Friday, 24 February 2012

Bernadette: One women's journey from mass protest to hunger strikes to the peace process

The end of the 1960’s in northern Ireland were a unique time when, as elsewhere around the world, mass popular protest emerged onto the streets with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The unique circumstances of northern Ireland and the particular form the state backlash took there resulted in a military conflict that lasted some 30 years and dominated politics on the entire island and to a much lesser extent in Britain.

Although tens if not hundreds of thousands of people made this history it can also be told as the history of some of the prominent individuals involved, including the Irish republican socialist activist Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.

TG4 broadcast the excellent documentary 'Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey', the start of February. The film tells some of the story of and captures the optimism and hope of the civil rights struggle in northern Ireland of the late 1960s. Remarkably from the interviews, filmed over the last 9 years, Bernadette herself still holds some of that spirit despite the grim reality of the years since, including the loyalist attempt to murder her during the Hunger Strikes when she was shot 8 times and her husband also badly injured.

I want to highlight those aspects at the start of the review because the one word you come across again and again in discussions of Bernadette is 'bitter.' It's probably a description she almost encourages; she certainly has a blunt way of expressing herself. For instance in relation to the Peace Process and the Stormont Assembly she says she can't imagine walking up the steps as too much blood was spilt getting there. But then she also is open to a new generation doing just that and indeed endorsed the People Before Profit candidates in the 2011 elections. The interviews bring across that there is a good deal more complexity to her opinions then can be captured in bitter sounding sound bites.

The documentary concentrates on the early years when as a 19 year old working class woman from a small rural town she became the most iconic figures of the radical wing of the civil rights movement. In the footage and images of her delivering speeches and smashing paving stones (to provide missiles for rioters whose aim was better than hers) her small stature means she often looks to be a schoolgirl who has perhaps wandered into the scene and somehow got on the megaphone. She was far from the only woman involved in the movement but in those shots she is often surrounded by burly serious looking men, a visual reminder of how remarkable it was in those times for a women to be accepted in what was a de facto position of leadership. She tells her own story as that of an ordinary person transformed by extraordinary circumstances, even suggesting, were it not that the movement started so close to where she lived, that she mightn't have been pulled into it in the first place.

Missing elements
One of the unexplored themes of the documentary is how come she was so prominent at the time the emerging movement was new and a break with past traditions, but faded into relative obscurity as the struggle was pushed back onto traditional terrain. Part of that story is clearly the switch from mass mobilization of the late 1960's to the 'Years of (military) Victory' of the 1970's when the unknown gunman became the new image of struggle. Perhaps was it not for the murderous assassination attempt on her and her husband during the Hunger Strikes she would have returned and stayed at the fore of the re-invigorated political movement that emerged from its defeat.

One of the shortcomings of the documentary is that it doesn't really address the feminist angle of the story to any great extent. There are interesting snippets, in particular where Bernadette is talking of her fund raising visits to the US and how "most of my good learning on feminism came from Black American women .. that was a privilege for me, not many people here had the opportunity to have that exposure". In general the American trip is under explored, the focus is on the (hilarious) denunciations of her by unionists as 'a Fidel Castro in a mini skirt', their attempt to appeal to anti-communist sentiments, but there would have been a fascinating story to be explored on the tensions and costs of her open identification with the Black Panthers, Young Lords and US left and union movements while there. It isn't mentioned but in 1971 she also refused to meet Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daly because of his brutal treatment of opponents of the Vietnam War.

This was something only possible in the early years of the struggle. Later on when released prisoners were sent on fund raising tours they were given instructions on who to be seen talking to and what subjects should not be broached. The republican movement at the time was attracting the support of Irish American police forces in some US cities so the case of Mumia Abu Jamal, [until recently] on death row for allegedly shooting a police man was a particular no go area.

Likewise that she was unmarried when she gave birth to Róisín in 1971 was a very major statement for such a prominent women in what was still a deeply conservative country at that time, but the influence of the catholic church is only mentioned in passing. The most prominent hint of her views is actually given by unionist speakers trying to counter her North American tour by appealing to the religious conservatism of Irish American catholics. One refers to "her mocking comment on her own head of the church, the pope” and from the same counter tour Ian Paisley is shown quoting her saying “the one way you would unite catholic & protestants is by trying to get rid of both churches at once” and warning that this proves she is a Marxist. Presuming these quotes are accurate it would have been interesting to hear Bernadette outline her views on what remains one of the central political issues in Ireland.

These shortcomings can perhaps be excused because there was only so much time to tell the aspects of her story that were told but they perhaps also result in a leaning towards a traditional nationalist historical narrative that avoids some of the questions that suggest a more complex story.

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