Northern Ireland Revisited

My name is Spike Pike, an ex-soldier who did a tour of Belfast in 1981 at the time of the hunger strike. I am now a member of Veterans for Peace. This is about my journey towards reconciliation and peace. It started at the Veterans for Peace UK Annual General Meeting where I met Lee Lavis who was speaking about his work in Belfast. When he had finished he asked, are there any questions? My hand shot up and I said, ‘I’d like to work with you.’ The ball was rolling.

Day 1 -Thursday 7th August

I had driven to Glasgow the previous day as that’s how the journey would have been in 1981, Glasgow to Belfast. I was hoping to recreate the same feelings I had then, it worked. My dad used to drive me to the airport back then, but unfortunately he’s too old to drive now. So I’d arranged for my sister-in-law Dee to take me. An hour before Dee arrived my guts were in knots. I was pacing about my parents house, I felt very anxious. Dee arrived and off we went. I was more relaxed and was chatting to Dee about how it was in 1981. Talking and a couple of really bad jokes from Dee lightened my mood. By the time I got to Glasgow airport, I was fine.

The flight from Glasgow to Belfast took 40 minutes. In 1981… 40 minutes from being at home with your family to the hate-filled streets of Belfast, 40 minutes, that’s how it was. I was met at Belfast airport by Lee, we made the bus journey into town. I started to see the flags, mostly Loyalist and then a few Republican. It all started coming back to me.

It was straight to Lee’s flat then off to a talk by Jo Berry and Pat Magee. Jo’s father was killed by the Brighton bomb. Pat had planted the bomb. This was powerful. Two people from opposite tribes had chosen to come together, Jo wanted to understand why? What were the circumstances that drove Pat, a member of the IRA to take out the entire British government? Maggie Thatcher’s government. I was sitting listening to a man saying to a woman, ‘I killed your father’ and for her to respond in a calm and loving manner was quite something. Lee and I were asked to go (backstage) for some food and refreshments. Jo asked me if I would speak to a guy called, let’s call him Mr A, whose father was shot and killed by a British soldier 40 years ago and he had never spoken to a soldier or former soldier since. We were introduced. Now I had never experienced this situation before, we locked eyes as we spoke and there was tension. Fortunately Lee has had this experience many times and quickly diffused the situation. Lee spoke with Mr A for maybe an hour. I spoke to several people including Pat. Now I have never spoken to a member of the IRA or former member of the IRA without seeing them as the enemy. There was a time the very mention of the IRA would have sent me into a rage. To me, they were scum, murderers, even the Irish flag would evoke such rage. This was different. I was talking to a human being. A human face had been put on the enemy, like Pat, Jo’s father became a person, not the enemy.

That was my first night in Belfast.

Day 2 – Friday 8th August

We went along to a museum; there was a talk about the role of Irish regiments in the first and second world wars. I was reminded of a play I’d seen earlier this year, Raising Lazarus, by poet Kat Francois and the role West Indian soldiers had played in both wars. Seems both Irish and West Indian regiments were treated as badly and not getting any recognition. I met a woman called Bernadette whose father was killed in a sectarian shooting early on in the troubles. She was a wonderfully compassionate woman. It’s quite humbling that people I’ve met who have suffered personal loss have rejected bitterness as a coping mechanism. Later that day, I was interviewed at length for an oral history project by Claire Hackett of the Falls Road Community Council. This interview will be placed in an archive that will record the history of the Northern Ireland conflict in West Belfast. I find it very refreshing that the Nationalist community wish to include the experiences of former British soldiers. At one point re-living and talking about my experience I got quite emotional.

Day 3 – Saturday 10th August

Another excellent and interesting day. We met a former republican prisoner, Danny, who now works as a youth development officer. We met at the foot of Divis flats on the Falls Road. Once a very dangerous place for British soldiers. Danny gave me a brief history of the Republican movement going back to the late 1800’s. His energy and knowledge was compelling, he spoke very matter of fact and with no trace of bitterness or anger. We toured various Republican areas. Danny was a first class guide and there was so much to take in. We reached the Ardoyne area where there is still on-going tension between the two communities regarding Loyalists marching past Twadell Avenue. Lee and I crossed over the road to the Loyalist side (apparently not the done thing!). We were quickly approached by an angry man who demanded to know who we were. Once we explained who and why we were there he relaxed a bit and gave us a run-down on the situation. We thanked him and made our way back across the road. Considering the history of the place, maybe crossing the boundary was not the best thing to do; I mean people have been shot for that.

Final day – Sunday 11th August

Went to Derry/Londonderry. After an artery hardening breakfast, courtesy of Lee, and with Kieran at the wheel, off we went. Derry/Londonderry was not what I had imagined. It was a lovely town, somewhat quiet compared to Belfast, but it was Sunday afternoon. We visited the Free Derry museum, where I met Jean whose brother had been shot and killed on Bloody Sunday. She was a lovely woman; she spoke of the pain for all concerned, even expressing compassion for one of the soldiers at the tribunal. We then met Fiona Gallagher. Her brother was shot and killed while taking a bus ride home from town. She too was full of compassion for all victims of the troubles. I have met so many people that have experienced the pain of loss, the same people that wish for peace.

Summary

What did I get from my trip? Well, a greater understanding of why it all kicked off in 1969. Why were the folk in Catholic areas denied basic rights, decent homes, proper jobs? Why were they treated like second-class citizens? So many ‘Why’s? Now in 2014, it’s so much better, but there is still a long, long way to go. I’m not naïve enough to think all Republicans would greet me with open arms, far from it, there are still a few who would see me as a ‘uniform’, the ‘enemy.’ Of that, I have no doubt. But what I saw was people and groups within the Republican areas that are driving the peace process, that are pushing for a lasting peace. The trip was exhausting and very rewarding. I felt humbled and blessed to meet so many amazing people.

I’d like to thank, Jo Berry; Pat Magee; Claire Hackett; Fiona Gallagher; Danny, Jean, Kieran and most of all Lee for making this whole experience possible.

Much love and respect to all, I’ll leave you with this poem.

No Man’s Land

In no man’s land we’ll be as one
No need to fight or kill
In no man’s land there are no kings
Or rich man’s gut to fill
So when the guns at last go silent
And the drums no longer beat
When we awaken to our madness
In no man’s land we’ll meet

Spike served in the Scots Guards, he is a street poet and a member of Veterans For Peace.

Originally published (Veterans For Peace) 

in 2014 Spike happened upon a video of Ben Griffin (founder of Veterans For Peace) speaking at an Oxford Union Debate. Ben’s powerful words had an immediate and profound effect upon Spike and he joined VFP without delay, very soon attending their next AGM. At this meeting he heard speak a former British soldier, Lee Lavis, who, like himself, had served in Northern Ireland and who was now engaged in working with the Republican and Loyalist communities there. Spike expressed his enthusiasm for joining this project and, in his words, ‘I went back to Belfast after thirty-four years..not as a soldier, but as a man of peace.’

While there Spike attended a talk given by Jo Berry and Pat McGee; Jo’s father was killed in the Brighton Bomb and Pat was the IRA member who had planted it. In Spike’s words again: ‘to hear a man say to a woman, ‘I killed your father’, and for her to respond in such a loving and compassionate manner, was one of the most powerful things I have ever witnessed.’ Since then, Spike and Pat have shared a platform, exemplifying the power of the capacity for peace and reconciliation. Below is a video of Spike and Pat in conversation:

 

 

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