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Old enemies re-engage in name of Northern Ireland peace

Published 08/05/2015

From left: Lee Lavis, Seanna Walsh, Kieran Devlin and Pat Magee at the conference in London
From left: Lee Lavis, Seanna Walsh, Kieran Devlin and Pat Magee at the conference in London
The bullet-riddled Hiace van after eight IRA men were shot dead by the SAS during a bomb attack on Loughgall RUC station in 1987
A soldier leans out his car window at an IRA funeral in 1988. He was later shot dead
Lee Lavis when he was in the Army

They were deadly foes for the 38 years of Operation Banner, the Army's deployment in Northern Ireland. But now former republican paramilitaries and British soldiers are taking part in a remarkable reconciliation project. Brian Rowan reports.

It is a dialogue that began out of a chance meeting in Belfast and that is growing into something quite significant: former soldiers are talking with former IRA prisoners, a conversation between one-time enemies.

One of the soldiers served with the Parachute Regiment in Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Afghanistan, and with the SAS in Baghdad. In 2011 Ben Griffin, with others, started Veterans For Peace in the UK.

"We work to expose the true nature of warfare in the hope of convincing people that war is not the answer to the problems of the 21st century," he told this newspaper.

The evolving conversations here in Belfast and elsewhere are being shaped in a partnership with the republican project Coiste na nIarchimi.

"The meetings with former IRA volunteers have given me a better understanding of the circumstances that lead to war," Griffin continued, "and helped to humanise people, who are still viewed by some as an enemy."

"Leaving fault and blame outside the door is one of the reasons why I think this relationship works so well," another of the veterans, Kieran Devlin, commented.

"However, listening to Martin McGuinness on the radio and hearing him say that some DUP politicians still will not speak to him demonstrates the gap between ex-combatants and politicians."

Devlin served with the Royal Engineers for five years, including active service in the first Gulf War.

And, recently, with Veterans For Peace colleague Lee Lavis, he shared a London stage with 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.

The Belfast republican served more than 20 years in jail - the first of several terms beginning when he was 16.

Today he is remembered for the words he read to camera in 2005 declaring a formal end to the IRA's armed campaign.

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.

"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," Walsh said.

"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."

This dialogue is about both the past and the present. It is about what has changed, and that is captured in the words of the director of the Coiste na nIarchimi project, Michael Culbert.

He talks frankly about the conflict period, when soldiers "were no more than objects to be targeted".

"I don't want to seem callous, but I think I am not out of order in stating that republicans thought little of the human costs of their deaths and the body-bags returning to Britain," he added.

Over time that enemy mindset and experience has had to change to allow new conversations - including with Veterans For Peace - to breathe. And it needed different attitudes on both sides of this dialogue.

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

"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. I believed the line 'terrorists, psychopaths and criminals'."

Lavis was part of a Veterans For Peace delegation that held a series of meetings with republicans last year.

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 in Belfast 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 recalled.

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, and that they need to go wider, "extend beyond our own direct constituencies".

This is something he has been doing in the company of Seanna Walsh.

They have spoken to a number of schools, youth projects and students "about the reality of involvement in violent conflict rather than the glamorous descriptions that are often attached to such endeavours".

Veterans For Peace has a statement of purpose, which includes: "We, having dutifully served our nation, do hereby affirm our greater responsibility to serve the cause of world peace." It says it will "seek justice for veterans and victims of war".

"We intend to explore how we can further develop the current relationships," Culbert told this newspaper, while stressing that the talking has not changed republican objectives. But Lavis believes the dialogue "humanises everything".

Inside the talking, in these new post-conflict circumstances, balaclavas, helmets and camouflage cream have been removed. The two sides see the faces of the other.

And what Devlin described earlier is important to the progress of this dialogue, the fact that blame and fault have been left outside the room. He uses a famous quote on his Twitter page, namely: "You can't shake hands with a clenched fist."

Recently in Belfast Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness urged further "uncomfortable conversations" towards reconciliation.

Walsh sees this dialogue with Veterans For Peace as being inside that frame.

"It's about binding the wounds of war, attempting to rebuild 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 be given the stage in the West Belfast Festival (Feile an Phobail), another small but significant step forward.

And why is the talking important? Because, not that long ago, this type of interaction would have been considered unthinkable.

Belfast Telegraph

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