Belfast Telegraph

The former terrorists who are now preaching peace

Loyalists and republicans have written about their crimes to stop young people following their path into prison cells, writes Brian Rowan

They are used to the description of terrorist and murderer. It is how many loyalists and republicans have come to be labelled, and how they will continue to be described even as war becomes something more like peace.

The description is part of the "goodies and baddies" narrative - that simplistic telling of the war story that shovels all the blame on top of the many thousands who have been to jail.

It is estimated that 18,000 republicans went through prison in the decades of conflict here - and something between five and ten thousand loyalists.

Later, those prisoners were part of making the peace possible. "There wouldn't be devolved government without the efforts made by ex-combatants," the UDA 'brigadier' Jackie McDonald told this newspaper.

He is part of a project - From Prison To Peace - an umbrella group representing ex-prisoners with links to the IRA, UDA, UVF, Red Hand Commando, INLA and Official IRA.

As the sound of their bombs and gunfire fades, these one-time enemies are now talking to each other.

Recently, with a journalist colleague, I spoke to the project about media reporting of conflict. In the same room, in one chair, you had the republican Jim McVeigh, the last IRA jail leader in the Maze, and, just a few seats away, McDonald sat with other loyalists.

A significant part of the project's work has been the publication of a booklet - Learning from the Experience of Political Ex-prisoners.

The material is for young people - allowing them to read and learn from real-life stories. It removes any romantic notion of war.

A loyalist ex-prisoner writes: "If they knew what it's actually like being involved in killing someone. It's not like the movies. If they see the result they leave on the family left behind, and the result on their own family and their own mind.

"I did it a few times and it felt worse each time. It was something you felt had to be done, but you didn't like doing it."

On another page, a republican writes: "I knew when I got involved I was going to end up dead or in prison. The only motivation I had was to commit as much violence as possible as quickly as possible.

"I believed violence was a way of bringing the State down. The killing of people was easily justifiable; the act itself.

"But how heavily it sat on your shoulders was another thing.

"There's a lot of things you look back on and realise how callous you were, playing God with someone's life."

Over the years, it wasn't just republicans and loyalists who played God with people's lives - and that's not something often mentioned in those scripts that stick to the language of terrorist and murderer.

Those involved in projects such as From Prison To Peace are not just telling their stories. This is being done for a purpose - to "de- mythologise the prison experience" and to make sure there is no repeat, no re-run, of the years of conflict.

McDonald is convinced that after the killings last year at Massereene Barracks and the shooting of Constable Stephen Carroll, those involved in the project helped ensure there was no knee-jerk reaction.

"We (loyalists) stayed in the room," the paramilitary leader said, "and that was an essential part in keeping everything together."

It was also inside that room that loyalists such as McDonald argued that the INLA should decommission its weapons to consolidate the peace.

This is talking and story telling that is producing results.

The republican Michael Culbert of the Coiste na nLarchimi project said: "It's important to learn from the past. We don't want to glorify the past, but we are primary sources of what happened and why."

I remember one life sentence prisoner speaking to me about "sleeping with the victims" - meaning living with what he did.

He later took his own life.

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