Eibhlin Glenholmes – her story of war and peace – Brian Rowan reports

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The minute I heard Eibhlin (Evelyn) Glenholmes name and was told she would be part of the new Victims’ and Survivors’ Forum, I knew what the story would be.

Yet, there is a big chunk of our small population who will have no memory of those dramatic events in the mid-80s and that Dublin street play that was part of her extradition battle.

There were nine warrants, which an Irish court deemed defective, nine warrants covering a range of offences, including murder, linked to the IRA campaign in Britain in 1981-82.

Released by that court in Dublin, Glenholmes disappeared – melted away into a life on-the-run.

She has not been, and is not, a public stage republican.

Her return to Belfast was in the peace process years, and after Sinn Fein had asked the Northern Ireland Office for information.

They wanted to know if the woman once labelled Britain’s “most wanted” was still being sought.

The answer came from the Prosecution Service – in information that said there was no longer a realistic prospect of achieving a conviction.

It meant Eibhlin Glenholmes was free to return to a city where her early years were spent in the Short Strand – that small nationalist community that has been surrounded and hemmed in during the decades of war and peace.

Just last year it was the target of an orchestrated UVF attack.

Eibhlin Glenholmes has no convictions, but there are those who will always define her in the war story and information contained in those warrants issued almost thirty years ago – warrants that linked her to the IRA.

A couple of months ago I interviewed Ms Glenholmes about the IRA – and about a challenge to republicans as part of a reconciliation initiative to say sorry, not as an apology for the war, but to acknowledge the hurt caused by all armed actions.

She was very clear in her responses.

On the question of hurt, she said: “I have no qualms about apologising for any hurt.

“I regret that the conditions existed in which my life and the lives of many people of my generation were changed irrevocably by the armed struggle,” she continued.

“And I regret that so many of our lives were lost.”

She was equally clear on the question of the IRA war – which, in her opinion, was not wrong.

“Absolutely not,” she told me.

“We didn’t go to war – war came to us.”

However much people may dispute that assessment and disagree, it is what Eibhlin Glenholmes believes.

It is her ‘truth’ and something she is prepared to express.

That is what this discussion and continuing debate on the unfinished business of the peace process needs – the perspectives of all sides.

The decision to appoint Eibhlin Glenholmes to the Victims’ Forum, as one of 25 unpaid members stretching out across a wide range of people and backgrounds, cannot and should not be judged on unionist political reaction.

Those responses could have been written before the words were spoken.

They were entirely predictable.

There is a decision for us all.

Do we, in addressing the experiences of the past, close our ears to those we don’t want to hear; close doors to shut out the words and perspectives that don’t fit with ours?

What a disaster that would be. What a shambles. What a cop out.

The Victims’ Commissioners were right to invite Eibhlin Glenholmes to sit on this Forum.

She has a war experience and story to tell that is one of the jigsaw pieces in the overall picture.

If ever we move beyond this Forum into some “truth” or information process, then every voice should be heard – republican, loyalist, security forces, intelligence services, political, governments, churches, media and many more.

A few hours before I started writing this piece, I was chatting to a loyalist; a loyalist who told me that politicians should not be allowed anywhere near the past.

What he meant was they should not be allowed to design the structure, shape and restrict or curtail any process – decide who’s in and who’s out.

He told me, he believes, the people are ahead of the politicians; that others are better placed to build the model, and get us to a point where we are dealing with and not dwelling in the war and its consequences.

Let us grow up in our conversations, stop the petty point scoring and predictable reactions, think seriously and work seriously to get things done, and include everyone in the work of writing the narrative of the past.

The biggest challenge in that work is to provide the best help and care to those who need it most, and to make sure we don’t go down those war roads ever again.

Eibhlin Glenholmes story is not just about conflict, it is about peace making and peace building.

In these days after war, let no one decide who gets to sit at the front of the bus and who goes to the back.

 


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

15 Comments

  1. I had not known of this lady before the Nolan show yesterday morning but am always interested in how those involved in the troubles think now. Having listened to Mike Nesbitt and others talking about this on Nolan yesterday morning I reached the same conclusion as yourself. Thank you for these interesting articles.

  2. Anne Cadwallader on

    Well said Brian.  I well remember when Eibhlin Glenholmes was originally described as “the most wanted woman in Britain”.  It was a headline on a Sunday Times article and was accompanied by a sketch, supposedly of EG, of a slim woman with long blonde hair dressed in a leather jacket (ie someone’s lurid imagination of what every female terrorist might look like – straight out of central casting).  It bore absolutely no resemblance to EG at all!  She’s been lumbered with that description ever since – the product of some bored sub-editor sitting in London.  This whole row is media-driven and pointless.

  3. VictorCarmichael on

    Hi Brian, a bit too high profile a figure for the forum and will probably detract from what they are trying to achieve – but hopefully I’m wrong and something positive will come from it. AIUI there will be further announcements on the personalities involved from all sides and I’m sure there will be further controversy with other appointments. Lets hope Jonny Adair doesn’t get a seat

    It looks like this issue will run on. I heard Mitchell McLaughlin on Nolan this morning. At one point Mitchell suggested that the Shankill Butchers were ‘victims’  to a certain extent. He also refused to differentiate between a young girl affected by the troubles and an IRA volunteer. It shows how toxic this discussion will become, going off in all sorts of tangents and attributing blame to all sorts of people. If woolly language continues being used we could all class ourselves as victims. Politicians cant even agree what a victim is. 

    I agree that work needs done to provide help and care to victims and of course we do need to learn from the past in some way. But, dissecting the past 40-odd years, trying to pin blame on the donkey whilst blindfolded is harder to agree with. Many questions will be asked of many people, with little or no answers in response. All very complex, and IMO harder to resolve than the GFA

    Meanwhile (for the vast majority) life goes on, and we look back (20+ years) at a time well buried in the past which is about to be dug up.

    Regards, Victor

    • Barneyrowan on

      Victor – My view is that Eibhlin Glenholmes has an important contribution to make to this conversation. She is one of 25 members from very different backgrounds. My understanding is that Anne Travers will also be part of the Forum as will the Presbyterian Minister Rev Lesley Carroll, who was part of the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past. There will always be arguments about the definition of victim, and I think all of us are too close to the events of recent decades to be able to work things out and through. That’s why I argue that we need international help. I have no confidence in the two governments, and if there is to be a structure and a process to at least try to answer some more of the questions, it should not be designed by them.

  4. Kevmacdermott on

    Nice piece Brian, and interesting take on the notion of victims.  I have to agree with your catholic definition, we are all victims whether we like it or not and there are many on all sides whose opinions we may never share, that however does not invalidate or discount those opinions.  There is a great phrase which may apply and that is…”everyone is guilty but no one is to blame” i.e. our actions passive or active contributed to the conflict but we were not necessarily doing it with full knowledge or even self consent.

  5. Jackiemcdonald on

    As long as our past is ahead of us or forever present,we cannot have a future. I have listened to and been part of some recent debates on how to deal with the past and I despair at what is being said,the same old same old. I feel sorry for our young people because we are condemning them to bigoted,sectarianism and hatred which will surely result with at least some of them going to prison or being injured or causing injury to someone else. How does a 14-15 year old who has attended an integrated school know that he hates The Other Sort,Orange or Green? They must learn that from supposedly older/wiser heads,their Parents or others in their respective communities,what possible chance have they of being part of a shared future? As I have said countless times I have every sympathy for victims and their families,I can only imagine the pain and torment the must suffer,day in day out. I have lost many many friends,some innocent some not,some as members of the Security Forces,Some Prison Officers and some Paramilitaries. The ones who chose to become involved with any of those above knew exactly what risk was involved,they knew they were setting themselves apart,they knew their lives would be in greater danger than ordinary civilians. They had the courage to do so and I have been proud of all the friends who paid the ultimate price,whatever their chosen profession,legal or otherwise because they/we were living in exceptional circumstances,totally alien conditions to what they/we had previously known. I try to imagine how the past would effect me if it wasn’t for my background,if I had suffered as a family member of a victim,I can only call on the experiences I have from losing both my Parents to cancer,watching them gradually waste away,lose their dignity,suffer excruciating pain,it broke my heart on both occasions. My Mother had just turned 47,my Father,many years later 65. To have a family member murdered must a totally different feeling altogether and I really do have the greatest sympathy for all victims families,regardless of religion. I remember David Porter telling me years ago that he had spoken to many family members of victims,and he was surprised to hear how different members of the same families had differing views on how to move on. One family alone had five different ideas,Mother,Sons and Daughters. I can understand how family members might somehow feel as though they were betraying their loved one if they changed their attitude towards the group or individual they knew or suspected to be responsible. I applaud those who can come to terms with their loss and who can appreciate how important it is to have one time perpertrators involved in the Peace Process,accepting their role in bringing about such a dramatic change to our everyday lives in Northern Ireland. It must have been a very difficult decision for them and surely one taken only after much soul searching. Victims families in many ways are prisoners too,behind bars of anger,loss,hatred for those responsible,pain,torment and sadness,they don’t have release dates or parole boards or remission,they have been sentenced to Life,a life was taken from them,horrifically,unfairly,unnecessarily and we all have to try to understand how difficult life has been/ is for them. I
    As I’ve said I certainly do,what really concerns me though is the real possibility,probability even,that there will be more victims unless we move on from our present situation.. Where will we go if there are more Martyrs,more prisoners? Too many of us are Pigeonholed,categorised,labeled as good or bad,the Peace Process,the way forward can only become reality if we accept that all the warring factions,and that includes the Security Forces,are essential,as are the Victims Groups,Churches and Politicians,in creating an unsinkable vessel to take us to a safe place,a shared space where our young people will have a chance to create their own future,decide their own destiny,live a better life than we have lived. I believe the Victims Families/Groups have the potential to change our world forever,to change the rest of their own lives forever by releasing us all from our terrible past,WHAT GREATER TRIBUTE COULD THEY PAY TO THOSE THEY HAVE LOST,THE FAMILY MEMBERS THEY LOVED AND MISS SO DEARLY,THAN TO CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE SUCH TRAGEDY,SUFFERING AND PAIN WOULD NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN,AN EVERLASTING MEMORIAL AND SOMEHOW PERHAPS..PEACE OF MIND!

    • Barneyrowan on

      Jackie – this process asks a lot of those who have been hurt the most, and your post asks for more. This Forum will put a range of people from very different backgrounds in the same room. It is a significant step and a place for important conversations to begin and develop. There is also a need for another process that attempts to bring into the room the many different sides in this conflict. Plum Smith is right that trying to resolve the past must be above party politics. The structure should not be designed by governments or political parties, but by international facilitators, who after speaking to all relevant parties off-stage, could explain what is ruled in and ruled out. There is no point in designing a structure or Commission until everyone knows who is prepared to participate and under what terms. The debate in recent days tells us we’re all too close to this to try to work it out ourselves.

      Barney 

      • Jackiemcdonald on

        I know what you are saying Barney,I’m just trying to change the thought process and maybe inject some new ideas into our present logjam. I am well aware of the difficulties that victims groups have with accepting the fact that those who are guilty of the most horrendous crimes are now in Government or are engaged in Community work,elected Councillors etc. I have said there is no simple or single method of dealing with their hurt or the past. I’m not sure how some of our Politicians would view the idea of International intervention,or who decides who is in or who is out of the process,the victims themselves might have difficulty with that. You have obviously thought long and hard about the situation,as have I,but I can’t see us changing anything unless somehow victims families/groups engage in talks with others,and by talks I don’t mean slanging matches,we need meaningful dialogue. Again I accept the difficulties many would have with such a scenario but like yourself I’m only trying to help.

        • Barneyrowan on

          Jackie – I imagine people would want to know what they’re going into a room to talk about and to hear, and we all know there are people, who for many different reasons, will not want to go near such a room or enter such a conversation. Some people are already in the room. A few years ago, I couldn’t have imagined you in the Falls Library at that event  in 2010 with Martin McGuinness and other loyalists and republicans, and being able to say what you said about 1994 and wanting more Catholics killed before there was a response to the IRA ceasefire. It was brutal and cold, but it was your “truth”. If we wait for politicians we will wait forever. Just listen to the roundabout and what about conversations of recent days. That’s why I argue for international help; for a team to speak to all sides off-stage, to explore what is possible, and to see if some table of explanation can be arranged, at which questions can be asked and some more answers given. That process of explanation, if/when we get to it, will need as many voices and perspectives as possible, and it should be an open door.

          Barney    

  6. Room 4 an Elephant? on

    Call me Mister Predictable or whatever you want but I don’t want people like Sean Kelly or Johnny Adair anywhere next or near a victims forum and I think I speak for thousands of likeminded people from both sides of our community.
    Whenever the Maze project is completed, why not set aside a chunk of it with a team of professionally qualified counsellors who can talk with all our victims, and have a date set for this to be completed once and for all. Its time to draw a line under HET, Victims Forums and Commisioners and hear the victims with empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.
    ,   

    • Room 4 – you’ll read Eamonn’s comment above on the importance of contributors identifying themselves on this website. But to answer some of the points you raise, the only reason we have HET, Victims Forum and Commissioners, and many other bits and pieces is because we have no joined-up process attempting to address the questions of the past. So what we are doing is dwelling in the conflict and its consequences. I write in my post that the biggest challenge now is to provide the best help and care for those who need it most, and you will read further down this comment section a contribution from the loyalist Jackie McDonald on this matter. We also need some process that is the Forum in which people can ask their questions, record their stories and seek answers, and a mechanism within which all of that can happen. The “predictable” and easy way to do all of that would be to blame those who went to jail and the “bad” people of the loyalist and republican communities; letting everyone else walk away with no sense of guilt, responsibility or blame. In my opinion, that would be a scandal, and it is why I will always set my face against that narrow type of approach. I believe in a process that has everyone at the table – republican, loyalist, security forces/intelligence services, politicians, governments, churches, media and many others. And let us in that process look not just at what happened, but why it happened and, crucially, why it should never happen again. Hopefully, if you have further comments to make, you will do so using your name. 

  7. Jackiemcdonald on

    When you think about it many of our politicians are in a similar situation as many victims families,they can’t move on because of the past. Victims find it difficult if not impossible because they don’t want to betray the loved one they have lost. Some politicians can’t move on because those who elect them wont move on. That being the case then maybe we should bring in International facilitators and as the ELEPHANT says,provide the facilities and the counselling so they may avail of it if they so desire. We have been saying for a long time that there are pieces of the jigsaw that need brought together,the more we talk it becomes more obvious the we need to support some groups,provide professional help for individuals,not just recognise that some have problems and leave them to deal with it themselves.

  8. EamonnMallie on

    Room 4 ……as editor of eamonnmallie.com …..I appreciate meaningful contributions from people like you: let me add one caveat: postings derive their strength from the readiness of contributors to identify themselves: that is the policy on this site. I hope this is how eamonnmallie.com can distinguish itself from other websites.

  9. I was a student in Norn Irn during the mid-eighties. It was a rural campus. Very lovely and (mostly) untouched by violence or trouble. I had many friends at Uni but I cannot think of a single one of them who was not scarred by the atmosphere they grew up in in Northern Ireland. I worked briefly in the Short Strand (Ballymacarret) after Uni. I was stunned to find the siege conditions. I left Belfast during the tit-for-tat in the late 80’s after intimidation in the area where myself and three other ex-students lived. I packed a bag, got a train to Larne one night, caught the night boat and never went back. I lost touch with everyone I knew in my life. People moved house once and you lost touch forever back then.

    About five years ago I bumped into a former Ulster student pal in the centre of Glasgow. He was working in a bar. He too had left under similar intimidation in the early 90’s a few years after I had. His folks were still in North Belfast but he hadn’t visited in all that time. He lived in a rented
    room in a flat in Govanhill. He was forty four years old.

    I suppose reading here about Eibhlin and the questions people have about her being included in a forum I am left with a strange sense of unreality about my time in Northern Ireland as perhaps she does about her younger years in different times. I had a fine (almost idyllic) couple of student years then an enjoyable working time for a period. Then very abruptly my working life was cut short and I’d to try and start again overnight in a different country with nothing. The old Ulster student pal I met had had to do exactly the same thing. We were not the people who were hurt the most by any stretch of the imagination and I am thankful for that. But the ripples from threats and intimidation killed careers stone-dead, job prospects and Hope overnight for lots of people when they had to up sticks and leave in the middle of the night. In the depressing years afterwards, I found myself working nights as a cleaner and day shifts washing dishes. It’s not much different now, though I’ve got my toe back in the door with a wee bit of basic education work as a volunteer. But I’ll never really get to anything much now in my life.
    The Forum should include everyone and all views must be heard and that means Eibhlin too – however distasteful to some corners.

  10. I was a student in Norn Irn during the mid-eighties. It was a rural campus. Very lovely and (mostly) untouched by violence or trouble. I had many friends at Uni but I cannot think of a single one of them who was not scarred by the atmosphere they grew up in in Northern Ireland. I worked briefly in the Short Strand (Ballymacarret) after Uni. I was stunned to find the siege conditions. I left Belfast during the tit-for-tat in the late 80’s after intimidation in the area where myself and three other ex-students lived. I packed a bag, got a train to Larne one night, caught the night boat and never went back. I lost touch with everyone I knew in my life. People moved house once and you lost touch forever back then.

    About five years ago I bumped into a former Ulster student pal in the centre of Glasgow. He was working in a bar. He too had left under similar intimidation in the early 90’s a few years after I had. His folks were still in North Belfast but he hadn’t visited in all that time. He lived in a rented
    room in a flat in Govanhill. He was forty four years old.

    I suppose reading here about Eibhlin and the questions people have about her being included in a forum I am left with a strange sense of unreality about my time in Northern Ireland as perhaps she does about her younger years in different times. I had a fine (almost idyllic) couple of student years then an enjoyable working time for a period. Then very abruptly my working life was cut short and I’d to try and start again overnight in a different country with nothing. The old Ulster student pal I met had had to do exactly the same thing. We were not the people who were hurt the most by any stretch of the imagination and I am thankful for that. But the ripples from threats and intimidation killed careers stone-dead, job prospects and Hope overnight for lots of people when they had to up sticks and leave in the middle of the night. In the depressing years afterwards, I found myself working nights as a cleaner and day shifts washing dishes. It’s not much different now, though I’ve got my toe back in the door with a wee bit of basic education work as a volunteer. But I’ll never really get to anything much now in my life.
    The Forum should include everyone and all views must be heard and that means Eibhlin too – however distasteful to some corners.