Ex-Prisoners: Picking up the Pieces in Northern Ireland

imageA new six-part series on the aftermath of the Northern Ireland peace process, ‘Picking up the Pieces,’ got underway on RTE Radio One on Saturday. The series is presented by Barbara Walshe, a graduate of my School’s Reconciliation Studies programme.

The series had an intriguing start with a programme on the reconciliation work of ex-prisoners.

This can be a controversial topic, as some doubt the sincerity of ex-prisoners, others still blame them (and them alone) for the conflict, and others believe that promoting ex-prisoners as community workers allows ‘paramilitaries’ to maintain undue influence in communities. You can ‘listen back’ to the programme here, if you missed it.

Saturday’s programme didn’t tackle those issues directly, but it did provide a fascinating insight into the processes of change that some former prisoners have undergone through their experiences in prison and later through programmes like those offered by the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation.

For example, former INLA (republican) prisoner Gerard Foster described how he was initially talked into going to an event at Glencree – largely, he suspects, because he was the only one with a car that could make it up the Wicklow Mountains! He said his initial meetings with former British soldiers, RUC men, Provisional IRA men, and loyalists only reinforced his prejudices. Gradually, over time, this began to change.

But even as he experienced changes in himself, he said he felt uncertain, and struggled with ‘a sense of betrayal of who you are and what you were … a betrayal of my dead friends.’ He said:

… [Before I] didn’t care about the pain we were inflicting … you didn’t analyse it … you thought you would never have to deal with it … when I started looking at that [through the work at Glencree] I thought don’t go down that road, you’ll end up saying you’re sorry, saying you were wrong.

… [But] all you’re doing is recognising the hurt and pain that republicans caused. … that’s the human cost of the conflict … it doesn’t mean you’ll start hugging trees or begging for forgiveness …

… but once you’ve accepted that you can accept that what we did caused hurt and pain and left grief behind – [it] doesn’t mean you were wrong.

… some people say you have to re-humanise the enemy … but you take humanity out of yourself, and the first step is seeing the humanity in yourself, before you can humanise others.

Alistair Little, a former UVF prisoner, described how the process of change began for him inside prison:

[There were] conversations taking place with other prisoners about the role of violence; I came to the realisation that violence was not producing what I thought that it would … it was counter-productive and the killing could go on endlessly … this [is] … where the seeds of the peace process began, although that’s not acknowledged by today’s politicians who like to claim the glory.

Walshe also asked Little directly about reconciliation – how he conceives of it and how he lives it out. Little said:

Reconciliation is not a thing or a place you go to, it is an on-going process that takes place in your life on a daily basis and will until you die …

In prison, I began to think about the suffering of the enemy … that was the beginning of reconciliation for me. [At the same time what was] also going on, [was the thought that you are] betraying who you are – because you are thinking about the enemy.

That is how deep the conflict had de-humanised us.

Near the end of the interview, Little said:

Reconciliation, I would never say we are now reconciled … there are some things that can’t be reconciled and maybe shouldn’t be … but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be change in relationships.

Little also spoke about forgiveness, saying that ‘at a personal level [forgiveness is] not something I would seek or I would ask for.’ He said that he thinks pressurising people to forgive can psychologically damage them if they are not ready – especially if they feel compelled to do this by their church or religious leaders. Little added:

Forgiveness is not something that you do once and that’s it … it’s not a one off thing that you do, it is a living thing that people struggle with, and it takes courage.

The series continues this coming Saturday at 7.30 pm with a programme on how sporting organisations are capturing the mood for change in Northern Ireland.

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