British understanding of Northern Ireland generally comes in the form of a set of isolated tropes, often to do with terrorism and bloody atavistic conflict. Brexit has arguably increased awareness of the region somewhat, bringing discussions of the Irish border and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to the fore, and the 2017 election result introduced the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to a British public hitherto largely ignorant of their existence. But there remains a striking lack of historical or political context when these matters are discussed, little to no awareness shown of Britain’s colonial history in Ireland, its relationship to the forces of unionism and loyalism, and to which various shades of Irish nationalism and republicanism formed as a response.
The border, now frequently referred to in news items about Brexit negotiations, trade agreements and the backstop, is nearly one hundred years old. It was the result of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, itself the result of a two year guerilla war of independence against British forces by Irish republicans. This border, encircling six of the nine counties of Ulster, created the gerrymandered statelet of Northern Ireland (the remaining three counties, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, were excluded due to their Catholic majority). The discrimination embedded within it gave rise to the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s. All this is where the conflict now euphemistically known as “the Troubles” has its roots. The border has never been uncontested.
Bernadette Devlin is one of the few figures from Northern Ireland to have achieved notoriety in Britain. She is an anti-establishment icon and images of her are frequently shared on social media as emblems of this status: sat on a stage, fist raised in solidarity, a sneering look of defiance on her face, perched on a fence in mini-skirt and boots, clutching an election poster during the campaign that sent her to Westminster as an MP in August 1969. In archive interview footage she is fiercely articulate and often furious. In 1972 she famously slapped the home secretary Reginald Maudlin in the House of Commons when he stated that the paratroopers had acted in self-defence on Bloody Sunday; interviewed afterwards, she refused to apologise, saying instead “I’m just sorry I didn’t get him by the throat”.
There is something of this crisp, uncompromising tone throughout Devlin’s memoir The Price of My Soul, which is also celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. If you can get hold of a copy (it’s sadly out of print) it’s an insightful and entertaining primer on Ireland’s pre-1969 history and the civil rights movement, as well as an engaging account of her background. Anniversaries offer an opportunity to reappraise the historical moments they commemorate, and this book, written soon after her election to parliament, describes a very specific period in Irish history that can sometimes be forgotten. Devlin’s detailed accounts of notorious Civil Rights marches underscore the role of loyalist violence in the Troubles’ beginnings and describe the repeated brutal attacks that these peaceful demonstrations were subject to, with “Paisleyites” attacking protestors at various points on their routes and the RUC at best standing by and at worst taking part. (This violent anti-Catholic street movement of course gave birth to the DUP) The book was written at the very beginning of the Troubles, after British troops had been deployed to the six counties but before the worst atrocities of the conflict had occurred. As such it could be said to have a certain innocence, but there is something fresh and immediate in her writing, with a kind of dynamism and a sense of things still being to play for which is, in terms of political activism, instructive.
Devlin was aware of her own currency as an icon from very early on. Her stated aim in the foreword to the book is to explain “how the complex economic, social, and political problems of Northern Ireland threw up the phenomenon of Bernadette Devlin.” She shows an awareness throughout her memoir of the public persona that’s been constructed for her, as she describes her dealings with Westminster and the media, and we get something of an insight into how she is marketed, through the front and back covers of the 1972 paperback edition of the book, which bear the traces of sensationalism and a kind of patronising sexism. “The fighting Irish girl MP tells her personal story” it says on the front, with the blurb on the back promising both the stories “of ‘the real flesh-and-blood Bernadette” and of “the rage behind the Ulster riots.”
The first half of the book is an account of her upbringing in Cookstown, County Tyrone, one of six children. The family home was the site of critical political awakenings, and the the dynamics of class and inequality in the town made themselves plain in her early life. Devlin describes the political education she got through her parents and her schooling, and in these parts of the book there are references to her father’s possible involvement in the IRA’s border campaign of the 1950s and the republican songs and speeches she was raised singing and reciting. Tyrone is a predominantly Catholic county, but Cookstown a more mixed area and she describes sectarian tension in the town; a protestant neighbour, for example, shouts “Fenian scum!” at her on the street during her election campaign. But she pointedly resists sectarian understandings of her community, and emphasises throughout the kindnesses and solidarity she received from Protestant neighbours. The home is crucial in these early chapters; it is a place of work, of negotiation, of discussion, and often chaos, all of which played its part in creating “the phenomenon of Bernadette Devlin”.
Devlin’s perspective has always complicated a political situation most often read in terms of binaries – Catholic/Protestant, nationalist/unionist, republican/loyalist. Throughout her political life she has expressed support for republican causes such as the 1981 hunger strikes, but she has never been straightforwardly aligned with the Irish republican movement, prioritising socialist analyses of the situation in Ireland and remaining critical of the IRA and Sinn Fein. In her memoir, she makes it clear that her interest is in class and that, for her, Irish reunification alone is not the solution: “There are no free counties, anywhere in Ireland. The Irish had replaced the British in twenty-six of the counties, but they had done nothing to change the system.” She is critical of the mainstream civil rights movement of the time for prioritising “the Catholic-rights line” which, as she saw it, led to a situation in which “you had Catholic slum landlords marching virtuously beside the tenants they exploited.” These revolutionary ideals were reflected in People’s Democracy, the student organisation she helped to found at Queen’s University Belfast in 1968, along with other activists such as Michael Farrell and Eammon McCann. While PD shared the broad aims of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association it was working for the establishment of an all-Ireland socialist republic and had a far more redistributive agenda than NICRA.
There are no singular heroes in her version of Irish history and her writing is often deliciously iconoclastic (this is typical of her style as an orator, and anyone who’s ever heard her speak will know that she’s almost as funny as she is inspirational). She gives us a few pages of breezy explanation of the 800 years of struggle that led to the situation as it was in Ireland in 1969 and interprets the conflict between Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins partly as a petty squabble between two male egos. She makes constant self-deprecating digs at herself, recounting the moment of her election by stating unceremoniously that “by a majority of 4,211 muggins got elected and dumped into Parliament.” The contemporary relevance of The Price of My Soul lies partly in the detail with which Devlin describes the political movement of which she was a part. She writes of notorious historical events with a kind of specificity that leaves little space for grand heroic narratives. She is interested in the minutiae of political organisation, not only meetings, votes and negotiations with government ministers, but also the domestic and emotional labour that went on behind the scenes: how activists were clothed and fed and who performed this care. This, for her, is politics.