In 1969 at the age of 21 Bernadette was elected to Westminster Parliament on the Unity ticket thus beginning her political journey that would bring her from Co. Tyrone to New York, prison and the Battle of the Bogside.
Lelia Doolan presents us with the roller coaster ride that is Bernadette’s political career and does an amazing job. No bells or whistles are present or needed as the strength of her story provides all the drama, intrigue and emotion any film could ever need. The film cuts between interviews recorded with Bernadette and footage of her “speechifing” at different civil rights movements and her time in Parliament and it is the footage of the civil rights movement that gives the film it’s strength and emotional core. She was campaigning for affordable social housing for Catholics which would hopefully lead to an end of Gerrymandering something the Unionist and British establishment were not in favour of as this would equate to Catholic votes in turn letting them into government.
One of the most interesting aspects is her trip to New York to raise money for an emergency fund to help the dispossessed in Northern Ireland and the efforts of the Rev. Ian Pasley and others to discredit her. They portray her as a Marxist and “Castro in a miniskirt” to try and tap into the American fear of Communism. Upon returning home she was arrested and tried for her involvement in the Battle of the Bogside which lands her in Armagh womens jail for six months. It was clear she was being singled out and made an example of to the people of Northern Ireland.
While it is clear that Doolan is a fan of Bernadette she does not shy away from the violence of the north and examines her role in the stoking of the politcal fires and how Bernadette was living in the shadow of a gunman. The questions are answered honestly and she can not say if she would have taken up arms as she tells us that there was always someone else who already had.
Groucho Marx said he would never be part of any club that would have him as a member and this could be true of Bernadette as she refused to join the old boys club of parliament and throughout her political life she has joined, formed and left many organisations. Her most costly involvement with politics was her support of the Smash the H Block Campaign in 1981 which nearly took her life. The UDA’s assassination tempt failing where it had been successfully against three of her colleagues.
The documentary shows how the attempt on her life and the sheer enormity of the death of the ten men on hunger strike took on her life causing her to retreat from the limelight. She was and is a socialist at heart and her closing comments about the state of Northern Ireland at present, the need for a removal of sectarianism and the parties that play so keenly on it are refreshing. She wonders was anything really gained through the struggle or has Britain simply just let us join the club?
Lelia Doolan / 88 min / Documentary / Currently showing in Dublin’s IFI cinema