The Blindboy Podcast
Bernadette Devlin McAliskey
Ulster Hall Belfast
6 October 2018
October 5th 2018 was the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. To mark this anniversary, Blindboy Boatclub of the Rubber Bandits hosted one of his awesome podcasts at Ulster Hall in Belfast on October 6th 2018. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey was his guest. The house was sold out. The podcast is over two hours long. The Transcripts will be publishing the entire session with Bernadette – beginning to end. This transcript is Part 1 of 5. In this part Blindboy asks Bernadette to take us back to 1968 – the beginning.
(begins time stamp ~ 21:47)
Bernadette: Thank you very much.
Blindboy: What is the craic?
Bernadette: These people don’t know me.
Blindboy: They do, of course!
Bernadette: Thank you.
Blindboy: For the listeners at home, because there’s gonna be Yanks and Brits and fuckin’ all sorts listening to this: The only way I can describe Bernadette – You’re our Martin Luther King. (audience cheers) That’s the most simplest way to say it. And on that note, Bernadette, is Gerry Adams in the IRA? (all laugh) That’s just a stock question – I ask everyone that, okay!
Bernadette: I’d have to say as I used to: I have no first hand information on that, Your Honour.
Blindboy: You’re the youngest women ever elected to Westminster except Mhairi Black.
Bernadette: Yeah, I was until Mhairi Black came on. She’s a – I’ll tell you this: She’s a very good follow-up act, is she not? I think she’s great and I think she’s very…
Blindboy: …Have you spoken to her?
Bernadette: No. I’ve never actually met her ’cause I don’t be in Westminster anymore. But, no, I follow her. I’ve watched her, you know, I’ve watched her politics now, I’ve watched her speaking and you know, she’s great so – and I’m sure there’s plenty of young women out there who would give it a run for their money.
Blindboy: One lad!
Bernadette: …take the age down to eighteen, we get the vote at sixteen, take it on down another bit – certainly wouldn’t be any more childish than what passes for politics at the minute.
Blindboy: Okay so fifty years on, right? What’s that like? What does that feel like? Like the first marches, I believe it was – what was it? The Derry Housing Group?
Yeah – you know the thing that you find hard to believe when you look back is how long ago it was. I have difficulty figuring out: How come it was fifty years ago and I don’t think I’m fifty years older than I was when it happened. Really! Because you don’t see it. And then I remember, you know, I was just a student in 1966 when you had the 50th anniversary of 1916 and at that time we thought that was ancient, like that was remembering history – all of that was way, way away in the history books and yet I’m still here and most of us, not all of us, are still campaigning and yet, for young people in their twenties that must be just so far back in history that they don’t know, they don’t know a big pile about it or they’re looking at things, you know, now at the minute, because there’s different things on the radio and television around it – people are seeing things for the first time. You know, like the police attack on the 5th of October…
Bernadette: …and it’s funny – that’s one of the things that every time I see it I still get that shiver down my back because that’s the first time, that was the first time that right in front of your eyes something totally unbelievable would happen. We had no – you know, after it happened you kind of get a trans-generational memory that says: How did we not know that’s what they were going to do? But we didn’t. We just were mesmerised, apart from also terrified, because no part of you, no part of anybody that’s started out in Duke Street and started to walk up the street, had any inkling that the police were going to punish us like that – come at us from the front, come at us from the back, corral us onto that street and beat the daylights out of us. We had nothing to prepare us for that except that our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers could have told us, and probably did – and we weren’t listening.
Bernadette: So you kind of, you know, so you look back and then, again people talk about the civil rights and you remember that at that time it was very, very – it was a very broad movement and do you know what? It wasn’t asking for a lot.
The thing that surprises you most is that what was it? The demands, which one of them was very funny, because it was ‘one man one vote’ and everybody knew it wasn’t just votes for men – like it’s a hundred years now from ‘votes for women’ – but everybody knew that women were in there but it was almost before feminism in a way – a second wave of feminism – so I don’t ever remember me saying: Hold a minute, boys. What about votes for women as well? One man one vote did everybody at the time. And people find it very hard to believe that in 1968 you didn’t have equality of voting rights. That, in fact – like if you look jumping forward to now – how many greedy landlords there are, they seem to turn up everywhere but the country’s now full because there’s a shortage of houses, there’s a shortage of social housing, shortage of affordable housing all over the island of Ireland. And given that we were campaigning for equality, fair distribution of Council houses and social housing, the waiting list for housing again is as bad as it was then and the new problem is about private landlords charging fortunes.
But imagine if every landlord in Belfast had as many votes as he had housing units. That’s the way it was in ’68. So if you had a slum-landlord who let old buildings out and tenements and rooms then he was paying the rates on the whole building and he got a vote for every housing unit. So some people in Dungannon or Doire or Belfast had as many as a hundred votes but none of the hundred tenants had a vote at all – so how were you going to get housing reform? Landlords weren’t going to vote – you know, turkeys aren’t going to vote for Christmas – so the landlords weren’t going to vote for rent control and then also because the housing was tied to the votes the Council wouldn’t build houses because if you had a Council house you got a vote because you paid your rates. So they wouldn’t build houses because it would give people votes. So it wasn’t that Catholics had no votes and Protestants had. It was that ordinary people, poor people, had no vote because the private housing market was designed not to have them pay rates. But of course, on your rent the landlord charged you enough to cover the cost of his rates so you were still paying but you had no vote. But the political impact was on the Catholic population because the Unionists didn’t want to build pubic housing, social housing, for Catholics because that would then give them votes because then they wouldn’t vote for the Unionists – so it all got – it was all tied up in that.
So almost every, every sort of liberal and progressive person, many, you know, many of them were actually rank-and-file members of the Unionist parties, were in favour of the reforms. And you often just wonder if before we even got the length of Duke Street or Coalisland-to-Dungannon March, if when the housing action people had asked, like they’re asking now in Dublin and Corcaigh and Limerick, if the people had been listened to about homelessness and had been listened to about housing between ’61 and ’64 and ’64 and ’68, and somebody had done something about it, they’d be no civil rights movement. And if there’d been no civil rights movement there would probably have been no war until, well or maybe something else would have caused more upend but we paid a big price in this society in order to protect landlords, really, in ’68 and that’s what it was about – and to stop democracy and – but I still find it hard to believe that it was fifty years ago – it was yesterday. It was yesterday – or maybe the day before. Maybe. Maybe last week.
Blindboy: It’s interesting that you say, you know, you were saying there you were thinking that the young people today are looking at that and maybe not relating to it as much but one thing that I’ve been seeing this week, in particular online, because of the context of the current, we’ll say the Take Back the City housing action that’s happening in Dublin, how many people are only finding out this week: Holy fuck! It started because of a housing protest essentially – you know? And it’s kind of empowering people to show that that one little spark is what can lead to something larger. You know?
Bernadette: Yeah, do you know, something – and I’ve always said this – you see, when you decide to do something, and the reality is that most people – when something is wrong and somebody decides to put it right – mostly the reason for them doing that is the wrong that is hurting them. And sometimes that’s the problem that the people it’s not hurting don’t do anything ’til the people who can’t actually can’t take it anymore have to do something. And then they come out and they do it. And maybe other people join in. But you see once you do what you know to be right because you can’t sit and look at what you know to be wrong. See, once you do that and people do it together something inside you changes. You know, you get a sense of if it’s not – you know it’s not power in the way powerful people think of power. It’s the power of people. It’s the power of solidarity. It’s a strength and a courage that comes from being together – and once you get it into you it’s very, very hard to knock out. Once it’s hard, you know, and that’s where the people want to stop you. You know, there’s things I discovered all my life – if you’re not quite sure if you’re on the right side or the wrong side of the line find the nearest line of policemen and see which way they’re facing. (applause)
Blindboy: A lot of the things that – what I’m finding people are interested in now is the intersecting nature of how it started, right? And like we said the march to Doire and that being inspired by the march to Alabama – like what were you looking at at that time? And as well, were you inspired by let’s say the student protests in France and stuff around that time as well?
Bernadette: Yeah well, see the whole thing kind of came together. The thing about the ’60’s was that young people were – our parents used to all say anyway and they were right: Young people were revolting – and they were revolting in all kinds of ways: In their personal lives, you know, things that people would nearly forget now – my generation of young teenagers never, ever answered their parents back. Now I don’t mean, you know – I mean never answered them back. And what that meant was: You spoke when you were spoken to and you did not disagree. You did not voice an opinion to an adult, to somebody who was your older and better, unless you were asked for it – and you were rarely asked for it. And in the ’60’s then young people just started, it was you know, it was rock and roll, it was music, it was dress, it was drugs, it was sex, it was running getting – it was education – people getting out and away from home – third level education became available to people. So things were happening everywhere – even in Dungannon and Cookstown and Coalisland and Washingbay – you know this was, and the rest of the world. Television was new. So, and now you know people are talking languages that people like me don’t understand about podcasts and stuff…
Blindboy: …Well, you’re on one now!
Bernadette: But in those days television was a big thing so we could see what was happening in the world. We saw all those things. There was big things that happened: There was the anti-war movement around Vietnam because you could see the horror of that war. There was all the black civil rights movement. Then there was, we didn’t see a lot about eastern Europe at that time, but the European student movement. And there also in the ’60’s the beginning of some of what were also kind of parallels to Northern Ireland – there was the Québécois Movement, the movement of the French-speaking Canadians for the right to speak their language and for the right to be organised and respected in Canada that led on then to the kind of Free Quebec movement. And there was always and ever the rights of the Palestinians. So all of these things were happening and we grew up when there was an international rise of progress and liberal thinking and revolting and we were all – you know, it was like osmosis, you know – and then you began to see your own life in the light of that. You know, you began to say there are people in Alabama looking for votes. We don’t have any! There are people in Alabama who aren’t allowed to walk in their own streets. Neither are we!
So our link, which is very interesting – just the American one’s very interesting because of where it puts us in position with many Irish immigrants there in America. But we identified very closely with the black movement, with Martin Luther King. I mean, I remember when Martin Luther King was assassinated and so they played his speech all the time on television and I remember listening to that – not saying: There’s a man who was talking to ‘his people’ and he got killed for it. He was talking to me. He was talking to me about my life and I think there were lots of people in the North of Ireland who were the same as that. Martin Luther King was talking to us. And we were listening to him and interpreting what he was saying in the context of where we lived.
And then you know, the students – People’s Democracy was kind of part of the way we did- People’s Democracy ! But you know what we did, too? (I didn’t know this ’til later.) Do you the way when people hear music and hear a new song and then they start to sing it but they don’t really know the words and they haven’t got the music right? That’s what we did. (all laugh) Nobody told us that the black civil rights movement and the non-violent movement – you know people said ‘non-violent’ – we thought that meant you just didn’t hit anybody – but we were too far into it when we realised that that was a discipline, that a lot of people actually went to non-violent training meetings before they went on marches. We just went on marches and promised not to hit anybody. And then our tempers broke.
Blindboy: One story that has gone very kinda viral online about you recently is when you went to New York and you were given the key to New York City. (applause) Can you please tell us that story?
Bernadette: Yes. Well I went to New York in ’69 and you see, people always remember the bits of the story that they like and forget the whole story.
After what became known as the Battle of the Bogside, when we fought to keep the police out of The Bogside, and the reason we did that was that after I’d been elected in April the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) at the time – because the battle was not between Catholics and Protestants with the police in the middle. The battle, the civil rights battle, when it got into a battle, was really between the civil rights protesters and the police and then the Loyalist working classes got caught up in that but that’s the way that happened – the police weren’t keeping two sectarian sides apart. And after I was elected in 1969 – I’m not even from Doire but it’s just a big part of my – I kind of, I have to say Lord Scarman once said:
I appreciate, Ms Devlin, that you’re not the cause of the problems but you have a remarkable propensity for being there when they occur.
(applause) So I was in Doire – whenever I’d been elected in Mid-Ulster there’d been a celebration there and then we had a celebration in Doire. But as a result of my election mostly the police then went on a rampage in The Bogside and as part of that Sam Devenney was badly beaten up by the police. And people knew that. They broke into people’s houses, they just ran down the streets, smashing windows and broke into people’s house and Sam Devenney was beaten up at his own fireside and subsequently died – he was just a man sitting at his own fire. And so by August ’69, whenever the whole parades were on, people were genuinely terrified of what would happen if the police came back in again because we had barricaded the place. And so we fought for three days and that’s when the Army came in. The British government sent the Army in to separate the police from the civilian population. And then I was speaking on a platform, and it’s the way, it was the way I said it, I think, that it was basically interpretative anyway, I was at an event and I thought we needed a rest but what I was trying to say was the Army should never had come in. You could see what they were doing. But putting the Army in here was actually going to make this worse. And that wee bit of prophetic wasn’t prophetic vision. I just think if you think hard enough you can see what’s coming – and I said, you know, at the end of the day we’re going to have to fight the Army, too. So I got sent to America. Get her out! Get her out! So I went to America where…
Blindboy: …And for the The Irish-Americans were the…
Blindboy: Like what were the Irish-Americans thinking about what was happening?
Bernadette: (whistles) Well, I’ll tell you. I went to America and I used to say when I got back: I know (and it’s not a secret now ’cause we’re podcasting and this place is full), I know that when I went to America, when I was taken across the border and down to the Finner Camp and driven by an Irish Army officer whose wife put me up in their house and gave me a toothbrush to go to America with and put on an airplane – I had no passport. I know because I’d never been anywhere – never applied for one.
And yet, so there’s no other way I could have gone to America other than with the diplomatic immunity of the state – no other way I could have gone. Of course I didn’t know that at the time. No other way I could have got in. No ragamuffin with long hair and dirty jeans gets into America just because they turn up and say: I’m just straight off the barricades – can I come in?
So you weren’t thinking that so I arrived and important Irish-Americans were there to meet me, some really good people – Paul O’Dwyer and others – and there were a number of already-existing Irish-American groups and I was like a passed parcel. I was just going, moved from one place to another, and there was big meetings and people throwing money at you – millions of dollars. But you’re also took to meet important people so New York was the first and I met Mayor Lindsay – who was twice my size and a tall man – and we drank whiskey out of cups. First time I ever saw anybody drink whiskey in cups and saucers and I’m looking, saying: Is this an American cultural habit? So next time you see politicians having cups of tea there’s probably alcohol in them. It’s for the photo-op so that you don’t have to set the glass, hide the glass, when they’re taking the photo so we’re all standing around taking and I’m wondering: What kind of country is this where they drink whiskey out of tea cups? (I have to own up now, you see – I drunk whiskey at that time.) But then I got the keys, there was a big presentation. I got the keys – Freedom of the City of New York. So I kinda looked at it and stuck it in the bag. I also got the Freedom of San Francisco and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia so I come home with this bag of trophies, and I’m not a kind of ‘mantle piece person’, so I’m looking at them – and most of the bad stories in my life start and end with Eamonn McCann. So I was saying – who was also one of the people who shipped me off to America – let me say I haven’t forgotten that, Mr. McCann! So I’m saying to Eamonn: Pfft! And Eamonn said: Why don’t we send them back to the people who need them? So he was actually going back and we then arranged that when he went back he’d have a ceremony, another ceremony, which was that having been given the keys to the city of the New York then he would present them on my behalf to the Black Panthers who needed the freedom of the city of New York. (applause) So we gave them back. We gave them to the Panthers. And there was much less to do because then when I was back in San Francisco and returned the San Francisco key in the same way people passed no remarks but I never, ever got the keys to any more cities after that. (ends time stamp ~49:34)