SHE WAS the firebrand young MP from County Tyrone whose electrifying presence on the stage of Northern Irish politics in the late 1960s catapulted her to the forefront of the Civil Rights movement.
Later she was a figure in the broader Republican movement in Ireland, a supporter of the H-Block hunger strikers, a critic of the Good Friday Agreement, and today, a campaigner and activist for those still on the margins of Ulster society - true to her roots and principals as an Irish Republican Socialist.
She is Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and she will be the subject of a major new documentary by Lelia Doolan, entitled Bernadette: notes on a political journey, which will be screened in the Town Hall Theatre on Saturday at 4.30pm as part of the 2011 Galway Film Fleadh.
For many, Ms McAliskey is one of the great figures of the Northern Civil Rights movement alongside Ivan Cooper, John Hume, Eamonn McCann, etc - a period when Ulster’s Catholic population, inspired by the Black civil rights movement in the US, took to the streets to demand that they too be granted the same civil and human rights that were enjoyed by any other citizen of the United Kingdom, rights which had always been denied them by the Unionist-dominated government.
Yet for many younger generations, Ms McAliskey is a largely unknown figure, and this is partly what prompted Lelia to make a film about her life.
“When I was a producer/director in RTÉ in the 1960s, Bernadette was an explosive presence in Northern Ireland,” Lelia tells me. “I have kept in touch with the events in her life and then in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and pictures of Bono holding hands with politicians, I thought, ‘What about her contribution? Why is she not recognised? It’s time we looked at the immense work she was engaged in, and still is.’”
That same year Lelia approached Ms McAliskey with the idea of making a film about her, and there was certainly no shortage of events in what has been a very full life.
Ms McAliskey was an important member of the civil rights campaigning People’s Democracy movement in the North in the late 1960s. At only 21, she was elected MP for Mid-Ulster in 1969. She remains the youngest MP ever elected to Westminster. She held the seat until 1974 after which she helped co-found the Irish Republic Socialist Party, leaving it shortly afterwards. She supported the H-Block hunger strikers in 1981, and is today involved in a cross community grassroots organisation that advocates on behalf of immigrants, the disabled, and other minority, or marginalised groups.
“She has always been a human rights activist,” says Lelia. “She has a straightforward addiction to liberty. Civil rights has always been at the heart of what she has done. She is a Republican-Socialist - somebody who is a citizen in a political system that represents individual rights and a socialist, because of the need to equally share the goods of that society. She is a woman of incredible eloquence and clarity.”
Lelia also says that Ms McAliskey has a reputation for rebelliousness. This was perhaps best illustrated by the famous incident in 1972 when she punched Reginald Maudling, the then Secretary of State for the Home Department in the Conservative government, when he made told MPs that the British Army had fired only in self-defence on Bloody Sunday.
Given that Ms McAliskey was an eye-witness to the atrocity in Derry, her action against Maudling may indeed be understandable. She has also known terrible violence to be directed at her, such as in 1981 when she and her husband Michael were shot (“She eight times, he nine and left for dead,” says Lelia ) by Loyalist paramilitaries.
Over the next 10 years, Lelia undertook numerous interviews with Ms McAliskey on all aspects of her political life and the ideals that have inspired her. Lelia received immense help from friends who came on board, such as Joe Comerford (cameraman ), Gordon Bruic (editor ) and Michéal O’Malley, who agreed to commission the film.
Such a work also needs access to archival material and Lelia was helped in this with access to the RTÉ archives and the work of archivists, the late Bairbre Durack and Tommy Doyle.
“It’s been a slow, sometimes stop start process, but we stuck with it,” says Lelia. “I have to bow my head to Joe, Gordon, and Bernadette, and that we have managed to put together an 87-minute documentary that will give younger people, and older viewers as well, in a time of bland politics, a chance to see that there are ways of thinking open to them that allow them to exercise their freedom as citizens and encourage them.”
Immediately after the screening Ms McAliskey will chair a discussion in the Town Hall Studio entitled AGITATE, ORGANISE, EDUCATE. Lelia Doolan will also attend. For tickets contact the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie See also www.galwayfilmfleadh.com