By Sabina Clarke
On the heels of Gerry Adams’ historic weekend visit to Philadelphia in October 1994 which marked the beginning of the public face of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, I met with Bernadette Devlin perhaps the most iconic figure of The Troubles over dinner at the Vesper Club in downtown Philadelphia prior to her talk before the Brehon Law Society .
In 1969 she became the youngest MP elected to Westminster for Mid-Ulster serving as an independent republican until 1974. She made headlines around the world when she slapped Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maulding across the face when he falsely asserted that the British paratroopers who killed 13 peaceful marchers on Bloody Sunday had fired in self-defense.
So with this resume I was surprised to find a greatly mellowed, distinctly matronly practical woman with a quick self-deprecating sense of humor and the fresh scrubbed look of a young girl. She proved to be extremely intelligent, articulate and a very astute political analyst. There is a quiet depth about her and absolutely no pretenses. She doesn’t mince words. Her attitude towards President Clinton is guardedly optimistic and toward the United States—especially regarding our commitment to human rights--just short of being caustic.
Since the sensational assassination attempt on her in that remote Ulster farmhouse in 1981 this woman who has been cast as Ireland’s mini-skirted version of Jeanne d’ Arc has been eclipsed in our collective memory and into her country’s political history.
Today she lives in a housing project in Coalisland just four miles from where she was shot eight times adding, “The landlord was not interested in having us back as tenants.” She now does grass- roots work in her local community with the Reverend Des Wilson and is President of Equality, an organization that campaigns for economic equality around the MacBride Principles. She researches and documents economic discrimination in Northern Ireland and has helped produce a number of publications like Northern Ireland’s Apartheid Economy and the Directory of Discrimination listing companies which most offend it. The most recent publication was The Road to 68 a history of how economic discrimination was an integral part of maintaining the state and how sections of the Catholic community became co-opted into that system. She is also involved in Prison Welfare and Relatives Action Committee.
She eschews the limelight regarding the uniqueness of her place in Ireland’s history although she was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and displayed uncommon leadership and valor, “I didn’t start these things, I was part of them. We got in them together. The ground was moving fast under our feet and we were moving to keep up with it. In hindsight, circumstances dictated what happened. None of us deserve the credit and none of us deserve the blame. We were born into this. The seeds of this were started generations before we were born. It exploded for whatever reasons at the time we were in our teens and it would have exploded in that time and in that generation anyway—if none of us had been born. Other people would have been us.”
Since the shooting at her farmhouse in 1981 her husband Michael McAliskey has been permanently disabled and unable to work. He also suffers from internal injuries. Her physical recovery has been more complete. Knowing the answer I still asked if she had ever considered leaving this landscape of war and taking her family somewhere where life would be easier and more comfortable. Her answer, “I wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere. I’d be sitting in Philadelphia and be deeply concerned about the number of people I care about who are Irish-American and use the word “nigger” and I would have to say ‘I wish you wouldn’t say that’ and I would look around Philadelphia or Baltimore or Camden and I’d start rocking the boat there and I’d be in the same trouble that I’d be in at home. So I might as well stay and just be obnoxious where I am.”
Regarding her personal security or safety, did she think she was at risk of being assassinated? Very matter-of-factly she replied, “Just like you know the weather, you sense it. I think the wheel comes full circle again. I think I am statistically more likely to be assassinated now than I was last year or the year before. If I survive for a year or two, I’ll get to the bottom of the list of possibilities again.”
Living at home with her in Coalisland is her husband Michael, her 15 year-old son Fintan, her 23 year-old daughter Roisin, and her 19 year-old daughter Deirdre when she comes home from college. Her two sisters and one brother and their families live nearby. No one from her lineage, she tells me, has ever immigrated to America; ‘Emigration”, she says, “even across the borders is foreign to us.”
Here are some of her thoughts.
Q On the Larry King Show, the debate between Ulster Unionist leader Ken Maginnis and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.
A I don’t think Larry King should have permitted Ken Maginnis to come on the program with the preconditions that were obviously made. The first concession made to Mr. Maginnis was that he was permitted to sit at Gerry Adams’ side where he would not have to have eye-to-eye contact and where it was possible for him to refuse to acknowledge in any real sense Gerry Adams’ existence while at the same time conducting a debate with him through Larry King. I do not believe those standards of behavior are acceptable among rational adults. I think Mr. Maginnis should have been required to behave like a rational adult or else decline the invitation to debate. If Gerry Adams’ had a weakness on the program, it is that he behaved like a gentleman in circumstances where he was being treated as less than a human being. I think Larry King unintentionally added to that position by not accepting that there are fundamental rules of behavior. The dignity of his humanity was not accorded to Gerry Adams and it not being accorded to him was sanctioned by default by the program.
Q On John Hume’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize
A John and I would not have the same political approach but John has been there as long as any of us. I think awarding anybody a peace prize is a bit premature because we are still a hundred light years away from peace.
Q On the planned peace talks
A The nature of the negotiations needs to be clarified. If Sinn Fein says they can’t participate because these negotiations are not what we are led to believe, then will Sinn Fein be seen as obstructionist and become the bad guys again or will they move into negotiations where they have no possibility of achieving anything. I don’t think Sinn Fein is controlling the agenda. Much more important is we should study what the British are doing.
Q On the British Agenda
A I don’t think unification of the Protestant and Catholic working classes is on the British agenda. I don’t think long-term resolution of the inequality of the Northern system of partition or of Britain’s continued involvement in Ireland is on the British agenda.
Q On her life in politics
A I never wanted to be a candidate. It didn’t happen in a structured way. The situation just exploded and we were all there. We were students, we were young.
We thought it might last a year or two. Then it became our lives.
Q On extending visas
A We should never have been kept out of this country
Q On Gerry Adams’ weekend visit to Philadelphia
A I’ve thought about the Adams’ circus. It would be a mistake to believe that the momentum created around the novelty of Gerry Adams can be sustained if we then get down to the negotiations and the airing of the real issues, when there are some uncomfortable things to be said and people say ‘I don’t want to hear that. ’If this thing goes on for another 20 years we could be on the long hard lonely road again.
Q On speech writers
A In Ireland nobody has a speechwriter. Why not elect the speechwriters in America; it would be cheaper.
Q On her children
A This is the only life they’ve ever known. They were born into the war. They grew up with the war as a background. Politics is their life. They play in rock bands and do everything other kids do against the backdrop of war.
Q On the 1980, ’81 Hunger Strikes
A Ten people died and Prime Minister Thatcher didn’t concede an inch. That’s the mentality we’re dealing with now.
Q On her seeking elected office again
A No. Usually I get what I want by threatening to seek political office.
Q On her mission in coming to the U.S.
A I see my role as educational and agitational. I like to be at the edges and pushing them out.
Q On President Clinton
A I see him taking an interest in Ireland as no other President has done before. But I wonder what does he understand about Ireland. Is his prime interest because he wants to help in Ireland or is helping Ireland helping him? I don’t mind that but if it gets awkward and he has to take some uncomfortable positions about Ireland—will he take them? And if Mr. Adams cannot accept the terms put forth by the British and does not play ball will Mr. Clinton take his visa away? I hope not. I worry that your government is not any wiser about human rights now than before Gerry Adams came. So if the going gets rough here, I wouldn’t want to put all my eggs in Mr. Clinton’s basket. I don’t want to find us in a position where we can’t do this or can’t do that or we will lose the support of the American government and therefore we can’t survive. That’s not a position that I’d like to see us in. See what an awkward customer I am!
Q On Prime Minister John Major Booting Democratic Unionist Leader Ian Paisley out of 10 Downing Street
A He had no right to throw Paisley out. When we demand rights, we mean all people should be treated this way. Major’s treatment of Paisley was a scandal.
Q On Gerry Adams President of Sinn Fein
A He’s not some political kid down the pike. This man is coming out of 25 years of solid leadership. He’s succeeded in doing what no other Republican leader has done. He took his party into participation politics. This is a major major change for Republicans who have been outside the system. Gerry Adams knows what he wants and knows what he needs. He has taken a gamble.
Q On the IRA ceasefire
A The issue on which the British say they will talk to the Republican movement is the surrender of Republican weapons. If that is as far as we’re going, then Joe Cahill says these weapons will never be surrendered. And I imagine that to be the case. Then chapter two of this book is the last chapter.
Q On Gerry Adams’ security
A Of course he has to be the prime target. If they could kill him tomorrow, they would kill him. I don’t think they’d shoot him in this country. The people most likely to shoot him are the police and the British Army. There really is no way he can protect himself. He’s been a target all his life. That’s the name of the game. That’s part of the equation. Gerry Adams knows it. His wife knows it. His son knows it. The other people in the struggle know it. The community is his security. People take the best care of him that they can, bearing in mind that the government does not allow him to carry a firearm—despite the fact that he survived a 1984 assassination attempt. This is because he is a member of Sinn Fein and is legally prevented from carrying a gun. He has no armed people around him. We have the Secret Service but they are the very people who would kill Gerry Adams.
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By Sabina Clarke