On the 23rd of October 8 members of Veterans For Peace UK started a 4 day journey across the North of Ireland/Northern Ireland in order to meet with people and organisations drawn from communities which our group had previously been deployed against as soldiers. Our aim was to gain a greater understanding of the conflict we had been involved in and to reach out to former enemies. Here are the personal recollections of the veterans who attended the trip
Gus Hales; I felt a great deal of anxiety and trepidation in my involvement with this process, were we being set up? What levels of animosity would we receive? Will this be a one sided account? What’s the point it’s all in the past? All legitimate questions that I kept asking myself over and over again, so much so that I nearly withdrew from the trip the night before departure. However, the reality was that I found a community desperate to tell their story, which made involvement easier, there was nothing to defend, but just to listen and be a witness to the other narrative without BBC and tabloid interference. To put this into perspective, can anyone imagine what it felt like to be a former engineer paratrooper standing in an area of Derry/Londonderry where members of the British army had wounded or killed 28 civil rights marchers. Likewise can you imagine what it must have been like for the first time to be telling that account to a group like us. Nonetheless, there wasn’t a trace of animosity or hatred, only an overwhelming sense of wanting to right an injustice, but isn’t that always the cry of those who feel justice hasn’t been served? We moved on to further meetings at other locations, and the story repeated itself. One meeting became quite tense and fraught as a Belfast lady vocally explained how the British government killed her brother and she cannot get justice. However, that tension fell away when I was able to explain that my brother was killed by the British government and I cannot get justice either, a seminal moment for the rest of the meeting. Later on that day we met Patrick Magee and Jo Berry at a private gathering, which I can only describe as quite incredible.
Les Gibbons; I was first in NI 38 years ago, that time it was a four month tour (1975/6) to Crossmaglen in South Armagh. I was pretty naive and trusting then, not long 18 years old; though unclear why the military, and why I particularly was there. All I knew was the state/BBC rhetoric about making NI safer and bringing an end to the Troubles. This time around our VFP alternative trip was oh so different. We saw the history of Ireland’s troubled years explained and unfold in the street murals, in the graveyard tour, the museums, memorial plaques, and plainly from the people we met. We heard about the civil rights campaign, massacres, inequality and internment, of striving for political not criminal status in prisons, of canny warring and hunger strikes till death, of long repeat imprisonments, endurance, hardship and finally the work that has been done toward the building of a sustainable peace. What was so good for me was to hear personal accounts and peoples’ rationales for their perspectives, it builds empathy and is personally for those who want to work for peace. In sum I feel I learnt a lot, so… if you are a NI veteran I would recommend you consider returning to share your story and hear others in a spirit of openness – hate is but a thought emanating perhaps from fear.
Kieran Devlin; It was evident from greeting the VFP members at the airport that we had so much in common and we instantly seemed to hit it off with one another that you would be forgiven for thinking that we had all served together whilst in the armed forces. The camaraderie and comradeship was visible from the beginning to the end of the visit and for me, personally, I can say that I made a number of new friends as a direct result of this trip. Meeting with the Nationalist and Republican Community, ex-Prisoners and combatants was a very humbling experience for me. Despite the fact that I was born and bred in Northern Ireland, the Nationalist and or Republican narrative is not widely known nor accepted by the wider Unionist and Loyalist Communities. There seems to be a belief that to accept, or even listen to the Nationalist and or Republican story, would be an admission of guilt or defeat. This quite clearly is not the case. In all the discussions not once was a finger of blame pointed, it was far more mature than that. This was about telling our own stories and vice versa. What was very apparent was just how much all participants were getting from this type of interaction. The message we got back from the Nationalist and Republican community was very clear; the war is over and now is the time to build the peace..To conclude, I have a personal desire for peace building to continue with the Nationalist and Republican Community as I live here and bring my children up in this part of the world. It is my desire to show the wider community and politicians that putting the hand of friendship out is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength and courage. I have had my eyes opened as to the progressive attitudes within the wider Nationalist and Republican family and I hope that message will permeate through to all sections of our community, for the good of us all
Stuart Griffiths; The recent VFPUK visit was the fourth time I have returned to Northern Ireland since I served there as a British Paratrooper. But despite this I still felt nervous, which I think was probably down to the loss of anonymity that goes with travelling in a large group. On arrival I met my fellow veterans at the airport and in no time we were whisked off on a car journey to Derry/Londonderry, which I have never previously visited, although I have wanted to throughout my life. While in the Maiden City it was great to hear the different narratives drawn from the Nationalist/Republican community because it gave me access to a human face that I had only previously seen from the ‘other side of the fence’. Next stop was Belfast, again it was great to be taken round and to hear the Nationalist history of the city from such knowledgeable guides. On a personal note, I would have liked to have seen more of the murals in west Belfast, but I understand there was plenty programmed in for the four day trip, a lot to get through with lots of meetings. Nonetheless, it was great to talk about our own personal experiences without having to glorify events and to describe the reality of what was going on in our heads at the time. For me the final trip to South Armagh was amazing, because it was always a place associated with intense fear for a British squaddie. Consequently, walking around Crossmaglen was a cathartic experience for me and many (I feel) who once served there and seeing my mobile phone change to a Republic of Ireland Mobile phone company only proved the point of being so close to the border.
Ben Griffin; I joined the Parachute Regiment in March 1997 and first deployed to Northern Ireland in December of 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement had been voted for in a referendum. Most of the older soldiers within 2 Para had been on numerous tours. We did not believe that the IRA ceasefire would last and we were told that many republicans had quit PIRA and joined the dissident groups. My company was based in Armagh City and we operated as an Ops company, mostly patrolling in South Armagh and public order operations in Portadown. We operated as if nothing had changed. I spent hours out on patrol anticipating contact with the IRA and ready to open fire. During 8 years in the British Army I deployed three times to Northern Ireland spending almost a year and a half there. I never once thought about how our presence affected the people who lived there. Last weekend I travelled with a group of Veterans For Peace to Northern Ireland. We met with the families of people killed on Bloody Sunday, local politicians, community groups and former Republican prisoners in Derry, Belfast and South Armagh. We were taken on tours of the areas we had served in and heard stories of massacres, raids, internment, hunger strikes and harassment. We told our own stories of why we had joined the army, how we were trained and what we had done on operations. It was a humbling experience. I was impressed by the political organising within the communities we visited and also the solidarity shown by those communities for other oppressed people. There was a warmth in the meetings, a willingness from both sides to try and understand the others perspective and I hope this will lead to longer term relationships with the groups we met.
Lee Lavis; As a member of the Staffordshire Regiment I completed a six month tour of Fermanagh in 1992 and a two year residential posting between February 1994 and 1996. Six months in to this second tour I was witness to the jubilation that resulted from the IRAs announcement of a ceasefire and the commencement of negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the cycle of Anglo- Irish violence that had blighted the island of Ireland for centuries. I have to admit that my immediate reaction to the announcement was one of disbelief because in common with my fellow soldiers I genuinely believed the IRA were simply taking a break from hostilities. Nonetheless, I subsequently left the army and settled in Belfast, which led to my voting yes in the 1998 referendum that ratified the Good Friday Agreement. My decision to remain in Belfast also meant that I have been in a position to witness the North of Ireland’s/Northern Ireland’s attempts to transition from a divided society to one seeking to transform itself in the wake of conflict.Initially I did little more than vote in the aforementioned referendum, but over time I began to feel that I have a responsibility to use my experience as a soldier who had been deployed to the North of Ireland/Northern Ireland in order to contribute to this transition. It was this realisation that ultimately led me to become a participant in VFP UKs ‘A Different Kind of Tour: Finding Understanding Through Dialogue’; as I am of the firm opinion that the building of peace can only be achieved through the development of communicative mechanisms, which recognise and transcend differences in culture, lived experience, and ideological beliefs.Finally, from personal experience I know there are some people out there who would criticise our willingness to engage with individuals and organisations they continue to see as the ‘other side’. However, although not proscriptive my response to such criticism is perfectly reflected in the following quote: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”.
Kenny Williams; I`m very proud to be a member of veterans for peace. In 1989 I spent six months in South Armagh as an infantry soldier and from 1992 a further three years based at Ebrington barracks and Fort George in Derry/Londonderry (the longest operational tour a British army battalion had completed since the second world war). During these two tours I was personally involved in many incidents all of which shock me to the core so the visit was a very big deal for me. I was very nervous during the last week before the trip, as the reality of what we were all about to do was sinking in. Ben rang us all the day before we all depart for Belfast to see if things were ok and I remember saying “Are we nuts?” “Mate, my wife is saying just pay Ben for the flight and leave it”. However, Ben reassured me that a Belfast based member of VFPUK had been in constant contact with a range of local partners who were all united in their wish to meet us. In response I took a deep breath and told Ben “I`m in”. As I got off the aircraft at Belfast I was met by Kieran, one of our members who lives in Northern Ireland then the rest of the group turned up a few at a time on various flights. At this point we were introduced to a local Youth Worker and a Legacy and Engagement Officer who together put me and the group at ease with the words “you have got nothing to worry about lads, your all safe and very welcome”. During the next four days I met some truly inspiring people who listened to me as I told my story as to how I as a soldier had been trained to believe every single member of the North’s Nationalist/Republican population were my “enemy”. I could recount many a memorable recollection from the subsequent exchanges, but the forthcoming Reel News film will speak volumes so I don`t want to spoil it by waffling on.
Mike Pike; In 1981 I was deployed to Belfast as a Scots Guardsman for a 10 month period that coincided with the Hunger Strikes. As a result of this experience for many years I carried a hatred for Irish Nationalists and Republicans. However, in recent times I have changed as a person because my understanding of the North of Ireland’s/Northern Ireland’s euphemistically named Troubles” is no longer founded solely subjective experience.As part of this personal journey I travelled to the North of Ireland/Northern Ireland in August of this year, so VFPUKs ‘A different kind of tour: Finding understanding through dialogue’ felt like I was returning to visit old friends. In common with that first visit I got to share my recollections with people who as a soldier I had been told were the enemy. I can tell you that to listen to their stories reaffirmed for me how much we have in common. In fact, I would say that if I had found myself in the shoes of the Nationalist/Republican population there is a good chance I would have reacted with outrage and hostility towards the British state.
We would like to thank the Anne Lindh Foundation, Coiste and associated bodies, Free Derry Tours, Free Derry Museum, Interaction Belfast, Building Bridges for Peace, Queen’s University of Belfast, Ti Chulainn Cultural Activity Centre, Falls Community Council and Reel News for their unstinting support, and or contribution to an itinerary that was both challenging and rewarding.