Apprehension, 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