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We can't lock away our past if we want to create a future

At Easter 1995, ex-prisoner Gusty Spence told me, "A person doesn't fight for fighting's sake; I want to put the fighting aside; I want to see peace in Northern Ireland. I want to see people sit down in peace and justice and hammer out their differences, to make this country prosperous for everyone."

Ed Curran, in his recent columns in the Belfast Telegraph, considers it a misconception to suggest that, without ex-prisoners, we would have no peace.

All of us were born into a deeply-divided society, including ex-prisoners, who often lived in mean streets engulfed by poverty. Many felt compelled by duty to defend their homes and communities. Even many good people wanted to teach others a lesson by returning the serve.

Yet at an early stage, some loyalists and republicans questioned violence. People like John Hume helped enormously, including by talking with loyalist and republican ex-prisoners. But to suggest that ex-prisoners were obstacles to peace for 30 years is very misleading.

It was often ordinary people and their politicians who resisted and obstructed moves towards peace. Some ex-prisoners were told it was a 'sell-out process'. Making peace with the enemy was treachery.

In 1970, Gusty Spence had brief conversions in prison with Billy McMillen, then Belfast IRA leader. Both questioned violence and, inside his Divis Street election offices, McMillen displayed his thinking on a banner through a verse by a Presbyterian: 'And let the orange lily be, your badge my patriot brother. It's the everlasting green for me; But we for one another.'

A tricolour inside the window became a source of strife. The Rev Ian Paisley and others threatened to remove it if the RUC refused to. Riots followed. Catholic premises were attacked on the Shankill because of 'what was being done to our police on the Falls'.

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In 1969, members of both traditions believed others had invaded 'their' territory, so many became caught up in cycles of violence with atrocity piled upon atrocity. Both sides considered, but rejected, more devastating atrocities.

Many good people wished to see the other side knocked out. One politician accepted that his own side's paramilitaries were b*****ds, but 'they are our b*****ds'. In the midst of mayhem, leading loyalists questioned violence and planted seeds of peace. The 'new thinking' led to direct contact between opponents to lessen and end violence.

I was aware of loyalist 'new-thinking' when I was introduced, in 1973, to a Sinn Fein member. By the late 1980s, republicans Tom Hartley, Mitchel McLaughlin and Lucilita Breathnach convinced me that Sinn Fein was prepared to negotiate.

By 1991, I completed a study on loyalism which I passed to Sinn Fein so they would know that loyalists were also ready for peace. By 1995, with explicit loyalist approval, I made a submission to the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. For this I was disciplined by the Ulster Unionist Party.

When I then shared a platform with Martin McGuinness, one senior DUP politician called for my expulsion from the UUP. The following year, I was again disciplined for smiling while talking with Albert Reynolds and Gerry Adams.

The UDA's John McMichael told me that, when the UDA first moved towards politics, they were viciously attacked by mainline parties. Loyalists were later condemned for seeking peace with 'the enemy'.

Ex-prisoners are not from another planet. We owe them more than can be told in terms of peacemaking. This was at a time when Ed Curran's "great, silent majority" remained silent. Ordinary people wanted peace and many ex-prisoners bitterly regretted having been led into violence. Former senior UVF man Billy Mitchell virtually worked himself to death for peace.

Innocence is no virtue and people who never make mistakes, never make anything.

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