It’s not about sackcloth and ashes – By Brian Rowan 

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London Panel Discussion – Lee Lavis, Seanna Walsh, Kieran Devlin and Pat Magee (Image supplied by Veterans For Peace)

Try to picture the scene.

On stage two former British soldiers sitting beside two men whose names will forever be identified with the IRA’s ‘war and peace’.

“There was no rancour, no squealing or shouting, no finger pointing,” Seanna Walsh said.

Across several prison terms, the Belfast republican served over 20 years in jail.

And, today, is remembered for the words he read to camera in 2005 declaring a formal end to the IRA’s armed campaign.

Recently, in London, he was joined on stage by Pat Magee, whose bomb was intended to wipe out Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet during the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton in 1984.

The two republicans were invited to be part of a panel discussion and question-and-answer session at the annual conference of Veterans For Peace.

“I had nothing but thanks and good wishes for where we are today and hopes for the future,” Walsh told the eamonnmallie.com website.

“It was difficult enough at times, some of the questions, but the way it was framed, it was meant to be an engagement, not an argument.

“You had people there who had obviously been hurt by the conflict, people who had been damaged by the conflict and, people in the audience, who had lost loved ones,” he said.

These events, these engagements, just don’t happen.

They are part of a process, what have come to be called quiet or uncomfortable conversations.

And, this link, between former British soldiers under the umbrella of Veterans For Peace and former IRA prisoners has been developing in the background in recent times.

 

Michael Culbert, Breige Brownlee and Seanna Walsh (Image by Elle Rowan)

Michael Culbert, Breige Brownlee and Seanna Walsh (Image by Elle Rowan)

 

Eight veterans held a series of meetings here last year, a programme of events organised by Michael Culbert the director of the project Coiste na nlarchimi, which works on behalf of republican ex-prisoners.

“At one stage the enemy was the British. They’re now the opposition,” Culbert said.

“Our enemy was the British State. That is what has to be reconciled,” he added.

And the developing conversations and contacts are part of that process.

In the 1990s, pre-ceasefire and afterwards, Lee Lavis served on two tours in Northern Ireland with the 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment.

“The Army does things very black and white – enemy and good guy, and I was a good guy,” he said.

“I saw every single member of the nationalist community as my enemy.

“I saw them as being in the IRA, supporting the IRA or going to join the IRA,” he continued.

“I believed the line terrorists, psychopaths and criminals,” he said.

Lavis was part of the Veterans For Peace delegation that held that series of meetings with republicans last year, and also part of the recent panel discussion in London.

He has travelled a long distance in his thinking and his questioning;

A long way from cheering with fellow soldiers during a regimental briefing when shown video images of Michael Stone’s attack on mourners at an IRA funeral, to the type of dialogue he is now involved in.

In his own words, he became “the nail sticking out of the wood”.

One of his meetings last year was with a group of republican women including Eibhlin Glenholmes and Breige Brownlee.

“It was the most difficult meeting and the most fraught…very, very tense,” Lavis recalls.

Those in the room were from the different sides of the conflict, and today’s talking does not remove the many wounds of the past; how they hurt each other.

Brownlee remembers it beginning with “arms folded”, it being “very, very emotional” and, at times even “aggressive”.

But it was also “a most enlightening engagement”.

“You are better talking across the table, rather than anything going on under the table,” she said.

And, Lavis believes, however difficult, these conversations are essential.

“You could really see the power of this work to change pre-conceived ideas. You saw that being de-constructed through that meeting,” he said.

If these conversations were easy or cosy, they would change nothing. They have to be about asking and answering the difficult questions.

Veterans For Peace has a statement of purpose.

“We, having dutifully served our nation, do hereby affirm our greater responsibility to serve the cause of world peace,” it reads.

“To this end we will work, with others:

“Toward increasing public awareness of the costs of war;

“To restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations;

“To end the arms race and to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons;

“To seek justice for veterans and victims of war;

“To abolish war as an instrument of national policy.”

And the statement finishes: “To achieve these goals, members of Veterans For Peace pledge to use non-violent means and to maintain an organisation that is both democratic and open, with the understanding that all members are trusted to act in the best interests of the group for the larger purpose of world peace.” 

Lavis says the dialogue with republicans is “not looking for sackcloth and ashes from us or them”.

Rather it is about achieving some better understanding of each other.

“I believe it stimulates further conversations,” he said.

“It breaks down barriers, removing that reduced view we have of each other,” he continued.

And he believes the contacts also deliver “the symbolic importance of former combatants talking”.

“For the British soldiers it gives them closure on a part of their life that was traumatic,” he said.

“This process, for us, removes the balaclavas and, for them, it removes our helmets and camouflage cream.

“It humanises everything,” he said.

And, so, the talking arrived on that stage in London.

“The British soldiers there explained why they joined the Army,” Seanna Walsh said.

“And Pat [Magee] and myself were talking about the circumstances that gave rise to us going out to resist the British Army on our streets.”

Recently, in Belfast, deputy first minister Martin McGuinness urged further “uncomfortable conversations” towards reconciliation, and Walsh sees this dialogue with Veterans For Peace in that frame.

“It’s about binding the wounds of war, attempting to re-build a society and a future for our children that is different from the lives of conflict and prison that we lived,” he said

And Lavis believes the talking “gives context”.

“We are in every story, but we are the extras,” he said.

This summer Veterans For Peace will have an event in Feile an Phobail; another small but significant step forward.

And for Breige Brownlee, this continuing dialogue is about “breaking down suspicions…breaking down the barriers”.

“Conversations have to be taken out of the corners and out of the rooms,” she said.

Before the engagement with Veterans For Peace, Michael Culbert brought two soldiers, who are not part of that group, to meet with families in Ballymurphy.

In his words, it gave him “a seed of thought” out of which this new dialogue has emerged.

And why is it important?

Because not long ago this type of interaction would have been considered unthinkable.


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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. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie

9 Comments

  1. Glenn Bradley on

    Given the failure of some politicians to engage or lead the process of reconciliation this honest assessment of authentic, ground breaking, leadership by some of those at the coal face is refreshing.

    Almost 245000 Regular Army soldiers served in Northern Ireland between the period 1969-97. Unlike members of the ‘local’ British security forces (UDR / R IRISH HS & RUC) their story is largely written out of those turbulent years, and forgotten. This is despite being the executive arm of successive HMGs and next to civilian casualties the ‘contingent’ to suffer most loss and injury.

    People oft forget it is ‘soldiers’ regardless of their notions of Nationhood that also suffer in any conflict, and thus in times of relative stability on a level playing field it is right that those ‘soldiers’ whether a ‘private’ or a ‘volunteer’ take heart to cement the building blocks of mutual respect, parity of esteem, equality and peace for each other, for their families, their communities, the society they’re a part off.

    Fantastic engagement & work by Coiste na nlarchimi; VFPUK and a lesser extent Interaction.

    • Glenn – there are those who won’t understand or appreciate this type of dialogue at this time, but it needs to continue and grow. The discussions fit into that wider frame of “uncomfortable conversations” and all involved need to ask their hard and awkward questions. As I write in the piece this will achieve nothing if it becomes cosy. Already, there is interest in this article. Let the conversations grow. Talking is better than not talking. Barney

  2. As someone who has always held the view that war or conflict can be boiled down to a gun with a working class person at either end, it is refreshing and hopeful to see such ‘difficult conversations’ being held between former combatants of our local conflict. I know and admire the work of Veterans for Peace, not just in terms of their reconciliation work here in Northern Ireland but also for their stance against militarism and the cooption of commemorative events such as Remembrance Sunday for current military campaigns. Here VfP share much with other groups such as the Peace Pledge Union and the White Peace Poppy campaign, offering an alternative and more critical view of remembering and honouring those who died in the first world war for example. VfP while honouring the dead of the Great War also ask the uncomfortable but necessary question: what was that war about? Too much focus on WWI is on the historical details of individual soldiers, specific battles, places etc and not enough on the causes and consequences of that war. I think the engagement between ex-British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland and republican ex-combatants is important and may lead to a greater understanding of the causes and consequences of our conflict. Perhaps because of the different relationship between the Army and the unionist/loyalist community, their message of asking tough questions and having these difficult and uncomfortable conversations, questioning the rationale of the Army itself for example, means they will find it more difficult to open up a dialogue with that section of our community. And I wonder if there are initiatives for VfP to enter into dialogue with ex-loyalist combatants? But it is positive, given the general sense of stalemate at the official/party political and Assembly levels, to see that grassroots, on the ground initiatives such as these are taking place. I wish them well and hope we have more of them.

    • Glenn Bradley on

      John,

      An initiative called: “Former Combatants for Peace: Building a Platform for Change” had been programmed by Interaction in west Belfast.

      The concept which included VfP participation was designed for ex soldiers, ex police officers, former LPOWs, former Republican POWs and other Republican or Loyalist activists to come together for difficult conversations with each other. The second phase would include the groups mentioned meeting with victims who would enter the programme. Capacity building with various groups for phase 1 had concluded, and all was positively advancing in this excellent model of grassroots community and society engagement / reconciliation.

      Unfortunately, core funding for Interaction was rescinded with just 3 weeks notice forcing the initiative to halt.

      G

  3. Barry Fennell on

    Brian, this type of initiative is necessary, valid, authentic and inspiring. Having facilitated interactions with military/services’ women here as part of a regional project the series of interactions involving Veterans for Peace is also essential. I have nothing but respect to everyone involved in terms of choice, contact and challenge. These just aren’t essential conversations they are courageous conversations. As you mention unthinkable interactions have to be made possible for change to happen – it is extremely refreshing that these individuals are underpinning the peace process more than elected representatives. Yet again grassroots lead the way for change. Long may these types of dialogues continue, grow and flourish.

  4. Perhaps the most difficult conversation yet to be had doesn’t belong to ex combatants, it belongs to middle class Unionism. This section of society is comfortable accepting the narrative that the boundaries of right and wrong are clearly defined and more importantly, they know which side they belong. The history of Ireland didn’t begin in 1969 and with this in mind I believe that if fault and blame are left outside the meeting room great progress can be made.

      • Leaving fault and blame outside the door is exactly what has happened between VFP and Coiste and is one of the reasons why i think this relationship works so well. However, listening to Martin McGuinness on the radio today and hearing him say that some DUP politicians still will not speak to him, demonstrates the gap between ex-combatants and politicians. It is way past due this gulf in attitudes was rectified.

        • Kieran, at one time the conversations you and Lee and others from Veterans For Peace are involved in with republicans probably seemed unthinkable. They have happened and are happening and they set an example of leadership to be followed by all. Thanks for your contributions to this discussion under your twitter name lord conlig.

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