What happened to Berndatte Devlin McAliskey? Once famous for being at the forefront of the Battle of the Bogside during the Troubles, the former MPs profile diminished post the Smash H Block Campaign. Lelia Doolan's documentary is here to remind us what a force she was, and what a force she could be still be.
She was called anything from the grandiose 'Irish Joan Of Arc' to the dismissive 'Castro In A Miniskirt', Bernadette Devlin was indeed a firebrand. At the tender age of twenty-one, the County Tyrone politician became the youngest MP where she refused to "join the club." When the Secretary Of State for the Home Department suggested that the Paras shot the Bloody Sunday protestors in self-defence, she crossed the House of Commons and slapped him in the face. She was banned from parliament. She was imprisoned. She was shot. Devlin McAliskey is a woman who thought "contrariness is an impeccable credential." You'll not see a more fascinating person in a documentary this year.
The title, using her first name only, suggests an intimate portrait of the fiery politician and although there is a strong element of familiarity with Devlin as the end credits role, it isn't as intimate as director Doolan would hope. The documentary does peek into her childhood family life, what growing up in Northern Ireland as a Catholic was like and how Devlin came about to be the outspoken 'agitator' in the days before feminism took hold, but it's all Bernadette The Politician but little about Bernadette The Person, the wife, the mother.
Doolan conducted a series of interviews from 2002 – 2011 and these talking head shots from the backbone of the documentary. Knowing that watching her subject sit in a chair in her house isn't the most interesting visually, Doolan pulls off a masterstroke and dots the running time with some outstanding footage, some of it rarely if ever seen, of the Troubles. It's chilling, fascinating stuff and kudos to the research team for dredging these up.
But Bernadette is a love-in. Doolan just rolls the camera and lets Devlin talk, allowing her room to voice her own opinion. She isn't pressed on any subject – lots of time is given over to the civil rights Catholics were denied, but her thoughts on the IRA are never addressed. The documentary is light on years 1981-1996, when Devlin faded from view, but makes a comeback towards the close where she in no uncertain terms lets her feelings known on the Peace Process.