The youngest woman ever elected to the British Parliament, Bernadette Devlin (born 1947) personified the young radical Catholics of Northern Ireland at the onset of the modern troubles. She intermixed socialism, Irish republicanism, anti-clericalism, and feminism with general political impracticality and radical brashness.
Bernadette Devlin was the third of the six children of John James and Elizabeth Bernadette Devlin of Cookstown, County Tyrone. Her mother's family, who were of strong farmer and publican background, opposed her parent's marriage because her father was from a laboring background. From both parents (her father who died when she was nine and her mother who died when she was 19) she developed a strong Irish Republican spirit and a sense of detestation for pharisaical piety and respectability. She attended St. Patrick's Academy, Dungannon, County Tyrone, and entered Queen's University, Belfast, in 1965 to study psychology.
This was a period when many in the younger Catholic community in Northern Ireland were turning away from both constitutional nationalism as represented by the socially respectable and bourgeois Nationalist party and the revolutionary Sinn Fein movement. In place of the immediately unlikely goal of Irish unity, they began to insist on civil rights for the minority (that is, the Catholic) community within Northern Ireland as appropriate for citizens of the United Kingdom.
Their specific grievances included the restricted franchise in local government elections (which de facto disenfranchised a higher percentage of Catholics), gerry-mandered local government districts, and the consequent discriminatory treatment in public hiring and availability of benefits, especially public housing. They sought to emulate the tactics of African Americans by conducting a series of protest marches throughout Northern Ireland. Devlin took part in several of these marches, which met a combination of police obstruction and militant Protestant threats.
Devlin was one of the founders of People's Democracy, a student movement concerned with the civil rights cause and of decidedly socialist temperament. She was with that group in the celebrated march in January 1969 from Belfast to Derry which was assaulted by police auxiliaries and other Unionist militants at Burntollet Bridge along the route. People's Democracy entered the Northern Irish parliamentary election of March 1969, and Devlin unsuccessfully contested the South Derry constituency. A month later, however, she emerged as the Unity candidate for the nationalist community in a by-election for the Mid-Ulster seat to the Westminster Parliament. She was elected, becoming the youngest woman ever to serve in Parliament and the youngest member of parliament in over 200 years.
When the Protestant and Unionist Apprentice Boys' Parade in Derry on August 12, 1969, was followed by sectarian clashes and rioting, barricades were erected around the Catholic section, the Bogside, to exclude a police force of decided bias from the area. Devlin was a central figure in urging on the construction of the barricades and encouraging their defenders. That "Battle of the Bogside," which was followed shortly after by the intense community strife in Belfast that prompted the British government to send in its troops as peacekeepers, could be seen as the opening encounter in the troubles that continued in Northern Ireland for many years.
That same month Devlin came to the United States to raise funds for Northern Irish relief and also to meet the secretary-general of the United Nations. She soon alienated many of the older and more conservative Irish-Americans, including those who would become supporters of the violent Irish Republican Army (IRA), by her radicalism on issues other than Irish unity. A celebrated incident was her handing over to the Black Panthers, a racial radical group, the keys to the city of New York which had been presented to her by the mayor.
Her involvement in the Bogside disorder resulted in her conviction for incitement to riot and obstruction and disorderly behavior, for which she received a sentence of six months imprisonment. She entered prison after having been re-elected to Westminster in the June 1970 general election.
In January 1972 she assaulted the home secretary, Reginald Maudling, in the House of Commons following the "Bloody Sunday" incident in Derry in which 13 people were killed by the army in the process of breaking up a meeting held against legal interdiction. In April 1973 she married a school teacher, Michael McAliskey. The following February she lost her seat when the Social Democratic Labour party, the amalgam of most moderate anti-Unionists, ran a candidate against her in the general election. She was linked with the Irish Republican Socialist party, which had broken away from the leftwing official Sinn Fein movement in 1974. In 1979 she ran unsuccessfully in Northern Ireland for the European Parliament, and she ran unsuccessfully for Dail Eireann (the Irish legislature) in two 1982 general elections. In early 1981 she and her husband were seriously wounded in an assassination attempt by members of the extremist Unionist Ulster Defense Association who were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
Her age and her bravery made her at the outset of the Northern Irish troubles a potential charismatic leader for the new wave of Northern Irish Catholics interested in civil rights more than in national unity. She also personified the soon-to-flourish cause of Irish feminism. However, her radical tactics and manner alienated many and her ideology, with its easy assumptions that the Protestant and Catholic working class could overcome cultural and religious hostility in a joint struggle for socialism and that Irish partition was ultimately founded on narrow capitalist self-interest, failed to draw substantial support. In addition, her message was too intermixed with other themes to satisfy those who supported the single-minded irredentism of the Provisional IRA.
In the 1990s, Devlin voiced her support for the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization in its efforts to win gay men and lesbians the right to march in New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade. In November 1996, Devlin's daughter Roisin McAliskey was arrested in Belfast on charges connected to an IRA bombing of a British Army barracks. Devlin protested her daughter's innocence and was at the center of a campaign to have her pregnant daughter released from jail to await trial. "I can think of more traumatic things than finding out that my daughter is a terrorist," Devlin told a reporter. The belief of Devlin and others of her daughter's supporters was that Roisin McAliskey's arrest was symbolic rather than directly related to the bombing investigation. "I have three children and not if the British government takes all of them will they stop me opposing the inhumanity and injustice of the state," Devlin said following her daughter's arrest.
Devlin's own autobiography, written the year she became celebrated, The Price of My Soul (1969), is an excellent portrait of her personality and ideology, especially her socialism, feminism, and anti-clericalism. It indicates her contempt for regular politics, which no doubt explains her lack of success later. It should be accompanied by a reading of some general analyses of the Northern Irish question such as Padraig O'Malley, The Uncivil Wars (1983) and general accounts such as Simon Winchester, In Holy Terror (1974), a journalist's reporting of the events in Ulster in the opening phases of the troubles, the time Bernadette Devlin emerged to renown. An article about her daughter's arrest and Devlin's fight to free her appeared in The Nation March 17, 1997. Also see the biography G.W. Target, Bernadette: The Story of Bernadette Devlin, 1975, Hodder and Stoughton.