The Seamus Deane Honorary Field Day Lecture
‘A Terrible State of Chassis‘
30 September 2016
Bernadette Devlin McAliskey delivered the annual lecture, entitled ‘A Terrible State of Chassis’, at The Playhouse Theatre in Doire on 30 September 2016.
(Ed Note: On 24 October 2016 Field Day uploaded a video of the lecture that has a better sound quality. The transcript was revised this date.)
Bernadette: Thank you very much. I am unable to see past the first five rows. Thank you very much all of you for coming. I understand that this room is packed so it’s probably just just as well I can’t see all of it. And there’s an interesting dynamic speaking here because somehow I feel that a standard of public performance may be required that I’m unaccustomed to giving seeing you all paid in! (all laugh) It’s something that I’m not actually used to.
But when Stephen asked me if I would in fact give the Seamus Deane Lecture tonight I have to admit two things: 1) I owed a debt of duty and gratitude to Stephen for his support for the election here in Doire and I owed a much longer-standing debt to the late Brian Friel for his help many, many years ago. And I have to say being asked to in fact be part of the Seamus Deane Lecture was so flattering I couldn’t really say no. So that’s my excuse for being here and then having done it I thought: That’s maybe not the best thing you’ve thought of, Bernadette’ because I am, as Michael very eloquently put it, I am indeed much more accustomed to saying something because I think it has to be said and it has to be said now because something needs to be done now and everybody else has the wit to keep their mouth shut for a bit and so I find myself making the noise. That’s kind of been the history so I tend to speak on very immediate issues in a campaigning sense so it’s a bit of a challenge for me to say: What am I going to tell these people that I haven’t already burnt the ears of Kitty Holland with in almost trying to – in what was an excellent interview and if she’s here tonight – thank you, Kitty, for her kindness and patience and listening you know to a veteran of the struggle rambling on and then extracting from it a very coherent and kind interview. The problem of course is that once I said it to Kitty Holland now it’s all gone out of my mind same as if I wrote notes so I’m probably going to talk about something entirely different.
But as I was sort of driving here earlier in the day two things that struck me: I was listening to an item just on the news and it was quite immediate but very interesting – that sixty percent of the population, according to recent research, sixty percent of the population of Northern Ireland do not have more than a hundred pounds in savings – sixty percent of the Northern Ireland population don’t have what my mother used to call ‘irroughness’ of one hundred pounds. Now a number of years ago I remember being aware that just over fifty percent of the population of Northern Ireland didn’t have access to three hundred pounds savings. And I was really shocked just to hear that on – just hear that short item on the news just about debt that as we have progressed in the millennium – that’s how far we’ve progressed – that whatever number of years that was – maybe ten, maybe twenty – that people are now in increased poverty. And many people in this room will know what a hundred pounds is. A hundred pounds would scarcely today buy an average family a week’s groceries. A hundred pounds actually is twenty pounds short of the rent on a three bedroom house in Dungannon for a week. So you don’t have fall very far, you don’t have to get into any great depth of hardship. You know, if your washing machine and your cooker broke at the same time your savings would be gone in getting both of them functioning again. And that’s the Northern Ireland we live in. That’s the model of conflict resolution and peace and prosperity and progress that we’re hawking round the world for everybody else to follow. And sometimes I think there has to be an international trading standard somewhere that we’re in breach of. There has to be somebody buying these packages who has recourse to some kind of trading standards agency that says: ‘I’ve been conned!’ Because the other thing that I heard on the news, and I’m sure most of you have heard it as well, is about the company NI-CO. Somebody probably got a lot of money in coming up with the title. It probably cost about ten thousand pounds, it probably went out to tender and probably twenty different groups applied and then somebody got ten thousand pounds of public money to think of a name for a Northern Ireland peace selling company. And they said: Hmm…Hmm.. and they (gestures) and then they came up with ‘NI-CO’ – Northern Ireland Company. (all laugh) That’s where you taxes goes. But NI-CO is actually a subsidiary company of Invest NI. Invest NI is an arms-length company of the Department of Trade and Industry. So the Department of Trade and Industry gives the money to Invest NI and Invest NI they give the money to NI-CO and NI-CO are helping to sell the peace to…I think it might be Saudi Arabia – I think it’s Saudi Arabia – I think it might also maybe include help for the Sultan of Oman I’m not sure. But NI-CO are actually training Prison and Police Officers in these countries as to how to be like the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) – well, I presume – what else would they know? How to manage their prisons the way we manage Maghaberry. You can see why we need a trades description act to protect these torturous, anti-democratic, human rights violating states from the con men of the peace process of Northern Ireland. But there’s no end to it. The Northern Ireland peace process takes the credit for ending years and years of conflict in Colombia – the Colombian state and FARC.
And sometimes you know, I’m sorry but I do have a certain degree of sympathy with Jim Allister’s ‘Marlene‘ concept. I remember myself – me, myself and I, the three of us – used to go to America and it occurred to me that I was actually making more socialists in the United States than I was making back here because I was making more progress in radicalising people in The States than here and that may well be the case – that the peace looks better the further from here you get. Because certainly it doesn’t look great from here if the reality of life in Northern Ireland is that sixty percent of the people – that’s the majority of the population – have less than a week’s wages, less than a week’s family benefit between them and penury – that to me is absolutely incredible! So I think the question we have to ask is: 1) How did we get here as far as Northern Ireland is concerned. How did we and then I should say: ‘Not how did we’ – how did the rest of you – not me! How did the rest of you ever believe that the secret process of unelected people behind closed doors would lead to a solution that would be in the interest of the majority of the population?
There’s a certain logic there. If I had an idea that I thought you would all love I would tell you all about it. No point in me having an idea that I think you would all love and keeping it a secret in case you didn’t like it. So the only purpose of having secret talks around conflict is if the people having the talks don’t actually believe that they can easily sell the concept to the people they have to sell it to. It’s a very age-old ploy. It’s not something that just happens here – it happens everywhere – that people are drawn into private and secret conversations and they kind of work on the basis – not unlike why I’m standing here tonight – people get flattered.
So I don’t know if any of you remember but there was a time when, for example, the IRA were ‘terrorists’ and then over a period of time, somewhere around the period of the mid-’80’s after the Anglo-Irish Agreement and heading into the ’90’s, people started using phrases like ‘sophisticated’ – the IRA might be terrorists but they were amongst the most ‘sophisticated’ terrorists in the world. You would see a couple of Doire backs straightening there – (all laugh) ‘sophisticated’ terrorists – that’s what we are! Strategic thinker – Tom Hartley. I knew we were not going well when Tom Hartley was described as a strategic thinker. (all laugh) And the poor man from the Irish press who so described him I began to think there’s something wrong there. Tim Pat Coogan has lost the run of himself. (all laugh) Because Tim Pat Coogan was no mean thinker but he described my good friend, former friend, Tom, as a ‘strategic thinker’. When I challenged Tom on this possible description he said: Bernadette, the problem with you is that you don’t know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. (all laugh) Tom was nothing if he wasn’t humourous and witty. And then he went on to say: You’re missing a necessity: You can’t follow the fancy footwork. Oh, I said. That’s alright, Tom, okay. You dance. Over there. (all laugh)
But you could see how the flattery began to work. We now had strategic thinking. Gerry Adams was almost of statesmanlike stature. He was still an outsider. I remember people who indicated that they could do with a little help maybe from a strategic thinker like me – and I can be flattered by my friends. I have been blessed with an inability to be flattered by mine enemies – so when I found strange people saying maybe I wasn’t as bad as they had thought I was I knew there was a problem. (all laugh) So I just usually said: Look, I’ll talk to you about that next week.
But bit by bit what actually happened to people in the Republican Movement, used to demonisation and alienation, found themselves flattered by new descriptions and a belief that they were winning. These new delusions set in. This realisation on the part of the British government and the British military and the United States government and the Irish government that Sinn Féin and the IRA were maybe right – that was proof-positive that the campaign was working, that the military campaign was working – they had shown the British who wasn’t afraid of them! They could take the fight to the British government and this had brought the government to the realisation that there was a stalemate. That the British Army, Her Majesty’s armed forces, Her Royal Britannic Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second that in 2016 still has managed, personally, to hold onto six thousand six hundred million acres of the entire world – had been fought to a standstill by a couple of hundred people on the island of Ireland and forced to the negotiating table.
What possessed you to believe that? What possessed people to believe that story was true? It’s not that people were stupid. It was that people would not own up to the truth. People were war weary of a war of attrition that was beginning to take the second generation of their children before the first generation of their children had left the prisons. And out of loyalty to the IRA wouldn’t dare say that out loud. Enough people said it quietly to them, including myself, including Des Wilson, including Oliver Kearney, including almost everybody holding the line in communities and holding them together. But out of loyalty nobody said it out loud. Nobody would be the big person to publicly say: This military campaign needs to be unilaterally ended to give the rest of us room to move. In fact I think that maybe Michael Farrell very bravely set that conversation out within the broad family of resistance. And if there is one thing – I know there are plenty of things that plenty of people will not forgive Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams – the list just gets longer. But there’s one thing that I will not excuse them, because I don’t know what forgiveness is, one thing that I do not excuse them is that at the point when a number of people, including myself, were saying: It is in the interest of the population, it is in your interest, it is in our interest, that you consider a unilateral ceasefire – and nobody puts it on you – that you say in all of this conversation – that you believe it’s in the interest of the people, particularly after the period of the hunger strike and then the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and a realisation. And I remember the words that I used to them was: The present generation of people that you are drawing into the IRA are little more than children who are confessing their guilt on the kerb before the police put them in the jeep. Not being tortured in prison – they’re confessing on the kerb at the point of arrest. And that was clear. So why are you doing that? And the answer that I got was: Go home! That’s what they said: Go home, Bernadette!
And of course you know, nobody ever got to talk to the IRA. You talked to people who had ‘an insight’ – I have to get this phrase right – you forget it. The people who had ‘an insight’ into the thinking of the IRA. I remember having a conversation once with Seamus Costello during my short but very educational membership of the IRSP (Irish Republican Socialist Party) and there was a similar kind of conversation where, in absolute frustration, I said to Seamus: Seamus, please do me a favour. Would you go to that men’s toilet there and while you’re in there and the door closed behind you would you have a conversation with the Chief of Staff of the INLA? (Irish National Liberation Army) (all laugh) And when you come out would you tell me what he said so that I can understand where I stand in this organisation? (all laugh) And he just looked at me, as he often did and said things like: Close the door behind you, Bernadette, on the way out.
So I think the point that I’m making here is that nobody sets out, nobody really sort of sets out to end up where they end up. I don’t believe that Sinn Féin and the Republican Movement, when they set out actually set out to be where they are now. I don’t believe that. I believe you can put a very simple analysis of it: If you lifted a frog and threw it in a pot of boiling water the instinct of the frog is to immediately jump out and it’s virtually unscathed. If you put it in cold water and turn the heat up slowly you get boiled frog. It gets comfortable. (quips) Mmmm – Mediterranean style water. And by the time the water’s too hot for it to survive it no longer knows how to get out. And I think that in a way that’s where we are in the politics in The North. Not only do we have Sinn Féin in government – and my problem is not that Nationalist Sinn Féin or Irish Nationalist Sinn Féin is in government with British Nationalist DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). It’s not the coalition, it’s not the ability of these people to work together that upsets me it’s the things on which they agree that upset me – it’s the things that they can do together – the fundamental things that bring them together that are more important to them than the different aspects of their various Nationalist outlooks – that’s what worries me about the future.
But not only have they got themselves there in this bizarre belief – and they both have this bizarre belief – that Martin is in there, and the party, as part of ‘the project’ – there’s a whole new language here you have to learn. The party says it’s part of ‘the project’ and ‘the project’ is the same as ‘the project’ always was. So when you’re remembering the 1916 Rising, if you’re making a funding application, it was ‘a project’. It may have been a field project – I don’t know whether they had to give any money back or not – but in this language the 1916 Rebellion was ‘a project’ – a project to unite Ireland. And that project is ongoing and carried forward by Sinn Féin and that project is on track. And the logic is very simple: How do we know it’s on track? Well Sinn Féin are in government in The North albeit with the DUP and albeit, in order to stay in government with the DUP, moving further and further and further to the social and economic right. That’s the price they’re paying and the price they are willing to pay. But they’re in government – so the project’s alright. And they’re in opposition so they’re in the Dáil – they’re in the opposition and on their way to government in The South. And Sinn Féin are the people, say the Republican Party, and this is a Republican project so Sinn Féin are the people. And so if Sinn Féin are in government in The North and on their way to government in The South then Ireland’s as good as free! Because when Sinn Féin is in the government on the both sides the people will be in the government on the both sides – so it’ll be the same thing as having a united Ireland because the same people will be running the two sides of it.
Now you begin to open up the mental health debate at this point (all laugh) because politically what you have to do to get to a point that that is a coherent argument. And it’s a bit like, if you go back and remember the time of the Birmingham Six, when the judge said: To believe that the police had behaved as they had, to believe that there had been a conspiracy to convict people who were innocent was such an appalling vista it couldn’t be true. And the appalling vista has a great hold on all of us. It was too appalling a vista, and it remains for many people too appalling vista to think, to even begin to think, that after half a century almost now of struggle – this whole thing’s screwed up. The price paid for it: The people dead, the people killed, the generations traumatised, the population whose mental health is in serious question, the hunger strikes and all the hidden bits – all the other bits that come through secrecy, all the internalised bits – the abuse of authority within the communities be that the IRA, the UDA, the police, the parish priest – all the people who suffered underneath that conflict it hardly bears thinking about that it might have been for nothing. That’s an appalling vista. That’s enough to paralyse your thinking for about ten years. That’s enough to fill you with such despair and such anger, such despondency that when people say: ‘It’s not working – we should try something else’ you either refuse to believe it’s not working (because you can’t go there) or you do believe it and so you give up entirely. And I think that that’s where people have been for a period of time and I think some people are still there.
Because where we’re looking at now is we have a political party formed called Saoradh – good luck to those boys, because if you couldn’t see it the first time – and I’ve seen them all – no harm to you – see all these heroes that have formed Saoradh, which is a change from Saor Uladh which was a change from Saor Éire. You see this group of people – they all bought into the peace process at the beginning and at the next bit and at the next bit and at the next bit – and the bit they fell out, to my memory, was over the police. And now they’re all going back to say: No. Sinn Féin sold us out so what’ll we do? We’re going to form a party that looks very like Sinn Féin – but ten years ago and we’re going to repeat the same thing again. And I have to ask a question. Einstein asked it and he was marginally more clever than me. Sorry, but I was only thinking out loud there. (all laugh) Einstein asked – put a proposition: That insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So at what time and in what place in our history, from 1798 onwards, are we going to step back and look and say: The model of political organising doesn’t work. That that concept of saying that we have basically a Republican philosophy that, in it’s context here – and I’m not talking about the wider concept of Republicanism as a democratic ideal but Republicanism as it has grown and generated here, was in a kind of mish-mash of populism, radicalism, Nationalism that is tied around freeing the nation first and then looking at the social policies second – that is tied around a belief that in order to progress the democratic project, the independence project, you must simultaneously have an open, democratic party and then a secret army up your sleeve – that’s the way it works.
It doesn’t work. It didn’t work. It never worked. And it never will. It doesn’t work.
And part of the reason it doesn’t work is secrecy doesn’t work. You cannot build a democratic movement through secrecy. You cannot win a democratic argument without open debate and discussion. You cannot actually hold and sustain progress without the support of the people. You can’t do it for them. You can’t win freedom for people and hope they’ll pat you on the back and take it and look after it for you. And at some point that has to be faced in this country.
And you can see the limitations of where it works. In my place of work I have met people who come in to complain. They have to see ‘Bern’dette’. I want to see Bern-dette. There’s about thirty people that work in our place but everybody has to see Bern-dette. And when people say: ‘I have to see Bern’dette’ everybody else in the place says: ‘Yeah’ because they know – there’s be no good coming off this meeting. These people are in to find out what Bern-dette’s going to do about the foreigners because it’s Bern’dette’s fault. She brought them here. People ring me up and say: Are you responsible for the Portuguese? Nope, absolutely not. You’re responsible for them foreigners. And the kind of conversation sometimes you get from people who fought for their own rights is: We didn’t fight for equality here for them to come over here and benefit. (applause) We didn’t fight for equality for ‘them’ to come over and get the benefit of it. This is our, this is our equality. Rights. Rights. We didn’t fight for our rights for them to come over here and take our jobs. And I have a very simple philosophy and I always say: Well, tell me, which job did somebody – because this has been my life’s work – tell me which job you were entitled to that somebody stole from you and you and I will go and get it back right now! (huge applause) And then you discover; I didn’t apply for the job. I’m only making the point. (all laugh) Well why didn’t you because if that’s your problem we can help you apply for jobs. I’ve got a job! That’s not – you’re only twisting my arguments again! And so we’ve got this very narrow vision and part of me is fed up hearing about this place. Part of me is bored beyond sanity about hearing about Gerry Adams and the badness of him and Martin McGuinness and the badness of him and the petty squabbles for petty, parochial power in petty, little fiefdoms while the world is burning round us.
Part of me is so frustrated with this place’s obsession with its own navel because I go back to say that there are people in Northern Ireland – and I know exactly what that is and that’s crucial for me – who live precarious lives just on the edge of poverty. But there are millions of people in the world who don’t know where the next dollar is – not the next fifty dollars. People fleeing war and that chaos and I kind of think, because when I looked at this debate or this discussion, and I said to Stephen what about: ‘A Terrible State of Chassis’? because I had been in a conversation round the John Hewitt School stood of how O’Casey must have felt, how the people must have felt after the 1916 Rising, after the War of Independence, when it was all falling apart, when it all looked like chaos to them and how did they make it a century later when they’re looking to see how little real – and I’m not saying that we haven’t made progress – but the chaos that is the world.
And then I thought: Actually, chaos is only a point of view. We think and we understand and we perceive the system to be broken. People aren’t sure how to fix it but they know that it’s broken because it’s not working for them. But if you took a different point of view the system’s working perfectly. The system never was working better. The system was never intended to work for you. You exist to work for the system. That’s all – you exist to work for the system. (applause) And the system needs some of you to be unemployed and some of you to be homeless and some of you to be working and some of you to be fighting over who is employed and who isn’t and some of you to be confused and believe that the reason you’re working and he’s not or she’s not or they’re better off than you is because your religion or your colour or your gender or your sexual orientation is different from theirs and so we battle around and demand for an equality of injustice. An equality of poverty. An equality of misconception. When in reality slightly more – I think this room holds somebody said about two hundred and fifty people? Imagine if it held fifty people more; this whole room held three hundred people. There are three hundred people in the world, they all have names, they’re real people and between the three hundred of them they own as much of the world’s wealth as three hundred million of the poorest people in the world. So if you kind of filled this bit of this floor with another fifty people we have a world in which a roomful of people own as much of the world’s wealth as the entire population of North America, China and Brazil put together. And we never look at that inequality. We never look at a world where we think we have democracy but as I say, that woman that my mother, because she was a good person, said was a noble and gracious lady – the things I insist on repeating at every meeting – my mother said: The Queen of England was a noble and gracious lady – and my father said: That might be so. She is also the inheritor of the Butcher’s Apron and a receiver of stolen goods. And with a good education as a child. (all laugh) And the other is never to leave a meeting without mentioning Leon Trotsky and working towards his rehabilitation in the revolution – at which point I’d like to own up that I voted for Jeremy Corbyn (huge applause) and he never managed to out me as a Trot or a former member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party and therefore not allowed to vote. (all laugh) So the Trots got voting for Jeremy.
But the point I think that I want to make about the system and the new conversations we need to have is that we are still fighting an old argument on old lines and old ways that have shown not to work while increasingly and inevitably the world as a single place in that whole global question is coming down to the basic question. And the survival of this planet is caught up in that question: Socialism or Barbarism? And we’re watching barbarism. What kind of world looks at people drowning in the Mediterranean and says: ‘Not my fault.’? What kind of world looks at people backed up in Calais and the best we can do is organise rucksacks so that when they have to leave the camp they can take their belongings with them? And I’m not knocking that because I’m part of doing it but is that the only solution we’ve got?
Her Majesty the Queen, that noble and gracious lady, owns six thousand, six hundred million acres of the world. The Pope, one of the last remaining monarchs along with Her Majesty the Queen, he owns a hundred and seventy-seven million acres in the world. In fact the King of Saudi Arabia, he’s the next on the list, he apparently owns about two hundred and fifty three thousand million acres – five people between them own more than half the world. So maybe the questions that we need to start looking and the conversations we need to have should no longer be about the project of Nationalism but should be about the project of land. As a rural person I keep telling you land is important – who owns the land owns what is built on it, owns what is dug out of it and increasingly fewer and fewer people own the land that is this planet. Fewer and fewer people own the water that is this planet. And when we have human rights conversations we talk about the right to vote. Soon you can vote whatever way you like because it will have no bearing on the politics of the world. No bearing at all. You vote for governments that are powerless. If governments weren’t becoming powerless they wouldn’t let reprobates like Sinn Féin in and they wouldn’t let women be leading governments. The system is working. It is simply not working for us.
So we need new conversations. Human rights should not simply be about our political rights, our civil rights, and I’m not quite sure if we have national rights or community rights in the way that we think we have, but we have got to fight for human rights as an economic concept. If we have a right to live and if we have a right to life then we must have a right to the resources by which we can survive. And to have a right to those resources we must have ownership of land, ownership of water and ownership of the means to the production of wealth. Now there are ways we can get that. We can go toe-to-toe and fight for it. We have nothing to fight with. You cannot take the Michael Collins’ model of guerrilla action against people who can eradicate cities from the sky. You cannot win the battle of Aleppo with a Thompson sub-machine gun and a military, secret organisation any more than you could win this one.
So we have to start where we are and build new conversations. New conversations about who is stealing our resources not about whether Martin McGuinness is a good Nationalist or a good Republican. The man is in government and he needs to be held to account. And as a man in government held to account he has to answer to us. If there are insufficient resources in the North of Ireland such as it is so that the people only have a hundred pounds spare cash between them and starvation, that the housing crisis is worse than it was in the 1960’s, that people might have work but the work doesn’t pay so the working population are eating out of food banks – why is this man reducing corporation tax from twenty-eight percent, in his mind, to ten or twelve? These are the issues that we have to take up and these are the issues we have to fight.
There’s a new conversation and it has to be about extending human rights to economic rights. It has to be about building communities that are sustainable culturally, health-wise, socially, economically. It has to be about a participative democracy. And when I say that there’s always a contradiction and I’m going to end on it: I refuse to leg it with the Brits. Sorry about that. I have been rendered, not for the first time, as a not-very-serious-socialist and possibly not worthy of the name because I voted to remain in the European Union. The last time I transgressed so seriously it was because in the early 1970’s, when I should have been proselytising for the revolution, I went to watch Muhammad Ali fight in Madison Square Garden. I am as unrepentant about voting ‘remain’ as I am about going to see Muhammad Ali. But what did happen there, and I argued this at the start, our position should always have been that it wasn’t about staying in or getting out it was about understanding that we were between a rock and a hard place. I disagreed with the vote because I think the people took a very uninformed vote and I think the majority of the people who did vote to get out voted for not very progressive reasons but it was an exercise in participative democracy. It was a bit like release unto us Barabbas – not the smartest move you might have made. Think what we could have been spared if they had actually not voted to get Barabbas out and taken the other guy. Just think what the world would have been spared!
But in closing what I do want to say is that we have got to let go of an old conversation. And I don’t mean when I say that that we’ve to let go of the fight for justice, of the right to hold to account those who have to be held to account within the state for Bloody Sunday, for Ballymurphy. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about an endless argument about what Sinn Féin might have done and could have done and didn’t have done and somebody else might do around a methodology of organising that no longer works. About a narrow conversation that in today’s world hardly even matters because nation states are merely the puppets of corporate organisations and we are in the process of seeing, both North and South, of seeing this nation sold into the hands of those corporate powers without so much as a whisper. Meetings like this start this conversation and people like People Before Profit start this conversation so maybe that’s where we need to start organising – putting the people first, challenging the corporate profiteers and starting a new conversation because this is the last conversation in which I ever intend to mention Gerry Adams again. Thank you. (thunderous applause) (ends)