Bernadette Devlin McAliskey The Blindboy Podcast Recorded 6 October 2018 and Published 13 November 2018

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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 3 of 5. In this part Blindboy asks Bernadette to explain the events that occurred during emergency debate in Parliament held the day after Bloody Sunday and asks her whether the feminist movement failed the women who were confined to work houses like the Magdalene Laundries and the ‘mother and baby’ homes.
(begins time stamp ~ 1:12:01)

Blindboy:  And one of the things that came out of that that was incredibly frustrating is that you tried to take that story to Westminster…

Bernadette:   …Yeah.

Blindboy:  …which resulted you in slapping (the then Home Secretary) Reginald Maudling.

Bernadette:   Exactly. And people remember that, you know? People say, which is right, you know – that I didn’t hit him hard enough. (audience cheers) There’s no doubt about that. I didn’t. And you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead but apart from the fact that he was telling lies he was a most obnoxious man, like.

Blindboy:  Like, one of the greatest regrets we have in Ireland is that that footage is not on YouTube.

Bernadette:   That’s right. That’s right.

Blindboy:  How did it happen? Like, where were you? How close were you to him?

Bernadette:  Well, I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what happened…

Blindboy:  …and like for people who are listening who don’t have the context like…


Bernadette McAliskey
Photo: Paula Geraghty
Source: The Irish Times

Yeah. So you had that trauma of people then realising thirteen people had been killed and then when I got out behind that lorry I ran the whole way to Nell McCafferty’s house – it was just up the hill – and Nell McCafferty’s mother’s house was where, if we weren’t congregating in Dermie McClenaghan’s house we were congregating in Nell’s mum’s house and just word was coming in then and I kind of knew because I’d seen, you know – it was in my head – I knew those people couldn’t get up and run away because they were dead but, it’s like everything else, you don’t want to run into Nell McCafferty’s house and say: Guys, I think people are dead because there was a panic on and then people were trying to ring the hospital and that went on for a couple of hours with the quick realisation thirteen people were dead and families being told and going to the morgue. And then the next day, of course, there was a Parliamentary emergency debate and so I had to leave Doire and get to Westminster for the debate. And there’s a rule in Westminster – you know, it’s a very primitive place in many ways that they have these traditions and rules, they’re not written down but they’re the custom of the House – and in an emergency debate, something like that, the minister will make a statement, and the opposition minister will make a statement and then the next person who should speak is the member of Parliament with the immediate interest in the matter and in that case that was me – I was the only person in that Parliament who had been an eyewitness to what happened. So after the two people spoke I should have been called to speak. And you stand up and sit down, you stand up and sit down – it’s primitive. But the man knows, you know, it’s not that he’s looking round to see what we’ll be doing, you know, who has their hand up – he knows who he’s going to call to speak so what anybody has to stand up and sit down for but you do that – so I wasn’t called to speak and every time I stood up again I wasn’t called to speak. And then they closed the debate. And before they closed the debate, because I’d done all my homework before I went, you know, once I found myself in the place I read the book on what the rules are because I’m actually big on rules. I have to give you, I’m going to stop for a minute to give you a word of advice: If you don’t read the rules and know what the rules are you don’t really know when and how and where you have to break them. (applause) So you need to know. You need to know. (applause) So…

Blindboy:  …Just, can you move yourself into the front of the mic, if you don’t mind – yeah, that’s it.

Bernadette:   So I used the rules and I got up and said, you know, objected to them closing the debate because I hadn’t had an opportunity to speak and I had a right to speak. And then they were closing it anyway. And then I got up on a point of order and said: It’s against the rules for the Speaker to close the debate. And then I said: I object – you know, just each time that you had to go through this process – and I said: Well, is it in order, since I am not allowed to speak, is it in order for the minister to get up in this House, unchallenged, and tell lies? Well, then that was a terrible thing to do, the Speaker said. And this is the way they talked to you: ‘The Honourable Lady for Mid-Ulster’ – that was me – The Honourable Lady Mid-Ulster must not call a member of Parliament a liar. It’s not allowed. And you must withdraw that. So I said, because I didn’t want to get thrown out, I said: I will withdraw the word but not the sentiment. So I’m still pretty calm at this point and I said: But, but I assert my right as the only eyewitness, my right to speak. That’s what did it. The Speaker of the House said: The Honourable Lady for Mid-Ulster has no rights other than those given to her by the Speaker. Which was him. And I said: The Honourable Lady for Mid-Ulster, (which was me) has whatever rights in this House it is within her power to exert and I walked down the steps and what it was in my head to do was lift their mace and throw it on the floor but when I got that length I realised I couldn’t lift that. So, out of the tail of my eye I saw the face of the liar and it just – at that point I said: I’ll tell you what – I can’t lift that but what I can do I can put the fear of God in you for about thirty seconds. And that’s when I hit him. (audience roars)

Blindboy:  And like, what type of slap was it? No, no, but like was it a ceremonial slap? Or was it like: Hold on a minute, you’re getting a slap!

Bernadette:   No. I have to own up. It’s a good job it wasn’t on YouTube because it was a kind of a hamfisted slap.

Blindboy:   Okay. Okay!

Bernadette:   Because of where he was sitting I had to get him a bit nearer so I caught him by the tie first and I kind of caught him by the tie and then just hit him a slap.

On the steps of Parliament after the emergency debate
31 January 1972
Photo: BBC

But you see, when I had him by the tie it struck me that I shouldn’t have slapped him at all. I should have just twisted the tie and that would have really have scared him – that went through my head. But by that time, it should have been on YouTube, when I did that, you see, the Tory, Biggs-Davison, who was sitting near the minister on the other, you know, on the front bench where the space is, he jumped up and he hit me – yeah – you didn’t read that bit. Frank McManus, to the rescue – he burned it down! From where he was sitting and he was a boxer in his youth…

Blindboy:  …Brilliant!…

Bernadette:  …and he hit Biggs-Davison and Biggs-Davison fell back quite stunned onto the bench that he’d got up from at which point this old Labour boy who used to sit where Dennis Skinner kind of sits now, and I forget his name, but he was a wee portly man, said ‘she’ – he was a wee – and my memory at that point was that he went over where the stunned Biggs-Davison was sitting, and it will stay in my mind forever, kicking him in the shins and said…

Blindboy:  …Brilliant!…

Bernadette:  …’Call yourself a Catholic!’ – which I didn’t know that Biggs-Davison was a Catholic. And at that point, actually, the Speaker suspended the whole House because there was a brawl. But that was – and if you read Hansard there’s nothing in it about any of that except that the Speaker suspended the House due to a disturbance but that’s what was going on. And then there was, do you know what there was if you read the media at that time? So that was two days after Bloody Sunday, that then was in the next day’s paper, there was absolute outrage in the British media that I had hit a minister…

Blindboy:  …for fucks sake…

Bernadette:  … but there was no outrage in the British media that thirteen people were killed. None! …

Blindboy:  …Yeah…

Bernadette:  …And the lie, the lie that he told, and it is now proven to be a lie, and the lie that every editor in every newspaper and every hack journalist in every newspaper was complicit in telling was proven thirty years later to be a deliberately manufactured lie to disguise the fact. (applause)

Blindboy:   There’s a clip that I saw online immediately after that incident and it was infuriating because it showed me the media twisting the narrative and you were on the steps of Parliament, you were being interviewed, and a reporter said to you: How do you respond to the undemocratic and unladylike behaviour ? And right then I was like: Yeah, he’s just trying to twist. ‘Unladylike’ – how did that feel?

Bernadette:  Well, I have no idea which part of him thought that I was ladylike at any time. I don’t know, it never it wasn’t my forte to be ladylike, but you know, he’d obviously not heard, you know, of people like Gráinne Mhaol or Constance Markievicz – he didn’t know any of those ladies – or any of the Suffragettes you know – it was as ladylike as you get.

Blindboy:  I got a question here which was in concern of The Left and feminism which was: The Irish Left and ’70’s feminists never agitated against the Magdalene Laundries and the mother and babies homes yet were at the forefront of the opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Was this down to blind spots concerning the Catholic Church in Ireland? What do you think of that?

Bernadette:  No, I don’t think it was. I think, again, you know when we look at the world today and the world going back the reality is, and this is the real harsh reality of life, you know people – I remember being asked when I was in America if I felt oppressed as a woman and if I was a feminist and that was in ’69 -’70 and you know, I remember my answer yet. I said: I don’t know. And please don’t tell me because I’m still working through all the other layers of my oppression – I can’t have another one, thank you! So there was an absolute, in many ways, lack of consciousness of what was going on. As I said, we, as young people – and it’s easy to speak of what was this ‘Irish Left’ that people are talking about? You know, the Irish Left has never been a big, you know, not – certainly in ’68 there wouldn’t have been enough of them to fill the Ulster Hall so I think it’s easy to look back on people who are doing things and say: Ah! But you didn’t do this and you didn’t do that. There was not a consciousness of what was happening – you know, the kind of things we know now people didn’t even know, in many ways, to ask the question. And I’ll tell you something…

Blindboy:  …You mean there like the Magdalene Laundries were kind of hidden?

Bernadette:  They were also hidden what, you know, people didn’t – the people who were in the Magdalene Laundries suffered greatly. Everybody had an idea – they weren’t called the Magdalene Laundries, I mean, when I was growing up I knew there was one over by, beyond Armagh, the people – I have to try and set the scene for you but –I grew up in – my father died when I was young and my mother was the head of the house of six children and five of us were girls – it was a very female house; we’d only one boy and he was the youngest. And I grew up on an estate and people talked about ‘safe houses’ during the war but my other effectively kept a safe house not for people on the run in the war but for women who would be been beaten up by their husbands. She never saw it like that. Nor did we.

When we were children sometimes you woke up and some of our neighbours kids were in our beds along with us. But we knew that was nobody’s business. Sometimes other children shared our breakfast – we knew that was nobody’s business. And there’d be women in our house and there’d be hushed conversations and we’d be sent to make the sandwiches. As children we knew that the men in those houses were the reason that the women and the children were not in them. Ours was one of the only houses on the estate I grew up in where children didn’t get beaten. Beating children was what parents did as an integral part of rearing them in the ’50’s and ’60’s. Beating your wife was what men did routinely to keep them in their place. So the context in which you grew up was that The Devlins were eccentric because nobody in their house got beat. And my mother was eccentric and she sent us to school with a note for the teacher, and we used to be cringing when we’d have to bring it to school; that note said: You do not act in loco parentis – do not assault my children. And we were known in the convent school in Cookstown as The Devlins who couldn’t be slapped. And we were known for it.

Catherine Corless
Photo: Andrew Downes
Source: The Globe & Mail

But it was such a bizarre thing because it was commonplace for children to be physically assaulted, for women to be physically assaulted. It was, in that context also, not uncommon for children and women to be sexually assaulted and probably male children as well though it was less noted. And in the background of all of that women, young women, who were pregnant were a disgrace. Didn’t matter how they became pregnant – they were, it was like a disgrace fell on the whole family. You never heard of it. On the estate we’d have known – I can remember the girl who lived over there or the girl who lived there who ‘disappeared’ and sometimes they came back. And as you got older and wiser almost part of your growing up was you ‘got into the secret’ that she didn’t disappear, she didn’t go to an aunt in England, she didn’t go to help somebody – she had a baby. And she didn’t come back with it. And sometimes she didn’t come back at all. And there were ‘homes’. You’d say: Well, where did she go? You went to ‘homes’.

So the total, intellectual, moral awareness of what those places represented and how reprehensible they were and then the brutality and individual cruelty that went into them was seen when people were able to look back at it but it was such – and people talk about it being ‘hidden’ – the easiest place to hide anything is in open sight of people who don’t know what they’re looking at. And I think we underestimate the endemic nature of cruelty, sexual repression, physical oppression in the name of religion that went on in this country as every day, commonplace behaviour. (applause) So it wasn’t that The Left, you know – it’s easy now to say: Who didn’t do what? And I don’t mean to say that in a way that excuses anybody in terms of positions of power and authority – we were that ignorant. We were that suppressed and indoctrinated with the power of God that we were unable to see what was in front of our eyes until now. And now we look back and rightly hold those who allowed it to happen to the highest level of accountability but I don’t think that you can say: Where was the Irish Left? Where was the human rights movement? You know, where was ‘anybody’ in the context we know them now. The real question is: Where the hell was God? (applause) He caused it. Because In the Name of God, In the Name of God those things were done. (ends time stamp ~1:33:50)