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Dublin Report Devlin’s politics, personality will be sorely missed

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

The shadows of the past will always cloud the future of Northern Ireland. After the recent confrontation between the RUC and sit-down protesters in Derry, where more than 10,000 Apprentice Boys paraded through the city center, no less of a veteran than Bernadette Devlin McAlliskey uttered the following: "There never will be equality for nationalists under British rule. The RUC, like the six-county state, is irreformable and must go."

Regular observers of the Troubles will immediately make the connection between that phrase and the description of the North by Charles Haughey, former taoiseach, who declared, quite simply, that the North was ungovernable. The phrase was widely and frequently quoted. There are many that believe that it is absolutely and demonstrably true.

The RUC overreacted in Derry. Innocent people, trapped by the crowd of protesters, were batoned and injured.

Still, organizers intent on inciting major trouble orchestrated the demonstration. Petrol bombs are not conjured up within hours. They are prepared well in advance. They are also hurled by young people who are well tutored in such dangerous techniques.

The fact that it was organized in such a fashion in Derry coupled with the observation by many reporters that many of the organizers had been identified as "IRA dissidents," proves beyond question that there is serious opposition within the ranks of the IRA to the continuation of the peace process.

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Violence in the streets can easily escalate into a resumption of the shooting war. There are obviously some republicans who wish to trigger such a development. These are dangerous times indeed.

Paddy Devlin. who died last week at 74 after a long illness, would have understood it all perfectly well. Devlin understood a lot more about the North than most people. In fact, it was he who warned in 1966, long before violence had even begun, that all hell would break out within a short time. Never was a man so right.

I met him first in 1966. We were introduced by Paddy Reynolds, then Northern editor of the Irish Press Group of newspapers, a reporter who matched him in his objective astuteness and one of the very best practitioners of the inky trade.

After some uproarious social discourse in the old Hibernian Club, I gave Devlin a lift back to his home in North Belfast. He had already made it clear that he wanted certain information concerning reporters and editors who worked on the national newspapers in Dublin.

He explained that he wanted the information because it was clear to him that Northern Ireland was heading for major turmoil. And he also confessed that, as a councilor, he had been approached by various people who were interested in pushing the Irish government into paying greater attention to Northern issues.

By the same token, they were intent on convincing journalists in the South that the region deserved more and better coverage than it was getting.

Naturally, not just because I agreed with him, I gave him all of the information that I could.

Not long afterward, the North did indeed explode. By then, Devlin, Gerry Fitt, John Hume, Ivan Cooper and some other leading Northern nationalists had formed the Social Democratic Labor Party.

And though the party had its serious internal differences, the SDLP stuck together, more through necessity than agreement.

Devlin, along with Fitt, was a socialist according to the best definition of the oft-abused term. A republican in his earlier years and one who was interned as a member of the IRA for three years during World War II, he grew to despise sectarianism.

This was also despite the fact that he had been driven from his home off the Falls Road as a boy as the result of a periodic attempt at genetic cleansing by Protestant bigots.

Like Fitt, he gradually came to consider that the party he had helped to create had become too "nationalist" in its attitudes. Like most other socialists, he took the view that nationalism had been responsible for most of the world’s wars and for the divisions between peoples, internally and externally.

His attitude was that it was the people who mattered, not territory, emblems or religious convictions. In that respect, as in most others, he was always a Christian in fact, if not by rite.

Like Fitt, he left the SDLP in protest against its excessive nationalism, as he defined it.

By then, of course, the power-sharing executive had collapsed under the impact of the loyalist worker’s strike, assiduously assisted by the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party.

By his own choice, more than anything else, Devlin was yesterday’s man. He made few public utterances but continued to pursue his very active trade union interests, regularly visiting Liberty Hall, the union headquarters in Dublin.

He also continued to write copiously especially after the release of his autobiography, the story of his Belfast childhood, colorfully titled "Yes, We Have No Bananas." He wrote a play, "Strike," and an award-winning book, "Straight Left."

He was always courageous enough to voice views that were not always popular within his community. He was, for example, in favor of the Peace Train initiative against IRA violence. And, perhaps surprisingly, he was against the MacBride Principles of fair employment.

He was a man who thought that politics could indeed work in Northern Ireland, one who did not necessarily agree with either Devlin McAlliskey or Haughey.

Faced with the current impasse concerning decommissioning and obvious differences emerging even within the Unionist Party, there are many who will argue that he was wrong in thinking as he did.

While that remains to be seen, there is no doubt that the late Paddy Devlin will be regarded by future historians as one of the shining lights of a unique brand of Northern socialism that is now virtually vanished. It will be missed. And so will he.

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