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Soldiers for peace: when British soldiers met ex-members of the IRA

Veterans for Peace UK are committed to wage war against war. Steve Bell from Stop the War attended their remarkable 2015 AGM.

Never Again at the Cenotaph

VETERANS FOR PEACE is an organisation of former members of the British armed forces who have committed themselves to the “war against war”.  Their work represents a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the wider peace and anti-war movement in Britain.

At their Annual General Meeting this year they held a public session with a remarkable panel, composed of veterans who had served in Northern Ireland alongside former IRA volunteers. 

This followed a visit made by eight Veterans to Northern Ireland meeting people and organisations from communities which they had previously been deployed against as soldiers. 

At the AGM the panel was composed of Pat Magee, former IRA volunteer responsible for the bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton; S’eanna Walsh, former IRA volunteer who read the statement in 2005 that ended the armed campaign; Lee Lavis, former infantry soldier in the British Army, who completed two operational tours in Northern Ireland; and Kieran Devlin, former member of the Royal Engineers who served in Iraq and Northern Ireland.

The dialogue from the platform was from very different viewpoints.  The former IRA volunteers retained their commitment to the struggle for Irish freedom.  Pat Magee said, “I was a witness to violence against my country but it didn’t come naturally to me to join the resistance to the oppression of my country”.  The former British Army soldiers felt they were involved in a struggle they didn’t understand.  Lee Lavis said, “We were never given context for the conflict.  My mind-set was such that I was part of a killing machine”.

Yet it became clear that there was much the soldiers from both sides had in common.  Pat Magee said, “I, too, laboured under a reduced view of those we were in struggle with. When I listened to their stories I could identify with the Veterans”. 

Kieran Devlin said, “The work of Coiste (Irish republican prisoners’ organisation) and the Veterans is streets ahead of what the politicians are doing”. Lee Lavis said, “By speaking together we can use our experience of the conflict to challenge its glamourous portrayal”.

Changes in perception also came from very different experiences. S’eanna Walsh said, “Talking to the ANC/MK delegation to Long Kesh convinced me there was a political way out”.  Kieran Devlin said, “As a soldier I only knew of the violence what the BBC told us. I started to get disillusioned with the army, which led to drinking and violence”.

Yet there was evidently a common sense of hope, and the possibility of change in the dialogue.  S’eanna Walsh said, “My responsibility is to ensure the life that I led is not the future for my children”. Lee Lavis said, “Hate cannot survive proximity.  I believe this work contributes to creating that proximity”.

There were also some extraordinary contributions from the floor.  Fiona Gallagher, from Derry, lost her brother when he was killed by the British army.  She said that at one time “I hated the sound of the English accent”, yet here she was, speaking with former British soldiers about the need for dialogue.  Jo Berry, lost her father in the Brighton bombing.  She has founded a charity, Building Bridges for Peace, dedicated to peace and conflict transformation.  She has often spoken in public alongside Pat Magee, demonstrating that reconciliation may be difficult, but it is necessary.

The Irish Peace Process is often understood as a process internal to Ireland, and even sometimes as just internal to Northern Ireland.  Yet it is also in large part a new engagement between Irish and British societies.  Unfortunately, too often British governments have been prepared to downplay it, or even put it at risk, for some supposed short term imperative in British domestic politics. 

In this light the initiative of the Veterans for Peace becomes much more significant.  This is part of British society coming to terms with what has been done to Ireland in its name, or by its hand.  The pioneering work of the Veterans is stepping up to the mark set by the Irish republicans in creating the Irish Peace Process.

Motivating this move by the Veterans is the discovery of one’s real enemies and friends as described by Joe Glenton, veteran of the war in Afghanistan, is his terrific book Soldier Box,

“It’s a weird world when the man shooting rockets or bullets at you is not your worst enemy. He’s just angry you’re in his country – he’s seen this all before.  It’s the people behind you that should be a concern – especially the ones a long way behind you. In fact, how far behind you they are could be directly proportional to the threat they pose to you.  The enemy is all the way back there – probably in the direction your plane came from, back over all this sand, rock and earth.” (p166) 

The uncomfortable and inspiring conversation between the Veterans and the Irish republicans warrants the support of the whole anti-war movement.

Source: Stop the War Coalition