Midway through our interview with Bernadette McAliskey, a sudden disturbance erupts behind us.

The veteran community civil rights activist interrupts as we discuss how former Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Frank McManus defended her amid a tussle in the Commons in 1972. But more on that later.

She excuses herself from the table we are sitting at and heads towards the rising voices.

With her calm demeanour, she approaches the men, who tower over her, and defuses the tension before it escalates into a fight.

Later, when asked if she ever justified violence during the Troubles, her response not only shed light on that incident, but also revealed her approach to handling tense situations.

“I’ve never instigated it; I’ve never started it. But I can see when the inevitable reality occurs, and I’m not about then to condemn the weakest person in the fight.

“I will counsel them that this is the road to no town.”

Stressing how she ‘hates’ violence, the 76-year-old adds: “I hate war, no good comes from it. But if we’re going to have a conversation about where it stops, it has to stop where it starts.

“When you come to social violence, when you come to political violence, that was the conversation about not working under the basis of violence and threat of violence has to be held with the state first.”

She added: “So, am I opposed to violence? Yes. Am I a Pacifist? No.”

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

A former MP for Mid-Ulster, she was elected at 21 and was the youngest woman elected to Westmin-ster until 2015, Mrs. McAliskey was one of the key players in the civil rights movement.

A native of Cookstown with a Fermanagh-born father, she was arrested and jailed for rioting following the Battle of the Bogside and spent “six months at Her Majesty’s pleasure” in Armagh Jail.

“Exceptionally well-bred”

In addition, her grandfather was a Boer War veteran. She quips: “I’m exceptionally well-bred.”

Mrs. McAliskey has joined The Impartial Reporter as a columnist [starting next week, September 14] in which she will tackle social inequalities in this area.

“We still play second fiddle to east of the Bann and that is our biggest problem.”

Softly spoken in conversation, she gets fired up when discussing the issues she sees.

“It’s the under-estimation of the rural community; we are being driven into bigger centres. Small is not acceptable, small schools are closing, small farms are unviable.

“We are being driven into urbanisation. If you look at some of the things the peace brought us; it brought us supermarkets, but it did away with our High Street.”

Addressing the issues of the day, she says: “Everybody’s back is broken with the cost of living, but the supermarkets, the banks, the fuel companies, their profits are soaring. The cost of living is being blamed on Ukraine.”

This leaves her feeling aggrieved, she says. Pausing, she continues: “Then I get frustrated, and wonder can the people not read? Do the people not read, or as they say in the GAA, ‘has the county board heard about this?’

“Can nobody see while the people are getting poorer, the rich people who have billions are making billions in profit every year?

“The profit is going up in billions – who is allowing that? The government.

“We don’t have a constitution that requires the government to ensure anybody making billions out of the citizens using their services, don’t put significant amounts of that billions back into the government’s coffers to keep services going for the people.”

What, in her mind, is impacted in this way? “The lack of access, west of the Bann, generally to commu-nity mental health services,” she replies.

“How could you be well? The education system is falling apart, the health system is falling apart. Everybody has a big solution of it, but people living their everyday small lives aren’t getting any solutions.”

Mrs. McAliskey has recently retired from her role with South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEP) which she co-founded following a long career in activism.

Bloody Sunday

A day after Bloody Sunday in 1972, she accused the then Home Secretary, Reginald Mauding, of lying about the incident during a discussion in Parliament the next day.

After she was denied a right to speak as an eye witness, she slapped Mauding in the chamber.

“I wanted to throw the mace at him,” she recalls. “My head works quickly. In the same thought, I realised I wouldn’t be able to lift it, and I was nearly about to try.”

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.

“When I got down to the mace, by habit, you have to give them a nod on your way out. When I went to nod, the Home Secretary caught my eye.

“I didn’t actually hit that hard. I regret that what I should have done was caught him by the tie.”

She says people often forget “what happened immediately afterwards”.

“The Tory MP, Biggs Davidson, jumped up and hit me on the shoulder with his fist. So, I pushed back. Two Labour women came forward to extract me from that situation.

“But Frank McManus came bounding down and hit Biggs Davis an uppercut.”

Memories of the past flood back for Mrs. McAliskey as she describes the media response that followed the slap.

“The thing that I always remembered is that more people were outraged by me crossing the house and hitting the Home Secretary than that 14 people had been killed in Derry.”

As for Frank McManus, she laughs and says: “Frank McManus is a lovely man – he had more manners than me; he was better bred than me.”

Elected in 1969 during a by-election, her Parliamentary career was short, as other political parties grew.

“It was made clear that we either join the SDLP, or be opposed at the next election. Frank McManus and I declined to join, and were opposed, and those two constituencies returned Unionists.

“They talked about the vote being split. Parties don’t own votes – they think they do.”

She says she “fell” into politics while a student at Queen’s University and attended the first civil rights march as a “social opportunity”.

“The only reason I was on the August march from Coalisland to Dungannon really was somebody suggested that it would be a good opportunity for meeting up with the people I had gone to school with.”

She describes in vivid detail how she later travelled to other marches.

“I always described that as not believing what I was seeing could be possible, and then angry with myself, because somehow, I knew that I should always have known that. It was not only probable, but inevitable.

“It was a most interesting concept that somehow as if all the things you’d absorbed in your life suddenly made their way into your head.”

Mrs. McAliskey says she began to develop a “political awakening” while on these marches.

“In the same instance, if you said, ‘Why would the police beat us up?’, that you knew the answer to that. That’s what the police were for – keeping us in our place.

“And everything that I knew was only true because I had never challenged my place, and that’s what was happening here, even though I was only going along with the spin. That’s what was going on here.”

All of this occurred whilst Mrs. McAliskey was raising her siblings after her mother’s death, and working toward a first-class honour in her psychology degree.

Describing the student marches she was swept up in while in Belfast, she said: “We went to sit down in City Hall. We went down and we didn’t get past the police, and said we’d sit down to hell froze over, and hell froze over and exactly half an hour. I was raging.”

She laughed as she recalled how she had sent for sleeping bags as part of the sit-out, but after the protest was cut short, the sleeping bags greeted the protesters on their way back to their student housing.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.

It was following this point that Mrs. McAliskey stepped forward as a leader, in what she describes as a “quirk of history”.

“There was a meeting and there was going to be another march. Despite the fact that everybody wanted to sign up for the first one, nobody wanted to sign up for the second.


“I had no idea why, but in a moment of frustration, I said, ‘I will sign’, mostly because everybody was saying ‘Oh, my dad would kill me’, ‘My mother would kill me’.

“I didn’t have either. I put my name down for it; by such quirks of history does one become a leader.”

There was an accelerated pace in which momentum gathered for the civil rights campaign, she says, as violence began to break out in Northern Ireland.

“I think subsequently it was when you look back on it that is striking.

“It all happened between August, ’68 and August, ’69. By August ’69 I was on the barricades in the Bogside, as a result of which I spent six months at Her Majesty’s pleasure in jail in Armagh.”

She never completed her degree. She was “invited to leave” Queen’s University before completing it.

Mrs. McAliskey, who was brought up to value education – something she emphasises throughout her interview – had her grant withdrawn by the Tyrone Education Authority with only months left to finish her degree, “on the basis I brought the University into disrepute”.

She continued: “The University invited me to leave, and the bit that I look back on was that I was reared to value education. That minute, I didn’t care – I said, ‘Suit yourselves’.

“I genuinely thought, you know, ‘The people up there somehow don’t know all this is happening, and that will be put right, and I’ll come back here and get my degree’ was probably in my head.

“It took me a while to realise this won’t be over in a fortnight; this will not be over in a year.”

She added with a smile: “Everything up to 1970, I was being carried along in a stream, as it were. Everything that happened after 1970 is my own fault.”

Mrs. McAliskey was also involved with the National H-Block/Armagh Committee which sought for political status for Republican prisoners.

In January, 1981, while campaigning for prisoners’ rights, Mrs. McAliskey and her husband, Michael, were targeted and shot in their own home with their children present by members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

“I was well and truly shot,” she recalls, “I was hit seven times. These guys came to the house in the early morning; three soldiers were outside the door the night before.

“You know you talk of ‘famous last words’? Mine could have been: ‘Have you no homes of your own to go to?’.

‘The first shot’

Describing the moment she was shot, she recalls: “The first shot was kind of in the shoulder, and I fell back. I was falling back; he kept firing.

“My head fell on his shoes, and then he fired the last shot, which shattered my leg. I was shot in the back; I had a big hole which is now a wee hole, right here.”

Leaning over, she pulls at her top slightly to reveal a scar on her chest.

“I ended up like something that was run over by a sewing machine. But I was very, very lucky.

“It snipped a bit of one of my lungs, which was a main thing. It grazed the wall of my heart, and did it no harm.

“I had a bullet lodged in this elbow.

“The reason that I know who did it was that they walked out of the house, and I heard them being arrested.

“I have always believed that the three guys [the soldiers] I saw there, were still there.”

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.

Mrs. McAliskey claims the British government knew about the threat to her life “and allowed it to go ahead”.

“I’m not saying that the government planned it, but the army knew what was going to happen that night and decided to let it go ahead and arrest the people coming out.”

The campaign subsequently led to the election of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands being elected as the MP for the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency following the death of Frank Maguire.

“I got involved because it was a continuum [of civil rights] that prisoners have rights.

“It was a big battle with Sinn Féin because the National H-Block Committee grew after the European Election.

‘Prisoners’ rights’

“I stood in the EU election in 1979 on the campaign for prisoners’ rights; the civil rights campaign never disappeared, it changed and evolved, and became a civil resistance movement.”

She adds: “I spend my life telling people not to join military organisations, but they don’t listen.

“But it doesn’t mean that when they go there, that then they don’t have rights, or they don’t need some form of somebody to speak up for them even when they’re wrong.”

She describes a background of political tension between Republican and Nationalist parties in the lead up to the 1979 election as the campaign for rights for prisoners continued.

“Sinn Féin were arguing with us that we had no right to campaign on the rights of prisoners unless we supported the war. Their position was, ‘Support the prisoners, support the war’.”

She says the seat “had been made for John Hume”.

“It wasn’t their [Sinn Féin] idea to put Bobby Sands up either. It was our idea to put a prisoner up for election. Gerry Adams wouldn’t do that unless there was no other candidate in the field.”

Mrs. McAliskey describes how there was much debate about standing a prisoner in the election and at one point she was considering contesting the Fermanagh South Tyrone by-election as a ‘Prisoners Support candidate’.

“I said I would stand in that election because I knew the only way that Sinn Féin would put a prisoner forward would be to stop me standing, because Sinn Féin could not tolerate my appearance – and I was right.”

She then formed a key part of the campaign to elect Mr. Sands to Parliament, serving as a spokesperson for the campaign, and speaking at campaign events.

These days, she has some thoughts on the proposals by the UK government about a possible post-Troubles amnesty which has been rejected by the Irish government and victims’ groups.

“Sinn Féin is not that opposed to it really. I think deep in their hearts, [they know] it protects the IRA. It protects the UDA as much as it protects the British government.

“The main thing it protects is the British government’s role in sustaining those organisations and their active role in sustaining the conflict on both sides.

“That had to be in their heads. You don’t get into government by not having a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and that the whole way through.”

What about the future of Stormont, if there is one?

“It would be a great place for a museum,” she replies.

“I think the Good Friday Agreement was a bad agreement. It was deliberately consciously politically construed to be ambiguous, which is to deceive.

“It was sold to the Unionist community on one basis, and it was sold to the Nationalist community on another basis.

“I pointed out at some point these two perceptions have got to occupy the same physical space. The fact that they’re mutually exclusive will become apparent, and this will fall apart.”

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey


On British politics, she believes the “pivotal point for the break-up of the United Kingdom is Brexit”.

“It will be the very foolish idea for a non-constitutional parliamentary monarchy to hold a referendum on anything.

“Referendums belong in written constitutions that require them because they have a constitution that sits above and limits the power of government.

“The only thing that limits Acts of Parliament in the United Kingdom is The King.

“What possessed them to hold a referendum when Parliament was asking the people what they wanted, when the government asked for that referendum in the belief that the people wanted the same thing as a government? When a blind man could have told David Cameron, ‘That’s not the way that will go’.”

On the topic of a ‘new Ireland’, she says she does “not wish for a United Ireland in its current state”.

“I have no more interest than the average Unionist in being submerged into the Free State. Absolutely none.

“I can think of no worse fate that might befall a population than to be sucked into the existing system of the Republic of Ireland. I think we need a new Ireland, and I think it starts with a new Constitution.”

She says the “driving force” about what happens in Northern Ireland “is not driven by us”.

“If we don’t as people collectively get our act together, we will have no control over it. Conversation should be entered into in every town and village.

“It is not about Nationalism or Unionism – it’s about the fundamental social, economic, political principles by which we want to live.”

She adds: “It’s about rural economies. It’s about housing. It’s about where my rights and your rights are equally protected and where they intertwine.”

Mrs. McAliskey suggests how those conversations could go.

“If we are moving, we are not saying we are moving, but these are the only terms in which we will move. They shouldn’t be ‘orange’ and ‘green’. I’d look for de-centralising government.”

She believes that the seat of power should not be in Belfast, but instead she would prefer to see a system in which the provinces “are used as power centres”.


Mrs. McAliskey says conversations on the future of the island are “already happening”.

“Bear in mind they are having conversations, but they are not having them with you or me. The Unionist parties are ‘not having conversations’, but you can bet your ass they are.”

Leaning in, she says: “Do you think Doug Beattie is an eejit? Do you think Jeffey Donaldson is an eejit? They are not – absolutely not.

“Are they talking to the Free State government? Do you think they would do that, and not tell you?”

She adds: “Do you think the banks aren’t having conversations? What about the supermarkets?

“Everybody is sorting our lives out, and not telling us.”

Like all those years ago, Bernadette McAliskey still has fire in her belly.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey