Bernadette McAliskey (Pic: Guy Smallman)
Civil rights campaigner Bernadette McAliskey from Northern Ireland
spoke at last weekend’s Marxism 2006 event in London. Here is an edited
The 30 years of armed struggle and mass resistance against British rule in
Ireland began with the struggle for civil rights. The struggle was about fighting
against second class citizenship.
For people today it is perhaps incredible that Britain, which is terrorising
Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of democracy, did not have equality in voting
as late as 1968.
In order to be able to vote in Northern Ireland you had to be a property owner.
So landlords owned not just property but the democratic process as well.
Northern Ireland was constructed on massive discrimination. Discrimination
is not just about blatant prejudice, it has a rationale that argues that people
are disloyal. It was assumed that Catholics were disloyal.
We are seeing this process repeated. Under the war on terror it is assumed
that Muslims are disloyal. Because someone is Muslim we are told they cannot
really be truly British. To prove that you are not disloyal you have to overtly
express support for the most right wing activities of the state. Only then can
you be considered truly a proper citizen.
This was the position Catholics had reached by the 1960s. The Unionists opposed
the post-war reforms, such as the welfare state. They showed foresight in doing
this. The poor got healthier and educated. At first the Nationalist community
had an element of gratitude about the reforms.
It is similar with immigration. People coming into Britain are expected to
have a perception that they they owe this country something. People are encouraged
to come here so their labour can be exploited, but they are supposed to feel
In Ireland some people had a certain gratitude but they hit the glass ceiling.
The next generation came along and argued that it was our right to have a decent
standard of living and democracy.
The reformists had exhausted all the peaceful means of change. There was nowhere
to go but the streets. All movements seem to start with a reformist saying,
“Come to the streets and follow me.” They think the street is an
extension of the places where they hold authority.
They don’t realise that when you are on the street a qualitative change
takes place. You have space away from the physical constraints that remind you
of your place in society. People look around and think that on the streets we
are all equal.
Next, the police arrive. The police are great levellers. The reformists say
to the police officer, “We are law abiding...” They never get to
finish the sentence. The reformists then spend all their time trying to get
us off the streets.
When the police charge at you, whether you’re Irish or miners or whoever,
two things happen. The reformists get scared and the young people, in particular,
We were looking for very small things. We had no one to vote for, but we wanted
the right to vote, to jobs and for somewhere to live.
The state used violence. The mass movement became reactive to what the state
was doing. They threw stones at us we threw stones back. The state repressed
the rights of the people.
The police have killed a man getting on a tube. They have kicked in the door
of two Muslim brothers and shot one of them - for nothing.
British police have been doing that and worse in Ireland for 30 years. They
will do it here if we do not stop them. This is a consequence of a system that
does not allow Muslims to be “really” British.
People are slowly being asked to pick their side. To be British you have to
be uncritical of the government because the government is fighting terror. That
is the important lesson of what happened in Ireland. There is a new left, but
there is still some life in the old left.