N.I. CIVIL RIGHTS VETERAN
“I care passionately about justice, about ideas, about principles….” The name Bernadette McAliskey is synonymous with the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland over the last fifty years. An iconic figure, she came to public attention as Bernadette Devlin, a young psychology student in Queen’s University, Belfast. She helped found the student civil rights campaigning movement, People’s Democracy. A fluent and fearless advocate for civil rights and the rights of women and minorities, in 1969, just before she turned twenty two, she won a seat in the Westminster parliament, the youngest ever female MP at the time. Her success challenged the establishment Unionist Party and put down a marker that ordinary Catholics would no longer tolerate discrimination in housing and jobs. She made her controversial maiden speech within half-an-hour of entering parliament telling MP’s “there is no place in society for us, the ordinary ‘peasants’ of Northern Ireland…because we are the have-nots and they are the haves…”.Bernadette helped organise the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, where a working class community in Derry rose up against discrimination. In 1970, she was awarded the key to New York City, which she presented to the Black Panthers “as a gesture of solidarity with the black liberation and revolutionary socialist movements in America.” In 1972, she was in Derry for the Bloody Sunday massacre, when thirteen Catholics were shot dead by the British Army. Famously, she was denied the right to speak about it in the British House of Commons, and when the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, said the British paratroopers had fired on civilians in self-defence, she crossed the floor and slapped him. She and her husband, Michael, survived an assassination attempt carried out by the Ulster Freedom Fighters at their home in County Tyrone in 1981. Bernadette was shot fourteen times in front of her children, but survived.
Bernadette is less in the limelight these days, but still an activist. A co-founder of the community organisation STEP (the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme), she works with migrants, Travellers, single parents, and people with physical disabilities. She was election agent for the People Before Profit candidate, Eamonn McCann, who took a seat in the Stormont Assembly in 2016. “People are afraid of upsetting the apple cart, upsetting the peace process, upsetting the funding process. But part of me still needs to tip it and see how far it will tip over.”