Left for Dead by An Execution Squad, Bernadette Devlin Rebounds as a Political Force in Ulster

updated 04/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/27/1981 01:00AM

She knew that if she ran, other Catholics would enter the race for the House of Commons too, scraping away at the religious-bloc vote as if scaling a fish. So Bernadette Devlin withdrew from the April 9 by-election in Ulster and invited others to do the same. The idea was to unite behind a candidate named Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner on a hunger strike in the notorious H-Blocks of Maze Prison. The election in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency could be won by a Catholic whose vote was not split—and, indeed, when the result was announced in Enniskillen, Sands was the victor by 1,446 votes over the Ulster Unionist candidate.

That achieved, Bernadette Devlin told herself, I will be back. Sands was the hero of the election, but he was in prison and could not serve in Westminster. There would be, she told herself, another election. And this time the others should stay out of it: She had been the first to show a willingness to be loyal and sacrifice. Now, she said, the others should wait their turn and allow her to run alone and win. It was the thinking of a politician.

At 34, Bernadette Devlin wants a second chance. She has a second life, having survived near death in a January assassination attempt. It is long ago (a dozen years) since she hurled words into the rain and mist of the small, grim towns of Northern Ireland, and the people who heard her sent her to the British Parliament. The voice that led street riots soon caused a hush in the world's oldest government chamber. Those moments of great excitement lasted five years. By the time she returned home to Ulster she had scandalized both friends and enemies by giving birth to an illegitimate daughter, Roisin, now 9. Ultimately she married a schoolteacher (now a dog trainer) named Michael McAliskey and had two children, Deirdre, 5, and Fintan, 2. Since then Bernadette has become very old, with entirely too much responsibility for a ghetto hero.

"The kids are growing up on you," she was told the other day.

"Aye."

"Pretty soon they'll be old enough to campaign for you."

"Or me for them."

"You'll keep going that long?" she was asked.

"Keep going forever."

"Why?"

"Better than quitting."

She was sitting in the kitchen of a neighbor's house in Coalisland, an ugly town of abandoned textile factories and sand quarries. Half the people are unemployed. Political graffiti covers most walls and even the pavements: BRITS OUT, IRA O.K. Bernadette's right leg was in a cast. Aluminum crutches rested against the kitchen table. Young Fintan squalled in another room. Soon it would be time to put him to bed in the house of another neighbor, and Fintan was resisting already. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and her husband live in one neighbor's house in Coalisland and the children in another, because the children refuse to enter their own home, which sits empty, bullet holes in the walls.

At 8 a.m. last January 16 the McAliskeys were in bed in their cottage with Fintan between them. Bernadette had brought him to her bed earlier to keep him quiet. The other two children were asleep.

There was a noise at the kitchen door. Then a hammering, and three gunmen broke through. One of them shot Michael in the head and he fell on the kitchen floor. In the bedroom, Bernadette tried to think. She didn't want to pick up the 2-year-old because she was sure the gunmen would blow both of them away. Maybe I should throw the covers over him, she thought. Then she was shot in the back and fell to the floor. The gunman leaned over and fired six more bullets into her body.

"I called out and Michael didn't answer, so I thought he was dead," says Bernadette. "I did a mental runabout to see if I was shot where it would kill me. If I found the worst spot, then I could concentrate on it and stay alive for the children. I found I was having trouble breathing. So I concentrated on breathing to stay alive. I kind of shifted myself over to the bed and pulled the baby down, with the cover. I wrapped the cover over the two of us and just stayed on the floor and made sure I could breathe."

As the gunmen left the house, they were grabbed by British paratroopers. One of the soldiers came into the kitchen. Bernadette heard her husband say they needed an ambulance. That was the first time she knew he was alive. For more than half an hour, she says, the soldiers stayed outside while she and her husband bled. Finally another detail of paratroopers arrived and took the McAliskeys by helicopter to a hospital in Belfast.

"The soldiers were there to make sure that the gunmen got into my house and that they were caught on the way out," declares Bernadette. "The gunmen were set up and so were we." As she sees it, the paratroopers, who rarely patrol the remote district (their barracks are 40 miles away), hoped she would be killed, yet would have gotten glory for seizing the culprits.

At the hospital they found 14 bullet holes in her. One slug had missed the heart by a tiny margin. One had punctured the lung. Another had broken the leg. Her husband had 13 holes in him. When Bernadette looked at her body, she groaned: "I've been run over by a sewing machine."

Six weeks later she emerged from the hospital on crutches, hardened in her belief in a unified Ireland and determined to achieve political prisoner status (which would give clout to their cause)for the H-Block men. Shortly thereafter, Bernadette announced her candidacy and then dropped it to support Sands, the 27-year-old terrorist who is the IRA's commanding officer in the prison. He has spent eight years in jail for IRA activities, and is currently serving a 14-year sentence for carrying guns.

Sands began his hunger strike on March 1. He has lost 28 pounds and now suffers dizzy spells and has slurred speech. If he persists in his fast, he is expected to survive only 20 to 30 days. The British government maintained an uneasy death watch last week, for Easter is always an explosive time in Ulster as Catholics commemorate the 1916 Uprising that led to independence for Irishmen to the South.

Sands could call off his hunger strike. But he can never sit in the Commons. His death, however, would result in another by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey won't have 100 percent support from Catholics even then. "So many people are shot around here that sympathy lasts only about one week," explains a hotel receptionist in Dungannon. And in the constituency there are Catholics who will not forgive or forget Bernadette's illegitimate child. But no matter. When the time comes, Bernadette will be out in the streets, her clear, thrilling voice speaking to the powerless. "Better than quitting," she says.

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