‘The former enemy prisoners showing our politicians how it’s done’ – By Brian Rowan

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Photo via John Loughran

 

The two men sitting at the table said something about how much this place has changed.

In the conflict years they were in very different trenches.

Seanna Walsh’s background is in the IRA. He spent more than 20 years in jail.

William ‘Plum’ Smith from the Shankill is an ex Red Hand Commando prisoner.

Today they met and talked about Smith’s book ‘Inside Man’ – a conversation that shows what is possible and which sets a challenge for those at Stormont.

If they can do it – why can’t you?

Smith’s book is the loyalist prison story, and he told his audience at St Mary’s University College on the Falls Road that the seeds of the peace process can be found in Long Kesh.

This event was part of the West Belfast Festival – Féile an Phobail.

In the page turns of this conversation, so it moved from Smith’s early involvement in the conflict, how he joined the Red Hand Commando, went to prison for shooting a Catholic man and ended up being central to the ceasefire announcement of 1994 and the talks that made the Good Friday Agreement.

“My generation was born into it,” Smith said – meaning the conflict.

“I was 15/16 in ’69 when the place blew up,” he added.

Walsh described Gusty Spence as “the towering figure in the book”.

Smith recalled a quote from the veteran loyalist who died in 2011: “You either come out of prison a better man or a bitter man.”

This was a conversation that on occasions moved away from the serious – to other stories of being taught how to play bridge in prison and how a poitín recipe was shared by republicans.

But what was the biggest moment in this event?

Not the words, but just the picture of those two men sitting together – two men from very different backgrounds.

The significance of that image was something upon which another loyalist Ronnie McCullough commented from the audience, which also included Pat Magee whose name will always to be linked to the bomb at Brighton that came close to wiping out the Thatcher Cabinet.

We shouldn’t take these conversations for granted, nor should we take the political institutions for granted.

“If it unravels, it will be very hard to put together again,” Smith said as he called for “proper” and “courageous” leadership.

The conduct of this event set a standard and an example for dialogue on Stormont’s hill.

If only politicians could engage in the same spirit as these former prisoners and enemies.

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About Author

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.

5 Comments

  1. John Loughran on

    Brian you are right to highlight the importance of such dialogues. They cannot be taken for granted and as such we must collectively guard against complacency and protect the gains made through the peace process over the last 20 years.

    The symbolism of such events speaks to a commitment and a reaffirmation by the contributors that the violence of the past is over, done with and a thing of the past. Of course there are others who are not yet convinced and remain committed to old paths. The challenge for all committed to peace must be to engage them in similar uncomfortable conversations. It is not enough that they are not engaged nor engaging in such dialogues.

    Todays dialogue – as with the Sean Murray and Mervyn Gibson parades dialogue on Friday past – was frank and honest and conducted with respect. Thursday nights dialogue with Martin McGuinness and PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton is another significant milestone in our journey toward a better future wherein key players can seek to be respectful to the pain and loss of the past but ensure through their presence that they remain committed to build the peace.

    Collectively these public dialogues as hosted by the West Belfast Festival continue to push the boundaries and yet remind us of distance travelled and distance yet to go.

    • John – how do you get the 100-plus MLAs to sit in and listen in on these conversations? On Thursday the Chief Constable and Martin McGuinness are going to discuss a huge piece of unfinished business in terms of the peace process – the question of how to address the past. That should be a conversation that every politician should be interested in and should want to participate in. How many will be there? I think their absence will say a lot.

      • I think Anthony McIntyre is right when he says on his site that these conversations have been going on a long time. Maybe the roots of the peace process do lie in long kesh, but a peace process and a functioning government are two different things. Why hasn’t loyalism been able to get the foothold in the democratic process that Sinn Fein has ? Is it because they stress loyalism and not left leaning or right leaning politics, politics is economics and that means asking people to look at you and vote for you on the basis that you can make their lives better. Sinn Fein have grasped this, that’s why they’re being stubborn about cuts to benefits and services. Loyalism isn’t offering this as far as I can see, not in a strong meaningful way. Bringing peace is only the start of the process, prosperity and bread and butter issues are the next step. Either we do it to the betterment of all or the peace process has failed. …

        • I think loyalism’s best chance in the political process was in that period ’94 to ’98 when it was inside the talks tent. Since then it has become lost and never quite found its way back. I agree with you that bringing peace is only the start and we’re not sure how much is going to be delivered in terms of those bread and butter issues.

      • John Loughran on

        Thursday nights Feile debate will present a new platform to discuss and potentially reorient the legacy debate. It evidences in a public way who is up for the debate and by definition who is not! In a very real way Martin McGuinness and George Hamilton are leading their own constituencies into a new chapter of an old debate – a debate that isn’t going way and which needs to be much more sensitive to the needs of all victims.

        That the debate is happening at all is a hugely welcome development. But you are right to ask who else will be part of the debate?

        The timing of the debate demonstrates that neither Sinn Fein nor the PSNI are on the run from the legacy debate. Thats what Thursday night is about.

        The presence and participation of George Hamilton in a legacy debate in West Belfast with Martin McGuinness on the most uncomfortable aspect of our peace process is a signal to those within political Unionism that the legacy debate is moving – and that it is they who are very much on the outside.

        His presence in essentially a political debate will present very real challenge to others who are not involved: those who prevaricate and who seek to use legacy maters for political point-scoring. Either way how we approach and frame legacy matters will not be the same after Thursday nights debate! Policing is now one way or another centre stage of this toxic political issue.

        It signals his intent about how he sees the role of the PSNI in the legacy debate and importantly his role and that of policing in to the future. It is ironic that past policing practices which were integral to sustaining conflict may now – for an entirely different set of considerations – pave the way for politicians and indeed governments to genuinely engaging with challenges of legacy?

        The Chief Constable like so many will be aware of the contradictions.

        He is committed to delivering effective policing in 2015 and most will give him a fair wind. It is however a different story when it comes to the PSNI engaging with legacy matters. For many there remains little confidence in the PSNI when it comes to legacy. The HET debacle speaks to this.

        Central to confidence in these legacy mechanisms envisioned in the Stormont House Agreement will be there independence. As things stand there does seem to be positive signs form the Chief Constable that he is up for the uncomfortable challenge that the legacy presents to his organisation.

        Of course there will be emotion as the Chief Constable engages directly with families who’ve been bereaved by the RUC. He too will bring a painful memory and experience of police lives lost in the conflict. Acknowledging the human impact of all lives lost is vital if we are genuinely to engage with personal challenges of legacy. It is in these conversations that we hear of the human devastation of conflict. Of the lives ruined. But also of the hope that conflict never again returns.

        Only when people are in the room and having the uncomfortable conversations can things change, can things progress – lets hope Unionist politicians (and more importantly Loyalist leaders) join the debate on Thursday night.

        Their voices also need heard. If we are serious about engaging with legacy we should all want to hear them and those of their communities.

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