Below is an account of my engagement, as a witness, in a ‘From the Rockface’ discussion in Northern Ireland. What I saw and heard makes it clear to me the very real threat Brexit poses to peace and security for people living across the Island of Ireland and all parts of the United Kingdom. This would especially be the case in a No Deal scenario.
This talk mainly included loyalists stories and so provides only partial context …
It has never felt more inappropriate to stand and walk from a room. A silence was being fractured and the question was being asked, again and again, “Who would want to hear us?” “Who would want to listen?” Do our voices count in the eyes of the world?” These questions are interspersed with my phone delivering other silent, urgent messages. The texts from a friend asking if I am ready to leave. I am going to miss my plane. I am in a room full of hope and anger, Loyalists trying to discover how to rekindle loyalty with each other, sitting two seats from the main speaker and a room away from the door. When, in this brave and open exchange acknowledging, amongst other things, a feeling of betrayal by mainland Britain, will the only English woman at the table, stand up and head for the door?
Words are overflowing, time over-running, after decades of communities ruled by a culture of silence; ruled by fear and the sense of betrayal.
These men, whose skin is painted deep with their identity; an inky testament to the stories etched upon them that words could not speak but only bodily destruction could erase.
“We have hurt each other,” they say, honesty ricocheting around the room to meet open, determined faces; paramilitary, prisoners, peace-builders, political leaders interspersed with lawyers, academics alert and armed with pens and inquisition. The untold stories unravel before me. The fierce organisation of the Nationalists and the Loyalist trust, initially, in the UK government and military to protect them. The growing confusion and betrayal, the disillusionment that they were protected, the disorganization birthing community to community violence, the killing of all budding leaders who could unify the Loyalists or speak of peaceful ways forward. The silencing. The reprisals and counter-reprisals and fears of reprisal. The loss. The help that was not helpful. The impossibility of decommissioning weapons in 60 days given the fact they were not united, that trans-community conflict meant communications took time and distrust of political will to protect their communities in any other way. The sense that for some politicians the Northern Ireland peace process was being used as a platform for career furtherment over and above the will to end the conflict. The politicians who would call for paramilitary disbandment but come to them for their services. The sense of being in shock, the fear of being perceived as an underclass, even of becoming one.
The vocal ex-prisoner and combatant that now virtually lived in the Transitional Justice Institute with the same fighting determination, arms heavy with tattoo and muscle, eyes seeking something more. The sense of needing now to speak; to tell the stories untold, first to the world and, ultimately to one another. One woman’s voice discussing gender issues in the conflict. Many ears. I begin to make eyes wildly at the Chairman. Eventually, when the other voices in the room slow to draw breath in slightly bewildered air, the Chair states that as we are going far beyond time, anyone who needs to leave can. Only I stand, the English woman leaving. The main speaker apologizes for talking too long and I stop, ignoring the panicked text of the friend who will give me a lift to the airport and the determinedly ticking clock. I say something I repeat now in writing. I say thank-you for his words, I say to them all, thank-you for what they have said. I tell them I want to hear. I tell them sorry… and then I tell them I have to catch a plane.