In contrast to an opponent’s derisive description of Devlin as “Fidel Castro in a mini-skirt”, Lelia Doolan’s documentary film, Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey offers an in-depth perspective on a formidable figure of recent Irish politics.
There was a time when Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) seemed to have the world at her feet.
Adored by her followers in Ireland, elected as MP for Mid-Ulster at Westminster, treated like a pop star in America (where unionists were so worried that Ian Paisley and MP Stratton Mills were sent over on a counter-mission) and her revolutionary zeal for equanimity and social justice looking unstoppable.
Her strength was also her weakness. She never took a party whip and as such she never had a party machine to help her achieve major breakthroughs, but it also meant she wasn’t constrained by having to follow a party line and could set her own agenda.
As time went on and with the rise of the Provisional movement, she was more and more marginalised although her message has remained the same and her integrity intact.
Bernadette Devlin grew up in a tough no-nonsense household with strong female hegemony, through her mother, aunts and her going to an all-girls school. She was taught to think and education was highly valued.
She says she got her contrariness from her mother who came from “peasant stock”.
Her father was very intelligent, a socialist, republican, trade unionist who left school aged seven, not unusual at the time, but who was an avid reader of books.
It was a home of tough love where, if you cut your knee, you weren’t expected tow whinge about it.
The children were taught they were no better than anyone else – but no worse either.
Already we can see the kind of person that Bernie grew up to be.
When the RUC attacked a Civil Rights march in Derry in 1968, Devlin knew she couldn’t stand idly by and left Queen’s University to engage in politics, which at that time involved quite a bit of rioting.
As she says herself in the film: “Ruthlessness is not the worst quality you can have when your back’s against the wall.”
However, the sadness is that the subsequent Troubles could have been avoided.
“Had social housing been available, the situation would have been ameliorated.
People wanted a house no a united Ireland.”
Later, Bernadette became (and remains) the youngest MP elected to Westminster where she gave an astonishing maiden speech.
Through archive film and interviews with Bernie herself, the film takes us through the career of this extraordinary woman, from her witnessing Bloody Sunday, her time in prison (for incitement to riot), the Hunger Strikes of the early 1980s, which she believes ended in failure.
It was at this time that, Bernadette and her husband Michael McAliskey were shot by loyalists in a campaign against people who were involved in the H-Blocks campaign.
“I was the last of the people to be shot after John Turnley, Miriam Daly and Ronnie Bunting,” she said.
The attempt failed – no thanks to the security forces – and McAliskey later went on to co-found the IRSP with Seamus Costello, but left soon after a row over the role of its armed wing.
Her attempts to bring her views onto the national arena have failed and she now works with the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme but Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey shows that the revolutionary fire still burns in her heart, despite the setbacks over the years.
It is a film that illuminates one remarkable woman’s story but also the history of the north of Ireland and asks questions about what kind of society we want here, rather than the current Good Friday Agreement which is all about managing sectarianism she says.
Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey runs at QFT from Friday 27 January until February 2.
There will be an Introduction by Dr Liz Greene, on Fri 27 Jan at 6.40pm, followed by Q&A with director Lelia Doolan.