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Interview with Seanna Walsh, ex prisoner of IRA

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Séanna Walsh is a former IRA prisoner, who served 21 years in prison. He was captured in three occasions (the first time when he was only 16 years old) and was finally released in 1998, as result of the peace accord. Since his release, he has been working "to ensure that the life of conflict of prison that I lived, will not be the life of my children, and the rest of our society". 

Séanna is currently city counselor for Belfast and he works as a legacy and outreach officer with Coiste, former IRA prisoners network.

How do you assess the meetings you had with former FARC prisoners and with the Peace Delegation?

With regards to the ex prisoners, the thing is that it is very different obviously: the situation that we would have experienced in the prisons in Ireland is very, very
different from the situation the political prisoners and also the prisoners of war in Colombia are experiencing.

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However, we listened to the difficulties and problems that they had and we suggested possible means of resolving those problems within the prisons. I don't know whether they would be able to do that before the prisoners are released, but we explained our own history.
You know, IRA prisoners viewed prisons as a site of struggle, they were another site for the struggle, another front in Irish Republican resistance against the British.
We explained that and how we fought the British policies of criminalization within the jail and hopefully that gives Colombian ex prisoners suggestions and they will be able to use some means and ways of dealing with that in relation with their own situation. We hope they will able to take some lessons and apply them to the situation in Colombia. But one thing we are very clear about is that we don't come here to tell people how they should do it. We come here and we relate our experiences, we say how we achieved the objectives that we have achieved, and then it's up to people to take that advice and knowledge and see if they can use it to their advantage.

The situation within the prisons in Ireland changed very drastically as a result of British policy in the 1970s. From 1972 to 1976 IRA prisoners had what we called “political status” in that prisoners of the conflict were treated as prisoners of war, we were not treated as ordinary criminals. In 1976 the British changed this,
they introduced a criminalization policy. They said that we were no longer prisoners of the conflict but ordinary criminals involved in a criminal conspiracy.
IRA prisoners rejected that and famously one of the guys, the first guy sentenced under the new regime, said that the only way the British authority could made
him wear the prison uniform was if they nailed it to his back.

He rejected the prison uniform, lifted a blanket and put it around his shoulders and that was how the “Blanket Protest” was born. The “Blanket Protest” led to massive
brutality against the prisoners, the authorities made problems with the food, they turned the heating off in the blocks during winter, they refused medical attention
and it all culminated with a hunger strike. 

As you probably know May 5th this year is the date that commemorates the death of Bobby Sands 35 years ago. While we were here in Cuba, we went along with
some of the Colombian ex prisoners and visited the Hunger Strike Memorial which was unveiled in 2001 by Gerry Adams and Fidel Castro here in Havana. 

Again, we attempted to give Colombian prisoners our experience of how we combat the different policies within the prisons but possibly more relevant as we move into the future we'll be the full process of how we established a network of former political prisoners, how we established a whole series of offices, we built up a relationship right across the northern half of Ireland and the different services we then made available to political ex prisoners and their families to help also addressing some of the outstanding issues, which authorities have failed to implement despite the Good Friday Agreement and despite a number of other agreements made since then. 

Irish unity is perhaps closer than ever. how do you see a united ireland ? what your expectations ? the 26 counties have changed a great deal since, say, the '90s…which will be the difficulties for both societies…

At the minute Sinn Fein is the largest political party in Ireland if we take both North and South. We are in the government in the North and we have the elections also on May 5th which is also a very momentous occasion for ourselves because of the 35 anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands. We'll see how we would do in the elections in the North. 

After the recent elections in the South for the first time neither of the two major conservative parties in the South (Fianna Fail and Fine Gael) got a majority and this is the first time since the foundation of the state. Ireland was partitioned in 1921 and this is the first time we have ever been in this situation so we hope the current policy in southern Ireland will help bring about a new dispensation and we will see the end of what we call "civil war politics”. The two major political parties resulted from a civil war in Ireland that was fought in 1922 and 1923, almost a hundred years ago. There are no ideological differences between the two conservative parties as they both attempt to represent the same interests and they take largely the same approach to business, community, politics, economy and how to deal with the problems of economy at the minute.

So hopefully this will be the start of a new era in politics in the South. And that then means, as far as we are concerned, that this can only help us and our job to build a United Ireland. Whenever you talk about a United Ireland that create a sort of nervousness among sections of particularly Unionism, they fear they would be squeezed into some sort of new political set up that would not represent their interests. Whenever I talk about a post-partition Ireland (when we do away with the border, when we break the connection with England, totally), I like to talk about an Irish national democracy. So an Irish democracy right across the island, and as we move into that particular set up it would be up to people who regard themselves as unionists to frame their own demands and the relationship they would seek to have with Britain once the political umbelical cord has been cut and we see the emergence of a new Ireland. But everything will be up for grabs.

One of the great challenges for the peace process to really work is reconciliation. Martin McGuinness said recently 2016 must be the year of reconciliation. What actions is Sinn Fein planning? What about at communities level? What cross-communities projects ?

I would answer by talking about the work by Coiste, the former political prisoners network. I am the outreach and legacy officer in Coiste, so it is my job to undertake organized engagements between different sections of civic society. We have discussions and debates with former British soldiers, former loyalist paramilitaries, former RUC guys, with civic unions, trade unions. Our work probably predates the "Uncomfortable Conversations" because Coiste has been involved in doing that since before I was released from jail in 1998. Coiste has been involved in these types of engagements and we try to do it at a community level and at a political level.

One of the experiences I had last year was with an organization of former British soldiers who disagree with the British government war policies, their adventurist military practice of going to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, this whole international military projection of British military power which is a crazy thing, really showing the imperialist type of mentality behind it. And these guys are former British soldiers from all sort of regiments within the British Army and they have come together. They have all served the British army in different countries and they have come together and call themselves Veterans for Peace and now they are advocates against this military policies. They invited myself and another former IRA prisoner to their annual general meeting in London and we addressed them and talked about why young people like me got involved with the IRA and why we felt we were right to resist British military rule in our part of Ireland. We tried to give them some sense of that and we also support them in what they are doing.

What we do is trying to build bridges: we would work with former British military knowing that there are also other British military who would not have the same politics as the Veterans for Peace, they would be probably very proud to have served Britain in these imperialist wars. But we still have a relation and engagement with them because we all understand that regardless of where we started we have to build a better future for our children. 

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

This coming May there will be elections in the North. What do you expect, also considering the results in the republic? 

Whatever happens, Sinn Fein will be in government and will be the biggest or second biggest party in the North. We will continue to do what we can to represent the interests of our constituencies. It will be fair to say that Sinn Fein at least attempt to represent the interest of all the people of the North, not just our own nationalist republican constituency, because we understand that to create the type of new Ireland we cannot do it our own. It's going to involve compromise and it's going to involve working with people who had in the past been your enemies and continue to be your political opposition.

2016 will see the commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, what lessons can we learn from that past experience?

One of the things that we are trying to do with the different commemoration events is trying to appeal to young people, get young people to understand what had happened in Ireland back then. Trying to give them an understanding of the roots and history of the conflict. But also as far as we are concerned 1916 was the start of the journey to achieve the new Ireland, the all Ireland Republic we want, and that journey has yet to be completed. That's why I get up of bed every morning, because I am trying to achieve that objective. What we are currently doing is we are trying to use different aspects of the Easter Rising to educate our young people and to show them that the vision and foresight which is captured in the Proclamation was very revolutionary. People who were involved in the Irish resistance movement in 1916, were unions, sufraggetes, a lot of people and groups … The first woman ever elected in Ireland and Britain in Westminster was an Irish rebel, Countess Markievitc who was a member of the Irish Citizens Army. There were a lot of radical revolutionary women involved in that period. In the Proclamation you have all the aspiration for equality of citizens, the idea of cherish all the children of the nation equally, the idea that the wealth of the country should belong to the people of the country and benefit the people of the country.

We are also attempting to show young people that the Rising didn't just impacted in Dublin but across the world, in Russia, India, Americas. That is the project we are involved in and that's why is so important to commemorate Easter 1916.

Also read: Interview with Michael Culbert, former IRA prisoner

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