When British Army veterans met IRA veterans

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Soldiers on both sides discovered each other’s reasons for fighting – by Matt Florence.

Over two years ago in October 2014, a small group of members of the British Veterans organization called ‘Veterans For Peace UK’ (VFP-UK) went on a 4 day journey across Northern Ireland to meet the people and communities which the British army had previously been deployed against. These people included Republican prisoners of internment, ex members of the provisional IRA, and victims of family members killed by the British Army in the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre of the 30th January 1972. The 4 day journey was captured on camera and is available in the form of two 20 minute long videos on the ReelNews YouTube channel.

For an interview by the Guardian with the VFP-UK members of the tour click here:

The VFP-UK Derry tour. This tour includes the VFP-UK visit to the Bloody Sunday museum , meeting relatives of people killed on the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, the site of the Battle of the Bogside, add interviews with civilians whose houses were raided by the British Army.

The veterans on the tour included former Royal Engineer Kieran Devlin, former Royal Marine Les Gibbons, former SAS soldier Ben Griffin. former Scots Guard Mike “Spike” Pike, former soldier in the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment Kenny Williams, and former paratrooper Gus Hales. All had a variety of different reasons for joining the tour and being prepared to meet the other side but the most common reasons included finding closure, trying to understanding of the war they fought in, and to find a lasting solution for peace in Ireland. “The idea is not to dwell too much in the past, for me it’s about moving forward” said former paratrooper Gus Hales.

The Derry and Belfast tours

The tour was split into two main cities, Derry and Belfast. The Derry tour included a tour of the Bloody Sunday museum, a meeting with relatives of civilians killed by the British Army on the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, the site of the Battle of the Bogside, and interviews with civilians whose houses were raided by the British Army. The Belfast included a visit to see “Peace Line” barricades barricades which Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods from each other, interviews with Sinn Fein members and IRA veterans, and a visit and meeting at the hunger strikers museum.

A list of civilians killed by rubber bullets fired at them by the British military. The youngest shot dead by the British military was 10 year old Stephen Geddis.

One of the most striking things seen in the videos of the tours and the interviews between IRA and British Army veterans were the reasons for fighting. The primary reason that the British Army veterans had for joining and fighting in the troubles was for adventure and the independence to see the world and escape from a life of boring work. The primary reason given by IRA veterans however was that they were dragged into the war unwillingly when they themselves or their family were harassed or attacked by the British Army or by loyalists. During the VFP-UK tour of Belfast one IRA veteran called Pat Sheehan (now a Sinn Fein member of the Legislative Assembly) told the British Army veterans that he joined the youth wing of the IRA after Unionists fired bullets at his house in an attempt to scare his family into leaving the area. Another IRA veteran told that he became involved in republicanism after British soldiers broke into his home and punched his mother in the face when he was a teenager.

A tribute to those unarmed citizens who died on 30 January 1972 at the hand of heavily armed Paras while protesting Internment. 36 years ago.
( This article was originally written and published by Matt Florence on Medium.com – Some pictures and text has been removed or rearranged to fit the format)