‘It has nothing to do with finding the truth’

Irish political activist Bernadette McAliskey on how the Bloody Sunday Inquiry is like therapy for Derry.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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The Bloody Sunday Inquiry was set up in 1998 to determine who was ultimately responsible for the killing of 13 Catholic civil rights protesters by British paratroopers in Derry on 30 January 1972, and is likely to run for another two years. But leading civil rights activist of the time Bernadette McAliskey reckons she has already worked out what the inquiry’s conclusion will be.

‘It will go something like this’, says McAliskey: ‘their good lords led by Lord Saville will say that it has been difficult to unearth all the facts because of the passage of time, because of the distortion of reality, the repetition of stories, the loss of documents, and so on. Their lordships will go on to say how tragic Bloody Sunday was, and how serious were its consequences throughout the community, and that no doubt people might not have followed the path of violence if it hadn’t happened.

‘But, their lordships will say, it is impossible to ascribe particular blame. There is no doubt that some soldiers may have been heavy-handed, and indeed should have been dealt with at the time. But there were also sinister elements within the Catholic community who capitalised on the events. Then their lordships will ask us to put the terrible events behind us and move towards the new Northern Ireland together. There may even be prayers….’

‘And there you have it’, says McAliskey, ‘the conclusion to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry – and it didn’t take me four years and millions of pounds to work it out’.

McAliskey – civil rights activist turned Irish republican turned human rights campaigner – describes the Bloody Sunday Inquiry as an attempt to ‘make Bloody Sunday into history’. So far, the inquiry has heard evidence from soldiers, civilians, former IRA members, priests, politicians and McAliskey herself in an attempt to ‘get to the truth of Bloody Sunday’. But according to McAliskey, ‘it has nothing to do with finding the truth’.

‘The British government is the accused here’, says McAliskey. ‘But they are also paying for the tribunal, and it is their lords, their people from the upper chambers, their law and their officers that is investigating their behaviour on that day. Whatever else might happen, no British-paid inquiry within the British system is going to find the British government guilty of a war crime.’

‘This inquiry is like therapy’, says McAliskey. ‘It has allowed people to tell their stories, it has had a therapeutic effect for many people in Derry – but that is not what an inquiry is about. It is not the function of public inquiries to facilitate people’s grieving processes.’

McAliskey gave evidence to the inquiry in May 2001, and is well-placed to cast judgement about what happened on 30 January 1972 – as a twentysomething independent nationalist member of parliament at the time, she was just about to address the 30,000-strong crowd on the edge of the Bogside in Derry when the British Army opened fire. ‘I was standing on the platform’, she recalls, ‘when there was a cracking sound. Somebody said to me, “They’re shooting us”, and I said something like, “No way, they would never shoot us”. But they did. So I announced over the microphone that people should go home, leave the streets immediately. The shooting continued and there was chaos. Even after what we’d been through since 1968 I was shocked that they were killing us.’

According to McAliskey, the focus on individual experience and memory at the inquiry has led to the individual paratroopers who pulled the triggers on Bloody Sunday being ‘scapegoated’ – when, ‘in reality, what happened on Bloody Sunday was a government decision or, if not, a decision taken at the highest level of the military. The individuals who did the killing were following orders’.

So convinced was McAliskey that Bloody Sunday was ‘some kind of government decision’ that as the then member of parliament for Mid-Ulster – and the youngest-ever woman MP – she strode across the floor of the House of Commons on the Monday after Bloody Sunday and punched Tory home secretary Reginald Maulding as he explained why the paratroopers had little choice but to open fire. And when journalists outside the Commons asked McAliskey (then Devlin) if she was sorry for assaulting a leading member of government, her words – ‘I’m only sorry I didn’t grab him by the throat’ – resounded around the world. Today, McAliskey has ‘as little faith’ in the British authorities ‘getting to the truth of Bloody Sunday’ as she did in 1972.

McAliskey says her criticisms of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry have made her even more unpopular, ‘if you can imagine that’ – but she’s no stranger to kicking up a stink. She first burst on to Northern Ireland’s political scene as a 21-year-old student radical and leading light in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in the late 1960s, when Catholic demands for civil rights were met with gunshots, beatings and imprisonment from the then Unionist authorities.

In 1969, she was in the thick of the Battle of the Bogside, when the Catholic ghetto was besieged by loyalist mobs and armed police – precipitating the arrival of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969. And later that year she was elected for Mid-Ulster on a surge of popular enthusiasm for civil rights.

Today – after a four-month spell in prison for riotous behaviour in 1970, a near-fatal shooting by loyalist paramilitaries in 1981, and much vilification – McAliskey is a fiftysomething community development worker in Tyrone. But she hasn’t shut up. ‘There are those who would like me to retire into a dark room until my eightieth birthday’, she says. ‘But that’s not my style.’

As somebody who has spent her adult life trying to get ‘British forces the hell out of Ireland’, McAliskey sees the current peace process as a ‘con’ – an attempt to ‘demilitarise, demobilise and demoralise’ the opposition to British rule in Ireland and bring forth ‘new institutions for delivering the British government’s agenda in the north of Ireland’. ‘You can forget freedom and democracy’, she says. ‘We’ll be lucky to get peace out of this peace process.’

‘We’re not talking conflict resolution here’, says McAliskey, ‘we’re talking conflict management. We’re talking the British government finding new and improved ways to run this part of Ireland. From the British government’s point of view it’s a first-class solution – from my point of view it’s a disaster.’

According to McAliskey, trying to reform Northern Ireland is a ‘fool’s errand anyway’ – pointing to her experiences in NICRA in the late 1960s as evidence that Northern Ireland is ‘beyond reform’: ‘When nationalists demanded civil rights we had very limited demands, to do with housing, education, employment, where there was great inequality – demands that required reform of the system. But after being smashed about the head and shot for our efforts we realised that the system couldn’t deliver those reforms, that it relied on the sectarian divide for its survival. “Northern Ireland has got to go” was our conclusion.’

But today, 30 years of Troubles later, Northern Ireland has been reformed – surely? It is no longer the one-party Unionist state that it was in McAliskey and co’s street-fighting days. Far from being a ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’ (as its first prime minister Lord Craigavon described it after partition in 1921), Northern Ireland 2001 has an assembly where all decisions have to be backed by both a Unionist majority and a nationalist majority to ensure ‘sufficiency of consensus from both communities’.

The Catholic inequality that sparked the civil rights protests in 1968 is becoming a thing of the past. As late as the 1980s, Catholic men were ‘two-and-a-half times as likely as Protestant men to be unemployed’ (1) – with 14.9 percent unemployment among Protestants and 35.1 percent unemployment among Catholics. Today, ‘the Catholic share of the workforce has risen from 34.9 percent in 1990 to 39.6 percent in 2000′ (2). The economically active population in Northern Ireland is 58 percent Protestant and 42 percent Catholic, while the overall composition of the workforce is 60.4 percent Protestant and 39.6 percent Catholic. Not perfect, but better than in the past.

And even the Royal Ulster Constabulary – slated by nationalists for being ’93 percent Protestant, 100 percent loyalist’ – is on the road to reform. Now called the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the force that, as McAliskey recalls, ‘batoned me and my kind off our own streets more than a few times’, is pulling out all the stops to recruit Catholics and to clean up its image in nationalist areas – even launching ‘friendly patrols’ in areas that would have been no-go zones for the police just 10 years ago.

To McAliskey and the 1960s civil rights crowd, reforming Northern Ireland might have looked ‘impossible, unthinkable’ – but now the impossible and unthinkable seem to have happened. Northern Ireland is a different state to the one it was in 1968.

True, says McAliskey – ‘but it was never our aim to just get rid of Unionist domination or to have a nicer police force or to have a few more nationalists in government’. ‘The issue was to achieve something real’, says McAliskey, ‘to make real changes that would bring democracy to Ireland for the first time. The behaviour and the power position of Unionism was a stumbling block to that – but the core stumbling block was that the country was governed externally, by the British. And for all the changes, that remains the core problem today.’

‘The issue for me’, says McAliskey, ‘and also for Sinn Fein at one point in their political careers, was not whether the people who governed the country were Protestant or Catholic or whether they were the old Unionist Party or some new nationalist party or whether they were men or women. The issue was: on whose behalf did they govern? Did they govern on behalf of the Irish people or did they govern on behalf of the British government? So yes, the new assembly is not the old Stormont and the new mix of parties is nothing like one-party Unionist rule – but it is still the delivery of the British government’s agenda through devolved authority.’

According to McAliskey, for those who, like her, ‘started our fighting for civil rights and ended up fighting for national liberation’, the conflict was not about ‘diversity’ or ‘sharing out government jobs’ or ‘getting more Catholics on board’ – ‘it was about democracy’. ‘It depended on whether your complaint was that the Unionists got to run the show and deliver all the messages and that you wanted a share of the action, or whether your complaint was that you were not governing your own life. My complaint has always been that Irish people do not govern their own lives. The British government – whether it was through the old Stormont, through force, or through the nice new assembly – governs Irish people’s lives for them. And that is fundamentally undemocratic.’

‘We might have a new assembly, we might have some more nationalist faces in government, we might have moved on from 1968’, says McAliskey. ‘But we still do not govern our own lives.’

If anything, the past 10 years of peace process have made the prospect of people in Northern Ireland ‘governing their own lives’ even less likely. Take the ‘politics of consensus’ instituted at the Northern Ireland Assembly – where consensus and agreement are the order of the day, while the traditional clash between nationalism and Unionism is frowned upon. This new approach might look like an improvement on the gerrymandered Northern Ireland of old, where Protestant Unionists lorded it over Catholics – but it is premised on the idea that Northern Ireland’s electorate always makes bad, sectarian choices when voting in elections, almost always going for one of the ‘big four’ – the nationalist SDLP or Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists or the Democratic Unionists. What is needed now, the argument goes, is a bit of a ‘consensual balancing act’.

So Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (182,000 votes at the last count) can have its votes against first minister David Trimble undermined by the Alliance Party (29,000 votes at the last count) under the assembly’s ‘sufficiency of consensus’ rules – despite the fact that the DUP won an extra 60,000 votes and three more seats in the UK parliament between 1997 and June 2001 largely on a ticket of opposing Trimble.

At the same time, Northern Ireland secretary John Reid announced over the summer that there would be no elections to the assembly at all if the parties didn’t sort out their squabbling (‘a grand start to democracy, eh?’ says McAliskey) – while former SDLP leader John Hume has called for the assembly to be reconvened in a ‘neutral country’ like Finland or Norway to give assembly members a breath of fresh air and a break (in other words, to get as far away from the people of Northern Ireland as possible).

Meanwhile, new unaccountable ‘peace process bodies’ like the Northern Ireland Parades Commission undermine people’s freedom of movement, restrict the right to march and protest, and even make pronouncements on how people should behave during the tense marching season. The peace process might have brought changes – but, as McAliskey is well aware, it hasn’t brought democracy to Ireland.

McAliskey is known for speaking out – not only against the peace process and British government policy in Northern Ireland, but also against the drift of the republican movement and Sinn Fein, whom she accuses of ‘delivering the British agenda in the north of Ireland’. On the question of whether Sinn Fein is clamping down on debate – isolating, ignoring and shutting up republican dissidents – McAliskey says, ‘Sinn Fein has been stifling debate for 10 years. To some extent, debate is easier now – precisely because the deed has been done.’

‘Now that the fait accompli has been accomplished’, says McAliskey, ‘there is less need to shut debate up. So we are starting to hear phrases from the Sinn Fein leadership about how debate is “healthy” and how they know some of us are having “difficulties” with what’s happening. But that’s because Sinn Fein is in government, the assembly is here, and decommissioning is a done deal – so you can debate all you like. But there’s a big difference between debating those things after the event and debating them 10 years ago….’

Today, McAliskey sounds as angry as ever – but she leads a ‘more normal life’ than she did in the past. She recently got her first-ever normal job, working in what she calls ‘this country’s only growth industry – community development work’. ‘But’, she says, suddenly and sternly, ‘unlike a great many other people, I do not confuse community development work with the revolution. Some people convince themselves that working in community development at community levels is somehow secretly and subversively working your ways towards the next stage of the revolution – but sorry lads, it isn’t. It’s how I earn my living, but it’s not an alternative route to freedom.’

McAliskey often hears the words ‘Oh my God, it’s Bernadette McAliskey!’ as she goes about her nine-to-five life – ‘but much more amusing to me is the young people I work with who say, “No way, that can’t be you! You weren’t in prison, you weren’t shot, you weren’t in parliament! No way!” Because all that stuff is 20 years ago, and it’s just black-and-white pictures in a history book to some 17- and 18-year-olds.’

Doesn’t that worry her – that her earlier struggles are now part of a strange and distant past for Northern Ireland’s new generation? ‘It’s in the past, that’s for sure’, says McAliskey, ‘but it’s not history yet. How can it be? It isn’t finished’.

Brendan O’Neill is assistant editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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