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Reconciliation in Northern Ireland by Kieran Devlin

reconciliationApprehension, fear, humility and positivity are not usually feelings you experience in the same day. Yesterday (13/05/14), however, was very different.

A number of weeks ago fellow VFP member Lee Lavis had mentioned the fact that he was going to be involved in a talk concerning the conflict in Northern Ireland with a group of students and academics from the University of Georgia, USA. He then went onto explain that he would be sharing the floor with someone from the Republican community in order to allow the group to ask questions based upon two different perspectives. Lee then invited me along to see in what way the event was set up and delivered.

Initially I agreed without hesitation but as the day of the event drew closer I started to have my doubts. Coming from a military family and coming from a largely Unionist/Loyalist community, I was concerned that our role in the event would be to wear the proverbial ‘Sackcloth and ashes’. Lee satisfied me that this was not going to be the case but I have to admit I still had my doubts with regard to what other people might think of our participation. However, I quickly realised that worrying about what other people might think is part of the problem as to why we haven’t yet moved on in Northern Ireland. As a result I decided to throw caution to the wind and see if the Republican monsters would gobble up these horrible Brit monsters, time would tell.

On arrival we were met by Seanna who showed us to a conference room above a Republican museum that is housed in Conway Mill just off the Falls Road in Belfast. We were warmly received and I have to admit that I was put at ease very quickly by the friendly demeanour of our host. As Lee’s co talker I later learned of Seanna’s childhood and a number of instances in which his family had been directly impacted by the actions of the British Army, how this experience related to his joining the IRA at a very young age and his subsequent time as a prisoner in the H Blocks during the ‘Blanket Protests’ and ‘Hunger Strike’. After Seanna completed telling his story Lee then spoke to the group about his experience of being a soldier who served in NI.

As an observer I was completely humbled by the two men before me and the openness of the accounts they gave. They both answered the questions the students and teachers put to them in a frank and honest manner. One thing that struck me was the total lack of finger pointing, the absence of charges of blame and the way in which two former opposing combatants were able to engage with each other and the group in a respectful manner, something NI politicians would do well to emulate. The post event feedback I got from the group as we later sat having lunch in West Belfast’s Irish language and cultural centre (this in itself was an amazing experience) was in symmetry with my own thoughts.

Nonetheless, the completion of lunch was not the signal that my day was finished because Lee had arranged for me to meet Claire Hackett of the Falls Road Community Council. Claire made the both of us very welcome and we discussed a variety of topics from our time in the Army to current affairs. Claire is a wonderful lady with a genuine interest to hear what it was Lee and I had to say.

Sitting here now reflecting on my day in West Belfast, I can honestly say that I was profoundly affected by what I witnessed. If we can park our fears and preconceptions of adversaries past, if we can put ourselves in the shoes of those who the Government tell us are our enemies, then we have a fantastic opportunity not only to affect change in wider society but we have a great chance to affect change within ourselves.

In sum, there is a huge opportunity for a true and lasting peace in Northern Ireland, but that this peace will not come from those with a vested interest in keeping things as they have been, it will come from individuals and groups who are willing to stretch out the hand of friendship and declare ‘No more war’. I believe, a landscape such as this provides an enormous chance for Veterans For Peace to take the lead and show by our actions that once the shackles and fears of the past have been cast off, nothing is impossible.

Kieran Devlin is a member of Veterans For Peace UK.

Veterans For Peace UK are currently working with groups in Northern Ireland to facilitate a veterans reconciliation trip later this year. BG

 

  • David Marchesi 14/05/2014, 21:54

    Nobody can regret the relative absence of “sectarian” violence since the UK decided to moderate its occupation of the North and the South found it could compete and prosper in Europe. Still, despite the vast changes in Ireland over the last twenty years, the “missing piece” will be a bone of contention until it has been put in place- in other words, Ireland as a unified country.To ignore the fundamental grievance of the nationalists is dishonest and bodes ill for the future. Only confronting the issue can bring lasting peace, with justice. It looks like the Cypriots are trying to come together, and residents of Ireland who do not want to be Irish do not, in the end, belong on its soil.

  • Russel James 14/05/2014, 22:32

    Well done Lee for taking part in this initiative and trying to seek a way forward. hopefully this isn’t just a “THE BRITISH ARMY DID THIS TO US THING”.
    As a young soldier I served three tours in the province in the early 70s and I well remember the kneecappings, the tar and feathering and the punishment beatings dished out by Republicans against the Republican community. I remember clearing up after the Abercorn restaurant bombing and the fear and terror present at that time. Unlike the previous poster who appears to be advocating ethnic cleansing, true peace will only come when all sides respect each others traditions and cultures regardless of what they call themselves or where their loyalties lie. But please remember the British Army did hold the line for over thirty years until everyone realised that violence was not the answer. I hope now all sides and factions can develop the peace.

  • Lee Lavis 14/05/2014, 22:47

    David with regard to your contention as to who ‘in the end, belong on its (Ireland’s) soli’ may I draw your attention to three interlocking sections of the Good Friday Agreement. An agreement I may add that when put to referendum was supported by a 71% YES vote in the North of Ireland and 94% in the South.

    (iv) affirm that if, in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out in sections (i) and (ii) above to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish;

    (v) affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities;

    (vi) recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.

  • Lee Lavis 14/05/2014, 23:16

    Hi Russell. Thank you for your kind comments and let me assure you that events such as the one described in Kieran’s article are about promoting understanding by placing two very different stories in juxtaposition and as the article makes clear not the wearing of ‘sackcloth and ashes’.

    I am English but live in Belfast and have a beautiful daughter born of that city. Her only knowledge of ‘Troubles’ is from books and I would like to keep it that way, so the promotion of understanding is something that is very close to my heart.

    However, I believe the real praise for yesterday should be for Kieran’s willingness to engage because unlike me he is a former soldier who was born and bred in the loyalist/unionist community of Northern Ireland.

    • Lee Lavis 15/05/2014, 02:03

      It would be remiss of me not to also highlight Coiste (former Republican Prisoner group) because it was this organisation who facilitated my participation in the event by offering the Georgia group the opportunity to hear a perspective on the NI conflict from a former British soldier.

  • Russel James 15/05/2014, 00:25

    Many thanks Lee for your skilful and sagacious reply. Peace and Happiness to both you and Kieran, and all involved in this process.

  • Kieran Devlin 15/05/2014, 07:03

    Hi Russel

    As you can see in the article your legitimate concerns were the same concerns i had before i attended. However, at no time did the mood swerve from the path of respect. After the event had finished and Lee and I were walking home, i wondered if the community i live in would have the maturity and dignity to offer the same respect to combatants from the Republican Community. Recent events in Northern Ireland would suggest this may not be the case.

  • Russel James 15/05/2014, 08:33

    Many Thanks Kieran for your reply: Yes I have to be careful of the pre conceived ideas I have, shaped by past experiences. If these conversations we are having via this medium, have proven anything to me, its that I have a few layers of memory to peel back and let go of. What I can say is, no Irish person be it she/he, Republican, Loyalist, Catholic or Protestant was ever my enemy. Keep up the good work towards a lasting peace. NO MORE TEARS!

  • Garry Harriman 15/05/2014, 19:03

    I have never been to NI, although I almost did on work of a different nature. I have no right to form judgemental or opinionated views on `the troubles`, recent and past, but I do have a humanistic view and compassionate general view of the situation.

    It saddened me deeply to see the suffering, senseless killing and misery that always seemed to be sadly associated to those beautiful 6 counties of the beautiful Province of Northern Ireland. People I knew that had been there (soldiers and fellow airmen/women, told me how wonderful place it is and in my trade, there was a long waiting list to get there in a conventional role at RAF Aldergrove.

    I always tried to look at the situation with empathy from both sides, although it was hard to see the situation as no more than outdated religious and political bigotry, and big boys playing big boys rules. I was stunned by the unwilling stubbornness to on all political and associated divides to move forward and to work together and bring NI back from 1690 and into the modern world. The Catholic population were treated unfairly, a minority with the worse housing, the worse employment prospects, under represented politically and served by a police force made up primarily of Protestants. As an atheist, NI was a great example of why man made religion serves the world only in negative means, bringing a land mass that is physically part of the British Isles civil war and day to day suffering.

    I have no doubt that communities will get together and banish individuals who wish to continue to derail the train of peace as they do so for reasons of identity, power, control and even organised crime. I wish all the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of what `label` has been placed on them, peace, happiness and stability, People who wish the opposite are enemies of Northern Ireland, humanity, peace and decency and their days are numbered!

    Garry Harriman
    RAF, 1987 – 2006
    VFP UK and USA
    Ga, USA

  • Kirk Sollitt 15/05/2014, 23:41

    Hi Kieran, thanks for sharing your experience and well done to all those who took part, such a positive step for true and lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

    I came across this poem today –

    LOOKING FOR PEACE

    We look for peace
    and search around;
    Inside or out
    Where is it found ?

    Life on earth
    Gets so involved,
    Endless problems
    That can’t be solved.

    Close your eyes
    Open your heart,
    Feel your worries
    And cares depart.

    The answer’s easy
    For all to see,
    Its in your heart
    So let it be.

    By Zelda Conn (Written at age twelve) from Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Taken from the book – Children of ‘The Troubles’ – by Laurel Holliday.

  • Kenny Williams 21/05/2014, 18:41

    Lee,
    You really are an inspiration to us all. I went back to Belfast in 2007 whilst I was organising a live events roadshow for Nissan. I could not believe how much Belfast has changed since I was last their as a young soldier in 1995.
    I agree in what you say about your kids only knowing what “the troubles” was like through books, and how you want it to stay that way.
    Having seen the transformation of what was a heavily policed city to what it is now is nothing short of a miracle.
    The way of life is much more stable than what it used to be like..”calmer” Yes… it still has it`s moments but it`s nowhere near as bad as it used to be.
    I remember standing on the QEII bridge and thinking to myself how back in the early 90`s there was two check points across here pulling cars in……”Why would you want to go back to that?” and just looking back at the city I thought nobody in their right mind would want to go back to that now.
    As for Londonderry lee……I`ve seen on goggle map just how much that`s changed, it`s beyond what you told me brother. Ebrington Barrack and Fort George GONE !! and wow the peace bridge looks fab.
    If I could talk to the residents of the bogside and surrounding areas about exactly what I was involved in for many years their it would be humbling. I`d like to hear from the people that pulled the triggers on the many bombings and shootings that I was personally involved in just to get their perspective on what it was like?

    Peace and love brothers
    Kenny Williams Veterans For Peace UK