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Old foes Smith and Walsh now share stage in bid to build bridges between communities

By Brian Rowan

Published 31/07/2015

Seanna Walsh and William ‘Plum’ Smith meet at the Lanark Way gates, off the Springfield Road in Belfast, yesterday
Seanna Walsh and William ‘Plum’ Smith meet at the Lanark Way gates, off the Springfield Road in Belfast, yesterday

They were once enemies in the 'war' years - republican and loyalist.

But yesterday this newspaper photographed Seanna Walsh and William 'Plum' Smith together on one of the peacelines that still divide Belfast.

A decade ago this week Walsh read the statement to camera that formally ended the IRA's armed campaign.

The Belfast republican was one of the longest-serving prisoners in the conflict period and a friend of hunger striker Bobby Sands.

And, back in 1994, Smith chaired the news conference at which the ceasefire of the Combined Loyalist Military Command was announced.

On Monday the two men will share a stage at the West Belfast Festival - Feile an Phobail - when Walsh will interview Smith about his book, Inside Man.

It is the loyalist's prison story, told from a period in the Long Kesh compounds with Gusty Spence, David Ervine and Winston 'Winkie' Rea, through to that ceasefire announcement.

"There's nobody better to interview you than your former adversary," Smith told the Belfast Telegraph. "People need to tell their stories so that we get a picture of both sides and a better understanding of the past and what we need to do for the future.

"To me, there should be no barriers to talking and expressing yourself and opinions wherever the opportunity arises."

The pair have been involved in a number of projects together, including a recent event on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast, when they shared their experiences with visiting American students.

"The war's over," the Belfast republican told this newspaper.

He was one of the first prisoners to be freed from the Maze as part of early releases that followed the Good Friday Agreement.

"Whenever the war is over we have a responsibility as people who were involved in that war to help rebuild relationships that are going to lead to a better society," Walsh said.

He is also involved in a dialogue with former British soldiers who are now part of a group, Veterans For Peace. It also has an event at this year's festival.

"What comes out of these events is a greater understanding of how far we have actually moved, not only in the past 27 years (since the festival began) but, even, the past 10 years."

This is a reference to the decade since that statement from the IRA formally ending the armed campaign.

Smith, a former Red Hand Commando prisoner, has been part of the loyalist transition from conflict to peace.

After chairing the ceasefire news conference, he was part of the PUP delegation to the talks leading to the Belfast Agreement.

"The make-up of the festival includes a wide-ranging body of opinion - the Chief Constable George Hamilton, the Orange Order chaplain Mervyn Gibson, one of the runners in the Labour leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn, and the East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson," Smith said.

"It gives a huge platform to people to voice their opinions."

  • The Other Men Behind The Wire - 'Plum' Smith in conversation with Seanna Walsh starts at noon on Monday at St Mary's University College on the Falls Road.

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