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'The Arab world has got to get its act together, just as the people of Northern Ireland were able to do... the same thing needs to happen in the Middle East'

Terry Waite, who spent five years as a hostage in Beirut, talks to Alf McCreary about our peace process, and why he believes we're in a global war

Published 16/09/2016

Looking forward: Terry Waite
Looking forward: Terry Waite
Long struggle: Terry waves from the steps of the plane that brought him home to England after his captivity
Family ties: Terry with his mother-in-law Joan Watters (centre) on her 100 birthday, wife Frances (left) and all the family
Terry and Frances on their wedding day at St Jude’s in Belfast

Terry Waite, whose best-selling book Taken On Trust was published earlier this month with a new chapter to mark the 25th anniversary of his release from five years' captivity in Beirut, is no stranger to Belfast.

He was married to local woman Frances Watters in St Jude's Church on the Ormeau Road in May 1964. Terry was back here only a couple of weeks ago to visit his mother-in-law Joan Watters, now 105, who is living in a nursing home in south Belfast.

In his book he recalls how he met Frances at the home of Irish friends, and as their romance blossomed they visited her sister in Paris.

"In one week we visited all the main sights... shortly before we left Paris we prepared a picnic lunch and went to sit by the Seine. It was a perfect day, warm with a gentle breeze. As we sat together watching the river flow by I asked Frances to marry me, and she accepted."

He was later to muse: "I can't help but look back on our life together and consider how difficult it must have been for her to live with my unsettled, searching nature.

"She was able to accept me with all my restless vulnerability and show me the real meaning of love. It has taken me over 25 years to learn how to relax in her love. I am still learning."

Waite, who worked in the Middle East as a special envoy for then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Robert Runcie, was captured by Hezbollah in 1987 and kept for five years, mostly chained and in solitary confinement. He details graphically his experiences of that ordeal in Taken On Trust.

In the book he remembers meeting his wife at RAF Lyneham after his release: "In the haven of my room I sat with Frances and heard of her ordeal. Every member of the family shared the experience of captivity.

"Frances decided that it was her first responsibility to ensure that our children had as normal a life as possible. She drew the curtain.

"The pressures to which she was subjected by certain sections of the media were appalling and it was only after the intervention of the Press Council that she was given some respite. At Lyneham, each member of my immediate family had access to a counsellor and we now recognise how fortunate we were to be surrounded by expert helpers."

Terry has been a regular visitor to Belfast over the years, and recalls a number of memorable engagements in Ireland, north and south.

"I appeared with the Warrington Male Voice Choir in many parts of the island, including St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast," he says.

This was after the Warrington bomb planted by the IRA in March 1993.

The explosion, on a busy shopping afternoon, killed two young boys.

Terry says: "The idea of the concerts by the Warrington choir and my address on each occasion was to help people to share in the power and comfort of music.

"We took our lead from the people in Warrington, who wanted to do something positive, so these concerts were held to help further reconciliation between divided communities."

Waite is very much aware of the improving situation in Northern Ireland.

"The bridge-builders have done a reasonably good job.

"There is not nearly the same degree of violence, and that is a great step forward in a long and complex process, but there is still much to be done. The people of Northern Ireland are resilient and tough, and they have always been willing to keep hope alive.

"I congratulate them for what they have achieved."

Though he has not been involved recently in bridge-building here, Terry remembers some of the high-profile figures who were, including Lord Eames.

He feels, however, that the ordinary people also deserve much credit.

"They did not receive much acclaim at the time, but it is important to remember what was done by the people at ground level.

"They became fed-up with the violence and decided to get on and do something to end it. That is well worth remembering."

Terry believes that people in other troubled areas should be wary about Northern Ireland as the only model of conflict resolution.

"You have to deal with each country as it stands.

"There were elements in the Northern Ireland situation that were similar to others, such as the need for dialogue and mutual respect, and people to apply these to the situation in hand, wherever they are."

He believes that the world has moved into a virtual Third World War.

"This is very different from the First and Second World Wars, but as we know, acts of violence are now taking place all over the world, and we are having to deal with a global war.

"We need to try to understand the roots of the conflict, and why some people are behaving in the way they are. Some members of Isis are psychotic and some may have mental problems.

"Others have allowed their convictions to steer them into a perversion of the teachings of Islam, and to find out why they do this, we need to go way back into history."

Terry is critical of the politicians whom, he says "did not clearly understand the background" of the countries they were dealing with in the Middle East and what they were letting themselves in for.

He adds: "Of course the West has a measure of responsibly for overthrowing Saddam, but in doing so they released forces over which they had no control.

"I am not a supporter of dictatorships, but if you remove a dictator you cannot introduce democracy overnight. It does not work like that. I said that at the time when the invasion of Iraq was being proposed."

Terry underlines the point in the new chapter of his book. "Our politicians seem to have shown a lamentable ignorance of that region and the complex issues that face the people of those and other countries.

"I say politicians deliberately, for I know full well that many diplomats with experience of this region, along with senior military figures, have been opposed to some of the actions that have been taken at the instigation of our political leaders."

Terry believes that Isis is being defeated on the ground. "But it is not totally defeated by any means. The Arab world has got to get its act together, just as the people of Northern Ireland were able to achieve a solution, partly with help from outside.

"The same needs to happen in the Middle East where local people will have to make their own contribution to peace."

Now 77, Terry continues to have a busy life, and he is currently on a whirlwind tour to promote the reissue of his book with the extra chapter.

He and Frances have four grown-up children - one son and three daughters - and they have three grandchildren. Though steeped in Anglicanism for a large part of his life, he now regularly attends Quaker services, and he writes movingly about attending a Friends' meeting-house near Bury St Edmunds.

"In solitary confinement, I was deprived of both books and music. I then realised how important they were to me - I believe that good language, like good music, has the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul.

"Here, in this Quaker place of worship, by contrast, there is no music, nor are there readings or formal prayers. Here, in this simple room, one discovers the music and harmony of silence.

"It is truly healing, and unites all who sit together in a deep and reconciling harmony, a harmony that our poor divided world so desperately seeks."

Terry, a remarkable man by any standards, has no intention of retiring and he plans to return to Belfast in November to promote a new book of narrative and poetry titled Out Of The Silence. This will be published by SPCK.

The reissue of Taken On Trust is well worth-reading and re-reading.

Towards the end of the new chapter he reflects plaintively on his life where he has known more than enough of the suffering and frustration of world conflicts.

He writes: "I do not lose hope... I have frequently said to myself that if only men and women who are hostile to each other could put the past in the past and begin to work for a better future, then we might begin to make some progress."

That is something we could well take to heart in Northern Ireland.

Taken On Trust by Terry Waite, Hodder and Stoughton, £9.99

Belfast Telegraph

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