Letterkenny’s new mayor, Sinn Féin Cllr. Gerry McMonagle, and Charlie McConalogue, Fianna Fáil TD, have been involved since early last year in a project that many participants have called a life-changing experience.
Mayor McMonagle, a former republican prisoner, said the work would have been impossible for him even three years ago.
The Sustainable Peace Network, an EU-funded initiative of Irish Peace Centres Consortium, comprising Co-operation Ireland, the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and Corrymeela, brings together men and women from both sides of the border. Participants include former combatants and security forces, republicans and loyalists, people who lost loved ones in the Troubles and others who were much further removed from the conflict.
“It’s about preparing leaders to go back to their constituencies and build a sustainable peace,” Gerry said. “We discuss our experiences, and our lives, and our political philosophies.”
“A lot of time and a lot of effort was given to it, but over time people were able to impart their experiences and get an understanding of others’ experiences as well,” Charlie said. “Overall, no one would have come out of it without a very deepened understanding of the various strands of Northern Ireland life and the strands of the conflict.”
The goal is to build understanding between the communities, and over the past 10 years more than 110 people have come through the initiative, with surprising friendships resulting.
The programme combines outdoor activities with frank and intense discussion. The current session began in spring of 2010 and has been run over several multi-day sessions held in Ireland, north and south, Scotland, and a 16-day trip to South Africa last month.
It has not all been “smooth sailing”, Gerry said, adding, “There have been very testing times.”
Recognising the humanity of others
The peace network is the brainchild of ex Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) prisoner Alistair Little and Wilhelm Verwoerd, with support from a number of other people. Wilhelm is a former African National Congress (ANC) activist whose grandfather, Hendrik Verwoerd, was a South African prime minister known as the “architect of apartheid”.
The two men met in Dublin in 2001 and discovered shared commitments to peace-building, despite different backgrounds.
Alistair joined the UVF at age 14, and when he was 17 he was sentenced to prison, serving 13 years in the Maze, also known as Long Kesh. Those years changed him. He had demonised Catholics and republicans when he was younger, but while in prison he began to recognise the human cost of the conflict on all sides.
Alistair found himself affected by the death of Bobby Sands on hunger strike in 1981, asking himself whether he could do what the IRA prisoner had done.
“I wanted to say yes, but in my heart the answer was no,” Alistair said. “I came to the conclusion that it takes a special type of human being to starve themselves to death for something they believe in.
“I was recognising his humanity,” he said. “I was recognising the human cost of the conflict.”
After Alistair was released from prison, he qualified as a counsellor. In the years since he has become an experienced reconciliation worker, with a special interest in the potential for healing through sharing stories and personal histories. He has worked in the north and in Israel and Palestine, Serbia, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Wilhelm grew up in apartheid South Africa in a prominent political family that “was very much part of that establishment”, he said. It was not until he attended university that he left that cocoon and was confronted with what he called “powerful truths” about the devastating impact of apartheid on black South Africans.
“My grandfather’s name was a red flag to anyone I met,” he recalled.
When Wilhelm’s attitude toward apartheid changed, he said he became convinced that he needed to join the ANC, the main opposition to the government during apartheid. He said, with a wry laugh, that his decision “was not popular in some circles”.
South Africa turned to non-racial democracy in 1994 and Wilhelm worked with the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission, work he was passionate about.
Both Wilhelm and Alistair were also interested in the use of wilderness treks and other outdoors programmes in peace-building projects and trauma work. The Sustainable Peace Network is about “finding creative ways to face painful truths”, Wilhelm said. “The past is present and the past is future, unless you find a way to transform it.”
‘A wild varied group’
The first trip Gerry, Charlie and their group undertook was a bank holiday weekend spent at the outdoor activity centre at Kippure Estate, in the Wicklow hills. After participants were introduced to each other the group of 18 was split into two teams for outdoor competitions. The teams included people from all backgrounds -- former RUC and soldiers, loyalists, republicans, former combatants, ex prisoners and others.
“There was great suspicion at the time,” Gerry said. “It was a wild varied group.”
But the competitions required teamwork.
“We’re all competitive and needs must and all that,” Gerry admitted, with a laugh. “It was an excellent way to bring people together.” Early on, they began forming something of a group identity through those competitions.
“By the end of the weekend we were sort of calling each other by our first names,” Gerry said.
The discussions were not easy. “I was a former republican prisoner and things were put to me,” Gerry said. Why did you get involved in the struggle? How do you feel about IRA involvement in certain acts? One participant said to him, “I never thought about Ireland before, and I got blown up by the IRA and lost my hearing. Why did they do that?”
In the same way, Gerry posed questions about Bloody Sunday to former members of security forces in the north.
“They likewise challenged myself and my republican beliefs,” he said. “It was a very upfront discussion done in a very safe environment and done respectfully. It does make you think.
“It’s about how other people are feeling and about making a place where all those opinions could be brought together,” Gerry said. “How do we build peace? That’s what it’s about.”
“It brought together people who in many ways would not have discussed personal experiences, and often tragedies and losses, outside of their own community and family before,” Charlie said.
For people to explore those experiences alongside others who they may have considered the enemy was a very difficult process, Charlie said. “I think particularly for people who were very directly affected by the Troubles -- they were bringing up topics that were very, very personal to people and in many ways very, very raw as well.”
It was the same over their next weekend away, in June, at an outdoor centre in County Derry, and in September, during a five-day trip and backpacking trek in the western isles of Scotland. There was another weekend in County Derry in late autumn. By this time there were friendly emails and phone calls among participants between the sessions.
Creativity in vulnerability
The South African trip, funded by participants and private-sector support, not only introduced participants to South Africans who were recovering from the trauma of their own political conflict, but also took them on a five-day wilderness trek, where they slept beneath the stars most nights.
They were accompanied on the trek by armed guards in case they encountered wild animals, and each person took a turn overnight to stand watch and to make sure the camp fire stayed lit. They hiked in silence, to enable their guides to hear the approach of animals. At night, they could hear the noises of the wild - the calls of baboons and hyenas, the roar of the lion.
Part of the point of the experience was to open participants to their own vulnerability, Alistair said. “It doesn’t matter who you think you are. It doesn’t matter how tough and how hard you are,” he said. “That’s all stripped away.”
In the South African bush, “I can see the vulnerability in republicans and they can see it in me,” Alistair said. “I think it really helps to humanise one another.” Participants relied on each other for water and food, they relied on one another to protect them as they slept.
“There’s a creativity that happens in that vulnerable moment,” Alistair said.
The group met members of the ANC and former combatants. They spoke with Afrikaners who opposed the change that had come to their country. They visited the notorious Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela was held. In shantytowns, where they stayed with black South African families, they saw poverty that could only be imagined in Ireland.
“It’s a very, very wealthy country,” Gerry said. “Yet here are these people who have to live in a 10 by 10 shack, four families living in it.” He shook his head.
Charlie, who was elected to the Dáil in February and now serves as Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson for children, was unable to travel to South Africa because of the time demands of his new responsibilities.
“I was very disappointed at not being able to do that,” he said. “Having done so much work in terms of exploring the dynamics of the troubles in Northern Ireland and the differing traditions, actually comparing that to the experience in South Africa would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Every evening in South Africa, even in the wild, the group continued the discussions that had begun all those months ago in Wicklow. The silent trek gave participants time to think.
“You’re thinking all the time,” Gerry said. “You think about the townships. You think about home. You think about the people who are along with you, the people you’ve been on the journey with. You think about the conflict.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” he said.
Opening eyes and ears
Wilhelm and Alistair said it has been very satisfying to see relationships grow from these experiences. They have been taking groups on these journeys for 10 years, along with other facilitators.
Alistair recalled a former police officer who asked a republican taxi man to collect his daughter so he would know she was safe. Wilhelm spoke of a former high-level official of the British Army who asked a Derry republican to show his family around when he brought them from London. The wedding of a young Protestant woman brought back participants from one of the groups: Two former INLA members, and former members of the IRA and UVF were among those who shared a table.
Participants said they were surprised at how deeply the programme has affected them.
The UVF killed two of Gerry McErlane’s brothers in 1975, “only because of their religion,” Gerry said. He admitted that he was initially worried about Alistair and his UVF background, and hesitant about getting involved. But as things progressed, people got to know each other.
“I’ll never forget one of the residentials -- I was watching an IRA man put his hand out to help a UVF man,” Gerry recalled. “That really struck me.”
Gerry, a retired housing officer in Belfast, said it was difficult to listen to some of the stories told in the meetings.
“It was very emotional,” he said. “There was anger and there was fear, and then I think it moved to a different place. People started to understand each other, if you can put it like that.” These days Gerry considers Alistair a friend. “Two years ago I would have said it would never happen,” he said. “Not in my life.”
The Belfast man said the experience has been hard to explain to some people. “I tell people about these things and as soon as I mention the British army was there, and the RUC and someone from the UVF I see people looking at me -- ‘Are you mad?’” he said.
“Of course maybe I was like that at the start, until I got into it,” he admitted, calling his participation “one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Charlie said that he and the two or three other participants who did not have as immediate an experience of the Troubles as others began the programme “wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’”
“At the outset we would have been coming from that point of view: Where would we fit in? Our lives hadn’t been affected in any way like the other had,” he said. But he said the experience “also broadened our understanding and comprehension”, and offered people from the north an understanding of how the conflict was experienced by people living in the republic.
Though Eugene Mulholland grew up three miles from Crossmaglen, he still felt largely unaffected by the Troubles. But he learned that his opinions had been shaped in ways he had not realised.
There were exercises in which participants shared a significant story with another person and then related the story they were told. “It was quite visceral at times,” Eugene said. “It forced you to get into their skin, if you like, and to see things from outside your point of view.”
He found it difficult but stuck with it, and now Eugene said the programme has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of his life.
“That was part of the challenge and, I suppose, a big part of the reward, that you can reach an accommodation with people, you can be very good friends with someone who has a different opinion from you, and that’s okay,” Eugene said. “There’s a feeling now that we need to go ahead and build on it, which is exactly where the facilitators would like us to be at the moment.” The group will meet again in September.
The experience has been very worthwhile, Charlie McConalogue said. Listening to the range of experiences that were shared, “challenges you to think and to assess your own positions”, he said.
“I’m very proud to be a part of that journey,” Gerry McMonagle said. “It’s all about opening eyes and ears.”