Challenge archive: Bernadette Devlin speaks to Challenge

In this article from 1969, Marion Kavanagh interviews Irish socialist Bernadette Devlin and examines the political situation in Ireland
In this article from 1969, Marion Kavanagh interviews Irish socialist Bernadette Devlin and examines the political situation in Ireland
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Undemocratic elections, religious discrimination, banned political organisations, imprisonment without trial, police brutality. Where is all this? Right here in the United Kingdom. In England’s oldest colony – Northern Ireland. Marion Kavanagh describes the background and explains the nature of the struggle for human rights in Northern Ireland.

The present situation in Northern Ireland cannot be dismissed as just religious feuding. It has a history going back to the time of James I, when the ‘plantation of Ulster’ was carried out. This involved the six counties which are now Northern Ireland being divided into areas known as plantations, which were given to English and Scottish landlords. As a result, the Irish language began to die out, and the Protestants of Ulster became more and more loyal to the English Crown. At the same time the Irish in the South were doing all they could to break away from England. Religious quarrels between the Protestants and Catholics of Ulster were very violent, and when an Independent Irish State was established in 1921, East Ulster remained as part of the United Kingdom.

For the past 50 years the Tory Unionist Party has held power on the platform “a Protestant parliament for a protestant people”. This has been used to divide the working class by making the Protestants feel that their whole future is bound up with Unionism. Against this have stood the Nationalists. But too often their only contribution has been a policy of “The border must go”, meaning in effect, “a Roman Catholic parliament for a Roman Catholic people”.

So instead of people fighting unitedly against bad conditions, they have been divided over religious issues. It is this division which has helped to keep the Unionists in power. Although the present situation has a background of bitterness and struggle that goes back centuries, the causes of the current crisis are not religious, but political.

For the people of Bogside in Derry – the scene of the recent riots – the slogan “one man, one vote” means little. What the people of Bogside want is work. Derry has become something of a joke as the place where the men sit at home while the women work. But to the people of Derry this is no joke. And those in work are paid so badly that families cannot make ends meet.

In Derry, 1 in 5 are unemployed. Most of the jobless are Catholics. Nearly all the employers are Protestants, and most of them take pride in not employing Catholics, except, perhaps, for the lowest-paid jobs.

This is not confined to Derry. In Northern Ireland there is widespread unemployment and a tremendous housing shortage. And this is a country where the right to vote in council elections is still based on property. Owners of property or business can have up to 6 votes, while others have none. The fact that it is the people of property who have the votes is another reason for the Unionist Party’s long stay in power.

Due to the medieval property qualifications, 25 per cent of those with a vote at Parliamentary elections have no vote at local elections.

Violence erupted again on Saturday, 19 April. A march was planned, but officially postponed. There was a confused, frustrated crowd of people in the City centre, and a taunting Union Jack. The resulting blood bath was headlined throughout the world.

But what concerned the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont and the Government at Westminster, were two events that night, which did not occur in Derry. Bomb blasts severed a water main near Belfast and wrecked a key electricity pylon near Armagh.

On that day the Royal Ulster Constabulary ‘riot squad’ left a bruised and battered, but far from subdued, Bogside.
There were cases such as that of the Dedenny family. Police smashed in the front door of their home and brutally beat the father, sons and daughters.

On Sunday, consultations between Stormont and London resulted in what can only be considered as blatant provocation: British Army units were sent in. No amount of talk about their being sent to “guard Installations” can cover up the fact that they were sent there to support the Unionist landlords and businessmen who dominate Ulster, and have denied civil liberties and soclal justice to the people for decades.

On Sunday night, 7 Belfast post offices blazed from petrol bomb fires.

On Monday, the Taoiseach (Premier) of Southern Ireland, Mr. Lynch, called an emergency Cabinet meeting in Dublin. The Northern Ireland Cabinet was meeting at the same time. And in London the House of Commons decided to hold an emergency debate.

On Tuesday the spotlight was on the arrival at Westminster of Bernadette Devlin, the 22-year-old student Civil Rights leader, and newly-elected Independent Unity member for Mid-Ulster.

She spoke in the name of the people who elected her. She made a tremendous impact on the tired old hacks of the House of Commons as she poured out to them not caring whether they were offended or impressed the determination, anger and hopes of the oppressed people of Northern Ireland.

The same day, Captain O’Neill, the Premier of Northern Ireland, and his Minister of Home Affairs, threatened resignation if the Unionist Party would not concede “one man, one vote”. This concession to the pressure of the Civil Rights movement came on Wednesday. But the Civil Rights leaders declared it was too little and too late, and would be weakened by the fiddled electoral boundaries.

In Derry the Mayor allocates council housing in such a way that Catholics and Protestants are kept strictly separate. He makes sure that the Catholics – who vote Nationalist – are largely confined to a few wards. In the last Council elections in Derry. 14,000 voted for the Nationalists and 9,000 for the Unionists. The Nationalists got 8 seats. The Unionists got 12 seats and control of the Council.

On Thursday an early morning explosion shattered another of Belfast’s main water supply pipes. It was announced that more B-Special police were to be mobilised and British Army helicopters were to be used.

In the early hours of Friday morning a third water main sabotage hit Belfast. People who had so far refused to become involved, and had remained outside the struggle, were thrown into involvement when they had to queue for a bucket of water.

The political crisis engulfing Northern Ireland was heightened by the announcement on Monday afternoon that O’Neill had resigned the Premiership and his leadership of the Unionist Party.

O’Neill, although a Tory. was not tough enough for the hard-line members of the Unionist Party, who have systematically campaigned for his removal. His resignation was a victory for the most reactionary bigots in the ruling clique of Northern Ireland.

Electoral reform is not yet an accomplished fact. And further off still are the other demands of the Civil Rights movement.

It is essential that the British people do not stand idly by as mere spectators of the struggle in Northern Ireland. They must give full support to the fight to end discrimination in jobs and housing, for repeal of the police State Special Powers, and the withdrawal of British troops. Northern Ireland needs a major programme of social measures to end unemployment, bad housing and poverty.

If the Unionist grip can be broken, it will be a major step towards the end of bigotry and feuding. towards a united, socialist Ireland.


In this bastion of the middle-aged middle class, Bernadette Devlin Britain’s youngest M.P. – looks strangely out of place. Or perhaps I am simply not yet attuned to this breakthrough into Parliament for the younger generation.

She is not the first M.P. to speak straight from the shoulder, because the Left M.P.s have been doing it for years. But they don’t make the dark-suited backwoodsmen freak out all over the place, and send the pressmen zooming for the phones.

That this diminutive revolutionary is in Parliament is not only
victory for the Irish Civil Rights movement, but also for the whole Left in Britain.
She met US photographer Reg Green and me in the Main Lobby of the House, and led us through the corridors to an interview lounge.

No political gusher is Bernadette. Her answers to my questions were thoughtful and deliberate.
The socialist youth of Britain have a well-placed ally in Bernadette Devlin, M.P.

MK: With the changes in the Stormont Government, do you think the Civil Rights Movement faces a new situation?

BD: Not really. It is basically the same situation in fact the Unionist Government has taken 3 paces backwards. With the personalities in the cabinet, the most logical future is that the cabinet will split again as the last one did.
I would imagine that the new Prime Minister will last, at the most, for 6 months.

We in the Civil Rights Movement should sit down quietly and work out our position. At the moment we are reacting to each situation that the Unionist Government creates. The most effective thing we could do is alter what they have done.

We need to work out a strategy and policy of our own, and dictate events, not simply react to them.
If we accept that the problem is both an economic and social one, then we must accept that we have failed to a large extent in that we have failed to convey our message to the Protestant working class. The main reason for this is that we have no policy. They can see what we are demanding, but cannot see the reason why. They have a fear that we are only interested in the Roman Catholics, and are working for Roman Catholic power.

MK: What demands do you make of the British Government?

BD: Firstly, to recognise their own responsibility for this situation. The present problem has been developing for 50 years, and Westminster has allowed it to develop by its negligence of Northern Ireland as an integral part of Great Britain.

Furthermore, the Government in England is fooling the British taxpayers, because every year £120 million of good, hard-earned English money is being poured into Northern Ireland, most of it to cover up for the mismanagement of the Unionist government.

If the government is prepared to change its policy and implement an immediate programme of agricultural and industrial development west of the River Bann, there would be less need for unemployment benefit and supplementary benefit, which uses a large percentage of the grant from England.

Realising the situation, Westminster must consider it, decide on a course of action, and follow it.

MK: How do you see the Irish path to Socialism?

BD: A very thorny one!

At the moment the problem is that a lot of people in Ireland are Socialist by nature and by experience, but there are few who will admit to it by name, which is the result of a traditional prejudice and fear.

We don’t have a socialist organisation – a strong radical organisation – which means that we are going off as individuals in all directions at once.

What we need is to form an organisation on clear policies to educate and co-ordinate. And one of the most important things we must do in Ireland is to stress the differences between Socialism as an ideology, and the repressions of the Russian system.

MK: In the long term, what do you think will solve the problem of the deep religious differences and the bitterness between sections of the people?

BD: The only long-term solution is the creation of a culturally, socially, and economically sound society, because religious discrimination in Northern Ireland in jobs and housing doesn’t come from a desire to discriminate, but from the fact that there aren’t enough jobs and houses.

A society guaranteeing civil and religious liberty, but in which the church is not controlled by the state, or the state by the church would remove the traditional fears of the Ulster Protestants of being dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

In three good words:

‘Irish Socialist Republic’.

Marion Kavanagh

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