18 April 2006

Bernadette Devlin's maiden speech

Poverty and Inequalities in Great Britain

The Condition of the Roman Catholic Minority in Northern Ireland : Bernadette Devlin's Maiden Speech in the House of Commons (22/04/69).

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Miss Bernadette Devlin (Mid-Ulster)(1) 4.37 p.m.


I understand that in making my maiden speech on the day my arrival in Parliament and in making it on a controversial issue I flaunt the unwritten traditions of the house, but I think that the situation of my people merits the flaunting of such traditions.

I remind the Hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester Clark) that I, too, was in the Bogside area on the night that he was there. As the Hon. Gentleman rightly said, there never was born an Englishman who understands the Irish people. Thus a man who is alien to the ordinary working Irish people cannot understand them, and I therefore respectfully suggest that the Hon. Gentleman has no understanding of my people, because Catholics and Protestants are the ordinary people, the oppressed people from whom I come and whom I represent. I stand here as the youngest woman in Parliament in the same tradition as the first woman ever to be elected to this Parliament, Constance Markievicz, who was elected on behalf of the Irish people.

This debate comes much too late for the people of Ireland, since it concerns itself particularly with the action in Derry last weekend. I will do my best to dwell on the action in Derry last weekend. However, it is impossible to consider the activity of one weekend in a city such as Derry without considering the reasons why these things happen.

The Hon. Member for Londonderry said that he stood in Bogside. I wonder whether he could name the streets through which he walked in the Bogside so that we might establish just how well acquainted he became with the area. I had never hoped to see the day when I might agree with someone who represents the bigoted and sectarian Unionist Party, which uses a deliberate policy of dividing the people in order to keep the ruling minority in power and to keep the oppressed people of Ulster oppressed. I never thought I could see the day when I should agree with any phrase uttered by the representative of such a party, but the Hon. Gentleman summed up the situation "to a t.". He referred to stark, human misery. That is what I saw in Bogside. It has been there for fifty years - and that same stark human misery is to be found in the Protestant Fountain area, which the Hon. Gentleman would claim to represent.

These are the people the hon. Gentleman would claim do want to join society. Because they are equally poverty-stricken they are equally excluded from the society which the Unionist Party represents a the society of landlords who, by ancient charter of Charles II, still hold the right of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland over such things as fishing and as paying the most ridiculous and exorbitant rents, although families have lived for generations on their land. But this is the ruling minority of landlords who, for generations, have claimed to represent one section of the people and, in order to maintain their claim, divide the people into two sections and stand up in this House to say that there are those who do not wish to join society.

The people in my country who do not wish to join the society which is represented by the hon. Member for Londonderry are by far the majority. There is no place in society for us, the ordinary "peasants" of Northern Ireland. There is no place for us in the society of landlords because we are the "have nots" and they are the "haves".

We came to the situation in Derry when the people had had enough. Since 5th October, it has been the unashamed and deliberate policy of the Unionist Government to try to force an image on the civil rights movement that it was nothing more than a Catholic uprising. The people in the movement have struggled desperately to overcome that image, but it is impossible when the ruling minority are the Government and control not only political matters but the so-called impartial forces of law and order. It is impossible then for us to state quite fairly where we stand.

How can we way that we are a non-sectarian movement and are for the rights of both Catholics and Protestants when, clearly, we are beaten into the Catholic areas? Never have we been beaten into the Protestant areas. When the students marched from Belfast to Derry, there was a predominant number of Protestants. The number of non-Catholics was greater than the number of Catholics. Nevertheless, we were still beaten into the Catholic area because it was in the interests of the minority and the Unionist Party to establish that we were nothing more than the Catholic uprising...

(806 words)

1. Bernadette DEVLIN, Proceeding of the House of Commons, 22 April 1969. London, Hansard, p. 282-283.

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