Belfast Telegraph

And your guide for today's tour of Belfast is an IRA leader who spent 16 years in prison...

By David McKittrick
30 August 2004

The man with the microphone at the front of the bus showing the American students round Belfast is no ordinary tour guide: he is Jim McVeigh, who was the last IRA commander in the now-closed Maze prison.

Ten years ago this week, when his organisation declared its first ceasefire and galvanised the Irish peace process, McVeigh was behind bars. He spent a great deal of time there: now aged 40, he was in jail for 16 years.

The peace process led to his release from prison, but it has yet to deliver all that he and the IRA fought for. His commentary is therefore a measure of republican opinion.

He is one of a group of former IRA prisoners which is developing a popular line in political tourism in Belfast. More and more people are interested in what one newspaper denounced as "terror tours". Right from the start of the tour, McVeigh is direct with the students. As soon as he joins the bus on the Falls Road he says it will be from a republican perspective, which he describes as "one thread in the tapestry of Irish history". He brings two books with him, one of them the collected writings of Bobby Sands, one of his predecessors as IRA commander in the Maze, who died on hunger strike in the prison. The other is McVeigh's own book on Tom Williams, an IRA member executed during the Second World War for killing a policeman.

He reads an extract from the Sands book, explaining that he died in a struggle against "an alien unwanted oppressive regime". He hopes to shed light on why men and women joined the IRA "and why they were prepared to sacrifice their lives and sometimes take other lives".

The students, who seem unusually attentive, are studying the comparative history of ideas at the University of Washington in Seattle. The course involves visits to Belfast, Beijing, Bosnia and elsewhere. It encourages parallel thinking - "a habit of seeing from a variety of vantage points". They are learning, in other words, to view things from multiple perspectives: later they are to cross the peace line to hear a Shankill loyalist view.

McVeigh duly supplies a west Belfast perspective, directing the coach to some of the recent monuments which now abound.

One of the tour's key moments comes at Bombay Street in the heart of the Falls, now rebuilt after being burnt down by loyalists in 1969. It now features, right up against one of Belfast's highest peacelines, a memorial garden. This has marble commemorations of IRA volunteers who were killed, as well as "civilians murdered by loyalists and British forces". McVeigh explains the significance of Bombay Street: "The police force of the day watched and in some cases participated as homes were burnt to the ground.

"This had a huge impact on nationalists. It re-ignited the conflict, the struggle. In 1969, there really was no IRA, but hundreds if not thousands of young men rushed to join the ranks of the IRA.

"They were prepared to take up arms and wage an armed struggle because of what happened in streets like this. These are very important historical events that shaped the psyche of people who live in these areas." He hopes the political negotiations scheduled to start next month will make progress, explaining that the issue of arms has "dogged and frustrated" the process to date.

Portraying the grassroots view, McVeigh explains: "People in these areas feel that the only people who have defended them are the IRA. They don't want the IRA to dispose of its weapons until there is a lasting settlement, justice and fair play, and in particular an impartial police force." He decries the sectarianism embodied by the peaceline, reflecting that families on either side will go through life perhaps just 50 feet apart, but "they will never go to school together, never go out for a drink together, because of segregation".

Unsurprisingly, McVeigh's commentary is partisan and committed, but it is not inaccurate or misleading. The British and the loyalists come in for much criticism but he readily acknowledges that "there's no monopoly of suffering on our side.

"As a republican, I would love to see a day when these walls could come down and we could live peacefully side by side," he declares.

He leaves the students with the thought: "If you come back in a year's time you'll probably find some of the issues have still to be dealt with."

The students were generally impressed. "I thought it was great," said one girl from Washington state. "It wasn't like he was telling all the truth. It was his truth and it was really believable." A young man from Alaska agreed: "I liked it. I'm interested in both sides. It's not just different perceptions. People have different facts, because they've had totally different experiences. That's why it's so complicated." A mature philosophy student from Tacoma, Washington, mused: "We can try to resolve things violently and live in bitterness and retribution and vengeance, or we can try to let go of that and step down a path that's peaceful."

McVeigh conveyed the impression that republicans are now in a new phase of negotiation rather than violence. "While there's a cessation we have an uneasy peace," he said. But there was no suggestion that the peace was in danger or that the Maze prison - where he lived for most of his adult life - might be reopened.

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