History Journalism Politics Television

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey Versus William F. Buckley Jr

I thought some of my fellow political anoraks might be interested in this appearance by a young Bernadette Devlin McAliskey on Firing Line, the long-running American current affairs show hosted from the mid 1960s to the late ’90s by the conservative journalist and author William F. Buckley Jr. This episode was recorded in March 1972 at a television studio in London, just weeks after the British Army carried out a murderous attack on a civil rights demonstration in the city of Derry, and is notable for the challenging answers and questions given by the then twenty-five year old working-class Tyrone woman to the condescending interview conducted by the affluent upper-class New Yorker.

Of course, throughout his career the well-travelled Buckley remained the very embodiment of that caste of Anglophile intellectual in the United States who preferred to view the Irish through partisan British eyes. A view aptly reflected in the explicitly racist contributions offered by another guest on the show, the future Conservative Party politician Roger Evans, as he attempted to ingratiate himself with the American host while insulting McAliskey – and the inferior non-Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Ireland in general. While the latter spectacle is likely to make your skin crawl the ethno-classist nature of it does chime in well with Buckley’s own WASP patrician act, not to mention the ignorant heckles also thrown at McAliskey by the British newsman Peter Riddell*.

Enjoy!

*Note: Riddell at least had the wit and the humanity to become slightly more nuanced in his formerly toxic views on the Irish-British conflict, writing in 2003:

If we English were to face the cost of the `colonial past’ in terms of lost and disrupted lives and livelihoods, we would be impelled to ask the forgiveness of those who have suffered, and seek ways of serving them. It would be both an appropriate response to our past and an inspiring way forward, laying a basis for partnership with some who presently consider us their enemy.

We should also ask ourselves whether we retain any attitudes that in previous times gave rise to brutal actions. Not so long ago I found myself arguing to an Irishman that over the centuries England had no choice but to occupy Ireland to ensure its own security. `What about the security of the Irish?’ was all he had to ask to make me shocked at my Anglo-centric view-point!

And what of our relationship with those who were instruments of our domination, the Protestants in Northern Ireland? It was convenient for us that three hundred years ago they were willing to settle in Ireland; now it seems that our convenience dictates that they abandon their British identity and privileged status.

16 comments on “Bernadette Devlin McAliskey Versus William F. Buckley Jr

  1. I will take a look tonight.
    It is odd how I havent really thought of Buckley in years.
    Re Riddell, I probably had not heard of him before 2000 and “satelliite news” as he always seemed to be one of the regular journalists who did “Press Previews” on Sky or interviewed on BBC/ITN.
    Journalists love interviewing each other.
    Buckley had a habit of having someone judge his debate (Riddell?) and obviously the judge would side with the host.
    The one example (reputedly) where the judge called the debate for the opponent was Buckley versus Robert Vaughan (the Man from Uncle was a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War and a liberal Democrat).

    I always tend to think of Buckley in the same way I think of P J O’Rourke…another anglophile with an Irish name. In the internet age he is not much seen.
    Some think of O’Rourke as a libertarian or even just a contrarian or a previously liberal journo who turned Gonzo conservative.
    I heard Bernadette speak a few times in the late 1960s.
    There was a strange period 1968 via 1969 to phoney war 1970 to real war 1971, fall of Stormont 1972, Sunningdale 1973.
    My perception is that there was a lot of jostling for position…..the SDLP faction obviously, Eamonn McCann, Michael Farrell, Bernadette and the REpublican Clubbs faction, nationalist faction, the Provo (later Sinn Féin faction)
    Names like Eddie McAteer, Rory McShane, Kevin Agnew, the McCloskeys, Betty Sinclair, Billy McMillan, Seamus Loughran, Canon Padraig Murphy, Paddy Kennedy who we were never totally sure how much power and influence they had and how many they spoke for.
    The 1973 Election maybe cleared the decks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The 2015 documentary Best of Enemies features some great clashes between Buckley and Gore Vidal. I’ll paste a link below that might work for you.

      McAliskey certainly gave as good as she got in the show. To my mind she was the winner. The odious Tory the clear loser. And Buckley just seemed bemused by the whole thing. The racialist subtext, or classist sentiment in Buckley’s case, was very obvious. And still evident in IRL-UK relations as we saw in Brexit. Anti-Irishness is Britishness.

      The arguments put across, the economic ones, are still relevant. McAliskey deserved more than to be a footnote in history. Today we would see her as a potential party leader and she would be lauded for her background and gender. Back then both weighed the odds fully against her. Though of course she wasn’t the only one.

      http://vexmovies.org/best-of-enemies

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes she is regarded as something of a footnote. There was of course a curiousity about her in the late 1960s.
        But……..bearing in mind that I was just 17 in 1969 and listening in to older peoples conversations….I think attitudes to her did change.
        The 1968 Bernadette was a hero.
        Even 1969 the Battle of the Bogside and getting elected as MP .
        But even as elected again in 1970, I think she was being left behind as others were jockeying for position..eg SDLP, Republican Clubs, IRA
        The prison term obviously marginalised her.
        And so did her pregnancy.
        “Catholic” Norn Iron in early 1971 was very different from “post Catholic” Norn Iron of 2021.
        Certainly it gave ammunition for unionists to hurl abuse as the hero was no Joan of Arc. And even in West Belfast, she became an embarrassment.
        The “joke” being “is it a Baby Austin or a Mini Cooper”.
        Obviously what I am saying here is not based on academic analysis. It is just as I recall it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Diarmuid Breatnach

          I think referring to her as “a footnote” is wrong or at least misleading for a number of reasons.

          The IRSP was problematic for Devlin so she was left without a party but still had a strong voice and she and her husband incredibly survived a Loyalist assassination attempt with British Army collusion, though severely injured.

          The Provos took centre stage on the non-‘constitutional’ side and she would not side with the SDLP.

          However she came out strongly against the Good Friday Agreement and was pulling a lot of support around her. Then the British held her daughter Roisin as hostage for her pulling back from that, which she did and confined her activity by and large to migrant support and anti-racism work.

          I think that is why she is where she is today and without the degree of influence she could have had.

          Liked by 1 person

          • She should have been much more influential but she was marginalised and maybe marginalised herself by attaching herself to the more fanatical so called republicans.

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            • Diarmuid Breatnach

              That comment is even less fair or realistic. She is a Socialist and a Republican — if she was going to join any party, where else was likely? The IRSP came out of a socialist wing of the official Republican party, Sinn Féin, after the departure of those who formed the Provisionals. And she had a chance to be there almost at the beginning.

              Unfortunately things didn’t turn out as she could live with in the IRSP re the INLA and later it got even worse. It is not an issue of fanaticism but an attempt that has failed a number of times in Irish history: to form a mass movement that was Socialist while being also anti-colonial Republican.

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  2. I was watching this on YouTube the other day the two women came across well. The English woman later went on to become Labour leader in the House of Lords.
    Bernadette’s book the Price of my soul was one of best reads of my life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If you want to understand this particular breed of “anglophile” in US society know that they operated on one core principle: They were ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS Cold Warrior first and foremost. Everything else was being made to fit into that.

    The reason they supported Britain in things including but not limited to N. Ireland was not some starry eyed love for Elizabeth II or crumpets and tea. It was the belief that British Intelligence (M16) was vastly superior to that of any other country on the planet and was likely to remain so for any foreseable future. The British were seen as simply possessing a sophistication that Americans could never hope to copy. The assumption ran that even if every last drop of resources expended to keep up with the USSR was 100% redirected and then some to beefing up US intelligence, that there would be little chance of US intelligence being 10% as good as M16 in 100 years of such efforts.

    This view started with the Maxim of how The Nazis were defeat: Russian blood, American Steel and British Intelligence. Part of the story was the belief that those “fundamental assets” weren’t going to change much as every effort must be deployed to stay ahead of Russian industrial and scientific achievement.

    Therefore Britain was seen as a ally the US had to keep satisfied unless there was little option: such as the Suez canal being one of those “exceptions that prove the rule”.

    Until WWI the US had tended to keep a non-antagonistic stance towards the UK in no small part out of fear of being re-invaded-this was especially true of the period from the close run up to the Civil War until about 30 years after it was over. Once Britain’s intelligence assets were seen as an essential with no possible substitute the it wasn’t hard to adjust old habits.

    That Clinton was able to begin the Peace Progress soon after the Berlin Wall came down was no accident.

    To a certain degree the “British Spy Mystique” was fed by popular culture, but realistically for rather complicated reasons most Americans believe deep down that British people are simply more sophisticated than Americans-whether they admit it or not. The mentality in many ways resembles the Russian (ironically) Slavophile/Zapadnik thing more than the mindset of former colonies like India, Kenya, or Ireland or alternately nations that still affirm a British identity such as Australia, Canada or even Hong Kong.

    Another core belief of some Cold Warriors of this kind is that a countries history and context simply do not matter when it comes to “the spread of Communism”. Just like Vietnam’s history or that of many other countries was assumed not to matter, the same went for Ireland. It wasn’t that people had no clue that The Great Famine or Cromwell’s treatment happened or would try to justify it. (Indeed a vague account of “The Potato Famine” is taught in many US HS’s and the tradition of putting Cromwell in extremely negative light goes back to beginning of the Republic.) These Cold Warriors probably don’t believe a British view of Irish history. They believed that the need to stop Communism and thus do what it took to keep Britain happy overruled any nation that the history really mattered at all.

    The same also goes for many American anti-feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly: They weren’t even into traditional roles in the sense DeValera was much at all. Ultimately their motives were also more about the belief that feminism would undermine anti-Communism than the notion that a woman’s place is in the home.

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    • I agree with that to a great extent. However a deeper strain of hibernophobia did exist in US society that chimed with the British version, and indeed was derivative of it. Buckley’s well kniwn WASPish indulgence of the British and condescension of the Irish had part of it’s roots in that background of American intelligentsia. You see it with Theroux and other American writers, essayists, commentators and their instinctive British-like disdain for the Irish. Or Irish-Americans. And still apparent in US popular entertainment and commentary where negative stereotypes of the Irish outweigh any neutral or positive ones.

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      • Yes, even Mark Twain was hostile to the Irish in the US in his Travels in America (or some such title) which I read a couple of years ago.

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  4. In my experience? I find that a lot of the dynamics that go into these things are a lot more complicated than simple Hibernophobia. There are layers of dicey games.

    One common dynamic is that a lot of stereotypes about any white group tend to go unchallenged because neither side of the political aisle in such polarized times wishes to say anything. Conservatives see it as “Oh you are being so insufferably politically correct!! Can’t you take a joke?!” While many liberals have to some degree bought into the thinking that stereotypes against any white group are not that serious or “Punching up” by definition and perhaps even a good thing. Indeed there stereotypes of “everyone with Italian roots in is the mafia” is much more rampant, and some portrayals of impoverished Appalachian or Cajuns are a lot more demeaning that nearly any anti-Irish image you could find since 1970 or so.

    One thing I’ve found is a good deal of what would look hibernophobic to your eyes is simply ignorance. A lot of people honestly think The Troubles were purely a religious conflict and if you say it has anything to do with Britain’s treatment of the country you can get an answer like “Why don’t they unite against the British then?”

    Also you have a combination of the fact that any mention of Irish history in US public schools is very basic and barebones (but fairly sympathetic in my book). I once found out quite by accident during a discussion of the book “Dune” that some people I knew thought “The Potato Famine” was an economic crisis with a hyperbolic name rather than an actual famine. I started with me expressing skepticism over whether Frank Herbert’s Fremen were a believable culture. Somehow that turned to whether human being could survive on one staple food the others were convinced “it would have to be some type of meat”. While I insisted that would mean scurvy and “rabbit starvation” and said the closest thing I knew of to a food where that could work would be potatoes. When this led to me explaining much of the Irish population had depended almost entirely on potatoes and that “The Potato Famine” really was a very, very serious Famine rather than a myth like the whole “Irish slaves” thing one man said “Was that why Mother Jones was so short?” I told him I didn’t know. As a son of a labor unionist he certain knew about Mary Harris aka “Mother” Jones.

    Some of these individuals had come from The Deep South where a complex food culture (soaking grits in alkali, food preservation via smoking and frying, other complex ways of keeping food from going bad) with a high iron level (hookworms) had been a matter of survival until recent decades. To them the idea that people could depend on potatoes enough for a scenario like The Famine seemed improbable.

    And this came out by accident, in a discussion about “Dune”. These people were not so much total ignoramuses as products of a culture with a conspiracy of traits that make much of Irish history hard to believe, and a school curriculum where it gets barebones coverage on a good day. They weren’t incurious about the world, intellectual topic or history.

    Add to this the tendency to assume Britons are just better educated and more sophisticated? You don’t need to be a hibernophobe to be misled.

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  5. A tour de force by Devlin/ McAlliskey. In admiration. Grma.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. inceidble , grats from argentina

    Liked by 1 person

  7. john cronin

    buckley had 3 irish granparents and was a devout catholic

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  8. He really had it in for the Kennedy brothers. The way he looked down his nose at some of his guests ie those who’s politics he despised was something else. He was friendly with Reagan and Nixon and was a real hawk when it came to Vietnam. Did his dispute with Gore Vidal end up in the courts?

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  9. He was also a Godparent to three of E Howard Hunt’s children.

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