- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
In 1969 Bernadette Devlin traveled to the United States on a fundraising tour. At age twenty-two, she was the youngest woman ever elected to Westminster and already a veteran of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement and the radical student group People’s Democracy.
Whisked through New York by a police force blissfully unaware of her revolutionary politics, she appeared on Meet the Press and the Johnny Carson Show and received the key to New York City from Mayor John Lindsay.
But soon the conservative Irish America that had brought Devlin to the country had to reckon with her radical politics. She felt a deep affinity with black America, whose struggle had inspired her own in the Six Counties, and insisted on visiting Black Panthers and other militants. Before long she was comparing Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley’s police force to the Royal Ulster Constabulary who persecuted Catholics in Northern Ireland.
A Marxist and an internationalist, Devlin excoriated the Irish-American community, a significant funder of radicalism in Ireland, for not seeing the struggle of their black compatriots as worthy of the same support. By the end of the tour, Unionist politician William Stratton Mills, sent to America to counter her message, was warning of her association with socialism. “She is Fidel Castro in a miniskirt,” he said.
Back in Ireland, Devlin would go on to witness Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British paratroopers killed fourteen unarmed civilians marching for civil rights in Derry. Denied the right to respond in the House of Commons to Tory home secretary Reginauld Maulding’s claims that they had been acting in self-defense, Devlin punched him in the face. It was, she said, “a proletarian protest.”
In the following years, Devlin remained active in the Six Counties, first with the Irish Republican Socialist Party and then as a leading spokesperson for the Smash the H-Blocks campaign during the early-1980s hunger strikes. Today she works as an antiracist organizer in South Tyrone.
Devlin recently spoke with Jacobin issue editor Ronan Burtenshaw about her experiences in Irish politics, her perspective on the Good Friday Agreement, and whether today’s left-wing movements bear any resemblance to the ones she helped lead in the 1960s.
What were your formative experiences in radical politics? As a child, did you have much of a connection with 1916 and Republicanism?
I didn’t grow up having an intellectual concept of being a republican or a socialist. I grew up knowing that I was dirt poor, but I didn’t have an intellectual framework for understanding it.
My father was a trade unionist. I have no recollection of him drilling trade unionism into us as kids. But I have the clearest memory of him planting flowers in our garden and then planting a small coin. We watched the flowers grow and he dug up the coin. He showed us that if you plant flowers, they grow. But if you plant money in the soil, it doesn’t. Money only grows when you plant it on the backs of working people. My father died when I was nine but I never forgot that.
From my mother I got a sense of human solidarity that, oddly enough, I think came from Catholicism. In fact, the point at which I left the Church was not when I decided there wasn’t a God, but when I decided I couldn’t see that compassion in this organization.
I wouldn’t have known it growing up, but, because of the year it is — with people going back over the history of 1916 — somebody contacted me the other day to tell me that they had done archival research and it turns out my maternal grandmother was in Cumann na mBan, the women’s armed brigade. She never spoke about — such must have been her disappointment with the revolution’s outcome.
You are remembered by many for your activism in the Civil Rights Movement and your election to Westminster in 1969 at age twenty-one. What is your memory of the People’s Democracy period?
When I’m asked about the People’s Democracy period, I can’t help but laugh. It was crazy and brilliant. The chaotic creativity of large numbers of people who were thinking and taking action at the darkest of times. Madness and sanity at the same time, and out of that, ways forward appeared.
The dynamism of the mass movement came out of attempts to create democratic frameworks, often in simplistic ways that meant decisions could change every half hour. Someone would call a meeting and take a decision, then the minority that didn’t like it gathered more people and organized an even bigger meeting to change it. Then the new minority would do the same. But by the end of the night you had ten times more people than had been involved at the start of the day.
People’s Democracy is under-appreciated now in terms of its importance as a crack of light, moving ideas forward and radicalizing the Civil Rights Movement. It won an election long before Sinn Féin was heard of in that arena. In fact, when Sinn Féin moved into electoralism they originally actually got no bigger vote shares than the students managed in 1969 or later when I was reelected.
You can criticize People’s Democracy structurally but it was an amazing time. It was a forerunner, in its own way, to what we’re seeing today.
So you see the 1960s spirit in today’s left movements?
Yes, I saw it when I was in Greece last summer and in the Right2Water campaign in Ireland, certainly in the Occupy movement, and all the young people around Jeremy Corbyn. I have to say these movements seem to me, from the outside, more serious than the one I was involved in, but that might just be because I’m not at the party in the same way!
It is also more difficult to do it now. The 1960s were a time when everything was being liberated. You had youth movements, movements in music, gender, and sexuality, there was a global trend towards opening up society. Now movements are trying to fight back or hang on to ground won during the victories of the 1960s and ’70s.
Yet the struggle is being taken on. And I see a great similarity in how scared society today is of its youth. It helps that many veterans of the old fights are still around. So you get “sixties kids” like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn bringing their memory, their experience, and the madness they picked up from those times. Part of change is defeat and setback but to see that tide rising again while the people who rode the last wave are still here and active is important.
Much of the political terrain you operate in now is determined by the Good Friday Agreement and peace process in Northern Ireland. Can you describe your criticisms of the situation in the Six Counties?
In my view, the fundamental narrative of the peace process is false. You can make criticisms of that without wanting a return to violence. The end of the war has opened up opportunities that did not exist previously — people can discuss politics in a way they weren’t able to before.
But that was not possible in the decade following the peace process. Particularly for the new generation the starting point is different. And we should say, too, that Sinn Féin is more progressive than the political forces which went before them in government in Northern Ireland. That is a step forward.
But the peace process was built on allowing each faction to interpret ambiguities as they wanted. Maybe they thought this was a good thing in the short term, to end the war, but each side has clashing interpretations of the agreement and that will have to be reckoned with at some point in the future.
When it is reckoned with, today’s narrative will carry with it a lot of problems. For instance, take the idea that the Irish Republican Army bombed its way to the table. This myth was tolerated by the state for a number of years and fueled by them in their “flattery” about how sophisticated the IRA had been and so on. It gave a credence to the republican position that what little was won was won militarily.
Those in the dissident camp then can believe and say “we didn’t get much, Sinn Féin let us down, but if we had fought on militarily we could have achieved more.” In reality, this is not the case. But it leads apolitical people who have gained nothing from the struggle into a logical conclusion — not because they are stupid, but because of the logic underpinning the process — that there is some value in continuing some aspect of the armed insurrection.
To understand the peace process you have to see that the people who have gained the most from it are the educated professional classes, and their children, on both sides of the sectarian divide. There is now a shared interest among the middle classes in defending what they have gained — on the back of struggle by others.
How much of a role do you think this middle-class consensus plays in propping up the peace process? Does the imposition of austerity on working-class communities have a potential to undermine it?
We now have two parties in government who are representing the middle classes and who benefit from the status quo, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. They are kept apart by the sectarian nature of the peace process and its institutions, which divides things between two communities.
Then we have a layer of people below who have been left out completely and are becoming disillusioned. But, because of the underlying sectarian logic, not just of the institutions but of the story told to put this all together, this feeling is pushing the Catholic and Protestant working class further apart, not closer. At the same time, the two parties in government tell their constituencies “we’ve won” while they cut corporate tax rate and introduce austerity measures.
Sinn Féin have moved further and further to accommodate this new reality and, in doing so, created a dynamic they largely don’t see. They are losing the trust and the support of the people who once voted for them, the Catholic working class.
Those people have been replaced by the Catholic middle class which most benefited from the peace process. These are former Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) voters. They have a vested interest in stability and participation in the state, so they now support Sinn Féin.
But many who fought in the democratic and the armed struggle perceive themselves to be no better off. The economic and social system we have has consigned them to is continued welfare, poor education, and now austerity. Yet their opposition to this is described as “dissidence” and dismissed.
Meanwhile, I am seeing things come full circle. I have lived to see food banks in Dungannon, where I work. When we were young and angry enough to be marching here against poverty in the 1960s, there was nobody living on food banks. The social housing waiting list in this town is now greater than it was when the Dungannon Housing Action movement started.
And yet, at exactly the same time, the Catholic middle class has never been better off. They were brought in from the cold in the first years of the peace process when there was the security of state jobs. There weren’t jobs for the working class, in many cases, but there was welfare.
The situation has reached such a stage now, though, that even that is under attack. The Tories don’t feel that they need it. Why would they? People want peace and are willing to comply. The flip side of this is that for many people poverty will be written in as a condition of the peace.
The politicians have organized this year so that we will have our election first and the welfare reforms planned under the Tory Fresh Start agreement second. This is because everyone knows the depth of these reforms. We in the North are headed for a period of poverty that will scare people. I see it because of where I’m working.
Sinn Féin will be unable to mitigate against that when it hits the ground. They will be able to say the British government cheated us, but that won’t be enough.
What do you think led Sinn Féin to that point? Is there any chance they could take a leftward turn, bringing their Northern politics closer to the ones they espouse in the South?
I remember my last serious conversation with Gerry Adams on the peace process in the 1990s. I asked him then, “What is your Plan B if this doesn’t work?” He didn’t have one. It was clear that this was the only game in town. We are seeing the effects of that now because even if they wanted to stand up to austerity they couldn’t do it.
I missed a key point in that conversation. At the time, I thought, “This is a high-risk, short-term strategy.” In fact, it wasn’t that. It was a low-risk, long-term strategy. The two sides had fought to an impasse and that impasse was being set up as the new normal.
The British policy was to demilitarize but also to demobilize and demoralize the resistance to its government. Sinn Féin became the mechanism by which that could be done. The peace process, which was supposed to last four or five years, is now almost twenty years old and is not finished yet.
For Sinn Féin the problem is one faced by a lot of electoral parties. You organize a mass movement and you oppose the political system, but to create a space to advance the struggle at a certain point you go into elections. If you win, you become part of that political system and that imposes its own logic.
In order to advance the struggle you have to defend your position, but to defend this position you think you have to make sure a majority votes for you. The end result is that while you got into elections to say what needed to be said, you ended up saying what needed to be said to keep your elected position.
Today, many in Sinn Féin believe that if Martin McGuinness was first minister up here and Gerry Adams was part of a government in Dublin then they would be nine-tenths of the way to their goal. This way of thinking is focused on institutions. It is first and foremost nationalist, with republicanism and democracy far behind.
It will be difficult for Sinn Féin to continue to manage this contradiction in their party. At the same time that they are losing people in the North, workers in the South are turning to them. But Ireland is too small in the long term for one party to be able to be a middle-class party of respectable politics in the North and a working-class party of resistance in the South. There will come a time when that isn’t possible, and I don’t think it is far away.
The task of socialists is not to hammer Sinn Féin because of their positions in the North or to exclude them from progressive movements because their “hands aren’t clean” in the North. Instead we should try to hold them to the progressive positions they adopt against austerity and push that side of the contradiction.
How should we understand “loyalism”? What are its characteristics? What is it out to achieve in the twenty-first century?
Loyalism is clearly differentiated in the North from Unionism. Unionists are middle class; they believe that their interests are best served by maintaining the current situation, British control of this part of the island. They’re like Falkland Islanders, in that sense.
Loyalism’s hallmark is that it represents the poor. Loyalists are working class or unemployed. As the American system disgracefully refers to some of its poorest people as “white trash,” loyalists are perceived within British nationalism as an underclass.
Many from loyalist communities have internalized that themselves. When I work with people from that background I’m often surprised that they will set on the table first, “Okay, so, we know we are no good.” I have talked to young loyalists who say, “We know we are scum.”
I don’t understand any human being starting a conversation saying that they are not human. I ask them why they start that way. There is a clear lack of self-esteem and also a loss of confidence.
If you think about the “dissidence” in poor nationalist communities among people who gained nothing from the struggle despite giving so much, the sense in the loyalist community is that they actually lost. They lost to everybody despite unwavering loyalty to the regime, even to those who challenged it by force. The anger in loyalist communities is fueled by them still not having the price of a loaf and seeing Martin McGuinness up running the country.
Loyalists are acutely aware of the swaggering new rich on the Catholic side. You saw this during the recent flag protests here, where the first response was to mock the way loyalist people said the word “fleg.” The attitude among some was, “You can’t even spell it or say it right, but I am inside City Hall looking out at you.”
This is why I have always believed that this whole process is further sectarianizing the North. The infrastructure of the peace was sectarian itself and continues to reproduce the problem. The result of that is that, while there is some competition between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States for poor whites, or between Jeremy Corbyn and the UK Independence Party in Britain, the loyalist community is stuck without such an avenue.
Loyalist politics is based on British nationalism and, for the same reason that Irish nationalism has aligned itself with progressive struggles, British nationalism is compelled to be reactionary. But that is only part of the history of Ulster Protestants. They have been denied other parts of their history, such as the radical struggles of the Presbyterians or the labor movement. Regaining that won’t happen in history class. It will only happen by fighting in your corner and discovering that someone else was here before you.
2015 saw successes for both Podemos in Spain, a new left party with a more populist discourse, and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, who is much more aligned with the traditional left. What is your opinion of the new movements we’re seeing challenging austerity in Europe and what can we learn from them?
When you’re building left-wing movements you have to take into account the context. In Britain there is a long tradition of class politics, much more so than in Irish politics. People understand the idea of “the working class.” It is part of the history of the debate about power.
That’s not to say that because they know the words they understand the music. I don’t think they necessarily have a clearer understanding of the nature of capitalism. By comparison, Spain has a recent history of fascist dictatorship, so the language of democracy still has an energy and dynamism that it is lacking in other places.
But I think you need to ask, “What are people fundamentally taking about?” The demand, it seems to me, is for people to have control over their lives. That is what should take us to where we need to go: the argument for collective ownership of the means of production. If we don’t have this, we don’t have the power to determine how our society develops.
The reality of capitalism today is that a few hundred people who control the major multinational corporations effectively control the destiny of the world. They control our ability to survive.
I think there is a degree of realization that this is the case, not only in the United States and Europe, but in the rebellions in the Middle East and elsewhere. The political systems we have are not capable of dealing with the underlying economic realities.
When people place demands on their government for improvements in conditions, the response from the government is “we don’t have the money.” Governments, of course, don’t earn any money, they rely on their ability to tax to generate it. But governments are no longer able to do this because the wealth that they need to respond to popular pressures and real need is in the hands of increasingly powerful people outside of their control.
The cracks we are seeing in politics are reflective of people saying, “We don’t know how to fix this, but we know it is broken. We need to be doing something else.” Each of us has to fight in the corner where we are but we have to recognize that we cannot beat them one country at a time. We can’t even beat them in one country without the solidarity of others. This is an international struggle.
That will be an increasingly important point as they struggle to maintain control. Capitalism would kill you without batting an eyelid, so how do we organize against it together?