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Interview with Michael Culbert, former IRA prisoner

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farc-epeace.org interviewed Michael Culbert, former IRA prisoner and coordinator of Coiste, the association that looks after the interests of the 25.000 former IRA prisoners in Ireland.

He visisted Havana together with Seanna Walsh, former political prisoner and former IRA combatant, and Padraig O'Muirigh, laywer and legal advisor, to meet with the Peace Delegation of the FARC-EP for an interchange of different topics related to the peace process. 

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First of all, could you introduce yourself?

My name is Michael Culbert, and I am a former IRA prisoner and I coordinate the 12 offices in Ireland of the network which looks after the interests of the approximately 25.000 former IRA personnel who were imprisoned during the conflict with Britain.

25000 prisoners?

Yes, the campaign with the IRA against the British government lasted approximately from 1970 to 1997 or 1998, and that’s the amount of people captured and imprisoned by the British government during that period of time.

We would like to know something about the ex-prisoners association. Who founded it, why, and what functions does it have?

Well, the thing is that towards the end of any conflict, the United Nations has a protocol which normally gets followed and that’s the protocol referred to us, its the DDR, which stands for Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration of the combatant groups. To a certain degree, the protocol was carried out by the British Government but only on regards of the State forces, it wasn’t carried through with regard to the combatant forces against the state, particularly the IRA. At the same time the European Union was introducing funds to different societies within Europe, to assist with community developments. Some of the political ex-prisoners from the Belfast urban area were aware of that funding and applied for it, achieving some limited funds from the European Union, afterwards, other organized groups of political ex-prisoners in different parts of the country also applied and received funds; as a result of that, they came together and decided that there should be a central coordinating group to collect and disseminate information rather than all these organized groups doing that by themselves. All of this resulted in the creation of Coiste in 1998.

Since then, we have existed to look after all of the interests which are brought to us by the political ex-prisoners, which could be issues related to themselves, or it could have to do with their families, or them with their localized communities, or them with society in general. The main aim of the work that we do is to promote the peace process, so if we can get political ex-prisoners in a better situation with themselves, with their families and their community, then they will be a better envoy, an agent for change within society in general.

We have different ways of doing that, we promote interactions with our former enemies, the British Forces, we promote interactions between the political ex-prisoner community and various other sectors of civil society in Ireland, it could be people from a different political view that hold stereotyped images of us, it could be with people from churches, because a lot of religious leaders have promoted against the IRA in the conflict, it could be with British politicians or other politicians, it’s with all parts of society that we interact with, and the main reason we do that, is to fight against the stereotyped narrative that shows us as insurgents with no real political purpose, that’s one thing we fight against, and the other thing we do, is create a different image of the political activist or former guerrilla fighters.

We want to promote the concept that we need to move on, to be equal citizens in the society in which we live, and to be able to advocate against legislation or any other structures in society which work against us. All we want is equality in the citizenship and a new political deviation, if we can achieve that, then most of the problems with the political ex-prisoner community can be dealt with, but until we do that, then we have political ex-prisoners disgruntled, disaffected from society, many living in absolute poverty because there are pieces of legislation which disallow us from getting employed, we can also be fired from our jobs if the employers think we were political prisoners, so we are advocates on behalf of those 25,000 people.

Would you think that it’s possible to have some sort of similar association for Colombia?

It will be essential; you will have former political prisoners that could be isolated from their families when they come out, or from their communities, or from their former comrades, they could be discriminated against, they could be disgruntled to a social degree in which they may decide to persist in armed conflict; you have all these potential problems that could lead to an inactive lifestyle, dependency on alcohol or drugs, and we have some people that have done that, but what we have managed to do with the work of our organization is to stray away the majority of people from moving into that direction. I would strongly urge for those structures to be put in place within your country, for those people to know that they are worthy, that their sacrifices are recognized and that society in general is prepared to accept them back into it as equal citizens. The past is closed, don’t forget the past, but the past is gone, they have to be prepared to reinvest into the new society which will be whatever the people decide it should be.

In your opinion, which are the keys to achieve a stable and lasting peace?

In Colombia the case is on a much bigger scale than what has been done in Ireland, however, what we have worked on very much is to convince the former activists -people who have suffered, people who have sacrificed, people who have lost their relatives in the conflict with the British, people with fears and worries- that this was the end of the conflict in its violent form, that we moved to a different stage in the development of our society; a lot of grudging people said –Why should I be living this? We sacrificed for so long; and we have them know that that was in the past, that as long there is hope to a peaceful outcome with no killing, and then morally they should be able to follow the road that says no more killing, because the use of armed force is only one tactic in the political struggle, one must move on to the next phase once it has done its course, which is the involvement the electoral political process, but people have to be treated as equals with every other citizen, the fact that they have come out of prison is not a negative, and it must not be treated as a negative by society, and that’s the problem which we didn’t fully tackle in Ireland, but it’s a lesson that can be learned in Colombia.

Prisoners are still discriminated against, as recently pointed out at a Coiste event in the european parliament. In which ways?

I went to Strasbourg last week as a part of a delegation to discuss outstanding legacy issues which the British government has yet to deal with regarding the whole of the conflict. One of the major issues is the issue of the political ex prisoners community. We have approximately 25 thousand former political prisoners, IRA prisoners, and we are not treated on the equal basis as all other citizens. As far as we are concerned the war is over, the IRA has disbanded and weapons are off the scene. The IRA encouraged its supporters and its volunteers to give full-hearted support to the peace process in whatever way they could. That spirit has not replicated by the British government. There was a commitment given in the Good Friday Agreement which basically ended the war and that commitment was to assist political ex prisoners on their release, that has not happened. We are legally able to be discriminated against, there are laws in our country which protect citizens and names groups of citizens, we are not protected, we can be discriminated against, we can be refused international travel, we can be refused insurance for a car or a home, we can be put out of work or not given work because of our sentences in the Court.

And does that happen?

O very regularly, very regularly. We have several court cases going at the moment against decisions made to not employ people who were fully qualified for the jobs. We consider discrimination, but the law at the moment allows that to happen and we are trying to push for the law to change. But to get the law changed it has to be changed in the British parliament and we don’t have really much support in the British parliament. So we are in a difficult situation and what we do is we lobbied in Europe to try and get pressure on the British from the European elected representatives. Martina Anderson of Sinn Fein introduced us to many people over there. 

Is there anything like Coiste on the loyalist side?

Well there is. They replicated our structure and they have set up their own organisation. They would not have had the number of political prisoners which we had, there would be 5 or 6 thousands of them who would have been imprisoned for paramilitary offenses during the years. They would have been people imprisoned for carrying out activities which they thought were on behalf of the State against republicans, against people like me. However the war is over, there is a new dispensation so where we can help, we assist them, we work with them, we even do tourism projects along with them in order for them to be able to tell their stories and why they did what they did. And people, when they come to Ireland can set their stories against our stories. There are of course different narratives as to what the reasons for the conflict were, and for what happened and for the possible future of the community, I am sure it’s the same in your country, there are different narratives…So we work with them, but if you remember they consider themselves to be pro-state, working with the state, therefore they don’t engage in activities which we do, they don’t lobby against the state, they will not really complain against the state, so when we make gains, the gains are for them also.

Also read: Ireland peace process: the journey is not over yet

What is your assessment of the meetings you had with the FARC-EP?

They were very informative. Our role, which was explained to us very clearly by Mariela (Justice for Colombia, the NGO that organized the visit, red.), was to come and offer our experience, what worked and what didn’t work for us, and what the longterm - we now can look back over nearly 20 years of the process whereas in your country you are at the very early stage of it. So what we did is we outlined where we think attention should be paid, particularly to what has to do with political ex prisoners because that’s our experience, we tried to give a context with the situation of our political ex prisoners, but we’ve learned so much about the FARC narrative. The problem which you have is that Western media throughout Europe have a particular narrative of what is happening in Colombia and that is not good for FARC and for people who are looking for basic freedoms, basic freedoms of citizenship in their own country. This is not the way it is portrayed in the Western media.

We have come here to advice and assess, but I learned so much. And what really surprised me, I had no idea that such progress had been made, you must have really good negotiators, and it’s very encouraging I think for the peace process that so much progress has been made basically in four out of the six areas that you are negotiating. I was very pleased to hear that and all I can hope is that the other issues can be resolved soon. 

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