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In Northern Ireland, 'Terror Gets Old,' But Divisions Linger

Jul 18, 2015
Originally published on July 18, 2015 7:00 pm

In Northern Ireland, "the Troubles" — the long and bloody conflict between Catholic Irish nationalists and pro-British Protestants — formally came to an end with a peace agreement in 1998.

But before the deal established a power-sharing government in the region, more than 3,600 lost their lives in three decades of sectarian violence. The Protestant loyalists wanted to remain part of the U.K., and the Catholic nationalists wanted to end British rule. Even nowadays, divisions and mistrust still linger in Northern Ireland.

Corinne Purtill, a senior correspondent with GlobalPost, considers the legacy of the Troubles in the short documentary When Terror Gets Old, which she co-produced with Mark Oltmanns. The film focuses on the lives of ex-militants, some of whom are now in their 60s. "Many still view them as terrorists and murderers," she writes in a story accompanying the documentary.

"Some people I spoke to said, 'Thank you very much, but I really prefer not to be public about my past,' " she tells NPR's Arun Rath. "They felt maybe their safety would be at risk if the community around them knew what they had been involved in." But others, she says, "were ultimately very, very generous with their time and their stories."

Speaking with former combatants from both sides, Purtill learned that many struggle with unemployment, alcohol abuse and depression.

Some are working together now to educate younger generations about the era.

Still, Purtill notes in the film, "There are no tidy endings in Northern Ireland." In fact, she says, there have been more than 200 terror-related arrests in the past year alone.


Interview Highlights

On why those convicted of past crimes are free today

That's a result of the Good Friday Agreement, which was in 1998. That was the peace agreement that officially brought an end to the period that's known as the Troubles. And one of the more controversial elements of that was that all prisoners who were still in jail for conflict-related crimes would be released. So everybody walked free, [even] people with life sentences.

On the role of regret

A lot of people, their regret is kind of hedged with justification or with a continued commitment to the cause that they were fighting for. A lot of the [Irish Republican Army] guys will say, "I don't regret being in the IRA; I think our aims were correct. But I regret some of the things that happened. I regret some of the things that we did."

On former combatants' ambivalence about speaking of the past

Most people that we spoke to said that the only people they felt totally comfortable sharing their story with were fellow prisoners.

We interviewed a counselor named Joe Barnes, who himself was a prisoner for his [IRA] activities. He said it's very difficult for men, in particular, to walk into his office and sit down and share what their past is.

It's also very difficult because there's no amnesty in Northern Ireland for crimes during the Troubles. So if something's bothering you that was never on a rap sheet, even a therapist has to disclose — U.K. law says — any terrorist activity that has not been prosecuted.

So everyone's kind of policing themselves about what they can say aloud about their past.

On the value of sharing these stories today

I think if there's no effort to understand why somebody does the things they do, then there can be no effort ... to make sure such things never happen again. And I think that the fact that a lot of these men and women have gone through these experiences, have learned to live with the regrets and difficulties of the things that they've done, I think that their stories are really valid and there's something worth learning from that.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

What happens when a terrorist gets old? A new documentary takes us to Northern Ireland to find out. The troubles, the long and bloody conflict between Catholic-Irish nationalists and pro-British Protestants formally came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement in the late '90s. Today, the militants involved in that conflict are 60 years old on average. In her short film "When Terror Gets Old," GlobalPost correspondent Corrine Purtill looks at their lives now. Corrine, welcome.

CORRINE PURTILL: Hi. Thanks very much.

RATH: Let's hear from one of the people you interviewed. He, like all the people you talk to, is pretty honest about what he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHEN TERROR GETS OLD")

NOEL LARGE: We spotted a man walking up the armory road. And knowing where he was walking and the time of night it was, he was likely to be a Catholic. So I got out of the car and run up close to him And shot him in the head at close range. As soon as I done it, I just looked straight up, and I just felt the presence of God looking down on me. And I knew I had stepped over a line.

RATH: Tell us a bit about this man and how representative he is.

PURTILL: So the person that you're hearing in that clip is a man named Noel Large, who was raised in one of Belfast's Protestant communities, ended up joining the Ulster Volunteer Force, which was one of the armed groups on the loyalist or Protestant side - the side that wanted to stay part of the British state - in his early 20s. And you know, he told us that when they asked him what he was prepared to do, he said he was prepared to become a gunman and to kill.

RATH: Wow. And this man and others whom you interviewed - he was convicted. He served time in prison. Could you remind people why he and so many other people who were convicted of terrorism during the troubles are walking free?

PURTILL: That's a result of the Good Friday Agreement which was in 1998. And that was the peace agreement that sort of officially brought an end to the period that's known as the troubles. And one of the more controversial elements of that was that all prisoners who were still in jail for conflict-related crimes would be released. So everybody walked free. You know, in Noel's case, he had received four life sentences for four murders plus an additional 437 years. And he was freed under the agreement as well.

RATH: And is that kind of regret that he expressed, is that typical?

PURTILL: I would say that Noel is a bit unique among the people that we spoke to. A lot of people, their regret is kind of hedged with justification or with a continued commitment to the cause that they were fighting for. A lot of the IRA guys will say, I don't regret being in the IRA. I think our aims were correct, but I regret some of things that we did.

RATH: How difficult was it to get these people to open up like this?

PURTILL: The process took a little while. Some people that we spoke - I spoke to said, thank you very much, but I really prefer not to be public about my past. They felt that their - maybe their safety would be at risk if the community around them knew what they had been involved in. And you know, we just explained to people what it is that we were going to do with that information. So it took a little while, but people were - ultimately were very, very generous with their time and their stories.

RATH: Are they used to talking about this? I mean, have they had counseling, or is this something that they don't really talk about outside of interviews with people like you?

PURTILL: Most people that we spoke to said that the only people they felt totally comfortable sharing their story with were fellow prisoners. In the video, we interviewed a counselor named Joe Barnes who himself was a former prisoner for his Republican activities. He said it's very difficult for men, particular, to walk into his office, to be able to sit down and share what their past is. It's also very difficult because there's no amnesty in Northern Ireland for crimes during the troubles. So if something's bothering you that was never on a rap sheet, even a therapist has to disclose, U.K. law says, any terrorist activity that has not been prosecuted. So there's - everyone's kind of policing themselves in terms of what they can say aloud about their past.

RATH: Finally, I'm wondering if there was any kind of discomfort in approaching this because, you know, people might say that - what're you doing considering the mental anguish of murderers?

PURTILL: You know, I think that if there's no effort to understand why somebody does the things that they do, then there can be no effort made to make sure those things aren't done again. A lot of these men and women have gone through these experiences, have learned to live with the regrets and difficulties of the things that they've done. I think their stories are really valid and that there's something worth learning from that.

RATH: Corrine Purtill is a senior correspondent at the GlobalPost. We've been talking about her new short documentary, "When Terror Gets Old." Corrine, fascinating stuff. Thank you so much.

PURTILL: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.