Bernadette Devlin

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey (1947- )

Bernadette Devlin was born into a large Catholic working-class family in Cookstown, one of six children. Her father John and mother Lizzie both had ‘Devlin’ as their surnames, Cookstown being ‘Devlin area’ as Bernadette describes it. Her father, whom she credits with instilling into her a knowledge of Irish history, died when she was nine leaving her mother to bring up the family in conditions of considerable economic hardship, dependent on welfare benefits.

This formative experience of poverty made Bernadette a socialist in her beliefs. She attended St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon, where the head teacher, Sister Benignus, helped to establish Bernadette’s republican convictions. Bernadette went to Queen’s University in 1965, studying psychology and developed an interest in politics. Her mother died in 1967 at the age of 46 and Bernadette found herself commuting to Belfast from Cookstown in order to help with her younger siblings. She and her brother took part in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march from Coalisland to Dungannon in August 1968. During the march, Bernadette was stopped by police in Dungannon and as a consequence, she began to reflect on the kind of society that existed in the north, where divisions into religious ghettos divided communities from each other.  During a march in Derry on the 5th of October 1968, the leadership of NICRA advised marchers to disperse rather than confront the police presence, an experience that confirmed to Bernadette that the leadership of NICRA was too timid.  Bernadette became a leading figure in the People’s Democracy student movement and a noted public speaker. Her experiences, and those of other members of People’s Democracy, of being attacked by loyalists while marching from Belfast to Derry in January 1969, strengthened her socialist views and increased her political activities. At a general election in February Bernadette was one of the People’s Democracy candidates, standing in South Derry against Major Chichester-Clark, receiving almost 6,000 votes, compared to 15,000 for the Major. In her biography, Bernadette paid tribute to the work of Patricia McCluskey during the long process of organising a Unity Convention to obtain an agreed candidate for Mid-Ulster in the general election. Bernadette was selected and elected MP for Westminster in April 1969, serving until 1974 despite remaining deeply critical of the parliamentary process.

After taking part in the ‘Battle of the Bogside,’ Bernadette served a prison sentence in Armagh jail. In 1972, after Bloody Sunday, she crossed the floor of the House of Commons in order to attack the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, after he stated that the paratroopers had fired in self-defence. In 1974, she became active in the Irish Socialist Republican Party for a short time and in 1979; she stood in support of the republican prisoners in the European elections, winning 6% of the vote. She and her husband, Michael McAliskey, were shot and badly wounded by loyalist gunmen at their home in 1981. Since 1997, Bernadette has been active in the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEP) - a community-based organisation that she founded which supports the rights of migrant workers.