At the World Community Development Conference in Maynooth, veteran activist Bernadette McAliskey told those gathered that, if we have nothing to say about wealth, funding and the rise of the right, it’s time to go home.

Bernadette McAliskey’s speech drew thunderous applause at the World Community Development Conference in Maynooth, Co Kildare. She opened proceedings on day two and pretty much brought the house down. She seemed to appreciate that her message was well received. She’s seen more in her lifetime than others would in 10 lifetimes, yet when she sat down after delivering her plenary, she had tears in her eyes.

She began by giving her view of history in the north of Ireland/Northern Ireland – she used both terms – then talked about how supporting migrants in Co Tyrone led her into community development. She finished by ripping into the complacency that has beset many working in community development in Ireland.

“So, people ask, ‘What is Bernadette doing now?’ I imagine they say she’s lurking in community development. She’s certainly not up to anything good,” she began.

“So, I ask myself, ‘What am I doing lurking in community development? What are any of us doing if we aren’t systematically working towards real social change?

“Our conference is about participation, power and progress. In community development, we’re getting participation right. We’re doing the engagement.

“Where I’m not so sure we’re getting it right in order to build it along the bottom… In order not to wake the tiger until we are ready, we are forgetting the question of power. It has to be addressed, because the people who have no power are the people we’re working with.

“The response of government is still to repress criticism.

“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Have we forgotten about the hard side of peace-making, which is not always about ending war? Are we becoming pacified by government partnerships? Are we becoming pacified by funding criteria?’

“I remember when you went out and saw something was wrong and gave someone a hand to do something about it.

“Now you look up GrantTracker to see who will pay you to put up a poster or a brick through the government’s window. Whatever about posters, nobody’s funding bricks,” she said.

“When we talk of broadening democracy, we have to challenge the core issues. Number one, we are all told there isn’t enough money in the system. Yes, there is. If there’s not, it’s because our governments won’t take it off the people who have far too much of it and process it to the people who need it.

“Number two: When we talk about participative democracy, unless we’re talking about democratising wealth, we are always going to be lurking in community development.

“There’s another problem we have to face. It’s 50 years since 1968, when there was an outbreak of popular movements of progress, radicalisation and movements of the left. 2018 is seeing the parallel rise of the right and a narrative of division. We are [at the point] where fascism begins.

“We have a president in America whose behaviour we are excusing on the grounds he may be mentally ill, a puppet for someone else, or an idiot. He is nonetheless the president of the USA and he is fuelling the rise of the right and sowing the seeds of fascism.

“We look to the UK to the last throw of the dice to restore a dying empire in a right-wing move out of the EU. Within the EU, we see a fortress-Europe building its walls against people fleeing wars that Europe and America created in those people’s countries,” she said.

Some people muttered and gasped in seeming disagreement at this point, but she wasn’t finished.

“If community development and people working in community development have nothing to say about that, we would need to go home.”

The auditorium erupted, people taking to their feet and applauding wildly.

“Was it something I said?” quipped Bernadette as she sat down, quietly wiping her eyes.

Bernadette McAliskey: A name worth knowing

by Kirsty Tobin

I turn 30 later this year. Born in 1988, the Troubles largely passed me by. My awareness of that period of history starts almost precisely with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It should come as no surprise, then, that I’d never heard of Bernadette McAliskey (née Devlin). When she finally crossed my radar, I was immediately fascinated.

Part civil rights activist, part badass, part thorn in the side of the British government, McAliskey is eminently worth knowing. At 21, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the British parliament. Later that year, she was a leading figure in the Battle of the Bogside. She was convicted of incitement to riot, served a jail term and still got re-elected.

McAliskey was a first-hand witness of the Bloody Sunday atrocities and, when the UK Home Secretary tried to pass the murders off as self-defence, she slapped him across the face. Later, instead of apologising, she said, “I’m only sorry I didn’t get him by the throat”.

As a result of her support for the prisoners of Long Kesh’s H-block, McAliskey was shot 14 times in her home. It didn’t slow her down. She came out swinging, continuing the fight for civil rights north of the border and around the world – a fight she continues to this day.

Learn the name. Learn the history. Learn as much as you can.