The Irish Struggle Today

Against the Current, No. 49, March/April 1994

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

The following is excerpted from a speech by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey in Detroit on November 5, 1993. She became a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement in Ireland in the 1960s and has worked for Irish freedom ever since. ATC has transcribed and abridged the talk. Many thanks to Nkenge Zola of WDET-FM for providing us with a good quality tape!

IT’S NOT VERY easy to be heard on Ireland. After twenty-five years of unbroken struggle we still find ourselves trying to break into the human rights agenda, despite the fact that there is a mountain of literature from Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch on the consistent violation of human rights in the north of Ireland.

We are, if not on the human rights agenda, beginning to get on the political agenda—and to finally correct the impression that the struggle in the north is about religion. Whatever else it’s about, it is certainly not about religion, certainly not about theology, certainly not about religious intolerance.

People are at least beginning to realize that the issues in the north of Ireland are historic issues, based on the problem of imperialism. They have to be resolved by correcting the historic wrongs. The developing conflict in the Eastern European countries, in the former Yugoslavia for example, forces people to begin to understand the importance of the question of national idenfity, the question of self-determination.

And so we, like many other people, are at a critical point in our country’s history. We are used to having the problem misrepresented. We are used to people being confused about what the core issues of the problem are. And of course we have learned, over twenty-five years, to work under censorship. Most people in America are unaware that even the scant information that comes to them from Ireland is censored information.

Almost all the media information coming out of Ireland and coming out of Britain about Ireland is information that first of all excludes the presence of dissidents: Slim Fein, a number of other organizations, and then people who might (that includes myself) express an opinion that might concur with an opinion that might be expressed by a member of an organization not allowed to use the press.

CNN, which prides itself on being everywhere—like God and Paddy the Irishman—rarely gets closer to Ireland than London. The information that you see from CNN has been bought from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), from the Independent Television Network (ITN) or from the Irish radio station—but it generally comes from the BBC.

Nobody ever notices this except for one occasion when Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, was almost heard in America. CNN took a clip from the BBC and Mr. Adams was on. But people in America who picked up the broadcast realized it wasn’t Gerry Adams’ voice. Then they realized that CNN had used BBC material—and because the British media is not allowed to use Gerry Adams’ voice, his face was there and of course the words were spoken by an actor. Alternately, on British television Gerry Adams appears in silence and his words are paraphrased beneath him, as if the entire population was hearing impaired.

The average American citizen—whether they be radical, liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter what they are—ordinary decent human beings watching their televisions or reading their weekend newspapers are confronted with an image of Ireland that is unilaterally and universally violent And they see the violence in Ireland perpetrated by this peculiar organization called the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

What I’m saying is that people in this country are provided with no context, no basis against which they can relate to the bits and pieces of information they receive. Not only are the bits and pieces they receive censored, they are without context, without analysis. They tend to only exist in dramatic and generally tragic circumstances, creating an image that violence in the community is created by the IRA.

What then is happening in the north of Ireland? Given the endemic violation of our human rights, the endemic structural, social, economic and political discrimination against us, given the institutional violence, and the physical and overt violence of the state toward the nationalist community, what is surprising in the northern Ireland context is that the violent response, the response in terms of armed struggle, has been as restrained and as limited as it has been, rather than the other way around.

The vast majority of resistance in the north of Ireland is non-violent community and political resistance. However, we are portrayed in such a manner that even the most open, most democratic and non-violent activity of the nationalist and Republican community is seen as violence in and of itself, just as the mentality of the media is that people should not be allowed to say things which might sound like things that Gerry Adams might say if he was allowed to say anything.

So anybody who organizes and takes a position, particularly if they do so successfully, who promotes a question, raises an issue that may or may not be, or is likely to be, or currently is an issue which draws attention to the violence of the state, is viewed as an apologist for terrorism.

The IRA would argue its position that it exists as a defense mechanism against the state’s violence, that it exists because of the social and economic deprivation and discrimination against the nationalist community, that it exists because of the denial of human rights, that it exists because of the denial of national identity and self-determination. Anybody, then, who raises any of those issues is deemed to be giving credence to terrorism and therefore is a terrorist or crypto-terrorist oneself.

We in the north of Ireland are openly referred to as “the terrorist community” Police refer to us as that Quite often civil servants refer to us as that It’s one of those phrases that’s crept into the English language. (Another is referring to Britain as “the mainland.”)

We are a terrorist community. We have terrorist youth, terrorist mommies, terrorist daddies, terrorist babies, terrorist dogs, terrorist cats by virtue of the fact that we live within certain areas—West Belfast, the Bogside and Cregan of Deny, Coalisland. If you’re ever, ever stopped in the north of Ireland, regardless of where you’re going to or coming from, if they ask you, don’t say Coalisland. That’s worth two horns on the side of the road—just because you mentioned that town. It’s a terrorist town—probably with terrorist fields, terrorist cows.

And this accusation despite the fact that we have resisted, survived, organized around, worked within the most abysmal and violent conditions, created not by the IRA but by the state.

I work in a number of organizations that work in the Irish National Congress—a thirty-two-county organization whose specific role is educational in the south—breaking the silence brought by censorship, raising the issue of the rights of the people of the north. It’s also a forum for people in the south of Ireland, who have been terrorized by the state into silence on issues in the north of Ireland and social justice issues in the south.

I also campaign for economic equality. I am working to document, research, highlight, publicize and nonviolently organize boycotts about the endemic discrimination against the nationalist population. This discrimination results structurally in a nationalist, regardless of where they live or their education, being two-and-a-half times less likely to be employed than a member of the Unionist population. That was my business at Ford headquarters this morning.

All of that non-violent peace and justice work involves trying to resolve the injustices and by resolving them, to bring peace. But all this is deemed by the government to be subversive. There’s a great deal of community work. There’s a whole spectrum of work in the communities to create alternatives to the conditions in which people find themselves.

There are educational schemes, community schools, self-help schemes, business opportunities, creches. These include discussion, debate, organizing—all at a community level. All this non-violent peace and justice community work, and all deemed to be subversive by the state. At a human rights level I also work for the Committee for the Administration of Justice, which is accredited and affiliated to Amnesty International, Helsinki Watch and almost all of the international human rights groups. So all this organizing keeps us, as we say in the north, from being completely full of ourselves: We can be head of one organization and we can be the rank and ifie foot soldier in the next.

Only those who have come to Ireland and walked in the community and met this so-called terrorist community see one of the most deeply entrenched, most vibrant resistance movements that you’ll see outside Central America. The work goes on in the social justice field, in the human rights field, in the economic field, in the political arena.

Under the international conventions—the UN Charter of Human Rights, the European Charter of Human Rights—it’s a right that people be allowed to choose their own representation. People who form the nationalist community in Northern Ireland—particularly those who form the community of resistance, those who bear the brunt of the state’s war, the state’s repression, the state’s violence and the state’s denial of their democratic, cultural, economic and political rights—have spoken and spoken effectively for many years now as to who that community chooses for its political representation. And that community chooses Sinn Fein.

It votes Slim Fein. It votes Sinn Fein in West Belfast, it votes Sinn Fein in Coalisland, it votes Sinn Fern in Derry and right across the country. Sinn Fern has representation on every single council. I think there might be one council in the country where there’s no representation, in the very heart of the Loyalist northeast.

So the community has democratically chosen Sein Fern. And one of the most insulting things that we find, when people come to visit us, be they press or anybody else, is that they try to concoct some reason. They ask us this peculiar question, “What do you think makes people vote Sinn Fein?” They ask it in that way—it has the same tone to it as “What causes rickets?”

People always ask the question in this vein. “What makes the people vote Sinn Fein?” In the same breath they offer you possible suggestions. “Is it because the government is so bad to them?” ‘Perhaps it’s because they’re so poor?” “Maybe it’s because of the military repression?”

Now it partly is because of all those things, but sooner or later people have to get it into their heads that there’s a large population, a large segment—in fact just over 40% in Belfast—that vote Slim Fern because they like Sinn Fein. They like Slim Fein’s policies, they like Slim Fern’s work on the ground, because by and large the people involved in the community—human rights, social, economic justice campaigns—are members of Sinn Fein.

I’m not a member of Sinn Fein, but every area that I’m working in, I’m working all the time with members of Sinn Fein. Very, very rarely do I work with Social Democrats [i.e. the Social Democratic and Labor Partyed.J—Social Democrats aren’t the people who do social justice, grassroots, human rights work. They do not document human rights abuses, they are not endlessly available in the middle of the night for people who are arrested. Social Democrats do not get out of their beds in the middle of the night to go looking for other people’s children.

When you are doing that kind of real work, when you are assisting in creches, when you’re involved in discussions about possible new Constitutions, when you’re involved in study groups looking at the Scandinavian political experience or trying to evaluate the developments in South Africa or the peace movement in the Middle East, where in all those discussions there will be people from the human rights movement and social justice movement, people from the equality movement, people from Slim Fein, never do Social Democrats come.

Sinn Fein is internally a democratic, open party—which has local branches people can join, or not join, and which send delegates to the annual general meeting. Sinn Fein has an overall national program. Legally in any negotiations for the future, we have chosen our political representation. By right, we expect that if there is a discussion about the future of the people in our country, we expect Sinn Fein to be there to represent us.

And there is no reason why Slim Fein should give concessions to be there. The presence of Sinn Fein at any negotiations is not dependent on whether the IRA does or does not have a cease fire, whether Sinn Fein does or does not join the Quaker movement, whether Slim Fein does or does not promise to go to mass twice on Sunday, whether or not they mention socialism. These are not conditioned by Irish-American sensitivities to the work. All these things are irrelevant.

Sinn Fein’s right to be at the negotiations about Ireland’s future is based simply and solely on the independent right of the people to choose their representation. The UN’s Charter of Human Rights says that people have the right to choose their elected representatives—and we have chosen Sinn Fein.

March/April 1994, ATC 49