Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has had a chequered political career, ever since winning the Mid Ulster seat April 1969 as the youngest ever MP. Even then, her politics defied easy categorisation, going against traditional Republican abstentionism, she called herself and independent socialist, on occasions she lit up the Commons, not least with a physical attack on the then Home Secretary Reggie Maudling. Older, though, she says, just as awkward, McAliskey is involved in what she calls a bottom peace process, that bears little or no relationship to the top down process at Stormont. The aim is to build social cohesion amongst the diverse communities of South Tyrone.For that bigger process, she has little time:
…yes, there is a real buzz here now but part of that is the result of spending 10 years only seeing what is comforting and good to see.” The awkwardness of Devlin is that she will insist, while others are reaping the peace dividend, on talking up all the issues that still need to be addressed, issues which, she says, were hidden by the Troubles.
On her list is the need to end segregated schooling (“buy up all the buildings and establish integrated schools tomorrow. It was in my manifesto in the 1960s”), the abolition of the Eleven-Plus exam (“it is a violation of a child’s human rights”), better care for the disabled, and action to tackle the urban/rural divide in the North.
There seems to be a note of anger somewhere in her voice at the way things have turned out. She sighs. “When I was younger, the anger was all from the heart up. It came from my heart and it came out of my mouth. The anger has not gone away. Anger is deep-seated. It’s not all right. But it’s not personalised anger. People ask me about the things they think are most important. And I say – which is what I feel – Bloody Sunday was not by any stretch of the imagination the worst thing that happened to me. It was the worst thing that happened to others – the families in Derry, for instance. If you say, ‘What is the worst thing that happened to me?’ then 1969 to 1999 is the worst thing that happened to me and lots of other people who lived through that period. Thirty years of my life is the worst thing that happened to me. And that doesn’t get better.”