Ordinary Voices: Interview 6

Respondent is a representative of West Belfast Ulster Political Research Group

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As with all interviews for the Ordinary Voices project this interview was conducted via email.

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Q1. How would you describe yourself politically?

Described by many in the media as a Loyalist activist but for me I’m a proud Unionist.

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Q2. Q2. Do you think there is an inherent bias when it comes to legacy issues?

There is a widely held perception of bias when it comes to legacy issues. That suspicion is cemented in the mind when people see the cavalcade of SF/IRA inspired groupings parading for the cameras seeking justice for conflict related events dating back decades. The state kept evidence, albeit questionable at times due to the inability to preserve crime scenes during mass riots etc., armed groups didn’t and this allows the spotlight to be focused in an imbalanced way on the state.

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Q3. Do you believe that legacy issues are damaging to the Peace Process?

Legacy issues are highly damaging to the peace process, any confidence which existed in the Unionist/Loyalist community has long since evaporated since the signing of the Belfast Agreement. The main protagonists of our recent conflict murdered over 1,700 men, women and children. To see some of them hold political office today and remain unrepentant of their past actions and, in fact, glorify said actions has, and is, causing huge concerns in the Unionist/Loyalist community. There is a huge concern that Republicans are demanding of everyone else’s truth yet deny that same ‘right’ to many hundreds of victims they themselves created. The proposed legacy mechanisms fall far short of what is expected by many of these families.

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Q4. Would you agree that Loyalism is not given credit for the political thinking advanced by people like John McMichael in the 1980s?

It is no secret that John McMichael’s ‘Common Sense’ document was, in fact, the blueprint for the power sharing assembly at Stormont, something which he and others within wider Loyalism were never credited with. In many ways John was indeed a man ‘ahead of his time’.

Brigadier John McMichael

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Q5. How would you say that poverty and social deprivation impact working class Loyalist communities, in Belfast in particular?

It is also no secret that our recent conflict was fought out, predominately, by the working classes from both communities. Many of the better off Protestants and Catholics profited greatly from the conflict. The Belfast Agreement promised much to many people, but the words of the then US President Bill Clinton struck a chord with the working class when he promised that the US would walk with the people on the journey to, “peace and prosperity”. Sadly we have only managed to achieve relative peace and as for prosperity, those who were rich then remain so today, yet those living in working class areas in Belfast who bore the brunt of the conflict are still listed as amongst the worst areas of deprivation in Northern Ireland, particularly in North and West Belfast.

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Q6. Do you think that there has been a deliberate campaign to demonise and dehumanise Loyalists by certain people?

Loyalism appears to many in our society to be a dirty word at this moment in time. This broad brush approach to Loyalism is both patronising and offensive in equal measure. Many people ignore the vast amounts of work taking place within grassroots community groups and the ex-combatant community to better the community they once ‘defended’. This work is very often dismissed by those who should know better than to do so. Community empowerment, political lobbying, anti-drugs campaigns, positive regeneration activity, education programmes, engagement with PSNI, Equality Commission, Human Rights Commission, Parades Commission etc. are all happening on a regular basis. Tell the media about an upcoming event like that… silence! Why is that the case I wonder?

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Q7. Do you believe that legacy issues have been well handled thus far?

Legacy issues should have been handled immediately after the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 when the euphoria of ‘peace’ was taking hold. Instead the language of constructive ambiguity was allowed to prevail and legacy, like other issues such as sectarianism, integrated educated etc. were kicked down the road to be dealt with at another time. That time has long past and has now led to the poisonous debate on these matters today.

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Q8. In your opinion, has Loyalism done enough to reach out to the nationalist/republican community, in the spirit of reconciliation?

In announcing their ceasefires in 1994 the Combined Loyalism Military Command offered true and abject remorse for all Troubles related actions, something never reciprocated by Republicans. Instead they now seek to rewrite their past, sanitising many of their previous actions as reactionary to state violence. This is perverse in the extreme and makes true reconciliation between combatant groups much harder to achieve.

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Q9. Would you agree that Irish republicans have been attempting to rewrite the history of the conflict, in an effort to sanitise and minimise the worst excesses of republican murder gangs?

As in Q8., Republicans have now adopted the narrative of revisionism, which cleverly ignores the massive hurt caused by Republican death squads throughout the conflict, both here in Northern Ireland and beyond.

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Q10. Do you think that enough has been done to address the problems of those mentally scarred and traumatised by the Troubles?

Another legacy issue is the huge strain today on our NHS which is inextricably linked to mental health issues and drugs and alcohol issues arising from our conflict. Many former combatants, ex-prisoners and ordinary citizens are now suffering for their lived experience of the conflict years. A clear and coordinated strategy needs to be put in place to tackle these issues, requiring clear leadership and concise measures to be put in place, but more importantly, to be shown from our government.

Loyalist West Belfast

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Q11. Do you think that Brexit will cause an upswing in support for a so-called ‘united Ireland’?

Definitely not, what it has caused, and will continue to cause, is the re-polarisation of our communities, a retreat to the trenches we thought we’d left behind. Brexit has been turned into a ‘donkey issue’, pick a donkey, pin a flag to it, and the plebs will vote for it en masse as the issue has now been turned into one of sovereignty fuelled by the incessant ramblings of SF/IRA on their demands for a border poll.

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Q12. What are your hopes and aspirations for the future of Northern Ireland in the medium to long term?

Northern Ireland needs to be governed by all, for the benefit of all its citizens. In order to do that we need an in-depth review of the Belfast Agreement and all its component parts. Mandatory coalition as set out by the agreement has clearly failed to deliver as promised and needs root and branch reform. A coalition of the willing may not be preferable for some Unionists or Loyalists, but if it is inclusive and if it is embracing, then Loyalism should not be fearful of this concept. The days of big house Unionism patting Loyalists on the head when politically expedient to do so are long gone. We have our own feet; we must be prepared to stand on them!

My final cliché is this and it has been said many times by many people but it remains true today. I never wish my children or grandchildren to witness the horrendous things I saw as a child growing up in Belfast. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that we break the cyclical nature of violence on this island, for the betterment of us all, not least for the generations to follow us.

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Our sincere thanks to West Belfast UPRG for their contribution to the Ordinary Voices project.

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Ordinary Voices: Interview 5

Respondent is Enda, who describes himself as-

27, recently married, council employee, Liverpool FC fanatic and hater of DIY. South Tyrone man living in Belfast”

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As with all the interviews in the Ordinary Voices project, this interview was conducted via email.

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Q1. How would you describe yourself politically?

I’m not actually sure anymore tbh. I’m definitely a Nationalist and a couple of years ago I would have called myself a Republican but now I’m not entirely sure.

I suppose I am still a Republican at heart although I have lost a lot of faith in Sinn Féin in the last couple of years.

To give you the short answer- I’m a Nationalist without a party to support.

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Q2. Do you think there is an inherent bias with regard to Legacy Issues?

No, I honestly don’t think there is. The British forces (and I include the RUC/UDR in that) did a lot of heinous things during the “Troubles“. Those who killed innocent people have to be brought to justice.

An awful lot of Republicans and a fair number of Loyalists did face justice and served long prison terms, it is only right that state forces face the same. The IRA and Loyalist groups did not keep records of their actions, the army and police did though and people deserve the truth.

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Q3. Do you think that legacy issues are being handled well?

Yes, actually I think the UK government is doing ok in that regard. Something like a Truth Commission will never work in the North. Some people would be truthful, some wouldn’t and then you have those who simply wouldn’t be reliable in their testimony.

A relative of my wife’s is a former Republican prisoner. The man is 60 years old and in poor health because of years of heavy drinking. Tbh I don’t think he’d be able to remember accurately things he was involved in 30 or 40 years ago and I’m sure there are many others like him.

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Q4. Do you think that Legacy Issues are damaging the Peace Process?

No. I think the peace process is more or less fireproof now. There’s no going back to the “Troubles” now. Too much time has passed, too many people have moved on. There is a huge centre ground now and many of those people don’t really care about the issues of the past.

Of course there is still a lot of hurt on both sides, on the Nationalist side especially I think, but I can’t ever see things going back to the way they were years ago. There’s just no appetite for it from anybody.

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Q5. Do you think that the Loyalist community has been unfairly stereotyped in a negative way?

No. I don’t think that at all. Loyalists bring any negative publicity on themselves. They are their own worst enemy a lot of the time. Take bonfires for example. Why the constant need to insult and intimidate others with these massive bonfires? Why put Holy Statues and flags and other things onto these fires?

Loyalist “culture” is a joke tbh. Nothing but constant marching and burning things. It actually angers me. Loyalists could celebrate Irish culture in their own way but they refuse to even admit that they are Irish, so instead they go out of their way to antagonise others. The DUP pander to Loyalists which is why so many people hate them as a party. The DUP will never get votes from the centre ground because they won’t walk away from the bonfire builders and the “kick the Pope” bands.

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Q6. Do you believe that reconciliation is possible between the two communities?

No. We will continue to live parallel lives I think. The centre ground will keep growing, Nationalism will pretty much remain as is and Unionism will continue to be pushed to the margins. We will probably end up in a situation where the people in the centre interact with Nationalists and vice versa but Unionists and Loyalists will be left on the sidelines.

I don’t think that Loyalists are capable of reconciliation, or want it. There are some people on the other side who are the same, they just can’t move on. So I suppose the north will just stagger on as it is.

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Q7. Do you believe that a ‘united Ireland’ is imminent?

No, unfortunately. I stopped supporting Sinn Féin partly because they have absolutely no clue how they can achieve reunification. Sadly there are lots of Nationalists who are too comfortable and complacent. They will keep on as they are.

Everyone says that Brexit will lead to reunification but I don’t see it. It’s not going to make any difference to hard-line Unionists, they will still be against a UI even if they are broke and the country is ruined and despite what a lot of Republicans will tell you, a United Ireland is impossible without winning over a lot of Unionists.

It’s too late imo, the North is becoming more multicultural and progressive. Where I live now is very diverse. There is a large Muslim community here now. Will people who have come to live here in the last few years vote to leave the UK? Probably not.

Then there’s the centre ground, the people who vote for the Green Party and Alliance and even some SDLP or PBP voters, they might be Nationalists, even just culturally, but people like that will vote with their heads not with their hearts. If there was a border poll tomorrow people like that will vote to keep the NHS and their Civil Service jobs.

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Q8. What are your hopes and aspirations for Northern Ireland in the medium to long term?

Aside from a United Ireland, I’d like to see the North becoming a more modern and progressive place. I want an ILA and the laws on abortion and Equal Marriage changed and brought into line with the rest of the world.

I’d like to see the DUP disappear from the political landscape and I’d like to see Sinn Féin come up with some coherent policies, especially with regards to the economy. Most of all I want there to be peace- complete peace and normality. No more murders like that of Lyra McKee. No more pipe bomb attacks. No more punishment beatings or kneecappings or security alerts or riots. Just peace for everyone.

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Our thanks to Enda for participating in the Ordinary Voices project.

Ordinary Voices: Interview 3

Interview 3 of our Ordinary Voices project.

Respondent is Brian (61), a retired teacher from the South L’derry area. Brian describes himself as “happily married and even more happily retired”. Brian is a former member of the Irish Independence Party and a is father of 4 and grandfather of 7.

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As with all the other interviews for the Ordinary Voices project, this interview was carried out via email.

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Q1. How would you describe yourself politically?

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I would definitely say I’m a nationalist. I didn’t vote until I was in my twentys, I was much more of a firebrand in those days and I didn’t have much time for the likes of the SDLP. But when the IIP emerged they appealed to me much more as a party and eventually I became a member.

When the IIP started to fall apart I became a bit apathetic again. I sorted of drifted towards the SDLP a few years later and have supported them ever since, with the exception of one assembly election when I voted Sinn Féin.

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Q2. Do you think that legacy issues are damaging to the peace process?

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Yeah I think they are. We need to find a way of dealing with the past. That’s vital. So many people suffered and lost loved ones, there is so much hurt and anger out there, we have to face up to it and deal with. How we do that I don’t know. That will need to be worked out by smarter men than me.

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Q3. Do you believe that there is a bias when it comes to legacy issues?

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Yes and no. It certainly looks as if there is and I know many people in the Unionist community feel like that but you need to remember that we must hold the state (and the army/RUC) up to a higher standard than the likes of the IRA, UVF or INLA.

The army, police and UDR kept records, the paramilitaries didn’t. That makes it really difficult to get to the real truth of murders carried out by them. I think though that something should be done to make the entire process less about what the state and security forces did and more about wrongdoing on ALL sides. I think that’s important.

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Q4. Do you think that Loyalism, in particular the UPRG and PUP, have done enough to reach out to the nationalist/republican community?

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To their credit they have at least done something in that regard but all the fine words in the world count for nothing when you then have the UVF and UDA involved in killings and pipe bomb attacks and who knows what else.

I honestly think the best thing that the likes of the PUP could do would be to encourage the UVF and UDA to dissolve their organisations completely.

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Q5. Do you think that nationalists and republicans have done enough to reach out to the Unionist/Loyalist community?

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Honestly no. The SDLP works well with the likes of the UUP but they can do more. The SDLP and the [Ulster] Unionists should be going into ordinary communities, the SDLP into unionist areas and vice versa, I think that would be a very good start.

As for Sinn Féin, I’m afraid I see no outreach at all. If they were truly genuine about a reunited Ireland they would be putting all their efforts into convincing unionists that they have nothing to fear in a new Ireland but they seem incapable of doing that. Some of things Sinn Féin put their time and effort into leave people like me scratching our heads to be honest.

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Q6. Would you like to see a ‘border poll’ in the near future?

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As a nationalist I have to say yes but everyone involved, including unionists, need to set out their plan for what they will do in the event of a yes vote. Let all parties be upfront about what they think a united Ireland should look like and what concessions would have to be made.

Unionists could get a lot of concessions to get them to buy into a new Ireland. They could really have nationalists over a barrel if they wanted to and were ready to look at it realistically instead of just totally rejecting the idea.

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Q7. Do you believe that collusion was as widespread as republicans allege?

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No I do not. We had a very dirty “war” here and all sides were up to their knees in it. There are no innocent parties when it comes to this sort of thing. All sides did evil things and worked with other groups when it suited them. Of course collusion happened but it’s made out to be something it wasn’t.

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Q8. What are your hopes and aspirations for Northern Ireland in the medium to long term?

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I want to see the assembly up and running again, although I don’t know if Sinn Féin and the DUP can ever make it work long-term. Maybe it’s time to give other parties a chance to form a government.

I also want to see some sort of legal recognition for the Irish language. They have legal protection for Gaelic in Scotland and for the Welsh language in Wales, why not for Irish in the North of Ireland?

Most of all I just want to see this place continue to be peaceful and relatively normal. I never want my grandchildren to have to put up with the sort of stuff I had to (or my kids had to) during The Troubles. Time for everyone in Northern Ireland to get on with normal everyday life, as much as we can.

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Thanks to Brian for this interview and for contributing to the Ordinary Voices project.

Ordinary Voices: Interview 2

Interview 2

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As with all the other interviews for the Ordinary Voices project, this interview was conducted via email.

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Respondent is Peter, (48), who lives in Newtownabbey with his partner and two boys. Has no connection to any political party or organisation, but takes a “keen interest in events that happen and have happened in the Province”. Peter describes himself as a keen follower of sports and a “TV junkie“.

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Q1. How would you describe yourself politically?

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Currently, I would describe myself as extreme Unionist. My politics have changed greatly, since my father was shot dead by the Provisional IRA in 1993.

I had been an Alliance voter, but since the ongoing and ever increasing capitulation to Sinn Fein and their never ending demands, I have moved through most shades of Unionism, each in turn letting its Voters down when it counts and being more interested in their own egos and self gain, rather than how Unionism is continually on the back foot.

2. Do you believe that legacy issues are undermining the peace process?

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100%. The Legacy debate is totally controlled by Sinn Fein and Republicanism. Unionist politicians appear to be doing sweet F.A. for IRA Victims, again interested in their own furtherance and what back handers and positions they can receive.

The ‘Peace Process’ has been a continual one way traffic event. I would like a list of at least 10 things that the Unionist Community have gained from the ‘Peace Process.’

I can name only two Unionist Politicians who have given me any help and support in progressing my father’s case. Most others, not just Unionist, have promised that they would move mountains, but have done very little.

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3. Do you think there is a bias when it comes to legacy issues and how they are dealt with?

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A blind man can see that there is a total and utter bias when it comes to Legacy. Nearly every demand that Republicans seek, re enquiries, prosecutions, etc, is unendingly granted. If something doesn’t go their way, they kick up a stink with a compliant media and Police Ombudsman and lo and behold, sooner or later their demands are met.

When was the last Sinn Fein/IRA upheld conviction? What enquiries into the actions of the IRA have ever found against them? The perception in the Unionist Community is that the ‘Peace Process’ means that no matter what happens, nothing will be done to derail having ‘murderers in Government,’

4. Do you believe that Republicans have a genuine and sincere interest in reconciliation?

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Only on their terms. Whilst many, many mistakes were made in the past, the Republican movement want and demand ‘payback‘ and then some. Who can forget King Gerry’s “We’ll break the bastards…..” Has that ever been fully and unequivocally retracted?

Sinn Fein claim to hold out the hand of ‘friendship,’ but at the same time celebrate and glorify mass-murderers and seek a one-way justice, with no call for enquiries into IRA actions or Court cases, or recompense, and then oppose any show of Unionism, but then demand Irish language street signs, Easter lillies to be freely available, etc etc, whilst at the same time demonising anything associated with Unionism.

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5. Do you think that more could be done by Loyalists to foster reconciliation?

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What more are Loyalists expected to give? Politicians in Government involved in heinous events in Northern Ireland’s history, killers walking about freely (My father’s killer ‘allegedly‘ murdered again and is currently serving a sentence for Attempted Murder in the Republic of Ireland. The likelihood of him being returned to jail to serve out the remainder of his sentence for my father’s killing, is slim- next to zero!!).

Every part of Loyalism is under attack and what investment has taken place in Working Class Loyalist areas? Investment in terms of Social Housing, State of the Art Sports facilities? Again, Big House Unionism has a lot to answer for, but where is Sinn Fein’s ‘Equality,’ mantra here?

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6. Do you accept the Republican narrative that ‘collusion’ was very widespread and institutional?

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Collusion did not just happen on the Loyalist side and was not systemic! No light has been shone into current high ranking Provisionals turned Community Workers and politicians who have worked/work as ‘State Agents’.

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7. Do you believe that enough is being done to bring the two communities together, especially in interface areas?

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Millions of pounds have been poured into interface areas and Community Workers, so we are told. If this has been the case, where is there published a full and complete breakdown of what each of these ‘Community Workers,’ is paid and what scheme in each area has actually taken place in to ‘bring Communities together,‘ or is it just jobs and money for the boys?

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8. Finally, what are your hopes and aspirations for NI in the medium to long term?

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With unworkable local government and a British government too scared, or too unwilling, to take any sort of decisive action, any immediate change is unlikely. Sinn Fein and the Republican Movement’s sole aim is the destruction of Northern Ireland and to drive the British out of Ireland.

How any one in their right mind believes that Sinn Fein want Northern Ireland to ‘work‘ as an entity is on another planet.

Ideally, my father and I would have been of a similar mindset, in that we both would want nothing more than a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland, but that is far from what we have here now. Northern Ireland is a Mafia-like state with political and paramilitary fiefdoms in each Community,

I hope that when my two boys grow up, that they have the wisdom to leave here and seek better opportunity elsewhere. When people talked to me after my father’s killing and asked if I ever believed there would be true peace here, I stated then and still firmly believe that we are probably at least two Generations away from that being possible, or at all likely.

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Our sincere thanks to Peter for agreeing to this interview & his participation in the Ordinary Voices project

ISOT.