst thing that happened to me?’ then 1969 to 1999 is the worst thing that happened to me and lots of other people who lived through that period. Thirty years of my life is the worst thing that happened to me. And that doesn’t get better.”

It is an uncomfortable message at a time when so much is being invested in the Troubles of Northern Ireland being over, but it is a reality that is being lived today in Devlin’s own family with Germany once again pressing for the extradition of Róisí*. Why does she think the German authorities have resurrected the warrant, after it failed almost a decade ago? “Part of me,” she says, “thinks ‘Why look for conspiracy when incompetence will do’, but another part of me says ‘There’s always a penalty to be paid for being on the outside.'” And, she might have added, for being awkward. *

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

Born 23 April 1947 in Co Tyrone

April 1969 wins Unionist seat of Mid-Ulster in by-election

December 1969 jailed for riotous behaviour

1970 Returned to Westminster in General Election

1971 Gives birth to daughter, Roisin, first of three children

1973 Marries Michael McAliskey

February 1974 defeated in General Election

1979 stands unsuccessfully in Euro-elections in support of prisoners on ‘dirty protest’

1980-1981 spokesperson for IRA hunger strikers

February 1981 survives assassination bid by Loyalist gunmen

1982 stands unsuccessfully for Dail Eireann

1996 co-founds STEP

1996 leads fight against extradition of her pregnant daughter on terrorism charges

2003 refused entry to US as ‘security threat’

2007 Roisin rearrested and faces extradition

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