Off Our Knees

Sandy Boyer (SB) and John McDonagh (JM) interview Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey (BDM) about her documentary, Off Our Knees. We are indebted to our transcriber who unfailingly produces these for the benefit of our readers.  
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
7 February 2015

SB: And we're now going over to Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, to talk to Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey, who you've just been listening to on this documentary, Off Our Knees. Bernadette, thank you very much for being with us.

 BDM: Hi, Sandy. Not at all.

SB:  And Bernadette, we've been listening to excerpts from this documentary which you wrote and narrated and it covers the whole period from '68 to '88. And why is it so important to look back at that? Some people would just say: well, it's ancient history – why should we bother with that? 

BDM:  Well I think there are two reasons, Sandy. First of all it's not such ancient history – that period still very much determines the course of events of the present period. And I think in that respect it's very good to put down a marker as we go along because quite a lot of the history of that period is being re-written and revised to suit the present narrative as it were. I think there's a second reason as well is that a lot of the history of that period and a lot of the history of the civil rights movement which took some of its own inspiration from the American civil rights movement and leads us forward into what people called the Egyptian Spring and civil rights movements throughout the rest of the world. So there's a continuity of people in struggle that is not an ancient history. It is our ongoing present throughout different countries in the world at the minute. So it's very much living history.

SB: Bernadette, there's a conventional wisdom from this period that is: first you had the wonderful, non-violent, peaceful civil rights movement and then you had the nasty terrorist IRA. Is that really the truth? 

BDM:  No. I think that's very simplistic – a very simplistic and a very consciously – if I can put it that way – you know from the powerful people if you like – a consciously distorted narrative because it gives an impression that the government of the day didn't have a problem with the civil rights movement - just with the “baddies” who came along after it.

And if you look at that situation and how that is distorted and misrepresented then of course it leaves out the violence of the state against people. And you have to remember that when the peaceful civil rights movement was campaigning for the most minimal reforms that the Northern Ireland state reacted with overt violence. And if you go back to Bloody Sunday in 1972 that was a mass, peaceful and lawful demonstration on which the British Army opened fire and of course many, many years later we then get the fairly empty apology from the government to say: Yes. Okay. We put our hands up now we're caught – at the end of the Saville inquiry and say - yes the soldiers did murder the people and named it as murder but of course blamed the soldiers on the ground. And if you look actually there's a very good – if you go on the Bloody Sunday March Committee website - there's a very, very good bit of YouTube material that Eamonn McCann wrote in terms of the apology that Cameron should have made and that was broadcast at this year's Bloody Sunday March.

So you have to recognise what's happening here: The first violence in Northern Ireland was the violence of the state. You look at the mass demonstrations and the democratic election of a government in Egypt which didn't please the West and didn't please the power-mongers and so that gets overthrown and you have the violence of the state against that democracy.

You look at Blair and Bush taking us to war in Iraq and we're paying for that now in the violence of ISIS. But if you extract the violence of the state from the discussion you can get this simple narrative that the ordinary people are alright – you don't give them anything - but then along comes the “bad terrorists” and then everybody gets afraid and the government then uses that to terrorise the population.

SB:  Bernadette, I have watched this documentary again yesterday and a couple of things struck me:  first of all we forget when this whole thing started – and probably it's unbelievable even to young people today - Catholics couldn't vote – Catholics couldn't get a house!

BDM:  That's right.  People tend to forget that – and we're talking in the latter half of the twentieth century within British democracy - that significant elements of poor people, in which ranks the Catholic population predominated - it wasn't only that Catholics didn't have the vote - you couldn't have the vote unless you were a property owner. So the poor didn't have the vote.  But the majority in looking at the poor, the Catholic were over-represented in the poor. And in order to stop Catholics from getting the vote they were denied housing. So while it was the reality was that the poor couldn't vote that piece of undemocratic legislation became a weapon for stopping people getting a vote by stopping them getting a roof over their head, essentially.

SB:  And Bernadette, this is the documentary, Off Our Knees, which you actually made but looking back – these are, you know - Eamonn McCann, Michael Farrell, Tommy Gorman - these are people you knew and worked with very intimately.  What's it like for you to look back on that?

BDM:  Well it's interesting. I look back on it and the one thing that I think surprises me is how we survived that and how – certainly the people you have mentioned – how enough of us survived that with, if you'd like – and I'm lucky I did survived because there were so many colleagues and friends who didn't – who lost their lives in that struggle and whom indirectly that struggle took its toll on and died prematurely as a result - but what's interesting politically looking back on it is that we may have been young and we may have been naive but we weren't wrong.  We weren't wrong, Sandy.

When you look at it you can see how young people to an extent instinctively reacted against injustices and I think we were right.  You know, it wasn't glorious but it was right. I remember old Mrs. Mullen here who lost sons and daughters and sons-in-law in the struggles said: You know, no matter where it went wrong and no matter what little we got out of it to have risen up against that injustice was noble, right and necessary. And when I look back on it I still maintain that – we may not have always been wise but it was necessary and it was noble and it was right.

SB:  And I think you can say the same thing here. You know we're talking now about Selma and the civil rights movement but which was -   of course you drew inspiration from – but that struggle goes on...

BDM:  ...that struggle goes on.  We see it in Ferguson and we were again delighted that – you know I'm part of the Bloody Sunday March Committee and were delighted – we hoped to have a speaker from Ferguson and they, suffering from exhaustion, only got the length of New York.    

But we had a speaker from #BlackLivesMatter both at the weekend seminars and as a keynote speaker on the march and so those parallels continue to made and that continues to be one, as I said, one ongoing struggle - people's civil rights have not yet - we're not there yet, Sandy – put it that way - in the things that people gave their life to and gave their life's work to – that struggle continues. 

JM:  Yeah, Bernadette, John McDonagh here. 

BDM:  Hi, John. 

JM:  Hi, Bernadette. You were talking about it didn't go quite in the direction that everybody was hoping – I mean you can say that maybe from the ANC and a lot of revolutionary groups that rise up and then, as Ernie O'Malley in On Another Man's Wound, you can see what happened from 1916 and you can see what happened in the struggle back then how historical forces come together and push the movement in different directions that you might not have wanted to go and how could that be stopped?  I mean, is it just the forces you were up against?

BDM:  Yeah.  I think it's not historical forces I think we have to look at what are those forces which historically re-assert themselves and of course they're the forces of power. I think in struggle we often forget how all-powerful - all-embracingly powerful - those who hold onto power are: economically, politically, socially - and how they will, at every opportunity, regroup – they hold the military power - they hold the economic power - they hold the political power and you know you come back to it – well I do from my perspective, John – that the revolution only starts - it never ends and so in every generation we keep trying to get closer to that point of a fair and equitable world where people matter before profit and human beings matter before we go speculating on world markets and turning water into a commodity and having a wealthy nation that citizens sleep in the street. 

SB: And Bernadette in this documentary you talk about all those things that are tremendously important but there's also the fact that we can't get away from tho we try: that the British government still runs Northern Ireland.

BDM:  Oh yes, it does. Yes, it does. And people try to – and that's what I said at the outset about people re-writing history and trying to – which historically happens as well – that when those who lead us try tell us we're further down the road than we are then you have to begin to twist the story and tell the tale. 

Of course the British government still directly governs Northern Ireland through its devolved administration in the same way that it governs Scotland through its devolved administration. And the Scots made a better run for independence in the past two years than we seem to have done – that's a very vibrant, radical movement that I think will ultimately secure independence for Scotland and that will change the whole debate. But you know the issue of – it's commonly said – our argument about Britain running the country just isn't a kind of narrow Nationalism – the country cannot be governed in the interests of the people while Britain continues to run it.

JM:  Bernadette, there's a documentary that's just coming out of Sundance – it's about the history of the Black Panthers - there's a documentary on The Young Lords in Spanish Harlem – it seems all these struggles were coming together because you have the distance of time to look back at it to see what was right and what was wrong - is there any sense of it now? I mean the documentary we're doing now is from 1988. Is there any sense of it now because we're going into 2016 and The Twenty-Six County government put out a YouTube video about celebrating 2016 and didn't mention the uprising of 1916!

BDM:  Well you see...what...I have to ask you, John and I appreciate that it is a wider American audience: what would you expect the government to do if you had betrayed the revolution of 1916 and were still in government? How would you try to celebrate a hundred years of freedom you had wasted?

JM:  That would be a tough documentary.

BDM:  That would be a tough documentary. You know, what the government really should do if it wanted to honour the men of '16 is just pack up and resign!  (all laugh)

SB:  Well, I think you could say the same thing about some people in Stormont today.

BDM:  You could say exactly the same thing. If you wanted really to say what was it the people of 1916 wanted?  You could say if you really wanted to get back there we need to walk. 

SB:  And Bernadette, we're going to wrap up with you in a little while because we have to get back and try to raise the money to keep this show alive.   

BDM: Listen. Let me tell ya – if anybody's got any money in their pockets get it out there because it's a show - there aren't many opportunities left and the ones that we have - I keep saying to people - we have to look after the people who hold the truth. We have to look after the organisations that are not afraid to speak the truth. And we have to keep the channels of truth and communication open. Your show is one of the few left, Sandy, so let's everybody get their money in their pockets and keep it breathing. 

SB:  Bernadette, thank you very much. It's tempting – I'd love to talk to you – we could go on for hours – but as I said you just heard Bernadette talk about the value of the station and the show so again, Bernadette, thank you very much. 

BDM:  You're welcome. Talk later. Talk later. 'Bye, John. 'Bye Sandy!

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