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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 15. August 4, 1971


Photo of a burnt bus

Question: The last time you were here you seemed so disgruntled with the scene that you left rather quickly, leaving a joint session of Congress waiting for you. What made you come back?

Answer: Finances. I came back to try to earn some financing for a Socialist Study Center many of us would like to see get started in Belfast. America is still a good place to earn money. But I'm not here pleading for funds from the Irish-American community on this trip. I'm here rather as a lecturer earning money by speaking on cam puses. The funds will go to the Center, and I'm hoping I'll be paid a small fee to help take care of my overdraft.

Q: On your first trip, you were greeted as the Super Heroine Queen of the Bogside Barricades. Politicians, newsmen, and Irish-American fraternal organisations just seemed to tear at each other to get near you. That's not happening at all this trip. Your've come quite consciously as a socialist leader, and you seem more interested in talking with the Black Panthers and Angela Davis than the Hibernians and Mayor Yorty. Has there been a change in you?

A: No, there hasn't been any change in me. When I came here nearly two years ago, the Irish-American community greeted me with a hysterical reaction because of the fighting in Belfast and Derry. They reacted emotionally and as a result didn't listen to had I was saying, I was talking two years ago of socialism ...and I remember people remarking that nobody else in the Irish-American community could get away with the things I was saying. But it was because of the hysteria of the situation... because of the images it conjured up of 1917... that they even listened to me.

Q: Did they listen? I got the impression you did very well the first few days, but the minute you made it clear to the press that you were interested in the liberation of all people - Protestant, Catholic, black and white - the more con servative elements of the Irish-American community immediately turned off to you. Didn't you snub Mayor Daley in Chicargo and as a result only get a turnout of two-hundred people in the Windy City for your speech?

A: Yes, There were incidents, like one in Los Angeles, where a trio of very important people in the Irish American community came to see me. There was a woman, a priest, and a man, who was simultaneously head of three Catholic welfare organisations - including the Knights of something or other. They told me they'd get a lot of money for the relief fund - a million dollars minimum - if I would promise not to talk about "blacks, Portestants, or socialism". If I continued to talk about these unmentionables, they promised to take their money back...which is what they did. A lot of people did. When everyone had taken their cheques back, at the end of my tour, we had a total of forty-five thousand dollars.

Q: I thought you had done better than that. When James Connolly came to the United States in 1905 to raise money, the Irish-American community was horribly impoverished. Still, Connolly managed to raise five million dollars. Your couldn't even raise a million in 1969! That seems incredible!

A: We had hoped to raise a million. At first the ancient Hibernians had promised they could give us a million. But it turned out they didn't like my politics, so they reneged. We soon discovered we didn't like theirs either, so it didn't matter.

What happened with the Hibernians and with so many Irish Americans was that they identified hysterically with Northern Ireland, with the struggle for freedom there, and with the Catholics of the Bogside ghetto. But they didn't want to hear my sort of analysis of what exactly was going on in Ulster. They didn't like my saying that I thought the struggle in Ireland was between rich and poor, rather than Catholic and Protestant.

Most of all, they objected to my observing that the situation for the black man here is exactly the same as the situation for The Catholic in Ulster,

Q: During your first trip here, you swore you would not run for reelection to Parliament. But you did run. What made you change your mind?

A I hoped it would not be necessary to run for Parliament again. I don't like the place, personally. There is no "Parliamentary democracy". The system doesn't work for people. It sort of fiddles around within the limits the system lays down for it to play at being democratic. And there are times when it doesn't even pretend to do that!

You can experience a great deal of frustration in Parliament. The only thing you sometimes feel is that you ought to be outside doing something else. For example, take the issue of the current anti-trade union legislation. You're sitting there and you're an independent member of Parliament. Your hear the so-called "representatives of the labour movement" selling out the labour movement, selling out the working class! So you want to get up and say something - you want to say that no conservative government has the right to legislate against the trade unions. But you don't even get an opportunity to speak! They effectively prevent you from speaking in their democratic system!

Q: Has being gagged in the House Of Commons been much of a problem for you?

A: It's become much more of a problem since I've come out of prison. Even on the question of Northern Ireland, I've been excluded from the debate. Ulster always seems to arise on half-hour adjournment debates. That means that conservative MP's will talk on and on and on till the motion comes up. Then you've got to stop for a half hour and allow the Tory minister to reply for twenty minutes. But the minster refuses to take a point of [unclear: orc] or a point of information. So you just jump up and say to hell with the polite system of asking...and so you roar across the House at him. But still he refuses to stop talking or to even let you make a comment.

Q: How are you treated by you fellow Members of Parliament?

A: Some of them are embarrassingly friendly. Some of the people on the Labour-Left are actually quite decend people. But most of the conservatives prefer to pretend I'm not there. A lot of the Tories have this great British sense of "gentlemanly behaviour" where they'll hate your guts, but they'll open the door for you and stand back as you go through. You really have to laugh at the hypocrisy of the whole situation.

Q: Do you ever find that you're not taken seriously because you're young and a woman?

A: When I first was elected to Parliament there was quite a determined attempt by both Parliament and the press, because I was young and female, to make me The Child of Parliament They wanted to pat me on the head, be nice to me, and hope I would respond by being a good little girl who would accept her role as a woman member of Parliament. But they soon discovered I wasn't prepared to accept that role.

Q: When you first took office, the British and American press were quite anxious to characterize you as a freaky novelty. Because you were a young woman MP, they were constantly trying to get you to pose for cheesecake shots and pictures like that. Did you resent it?

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A: O, Christ, yes! I resented it because I could see the deliberate policy behind it. I have always consciously tried to prevent the press from putting me in the position of The Female Scapegoat. The press has always tried to indentify me as proof that there is no need for Women's Liberation. You know the line: "Bernadette Devlin is a lone girl who made it, therefore, all women can make it. Women have an equal opportunity in society - it's just that they don't take it. Here's a woman who took it - here's Miss Bernadette Devlin. Now, will the rest of you kindly identify with her!' They want women to have the kind of mental identification with my being in Parliament that leaves them satisfied, that keeps them from struggling. But I've tried to work against this kind of label being pinned on me by the press. Frankly, I am proof there is a need for Women's Liberation.

Q: What do you mena Bernadette? Your life is freer, more liberated than the lives of most twenty-three-year-old Irish women.

A: That's exactly what I mean! Look at the whole attitude of the press toward me because I am a woman. They're constantly cooing: "Look at what this little woman has got" And if you look around Parliament there are just so few women there - even within the system. If you look at the difference between the way people are forced to treat me and the way they treat other women, then I am proof there is need for Women's Liberation.

[unclear: Nobody] expects me to be submissive anymore because I've got an image that's isolated from being a woman. I've got the image of the revolutionary, the firebrand.., which means I'm expected to tea; off airplanes and to kick airport cops as soon as I arrive. And you can see the difference. Everybody else who is not Bernadette Devlin, or who does not make the papers, is expected to step off the airplane in a ladylike fashion and smile. And when her husband says, "Come along, dear" she's expected to say, "Yes", and do all the things expected of a woman.

Q: Do you find that back home in Northern Ireland you're criticised and treated unfairly in a way a man would not be?

A: I don't find this among the people who vote for me or among the people who vote against me. They treat me very much on the basis of my politics - on the things I say. I think that some of this has to do with the enlightened nature of our own movement - the Independent Socialist of Mid-Ulster. We don't have a separate women's movement, but Women's Liberation is an integral part of our own struggle. Males and females within the group are equal.

But I do find that when people can't win an argument with me, when they run out of something better to complain about, they'll say something to me like: "You ought to be at home having children!" I tell them I oughtn't be at home having children. I ought to be fighting the revolution! Why should I be having children just because I am a women?

But the people who come up with these kinds of things usually don't argue very logically. Eventually, they just throw their hands in the air and declare that I really should be home having many, many children. They just stop there. There's a mental block.

Q: People in Ireland spend an awful lot of time discussing your private life. As you are kind of a national symbol, it is absolutely the most public of property. Gossiping about you has become a national sport - something like Gaelic football. And there is a kind of criticism leveled against you that wouldn't be leveled against the private life of a man in a similar positon. I mean, a man's private life would not be public property.

A: Oh, but in Ireland, a man's private life is very much public properly. We are, after all, the people who threw Charles Parnell out for his adultery with Kitty O'Shea. But the kinds of things people complain about are really more petty than that.

You take some of the male members of Parliament. They can be seen with as many women as they like. But if I'm seen with the same man twice, I've evidently got a steady boyfriend. If I'm seen with two different men, then I'm evidently flirting with the whole population. You just can't win.

The press photographs men with me in the most innocent of situations and immediately labels those men as "Bernadette Devlin's New Boyfriend". And in Ireland, a "boyfriend" is nothing as logical as a male companion or a male comrade. He is, instead, my prospective husband and master: "The Future Tamer of Bernadette Devlin."

That kind of thing would never happen to a man. Nor would anyone go through the pains the press did to find out about the previous engagement of a male MP. But when the newspapers found out I had been engaged once, they really went to no end of trouble to dig up all the details. It was nauseating. None of that would have happened to me if I hadn't been a woman.

Photo of burning cars

Q: Whe I was in Belfast, I remember walking through the Shankill District, a working-class Protestant area, where the most obscene wall posters of you were painted on buildings. You seemed to incite a sexual hatred in those who opposed you - a sexual hatred that would never come out with a man. There was one mural, very ugly, labeled "Sexy Bernie," and it had, in bright red, outlines of what were supposed to be your genitals. I really can't imagine that kind of thing happening to a man.

A: I don't think that's quite true, they did some pretty rotten stuff to Eammon McCann, an Independent Socialist candidate in Derry who stood for Parliament. He didn't win. And part of his loss was due to ugly rumours about his private life.

But in my own case, it's hard to tell whether the wall posters appear because I am a woman, or because there is no other figure in Northern Ireland who arouses as much hatred as I do.

Q: What is your life like being simultaneously one of the most hated and loved persons in contemporary Ireland?

A; That's something I try not to get hung up about. The passionate flames of hatred or love soon flare down in the face of rationalism. Sometimes I am more annoyed by the passionate feeling of identification than by the passionate feeling of hatred. I see people identifying with me for the wrong reasons. I see people who clamour up, shake my hand touch the hem of my garment, and get my autograph but they don't know what I'm talking about! And they don't want to know. And when they do know, they go away!

Q: Is there a tendencey in Ireland for people to develop saints and idols?

A: Oh, Christ, yes! Martyrs! We have this very nasty habit of tearing the living apart. When they're dead, we build statues to them.

Let me qualify that...we honour our heroes if they are men. Our women heroines we forget.

We Irish have had our revolutionary women too. There was Constance Markievicz, who had her failures, but she was a great woman. She was the only uniformed woman officer in the Easter Rising. She organised the Irish Women's Army. In her own way, Constance Markievicz was page break quite a women's liberationist. In our history we have had many other revolutionary women who have fought as long and as hard as any man. Anne Devlin and Betsy Grey are two who come to mind. But they don't rank with the people as heroes. They are forgotten. Take Anne Devlin. What our history books have done is to change her role from that of a revolutionary woman to one that fits Irish conceptions of womanhood a little more snugly. History casts her as the housekeeper of Robert Emmet, a Protestant Irish hero who tried in 1803 to capture Dublin Castle and set up a republic. But that's not at all the truth! Anne Devlin was one of Emmet's circle. She went to work as his housekeeper only because Emmet could trust no one else in his household. She plotted. She planned. She assisted Emmet in escaping the British a number of times. Anne Devlin dis not play the women's role within the organisation! When Emmet was in fact captured and hanged, Anne Devlin was taken to prison where she was tortured and where she lived out her life under horrible conditions. She was kept in solitary confinement. She wasn't even allowed to walk around, so she developed diseases of the leg. And yet the people of Ireland think of this great woman as nothing more than a little handmaiden who knew nothing. She knew everything about the revolutionary movement1 The British tortured her for information. Many of the men in the group gave up and sent their comrades to the gallows. Not Anne Devlin!

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