Bernadette Devlin’s maiden speech to parliament (1969)




In April 1969 Belfast civil rights campaigner Bernadette Devlin was elected to the British House of Commons, representing the seat of Mid-Ulster. At 21 Devlin was the youngest member of the Commons and the youngest woman ever elected to Parliament. Devlin’s maiden speech to Parliament was bold and fiery, taking aim at Unionists, the Conservative government and those calling for British troops in Ulster:



“I remind the honourable Member for Londonderry (James Chichester-Clark) that I too was in the Bogside area on the night that he was there. As the honourable gentleman rightly said, there never was born an Englishman who understands the Irish people. A man who is alien to the ordinary working Irish people cannot understand them, and I therefore respectfully suggest that the honourable 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…

We came to the situation in Derry when the people had had enough. Since October 5th, it has been the unashamed and deliberate policy of the Unionist Government to try to force an image of 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 say 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 283 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 a Catholic uprising – just as it is in the interest of the honourable Member for Londonderry to come up with all this tripe about the IRA…

The Unionist policy has always been to divide the people who are dependent upon them. The question of voting is tied up mainly with the question of housing, and this is something which the House has failed to understand. The people of Northern Ireland want votes not for the sake of voting but for the sake of being able to exercise democratic rights over the controlling powers of their own areas. The present system operates in such a way that Unionist-controlled councils and even Nationalist-controlled councils discriminate against those in their areas who are in the minority…

There is no denying that the problem and the reason for this situation in Northern Ireland is social and economic, because the people of Northern Ireland are being oppressed not only by a Tory Government, a misruling Tory Government and an absolutely corrupt, bigoted and self interested Tory Government, but by a Tory Government of whom even the Tories in this House ought to be ashamed and from which they should dissociate themselves.

I should like in conclusion to take a brief look at the future. This is where the question of British troops arises. The question before this House – in view of the apathy, neglect and lack of understanding which this House has shown to these people in Ulster – is how in the shortest space it can make up for 50 years of neglect, apathy and lack of understanding. Short of producing miracles, such as factories overnight in Derry and homes overnight in practically every area, what can we do?

If British troops are sent in I should not like to be either the mother or sister of an unfortunate soldier stationed there. The honourable member… may talk ’till Domesday about “our boys in khaki”, but it has to be recognised that the one point in common among Ulstermen is that they are not very fond of Englishmen who tell them what to do.”

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