In her occasional series of discussions seeking the Human Angle, Mary Kenny meets Bernadette Devlin, once the darling of the House of Commons, now a mother of three
BERNADETTE Devlin McAliskey turned up at the hotel in Dungannon, Co Tyrone where we had arranged to meet, looking very much the same as I remember her 20 years ago: a little older, a little stouter but aren't we all? Her direct, unaffected and piquantly droll personality was unaltered. You couldn't dislike Bernadette. You could disagree with her if you had an equally forceful personality, that is but her sense of humour would always disarm you.
My recollection of Bernadette in the 1960s was actually like most of what I recall of the 1960s very cheerful, amusing and even glamourous. I remember the excitement of Bernadette arriving at the House of Commons in the spring of 1969: I remember my colleague Simon Jenkins then saying to me: "You should have seen her performance! It was electrifying! The entire House was gripped! She had just this message 'let my people go'. Marvellous!"
I remember Bernadette speaking in Derry, and then lunching at The Gay Hussar in Greek Street, Soho; and then a very long lunch we had, with a group of friends, at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, which began around one o'clock, and finished at around six, ending with brandies and Bernadette singing most beautifully, a lovely, lyrical Irish song.
"Did that not coincide," she asked with a glint of sardonic humour, "with Sean MacStiofain's dying of hunger across the road?" MacStiofain was then Chief of Staff of the IRA and was indeed on a hunger strike which, wisely, he did not prolong.
"I have a vague memory," Bernadette goes on, both of us now in helpless giggles at the recollection of those times, "I have a vague memory that a number of us went out on a demonstration, with great alarm at the imminent death of Sean MacStiofain" more waves of laughter — "and we repaired, thereafter, to the Royal Hibernian Hotel, Dublin. It must have been a different evening from the Shelbourne event. A grand demonstration it was, too, in the company of people like Vanessa Redgrave and Edna O'Brien all human life was concerned with Mr MacStiofain! and thereafter we repaired to the Royal Hibernian Hotel where we ate, drank and made merry for the rest of the night! Obviously in preparation for any dire event that should, ahem, ensue. That kind of juxtaposition, when you look
back on it, was hilarious."
All the same, when our laughter dies down, Bernadette does not look back particularly happily or affectionately at her time as the youngest MP at Westminster since Pitt. She remembers eating at The Gay Hussar with pleasure; that is about all she really enjoyed in her London days. She takes no pride or vanity in that maiden speech which so impressed onlookers. It wasn't, she says now, one of the better speeches she ever made "but sure, it did those eejits! It was good enough for them. . . that pretentious bundle of buffoons. What was dramatic for them" she means the House of Commons "was that some wee Fenian out of Northern Ireland would come out in a short skirt and stand in their Parliament and be able to talk."
In this, as in some of her other judgements, I believe Bernadette is wrong. The English have never been astonished that the Irish can talk. They have always expected the Irish to talk. Does not that quip in Oscar Wilde's Idea! Husband tell us that even in late Victorian society the Irish were thought eloquent: "If only one could teach the English to talk and the Irish to listen, London society would be quite perfect"? (It still gets laughs).
The truth is that in 1969 there was a genuine, serious and sincere sympathy and admiration for Bernadette Devlin. To some extent, she has dissipated this sympathy -her physical assault on Reginald Maudling, the stonesmashing pictures of Bernadette in the Bogside, her reputed inability to work with other people and to some extent the passage of time and the turn of events have dissolved that pool of goodwill.
She sees it all more cynically that a middle-aged mother of three no longer has the same media-pulling power for the BERNADETTE takes her role as a mother very seriously. She has protected her three children from media attention, and quite rightly in my view. She takes her cue, in mothering, from her own mother, a person she admires devotedly. "She was the most Christian woman I have ever known in my life.
"She coped cheerfully with being a woman of no means. She would give her last penny away to someone who was marginally poorer than herself. She did this out of the unshakeable belief that she had it to spare and didn't need it at that particular time; but when she did need it, it would be there. She never loaned anything. She gave. She was a remarkable woman and we all took her for granted. Now that we're older and have our own children, we're much more appreciative of her than we were."
Mrs Devlin died at the age of 46, when Bernadette was 19; her father had died when she was even younger. They were six in the family and they have remained close. Her older sister Mary is in a convent in Norfolk. The others have tended to go into
the caring professions too tea ching, nursing, environmental concerns.
They were, of course, a Catholic family, and Bernadette says she has retained her mother's faith, but whether that is the Church's faith is another matter. (She and her husband have raised the children as Catholics, nonetheless.) Still, Bernadette can be scathing about the Church.
"I think I no longer see the organisation of the Catholic Church to have anything to do with spirituality. Its first priority. . . is to create power for the organisation. It is a very powerful and a very materialistic and a very wealthy organisation.
I don't really see that correlation between faith and the churches any more. I see people being trampled on by the Church."
Wait a minute, says I, much of the Church in Ireland is now
considered (by politicians) as
left-wing in its social concerns, in its support of Mozambique. . . . "No," says Bernadette firmly, and she can be didactically firm
when she gets going. "The Church is left-wing so long as the issue is sufficiently far away for it not to challenge its power-base.
It can make liberal noises about Nicaragua that's easy. Bishops love radical priests in Mozambique! But look at the situation at home. Huge churches built for the greater glory of a particular parish priest. A middle-class clergy. The 'Catholic society' whose powerbase is Maynooth."
Bernadette singles out John Hume as the type of Irish politician who uses the Catholic card of Maynooth connections (John Hume did study for the riesthood briefly). Some of Bernadette's criticisms of the Church are not so much just radical-socialist, as downright Presbyterian in flavour. She waxes angry that poor parents spend so much on Holy Communion outfits and treats. "In a town like Coalisland, where the unemployment rate is in excess of 30 per cent, the average cost of putting a child through First Holy Communion is between £100 and £150. Everybody is in this game of buying white dresses and everybody has to be better than everyone else. The smart ones now have to go to Dublin to buy First Communion dresses!"
But is there anything essentially wrong with getting pleasure from the ritual of First Communion? Don't we all remember it for the rest of our days? And the poorer you are, the more pleasure you derive from all the outward symbols. No: Bernadette won't have it. She thinks it a materialistic racket that the Church should put a stop to.
Big new churches are her bugbear. There's a "slapping big new church" now in the middle of Coalisland (her home town in Co Tyrone). But "if the people of Coalisland parish had been asked what the parish needed most, they would have said, it needed a multi-purpose centre for young people. But people aren't asked. They are told."
I daresay if the people of Reims or Chartres or Durham had been consulted in the 13th century, they might not have chosen to build great cathedrals either. Luckily for us, someone is occasionally inspired to do something by a spirit more transcendental than utilitarian.
AT THE root of some of Bernadette's acidly critical views of the Irish church, I sense a feeling that the clergy and hierarchy have not been sufficiently supportive to Republican causes and prisoners for Bernadette's liking.
She says the Church lacks "a social conscience". "It's obsessed with power and property and fame in men's mouths. Over the years I've had it up to here" she touches her chin "with individual and collective excuses from the Church that they couldn't do this or that or the other thing for fear that they might be misinterpreted, or might be seen to be in support of something they weren't."
The Church has to be prudent, I suggested.
"No, they don't," she retorts. "Christ wasn't prudent. Imagine Christ walking past the woman stoned in adultery, saying, sorry, sister, but I'd hate to be mistakenly thought to be on the side of the adulterer." "Okay, but Christ was extremely cautious on political issues: 'render unto Caesar what is Caesar's' and all that."
No, she shakes her head. "It says 'I was in prison and you visited me'; and then you go to the people who are building this organisation (the Church) and they say, 'well, look, it's not that simple, because we might be misinterpreted'. It seems to me that if you see an injustice and you are not prepared to say it is wrong..." she shrugs, indicating cowardice.
Her mother was like this, of course. If something was right, it didn't matter what other people thought of it. The Church shouldn't shilly and shally in a Machaevellian way wondering about how its actions are "interpreted": Bernadette believes it should launch forth and do what is right, especially for prisoners.
Then, again, different members of the Catholic Church would have different perspectives on just what is right, when it comes to the inflammatory area of politics in Northern Ireland. We know that up to 30 per cent of Catholics have voted for Sinn Fein at one stage or another. On the other hand, over 40 per cent of Catholics do not want the British to leave Northern Ireland. Just who is to say who is right?
Bernadette is involved with several organisations which are calling for British withdrawal, including one broad-based group called "Time to Go". She has remained a political independent in that she is not a member of any political party, but she voted Sinn Fein in the recent local elections. She made this decision because Sinn Fein represents, to her, a certain political ideal that of a Socialist Republican Ireland. Because she believes, emphatically, that "partition hasn't worked". And because she believes that "Charlie Haughey's Free State is coming to an end" too. Her defence of the violence that has been incurred over the past 20 years is extremely consistant and logical.
Of course it's regrettable that over 2,000 people have lost their lives, she says. But then, as clever as the most skilled Jesuit, she goes into the theory of the just war. Do not people always lose their lives in wars? Did not people lose their lives in the Falklands? Who are the absolute pacifists amongst us? She, Bernadette, had only ever met one real pacifist Pat Arrowsmith a person who would never use violence, whatever the cause.
Most of us do consider the use of violence if we have to. Why, the Irish state itself was founded on violence, though to look at the "revisionist" jobs they do in Dublin nowadays, they're busy denying it. You should have seen a video that RTE produced on Michael Collins! You'd never think, for a moment, that Collins would have slit a man's throat!
Bernadette's argument is that only those without sin can throw a stone: only those who would never use violence, who would never justify war, can justifiably complain of violence in Northern Ireland. She, personally, is fed up to the back teeth of churchmen wringing their hands about violence when the churches have blessed every army that marched since the Crusades.
"I am not saying I am in favour of violence," she went on. "All I am saying is that the argument must start with a degree of honesty. I am not a person who is in principle opposed to violence, and neither are most other people. I abhor violence, but that's not the same thing. I abhor cod liver oil, but 1 have been known to swallow it. Let's not say, any more, that the Church is opposed to violence: the Church is in favour of violence in certain circumstances particularly those that are to the benefit of the Church!" Bernadette's perfectly logical line of argument on this issue convinced me of something that has been at the base of my sub-conscious for some time. There is no point in objecting to Sinn Fein's activities on grounds of its support for violence. That is known, now, as "the politics of the latest atrocity", and condemnation, outrage or disgust have no impact whatsoever.
The only useful objection to Sinn Fein is on grounds of its politics. That most of us do not want the sort of Socialist Republican Ireland that SF proposes, thank you very much as the electoral polls in the Republic show time after time after time. Indeed, it is precisely "Charlie Haughey's Free State" that is democratically preferred, and most pointedly so.
BERNADETTE is not sure what she'll do in the future, when her children are grown. She might study law. Then again, she is, in some ways, a quintessential politician more than once she reminded me of both Barbara Castle and Edwina Currie, with that forceful political personality. I still wonder if she mightn't return to constitutional politics one day.
"She'd never get elected," says John Hume. St Peter's AC Church Shoreham-by-Sea West Sussex, lnglaterra June 9 1989 Dear Friends in Latin America, Lots of people over here are preparing for 1992. A friend in Norwich listens to French language cassettes as he drives to his Job in local government. Our Catholic comprehensive school is planning to teach more European languages, and here in this church at Shoreham-by-Sea we learned how to say peace in ten languages fur the Feast of Pentecost.
But the language-learning is only a small part of the frenzied preparation for the European Mega-Market. What impresses me is the overall planning, the strategies, the calculated confidence in tomorrow.
If only our Church in England could plan the future in a similar spirit of trust. My friends in Norwich have the good fortune to belong to a diocese that has a five year plan worked out by thousands of people. They must have met with scepticism, even opposition. (I can imagine the Catholic anarchists of East Anglia snorting at the idea "five year plans? Sounds like production lines in a steel wire factory in Bulgaria!"). But the diocesan plan went ahead in spite of those who instinctively bristle at planning, plans and planners.
Bureaucracy is an ever-present danger for all who are involved in strategies and planning of any sort. But it strikes me that the dangers inherent in bumbling are even greater. Habitual bumblers are either inactive by temperament or they have made themselves incapable of working with others in anything resembling a team effort.
Plans, once made, can be adapted to new circumstances, or made flexible on account of human failings. Bumbling can only produce discouragement, disillusion and chaos. I am struck by the number of times I hear from priests and laity questions like "what are our priorities?", "where are we going to?"
I think a lot of sceptics and anti-planners can be won over by an appeal to all our yesterdays, particularly to our earliest days as a Spirit-tilled community of believers.
Meanwhile, the businessmen of Europe have their strategies mapped out for 1992. Tomorrow's country is not for bumblers.
Affectionately John Niedcalf