An Interview with Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

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

Stuart Ross, a member of Solidarity and an activist in Irish solidarity work, interviewed Bernadette Devlin McAliskey for ATC in Detroit on November 5, 1993. It should be noted that this discussion predated several important political events, which therefore aren’t covered here: the December 15 “Downing Street Declaration” by the Prime Minister of Britain and the Irish Republic; the lifting of the Irish Republic’s ban on the broadcast of statements by Sinn Fein leaders (Britain’s ban remains in effect); and the Clinton administration’s granting of a limited visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

ATC: You have just come from San Francisco where you were one of the defense witnesses on behalf of Jimmy Smyth, an Irish national facing extradition back to the north of Ireland. Given the fate of other Irish nationals in U.S. courts, do you think the outcome of this case will be any different?

BDM: I was asked to testify about the situation in Northern Ireland. Basically, Jimmy Smyth is one of the escapees from the mass escape [1983] from the Maze [or Long Kesh] prison. Nineteen prisoners actually got clear of the prison and avoided rearrest for a long time. The British have consistently followed up wherever possible in finding them. Kevin Barry Artt, Smyth and one other person [Pol Brennan] were finally arrested in California—initially on visa violations. The British are now seeking the extradition of Jimmy Smyth.

It’s been an interesting case because for one thing it comes in the wake of a new treaty that followed the Doherty case.(1) The intention of the treaty was to make it more difficult to provide a defense. Jimmy Smyth has been very fortunate because economic considerations forced him to opt for a public defender, who turned out to be a young woman of remarkable talent. I think the first thing that has to be said is that Karen Snell’s sharpness as a lawyer, her willingness to take on the issues, to travel to Ireland and to become herself so totally convinced in the righteousness of Smyth’s cause, has been a major strength.

A combination of the weakness of the treaty and the excellence of the lawyer has provided all kinds of openings, even though the treaty was supposed to have been introduced to make it easier to get Irish people out of the country. It ended up with her demanding and being able to very successfully argue before the court for the release of such documentation as the Stalker Report [the controversial inquiry into Britain’s alleged shoot-to-kill policy] and the Stevens Inquiry [an inquiry into the alleged collusion between members of the security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries]—the British government didn’t want to do that.

Then she argued before the judge that at least the judge should have access to this information and the British refused to give it. The prosecution walked themselves into a position where the judge then accepted, for legal purposes, that the defense case was valid and that the British government does ill-treat prisoners, does operate a shoot-to-kill policy and does (through its security forces) collude with Loyalist paramilitaries.

The media covered it very closely because it has become a case involving the treaty and almost every witness has had their testimony in the papers. People in San Francisco who would not normally be exposed to this information are reading about young men who are killed going to work, young women who are killed because they wanted to study law, people who are killed because they voted Sinn Fein [political wing of the Republican Movement]. It’s been a remarkable educational process.

The prosecution very foolishly tried to impugn the integrity of the people who were giving testimony. I was cross examined about the assassination attempt on myself [McAliskey was attacked in her home and nearly kiIled in January of 1981]. I was actually, in a most hostile and insensitive manner, cross-examined on the attack on my family and myself as if I was making it up myself. It certainly didn’t impress the judge.

So I think Smyth’s going to win this round. The problem, of course, will be whether (under the Clinton administration) the State Department will continue what they did with Doherty—to hound him until they finally send him back.

ATC: The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has been targeting Irish nationals for “defrauding the government” by providing “false” information on their visas. Instead of extradition, these men face deportation. Why the sudden crackdown?

BDM: I think basically what happens is they know exactly where everybody is (put that down to paranoia). They know, by and large, who’s here and where they are—they sort of leave them for a rainy day when there’s a need to counteract some particular little propaganda around British activity or whatever, or when there’s the prospect of getting people organizing …. An example is the case of Francis Gildemew, who was here for a long time.(2) It was only when his visibility within INA [Irish Northern Aid Committee, or NORAID] stepped over a certain limit that they went after him. He has been very successful fighting that.

I think it’s used to ensure that other people keep their heads down. It’s a method of intimidation because of course there are large numbers of people from Ireland who are not particularly interested in Irish affairs or in Irish politics, but who are illegal. The message is if you stay that way you’ll probably be all right.

ATC: All people—Republicans included—regret the tragedy of October 23, 1993, when a bomb prematurely exploded on Shankill Road, in the heart of Loyalist West Belfast, killing nine civilians and one IRA volunteer. The incident received quite a bit of news coverage in this country. Still, for those who live outside the Six Counties, bombings like the one that went wrong on Shankill occur in a “bubble.” Could you put that incident into its context?

BDM: Somebody asked me in one of the meetings here, “Did the IRA not realize that this bombing on the Shankill would alienate the sympathies of Irish-Americans?” I said, the realities of life are that when the IRA, or anybody else on the ground, are discussing their reasons for or against doing anything, the sympathies of Irish-Americans are not actually on the top of their agenda.

While we appreciate the problems these things cause, we exist when people aren’t looking at us. The reality of the existence which we have had, as I mentioned, is that over the past year the Loyalist death squads have not simply increased their activity, it’s not a question of reactive violence, it’s not a question of gut racism or hatred—there is the most highly sophisticated, orchestrated, terrorist campaign being waged against the Catholic community.

This campaign is not being waged in isolation from British military Intelligence or the dictates of most right-wing elements of British society (through British military and political organizations) either—it is like it was in 1913 or in 1922! There are a number of things that point to that.

On the outside one gets the impression of random Loyalist attacks. In fact, when the Loyalists specify a specific human as a target (as opposed to spraying areas with gunfire) they have chosen that target with terrifying precision.

When they came into the home of Pat Shields (they killed Pat and his son Diarmuid [1/93]), it was in the wake of the statement that they now intended to broaden the definition of a “legitimate target”—that they intended to attack members of the GAA [Gaelic Athletic As-sedation] and other people interested in Irish culture. (They used to shoot a person and say, “This person is in the IRA” or whatever, though sometimes they wouldn’t even bother.)

Now the widow came on the television and said, ‘Our Pat wasn’t involved in politics”—which was true—”he had no time for Republicans”—he had to be proved innocent in death because someone shot him. The people in the immediate area, however, knew that Pat was a prominent member of the GAA. The media did not come down and relate the death of this man to the statement.—Pat Shields fit the exact profile of this statement made by the Loyalists.

As an individual Pat fell into a number of categories which they announced they were going to shoot and therefore several groupings of people were specifically terrorized by the shooting of this supposedly random, apolitical Catholic. Everybody in the GAA knew Pat was one of them, therefore, if they were going to shoot Pat Shields, they were going to shot any member of the GAA.

Pat was also involved in the Irish cultural scene, so everybody in that scene said, “They’re not joking. They killed Pat Shields. I’m involved in that kind of work and they could kill me.” Pat Shields was a Catholic who conducted a small business on the fringe of a Protestant area. Now every family who lived in an isolated area was also under threat.

They then moved on to talk about the “Pan-nationalist Front,”(3) and that they would kill anybody who sold Republican newspapers. Then they shot a shopkeeper and the press simply reported that the Loyalists went to such an area and shot a shopkeeper—but the local people relate that directly back to the statement.

Then they said they would shoot any Catholic and they went up the Falls Road [the heart of nationalist West Belfast] and shot a hairdresser [9/93]. He had to be about the only remaining Catholic on the Falls Road who wasn’t involved in anything at all except cutting hair—everybody knew that—but they shot him.

That was another statement to the Catholics, you see, not only can we shoot any of you—we know who you are—we know who plays football, we know who plays traditional music and we know who’s not interested in anything. We can put out a statement today and can pick any one out of any geographic location in your community, know who fits that description, and can shoot them—that’s how much we know about you.

Some of those cases, like again the Shields killing, they knew exactly what room the man slept in. That information only comes from having a plan of your house—having been inside your house. Loyalists can’t do that, the security forces do that. That’s also letting the community know they had access to such information.

They know the plans of our houses, because if the army comes in to search your home they ask you, “Whose room is this?” And you have to tell them. When they come for your wife or your son or your husband they know what room they are in. That’s not blind hatred, that’s very sophisticated organized terror.

That’s been building up and, in fact, the IRA were under community pressure. Although their fight is not with the Protestant community, their fight is not even with the Loyalist community—their fight is with the British army—they were consistently aware of that agenda coming under increasing pressure because people were saying, “Where’s the IRA? Why can people do this to us? Why can people come in and shoot us?” It had reached a point where people were saying: Why was there no retaliation?

The man who shot me, in the midst of all this, has been interviewed on television as the spokesperson for the Loyalists (he’s not censored) explaining why it is reasonable the Loyalists should perceive the GAA as being fellow tray of the IRA—why the Irish Constitution, which claims authority over “the v island of Ireland, its islands and territorial seas”] and the Irish government refusal to change it can be seen to be the motivation behind the frustration of Loyalists which leads them to kill Catholics.

So he’s on television as an apologist for the Loyalist murders, being himself convicted of attempted murder, and yet they never even say this mart was in prison or that this mart shot Bernadette McAliskey. He’s there in suit and tie being Mr. Decent!

It’s under that background of pressure of a consistent and increasing fear in the community that the IRA then (in the belief that all the Loyalist paramilitary groups now work in coalition) moved against the leadership. On the basis of their intelligence, the IRA believed that they were meeting in the UDA [Ulster Defence Association] headquarters, which is what the building was. The building was, and remained while the bomb was put in it, UDA head- Oven quarters. The bottom store of the up a building was a fish shop.

The media story was that two men walked into the fish shop with a bomb; they set it on the counter; they ran out; they got into a black taxi and they drove away. That story was not contradicted or amended in any way until the IRA statement early the next morning said that the Volunteers hadn’t returned. They said all they knew was that the Volunteers went out with the bomb and hadn’t come back The bomb had gone off—one of their men was dead, the other was seriously injured in the hospital. The only facts people know are that obviously they went into the building and the bomb went off.

No one who went into the building came out alive. So nobody knows whether the IRA actually went into the fish shop or whether the bomb went off in the hallway bringing the building down. Nobody came out of the shop alive so the media story is a lie. Who told the story about the black taxi (given the fact that cooperative taxis have been targets for Loyalists)?

Who initiated that story? Who told the lie, and said that’s the way it happened? That all got lost in the explosion It went, obviously, tragically wrong—it did kill people in the fish shop. Nobody knows if they went in and set it on the counter of the fish shop or not. Nobody came out of

Nobody knows, but before it was clarified that in fact it had obviously gone wrong, the question to answer is who was responsible for the statement of “fact” that went around the media for the best part of fifteen hours clearly stating how the bomb went off and clearly putting into the picture the black taxi drivers who had nothing to do with it? There was no black taxi. Nobody came out of the shop. Nobody went into a black taxi—it didn’t happen.

Who said it did, and what was their motivation in instantly being able (in the e of a major explosion) to tie into that explosion drivers of black taxis and to have it carried on all the major media?

ATC: This August will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of British “troops in.” Those who grew up in the North who are either my age or younger probably would not remember a time when troops did not walk their streets. What does this mean for the future?

BDM: It’s very difficult to say. No one under the age of twenty-five—none of my children—have any recollection of a non-militarist society and that very much colors their thinking. People in that age group (basically the 16 to 26 age group) have in many ways borne the brunt of the militarization. They are the people who get brutalized every day. They are the people whose attitudes are shaped by it. It makes the negotiations of the peace fraught with danger.

There are a number of things which have to be accepted by those young people. They also bear the age range of the prisoners [there are over 700 Republican prisoners serving time right now]—that those in the 16-26 age group are not only the people who carry the brunt of the daily harassment, they are the people who carry the brunt of the prison experience and they are the people who do most of the dying. If the peace negotiations for them do not include the release of the prisoners then there will be no peace. I think that is perfectly clear from them if an amnesty for the prisoners is not included in the peace settlement. They have a very distinct group loyalty.

An indication of this is a group in Coalisland called the Coalisland Republican Youth (which has basically dissipated because many of its people were killed or imprisoned or have emigrated, but the remnants of that group remain). They raised a cry during the Middle East peace negotiations which was, “It may be Yasser in the Middle East, but it is still ‘No Sir!’ here.” They were not particularly interested in peace negotiations.

These young people will not easily be talked into peace at any price. The peace has got to be very real for them. The peace has got to be very tangible for them, and I think the thing that has to be tangible for them has to be the release of the prisoners and the return of exiles. That would go for all of us, but certainly they would have to see it—that the prison has to open and their mates have to come home before the peace can be real.

It also has to have some structure that changes—or holds out the promise of change in the quality of their lives. In some areas we’re dealing with 70% youth unemployment.

So these are difficult times, it’s a very critical period. The peace has to be negotiated—but if the peace negotiations do not relate to them …. They are not in the mood for making concessions. If they are not buying the peace agreement—whatever it is—if the peace agreement is not bought by the generation who were born into the military society, there will be no peace. That’s just a reality. If that generation isn’t buying it—it won’t exist.

Gerry Adams, or I, or John Hume, or anybody else can negotiate to their hearts’ content and say whatever they want to say, but they have to sell it in Coalisland. They have to come down to Tyrone [ie. County Tyrone] and persuade the kids that it’s their peace. They are going to have to sell it on the streets of West Belfast. Therefore it is not at any price—they are a tough generation and they have been shaped by the things that they have seen.

In many ways it’s difficult to see, because you get older and you don’t realize you’re an older generation. It’s their group loyalty, their sensitivity, their sense of caring, their warmth, their humanity to each other which sustains them. Much more than we, they have grown up in it—they grew up in this society and so much more distinctly than we did they draw aline between “us” and “them.” While within that sort of group their solidarity and humanity is beyond question—they would wage such vicious war. They have no fear of God, the bishops, the pope, the policemen, the soldiers—they grew up in a very brutal society.

They frighten me sometimes—the hardness that I have seen even in my own children–at what they would envisage and how they would draw the line to support their own side. It makes you step back when you discuss that with them on a personal basis.

A case in point is the Shankill bombing. The youth of the nationalist areas did not care how it went down in America, they were already putting their defense mechanisms together to prepare themselves for the onslaught of the “atrocity mentality.” They were bracing themselves so that they weren’t going to weaken. They didn’t care who was in there—mommies, dogs, canaries, babies—they weren’t going to be put off their stride. It happened; it went wrong; it was over. They didn’t have time to cry about it. That was their reaction.

You have to combat that, and you have to recognize that it exists—where it comes from—and that it won’t be easy selling the peace to a generation that has come through that.


  1. Joe Doherty was served with an extradition warrant from the British government (pursuant to offenses committed in 1980 and a prison escape made in 1981) and arrested in New York City in June 1983. Despite Doherty’s legal victories, he met with constant interference from the U.S. executive branch, which sought to overturn judicial decisions due to foreign policy considerations. A Supreme Court decision on a small clause of the Immigration Act eventually gave the U.S. Attorney General the power of discretion in the case and in February 1992 Joe Doherty was deported. He is currently imprisoned in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison in the north of Ireland. (The case prompted the signing of the Supplementary Extradition Treaty, which did away with the political exception clause that had protected political offenders.)
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  2. Francis Gildernew, a long-time U.S. resident and native of Co. Tyrone (NI), was arrested in 1991 Attempts were made to deprive him of his permanent residence status. Although he had served prison time in Ireland, Mr. Gildemew did not consider himself a criminal and so did not indicate that he had been imprisoned when he first came to the United States. (The time he did serve was as a Special Category prisoner, which accorded him political prisoner status. The British revoked Special Category status in 1976 in an effort to criminalize the Republican Movement.) He has since won his case and is no longer threatened with deportation.
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  3. The 1993 New Year’s statement put out by the Ulster Defense Association, a Loyalist paramilitary, announced that their fight was no longer simply against Republicans (i.e. Sinn Fein and the IRA), but that they would now be targeting an “alliance” they described as the “pan-nationalist front” that included the SDLP and the Dublin government (in effect, everyone in Ireland except the Unionists). While in some respects this was nothing new, the statement was made as the sectarian murder campaign of the Loyalist death squads was escalating. (Unionist politicians have begun to use the term as well.)
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March/April 1994, ATC 49