HIS 135

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey
(Created by Laura Bradley, History 135, August 2006)




Assignment:  What role has Bernadette Devlin McAliskey played in Northern Ireland's fight for independence?  

Depiction of Bernadette Devlin at the Battle of the Bogside, 1968; Used with permission of the Bogside Artists


Ireland was fully colonized by Protestant-controlled Great Britain by 1652. The British did this by settling English and Scottish loyalists (to Britain) in Ireland to retain control of conquered Gaelic and Catholic populations.   Political association and religious affiliation (most preferably Anglican) became the standard by which loyalty was measured along with rewards of land and citizenship. Attempts were made to stamp out papal influence and  minimize Catholic control in this manner also. In 1798 a failed rebellion caused the legal integration of Ireland and Britain (1800 Act of Union). More and more Protestants within Ireland became even more assertive in their particular identification and concentrated themselves in a small geographical area giving them enormous political power. After literally centuries of unrest and problems, a solution was contrived in which unionist and nationalist tensions could be eased and thus, Ireland became partitioned into (a) Northern Ireland (6 counties) in which the Protestant minority, because of their centralized voting base (which was gerrymandered into being) received governmental control of the land but remained tied by Constitution to Great Britain and (b) the Republic of Ireland which severed all ties, politically and economically, with England (26 counties). The Government of Ireland Act 1920.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey was born in 1947 in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Throughout her early years, she watched and learned about what it meant to be someone on the outside looking in because of her religion. At this time there was widespread voter gerrymandering to keep the Protestants in power in Northern Ireland.  Unemployment was rampant among Irish Catholics as the ‘laws’ of Northern Ireland favored businesses owned by Protestant Union peoples.  There was no freedom of assembly or speech, and there was also severe housing discrimination. Much of Northern Ireland was living under conditions that could be found in the Deep South of the United States during this time period. It was during this "growing up" that Bernadette became interested in Marxism and eventually began to incorporate Marxist philosophy into her worldview.

McAliskey, while embracing Marxist principles, remained a nationalist at heart and sought a united Ireland. She supported both religious and civil rights for all people in the world and likened the fight in North Ireland to the fight for civil rights within in the United States.

McAliskey was educated at St. Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon and at Queen’s University, Belfast as a psychology major. While at Queen’s she joined the University Republican Club and Students for Democracy. She participated in the first Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march from Coalisland to Dungannon in August 1968, and in October of that same year she participated in a peaceful march on Derry for civil rights. Police surrounded the marchers and used any and all means available to them to disperse the crowd and for the first time the world was able to see the brutality of the British-backed police in Northern Ireland.  After this fiasco, she decided to join forces with Michael Farrell to found the radical group People’s Democracy.

That same year, after the first march on Derry, McAliskey ran as a political candidate on the People’s Democracy (a socialist party) platform for Mid-Ulster representative to Parliament with the slogan “I will take my seat and fight for your rights.” She was elected and became the youngest member of Parliament ever. While in Parliament fighting for change in Northern Ireland, she wrote a book entitled The Price of My Soul in which she laid out for the world to see the discrimination that Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland had faced for generations.

While in Parliament in August 1969 she participated in the Battle of the Bogside in Derry after which she was arrested and charged with inciting a riot. She served four months in jail for this in 1970, and when she left jail she ran for office again as a full-fledged socialist. During this time she also toured the United States, lecturing and raising money for those who had lost homes due to the increasing violence between Catholics and Protestants. In late 1971 things had come to a head politically in Northern Ireland and in August of that year Devlin watched helplessly as British troops swept through Northern Ireland and began their occupation of Ireland with the internment of thousands at 4 am on the morning of 9 August 1971.

A few months after this, Bernadette was invited to speak at a peaceful protest march being held against the internment. On 30 January 1972, the protesters were re-routed through Derry and found themselves surrounded by troops of the 1st Parachute Regiment of the British Army. The troops fired on the marchers resulting in 13 civilians being shot dead and 12 others being wounded, one mortally. This became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. The following week after the bloodshed, Bernadette was in parliament when Reginald Maudling, then English Home Secretary, said that the troops had fired in self-defense. She called him a hypocritical liar and then proceeded to punch him in the face on the floor of Parliament after being denied her chance to speak about what she had personally witnessed on "Bloody Sunday."  She was suspended from Parliament for 6 months.

In 1973 she married her daughter’s father, Michael McAliskey, and in 1974 lost her seat in Parliament to a more conservative opponent of the Nationalist party. After this defeat she co-founded the Irish Republican Socialist Party, a split-off from the official Sinn Fein Party.  She resigned in 1975 after a disagreement about how to go about obtaining Northern Ireland’s freedom.

Throughout the years she has been critical of Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein leaders and has supported many politically charged peaceful protests within Northern Ireland, including the Blanketmen protests, and the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike.

In 1981 she and her husband were critically injured and almost killed during a paramilitary strike against them at their County Tyrone home. Leaving Northern Ireland that year she turned to the politics of the Republic of Ireland and lost a bid to be elected to that parliament in 1982. Her oldest daughter was arrested in Germany in 1996 while 5 months pregnant on the grounds that she had participated in an IRA terrorist bombing. Her daughter was held without charges being brought against her in an all-male jail in Britain constantly being transferred back and forth between two all-male jails and with no visitors or medical attention. McAliskey led the charge against this and eventually put enough political pressure via the United States on Britain to gain the release of her daughter.

In 2003, after likening President Bush’s war on Iraq to Margaret Thatcher’s Falkland's conflict, she was denied entry to the United States because she was a threat to national security, despite the fact that up until that day, she had frequently been in the United States. Her oldest daughter was permitted to enter and travel to New York at the same time that she was deported and returned to Northern Ireland.

In the 1960s, she was given the keys to New York City and promptly turned them over to the leaders of the Black Panthers stating that they (she and the Panthers) had more in common than the Irish of New York City. She has worked tirelessly to bring to the attention of the world what is occurring in Northern Ireland.

Further Reading and Links:
Women's Struggle Liberates Ireland- background information on the struggle for freedom in Ireland
Socialist Workeronline- socialist online ezine featuring the latest news and archives about socialism and marxism in Europe.
Ireland's OWN- website dedicated to the fight for independence in Ireland. Contains links and information on those who have involved themselves in the 'troubles'.
The Price of My Soul-link to the preface and chapter 12 of Bernadette McAlisky's autobiography.
CAIN Web Service (Conflict Archive on the INternet)- wealth of information on the conflict/troubles in Ireland from 1968 on. Lots of links to other sources.
The Bogside Artists- official website of the group of men who have documented the political war in Northern Ireland using building murals.
The IRA and Sinn Fein- a Frontline tv documentary about the link between the Sinn Fein political party and the IRA, the violent arm of the 'troubles'.

Background Note: Ireland- informational website with background history of Northern Ireland and demographics of Northern Ireland put together by the U.S. Department of State.

Background to the Conflict- historical information on the 'troubles' in Ireland.

Interview by Peter Standford, published in The Independent on Sunday: 29 July 2007

Interview with McAliskey on the 40th anniversary of the start of the “Troubles”

"Devlin is 'very ill' after shooting", The Guardian, 17 January 1981

Northern Ireland: Eyewitness accounts of 1972 "Bloody Sunday" massacre indict British army

1947 -- born, Cookstown, County Tyronne, Northern Ireland
1968 -- co-founded the People's Democracy political party with Michael Farrell
1968 -- in August ran on the Unity ticket for the Mid-Ulster parliament seat and won becoming the youngest ever MP elected at the age of 22.
1969 -- published her autobiography The Price of My Soul in which she publicised the claims of the Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland about discrimination against them.
1969 -- participated in "The Battle of the Bogside"; arrested and convicted of inciting a riot.
1969 -- spent several months in jail while still a member of Parliament.
1970 -- re-elected to Parliament as an Independent Socialist.
1971 -- toured America giving lectures and collecting money for families who had lost their homes in secctarian house burnings and riots.
1971 -- became pregnant (out of wedlock).
1972 -- punched Reginald Maudling in the face, in Parliament, after he defended the killing of 13 unarmed civilians in what became known as "Bloody Sunday."
1973 -- married Michael McAliskey (father of her child).
1974 -- lost her seat in Parliament.
1974 -- co-founded the Irish Republican Socialist Party.
1976 -- attacked the Peace People as dishonest.
1979 -- stood with the Blanketmen at Long Kesh prison in the elections of this year.
1980-81 -- was on the H-Block Hunger Strike committee.
1981 -- McAliskey and her husband were shot and seriously wounded by Loyalist paramilitaries in their country home.
1982 -- failed to win a seat in the Republic of Ireland.
1996 -- oldest daughter was arrested on an extradition warrent for supposed terrorist activities and then released in 1998 due to "ill health."
2003 -- detained and deported from the United States on the grounds that the State Department claimed that "she poses a serious threat to the security of the United States."  Supposedly for her involvement in inciting a riot in 1969 although she had since that time traveled freely between Northern Ireland and the US.

This page is copyright © 2006-15, C.T. Evans and L. Bradley.
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu