1. Archive


This year marks a quarter century since 21-year-old Bernadette Devlin was elected to the British Parliament. It has also been more than 20 years since she reached out and struck a government official for suppressing her testimony about Bloody Sunday, an infamous 1972 massacre of North Ireland Catholics by British troops.

That was a slap heard 'round the world, loud enough to vault a young psychology student onto the international stage. As often happens, however, most people remember the big gesture while forgetting the circumstances that brought it about. Back then, some pundit referred to Devlin as Fidel Castro in a mini-skirt, and her detractors are still doing their best to paint her as a 1960s anachronism.

"I have to be the oldest 21-year-old, mini-skirted female Fidel Castro in the world," she said in a recent telephone interview from her home near Belfast.

The irony is not lost on Bernadette Devlin _ now McAliskey _ who is no political has-been. As a stubborn voice for social change, she endures.

So does the violent cycle of suppression and resistance in the six war-ravaged counties that some would retain as a British province and others would merge with the Irish Republic. Superficially, at least, the dispute divides along religious grounds, with the Protestant majority, or "loyalists," favoring British control and the Catholic "nationals," or "unionists," pushing for a departure of British soldiers and British influence. As with civil wars elsewhere, however, economic and social class interests are also powerful elements in the conflict.

More than 3,000 have died since 1972 in Northern Ireland's undeclared civil war. News of the struggle is currently censored by the British government; as a result, the American public has heardwhat officials say about Irish nationals but little of what the nationals might say about their own cause. There is news of the Irish Republican Army and its bombs, for instance, but sparse information about the humiliating strip-searches of Catholic female prisoners or the so-called "shoot-to-kill" incidents involving military police.

Last December, a peace initiative proposed jointly by the Irish and British governments seemed to signal genuine progress, at least from the outside. Just weeks ago, President Clinton stirred public interest by giving Gerry Adams, leader of Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein party, a significant if controversial opportunity to speak in the United States. (Sinn Fein, established in 1905, is usually translated as We Ourselves or Ourselves Alone.)

McAliskey herself was scheduled to visit the Tampa Bay area on March 2-3, making public appearances at the University of South Florida in Tampa and at New College in Sarasota. Instead, she was hospitalized unexpectedly last week due to complications from gunshot wounds sustained when would-be assassins broke into her living room in 1981. Sponsors hope to reschedule the tour, perhaps in the fall.

In the meantime, might peace be at hand? As a veteran observer, McAliskey does not think so.

"The government is only interested in what it calls cessation of violence," she said. "To my mind, violent confrontation is a direct result of the absence of non-violent mechanisms to resolve conflict. You can't remove the conflict until you resolve the issues. It is incumbent upon those who argue that the conflict can be resolved non-violently to create the mechanisms."

Right now, McAliskey said, Irish nationalists feel that there are no "mechanisms." Instead, they are being asked by the British government to surrender without any clear assurances about who will broker the peace. "The only veto the people have is the IRA and, therefore, I think the question has to be answered for the nationalist community in the North."

Given the deep distrust on both sides, McAliskey said a fact-finding survey by the United Nations might yield some constructive responses. "Here is an opportunity for the U.N. to begin to initiate some kind of mechanism which comes in from the outside," she suggested. "That would begin to move the solution forward."

So far, she said, the British government has opposed any U.N. involvement. "The Irish government, which could exercise its authority, has failed to do so," she added.

"There are 56 civil wars going on at the moment," McAliskey said. Among these, she labeled the war in Northern Ireland "probably the most readily resolved conflict in the world," pointing out that "the population is well-educated, literate, healthy" and essentially racially homogeneous. U.N. involvement, she thinks, might yield a model that could be applied to other civil wars.

While the situation in Northern Ireland might seem hopelessly complicated from the outside, McAliskey maintains that economic, political and social discrimination and deprivation were the causes, and ones that could be cured. In the absence of an outright dictatorship, however, observers from the United States and other Western democracies just don't see the problem.

"We have come to identify democracy by a number of mechanisms: education, assemblies and a public forum," she said. "We do not investigate whether democracy extends to those who have fundamental disagreements . . . (or) whether mechanisms exist but no longer function to resolve problems."

McAliskey said that "uncomfortable parallels" could be made with conditions elsewhere. For instance: "Does democracy within the United States extend to large segments of its citizenry? Native Americans, the black population?"

McAliskey sees clear comparisons between the economic and political powerlessness of working class Catholics in Northern Ireland and low-income African-Americans in the urban United States. The example of how she came to live in a poorly maintained public housing project in the small town of Coalisland, near Belfast, is a case in point. She moved there with her family in 1981, after an assassination attempt that left her with permanent injuries. Government officials had to shop around for quite a while before they found public housing that would accept the couple.

To hear McAliskey tell it, people in most communities were "a-frey-id" to have her for a next-door neighbor, and they did their best to keep her out. The old not-in-my-backyard syndrome. So officials moved her in with the poorest of the poor, where "people were too powerless to say, "Not here!'


McAliskey took the opportunity to help women and teens organize themselves into tenants' associations. Much of what she refers to as "community work" and "equality work" sounds similar to grass-roots community organizing in the United States. The issues are familiar, too.

"We reduced vandalism to zero without a policeman," she said proudly. "We forced officials to repair things. When people have different places to live and a concept of themselves, it changes their attitude toward their environment. . . . We now have a higher expectation of quality of life than we had 10 years ago."

As for the youth, who are often portrayed in the media as incorrigible ruffians or terrorists-in-training, "Our 11- to 16-year-olds have their own elected committees and their own discussions. They do a lot of work for us; they participate as equals. They actually become part of the process of making things work, instead of: "What do we do with them?'

"We're trying to do that against a background where people are devalued. Simply by virtue of who and what they are."

A commonly cited statistic is that unemployment among Catholics in Northern Ireland is 2{ times higher than among Protestants. McAliskey sees high unemployment as key to any government effort to silence a potentially vocal minority. "Those who speak out and offer dissent simply make themselves unemployable," she said.

Desperation born of artificially high unemployment makes Northern Ireland "an industrialists' paradise," McAliskey said. "In terms of industrial investment, we compete with what people would refer to as the Third World. The wage rate here is much lower than elsewhere within the United Kingdom . . .

"Many people in North Ireland go to work in France. Most of the labor used to build Disney World in France was North Ireland labor," she said.

Overseas telephone calls to remote political figures aren't usually high on a journalist's list of likely prospects. McAliskey was initially loath to speak at all, letting it be known through an intermediary that she didn't much care for reporters and their superficial focus on the past. Even worse, it was not possible to set an interview time or date; security concerns make McAliskey reluctant to advertise when she might be at home.

Once contact was made, however, McAliskey seemed eager for the opportunity to speak without worrying about British censors. While the constant complaint from Northern Ireland that news is censored might sound like political paranoia, the British government has actually banned dissenting voices in Northern Ireland from the broadcast media since 1988.

Last month, for instance, when Gerry Adams visited the United States, Americans had the opportunity to make up their own minds about his views. Television audiences in Europe, Africa and Middle Eastern nations saw a different version of Larry King's interview with him, however. When the program was aired by CNN International, which is based in London, censors demanded severe editing and used an actor to dub Adams' voice.

British newspapers are not censored in this way. As McAliskey explained, however, direct censorship is not the only media complication for the people of Northern Ireland. Substitute "crime" for "politics," and the parallel to news reports about violence in urban America is painfully obvious:

"When people are killed here, the bereaved are interviewed mercilessly on television. In order to have your deceased accepted as part of humanity, you are almost required to say that "my husband, wife, daughter had no interest outside the home.' People answer almost in rote fashion."

The question of whether a person "had interests outside the home" is a sanitized way of asking whether he or she had political viewpoints, McAliskey said. The only publicly acceptable victim is purely passive. "Did your deceased live, or just exist? If you dare to say anything more than they just existed, somewhere in there is a good reason for killing them."

As for herself, McAliskey is well aware that the British and Irish media, not to mention a large segment of the public, regard her as "one of the most destructive people." Nevertheless, she remains deeply committed to bringing about social change in Northern Ireland.

"It is very difficult to say what keeps you going," she mused. "You say, "Right, I'll do another wee bit.' You say you can't give anymore, but you look at the kids and say, "Yes, I can do that.'


McAliskey paused, and the hollow silence on the telephone line seemed to emphasize the vast geographical, physical and cultural distances that she must struggle against to be heard and understood.

When she spoke again, hope and resignation seemed to be battling for control. "You just keep chasing dreams and hoping you catch them. At the end of the day you realize that you can only do your wee bit.

"You've only got the one life," she concluded wryly, "and this is where ours ended up."

Maria D. Vesperi teaches anthropology at New College in Sarasota.