Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey


Directed by Lelia Doolan Club, IFI, Dublin, 88 min

This stirring documentary highlights an iconic figure from the Troubles, writes DONALD CLARKE

THE YEARS creak by on arthritic joints. Pop stars begin dying of old age. The mini-revolutions of the 1960s – once unimaginably current – get kicked back into the miasma of modern history.

Here’s Bernadette Devlin McAliskey: angular accent, acerbic asides and unreconstructed radicalism all still stubbornly in place. Had Lelia Doolan unleashed this gripping documentary 10 years ago, the pocket firebrand would still (just about) have come across as a figure from current affairs. Now, like Germaine Greer, Tariq Ali and Angela Davis, McAliskey has become the sort of creature who requires a walking series of explanatory footnotes. More than a few viewers will need to be told who the woman is.

Born in 1947, educated (for a while) at Queen’s University Belfast, young Devlin became a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. In 1969 she was elected to Westminster for the loosely structured, but broadly nationalist, Unity movement.

At that stage the youngest MP in the House, Bernadette went on to cause a great deal of trouble for a great many smug patricians. She delivered a stinging, quotable maiden speech. She was jailed for allegedly participating in the Battle of the Bogside. Infuriated by the authorities’ refusal to acknowledge the true facts of Bloody Sunday, she took a swing at thirsty Reginald Maudling, the terminally disconnected British Home Secretary.

It’s hard to overstate the impact McAliskey had on contemporaneous Northern Irish society. In one way (and not just one way) she found herself metaphorically manacled to archenemy Ian Paisley. Both made an uncomfortable amount of noise in a statelet that, to this point, had pottered along in quiet, blinkered complacency.

Those of us ancient enough to remember McAliskey’s appearance will recall that the most conspicuous objections from middle-class suburbia did not concern her feminism, republicanism or socialism. The main supposed problem was her “stridency”. There really was no need for all that shouting.

Carried out over a 10-year period, the interviews in Doolan’s film do not exactly suggest that Bernadette has mellowed. When remembering injustice, she can still work up an impressive stream of spiky invective. But she has developed – or, perhaps, maintained – an admirable taste for wry self-deprecation. Possessed of that characteristic paint-stripping Ulster wit, she misses no chance to make clenched jokes at her own expense. Remembering the disturbances in Derry, McAliskey remarks: “I was smoking 30 cigarettes a day at the time, so tear gas meant nothing to me.”

Doolan, a stalwart of Irish film and theatre, does not quite deliver a hagiography, but the picture is certainly very much on its subject’s side. You will, for example, search in vain for any rigorous questioning of her support for the IRA. Doolan allows McAliskey to follow her own map through history.

Nevertheless, this remains a stirring story told in an endlessly compelling (if not exactly melodious) voice. It is particularly arresting to discover the subject – a socialist first, it seems – campaigning in Protestant areas at a time when sectarian divisions were becoming ever more impenetrable. Every twist and turn is illustrated with similarly compelling slices of footage. The patronising media quips about “Castro in a miniskirt” are particularly delicious.

At the risk of generating hate mail from a cadre that makes militant Republicans seem positively docile, this writer cannot, however, resist offering one petty criticism of Doolan’s film. Could we please get through at least one documentary on the street-fighting years without having to hear the infuriatingly ubiquitous warblings of Leonard Cohen? He’s fine. But enough already.