Today officially marks the home stretch of the Northern Ireland program! As far as week 4 goes, we have begun to have dialogue on dealing with the past and what it could mean for the future of conflict in Northern Ireland (as well as many other areas of conflict presently in the world). However, today was a very personal and meaningful educational experience as we had the opportunity to speak with former combatants on all sides. They spoke about the past and what they believe the future looks like in this region while graciously answering our questions. The four men were all from different backgrounds, Lee ( former British Army), Michael (former IRA member), Will (former UDR member), and Colin (former UDA member). As far as the discussion panel went, each one of these men had incredible stories to share; but the key points I took away from each of them were something to really ponder. I will briefly mention the two key parts of the discussion from Lee and Will.
Lee had made the point that he was neither an Irish man or considered himself a Brit – instead he referred to himself as an English man from England. He was unaware of the true conflict that was happening in Northern Ireland until he came to live in Belfast and work in the infantry. My take away was that he had mentioned that while being in the army he quickly learned he had to follow commands for the army as a whole and not as an individual. He explained one interaction he encountered between a higher up and a solider. The higher up had asked a question on what to do for a plan of action while patrolling in South Armagh. The solider responded with… “I think”, right away the higher up snapped at him and said, “You’re not paid to think!” This left him feeling unsure about what the military was doing and decided to research the conflict for himself through readings and college, which made him believe that although he was following orders, it was not right based on what he had learned.
In the case of Will it was interesting to hear him mention when speaking about conflict and how to resolve issues is that often people need to simply listen. He mentioned how often people are good at saying what “they did to us, but what about what “we did to them?” I whole heartily agree that this is an important aspect in building peace. Listening to each other, from all walks of life.
All in all, there were way to many moments and questions we had for the men, especially the question if they believe there will ever be a united Ireland. When it came down to it, the men’s opinions were a bit mixed, but overall most said it came down to the economics and possibly what could happen with Brexit. This interaction with former combatants was one that was very informative and probably one of my favorite interactions with locals in the area who actually experienced and fought during “The Troubles”.