Hats off again to Shankill Women's Centre worker Louise Spence, who strongly encouraged me to seek out the incredible Marian Jamison, who for three years single handedly ran the REACT project in Armagh. REACT is a multi-faceted community support organization for the loyalist community of mid-Ulster. Thanks also to Kieran McBride, who conducted the interview while I videotaped.
KM: Who are you and what do you do?
MJ: My name is Marian Jamison, and I am the project coordinator for a group called REACT, which is a community group involved in community development and youth work. We also work with loyalist exprisoners and their families on reintegration issues.
KM: What is REACT and what is its mission?
MJ: Well as Ive said we were originally started as an exprisoner group. We were funded to work with loyalist exprisoners who had been involved with the UVF Red Hand Commando on reintregation - helping them and their families settle back into community life and deal with the issues that come up from that. We started 3 and 1/2 years ago and our work has developed from that. We were asked to become involved in youth work in Armagh city, where were based. We started a youth club; we work with young Protestants. We also became involved in community development, several issues in town. So now the exprisoner work, while we still do that work, its only one part of what we do.
KM: What does REACT mean?
MJ: REACT stands for reconcilitation, education, and community training, which is what were all about.
KM: And what has REACT achieved so far?
MJ: Well we started 3 years ago, and I was the only member of staff for 3 years. Now we have a youth worker, who's funded by BBC Children in Need. As of next week we'll have a training coordinator and a community development officer; they will be funded under the European Peace II measures. My post is funded through the Community Foundation, through the core funding for exprisoners.
But acheivements to date... I feel we have been able to bring issues more out into the public that were never spoken about before. Even the issues affecting exprisoners and their families, which nobody wanted to discuss, are now more openly discussed. Here in Armagh weve been told weve given a voice to a section of the community that never had a voice before. Were able to represent people with statutory bodies and agencies which was never done before. And for the young people weve given them opportunities through the youth work and the programs that they would never have had.
KM: How did you get involved with this work?
MJ: I first became involved with - it was EPIC in Belfast. My husband is an exprisoner. Hes been relesed now over 11 years. When the early releases were coming up under the Good Friday Agreement, they set up a program where those of us who had had our husbands and partners released years back and who had come through the difficultues and the problems, we set up a group to work with the families of those men who were coming up for release. We talked through with them some of the issues and the problems they were going to face. And that continued on after the releases - that group still met and provided support to each other. Thats how I first became involved. And then when the office opened here and the post became available I was appointed as the support worker in this area.
MT: Marian, you said something before about how there was a real lack of services when your husband came out?
MJ: When my husband was released, we had no one. There was no one to turn to and no one to talk to around the problems we faced. And in a way we felt we were the only ones having problems - and that put even more stress on the family and on relationships. It wasnt until you were talking to other people whod been through it that you suddenly realized well, there are certain problems common to everyone and there was no one to deal with this. So that was why EPIC set up this group - to provide that support and to make people feel that there were problems when men are released from prison. The feeling is, when theyre in prison, you think, "Oh, when they get out everythings going to be fine." That the problems all over. You know, that the problem is being in prison. People dont realize the the problems and the issues that are going to arise on release - in relationships with partners, with family, with outside agencies... So that was what that group was set up to do, to try and provide that support.
KM: What does EPIC stand for and how exactly is it related to REACT?
MJ: EPIC is Exprisoners Interprative Centre. It was established, originally in Belfast, up at the Woodfield, at the top of the Shankill, to work with exprisoners in Red Hand Commando in UVF on rentingration. Then we started EPIC here - EPIC Mid-Ulster - to work with exprisoners. But because out work changed and developed, the management committee here felt we needed to reflect that more in the name - that were not just working with exprisoners anymore. so hence the name changed to REACT, to reflect the wider work that we do.
KM: Approximately how many loyalists have served time as political prisoners - how many men, how many women?
MJ: I dont know the figure off hand. I know theres thousands. Here in Mid-Ulster, which is the area I cover, theres several hundred. Very few women. We have only one female exprisoner that we would work with from the Mid-Ulster area. I know there are 2 or 3 others throughout the province but very few women overall became involved in loyalist paramilitaries. It was mostly men.
KM: What are some of the needs of political prisoners and their familes? What are the needs of those in rural areas?
MJ: I think in rural areas its very different to Belfast. In Belfast if you take the like of the Shankill or East Belfast where there were many men in prison; you know, it wasn't uncommon. But when you get up to the rural areas its much different. You stand out in rural areas, whereas in Belfast you dont.
[Here] your family stands out and its much harder coming back home again. I mean for me, when my husband went into prison, there were people here in Armagh who I knew and knew well and wouldve crossed to the other side of the street rather than be seen speaking to me - in case it was thought that maybe they in some way were connected or had to something to do with what Ralph had done or was involed with. So people in rural areas were treated very differently than they were in the cities.
It was very hard for families to come to terms with, that somone in their family had become inolved with... there were splits in families. I know some families, men who who havent spoken to brothers and sisters for years over it. So its looked upon very differently in a rural area than in the like of Belfast.
KM: How are the needs of exprisoners being met or overlooked? You spoke previously about how emphasis is only on jobs...
MJ: I think that whats being overlooked is the effect on families - on wives and children. Theres the emotional issues. We are now seeing prisoners who have been released for a long time who are just now starting to experience emotional problems around their time in prison and the effect that it has had on their familes. And its the same with children. I think children are forgotten about. And theres nothing worse than a child being separated from a parent and the effect that has on them when theyre growing up. That continues on through their lives, it has an effect, things that they have to come to terms with. And for me a lot of that has been forgotten about.
It's asumed that anyone involved in a paramilitary organization goes to prison and comes out, you know theyre hard men and it doesnt have any affect on them. But that isnt what weve experienced. Were experiencing alcoholism, where men are turning to drink to try and deal with the problems that they have - because again theres this issue about them not admitting that they have problems, you know, that would be a sign of weakness to admit that, so they're trying to find other ways of trying to deal with it. Theres help available but a lot of them won't admit that they need help. We would actually have families come to us, and say: "So and sos a problem," or a husband or brother. But we cant do anything unless they ask for the help themselves and admit that they need it.
KM: I guess the popular idea is that what successful reintegration is about is going from prison to a job -thats the simplstic way of looking at it.
MJ: its tended to be thought that most exprisoners were unemployed, hanging about with nothing else to do, and thats why they became involved in the conflict. The majority of Loyalist exprisoners from Mid-Ulster were actually in full-time employment when they became involved in the conflict. So that had nothing to do with it. And the idea is that you get them out, you give them a job, and everythings fine. And yes employment, it does play a part and its important that a family has a decent income to live on, but that is not solving all the problems; there are a lot of others there that need to be dealt with as well. Theres the issue of the way theyre treated with travel visas - they cant travel to certain countries. Theres the whole thing of pensions, insurance. You know theres a whole lot of issues that need to be dealt with but that are forgotten about.
[For lots of great info about the needs of loyalist exprisoners, see the EPIC web site]
KM: Has there been cross community work done between ex political prisoners?
MJ: There has been. Theres some groups that have actually gone abroad together. There was one recently went to South Africa - involving ex loyalist, republican, and security force members. There's been trips to Nicaragua and also some programs locally - but more so in and around Belfast than in rural areas. Theres a group called Community Dialog that would bring people from all aspects of our society together. We would go and do residentals and dialog around issues that matter. So there is that going on. You dont tend to hear a lot about it; that's the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. Its not publicized, for obvious reasons, it would cause a lot of problems. But it does happen.
And even on the funding issues, there was a panel that was set up for exprisoner funding, and it was a mixture of republican and loyalist exprisoners meeting with the Community Foundation. So it does happen and they do talk - because theres a lot of common issues there. Issues that affect one set of prisoners affect another. What affects loyalist exprisoners, they also affect republican exprisoners. All those isssues are common right across the board.
KM: What are the stereotypes surrounding the word loyalist and how would you like that to change?
MJ: I think everybody when they hear the word loyalist they automatically think paramilitary. For me thats not the case. Particularly in rural areas, there are a lot of people who call themselves loyalist who have never been involved in paramilitary organization - and who would never be involved, and who wouldnt support them. But they would still consider themselves loyalist.
I myself would consider myself to be a loyalist and have never been involved in a paramilitary organization and would never want to be. And in fact part of our work now is making young people aware of what the consequenes are of becoming involved. Its not all the myth and the hype and the glory that goes on. Its the reality of the situation, and what happens if you go to prison, and the effect that it has on you and on your family.
KM: What does loyalist mean to you?
MJ: For us it means being loyal to the Queen, to the crown, to Ulster, that's what it is. But that doesnt mean you have to take up a gun to do that.
KM: What do you think are the biggest probs facing the PUL (Protestant Unionist Loyalist) community?
MJ: Well Im involved in a steering group called PUL Network. And we are trying to promote community development and community relations within the protestant community. That is something that hasnt been common place. Community development was seen as more nationalist/catholic - I think because when the state was set up in 1922, the protestant community was told the state would look after them and provide for them, so they felt they didnt have to do anything for themselves. But that is not the case and that is coming more and more to the fore. So there hasnt been the same community development going on in protestant communities that there has been in catholic communities. And were trying to promote that, so we are. Because if you have confident communties, they are more likely to reach out to other communities. They wont feel threatened. Theyre confident within themselves. So therefore they are more likely to reach out to other communities. We want to promote community development and community relations, both within our own community and cross community. I think thats the way forward.
The young people within the protestant community are constantly being told that they dont have a culture and they dont have a tradition. What were tying to do is educate them as well, to get them to know their culture, to know their history, where they come from, what their background is - and give them that confidence. If theyre confident they know where they come from and where theyre going, theyre more likley to reach out to others than if theyre constantly being put down and and their self confidence is being eroded.
KM: Has it been hard to form community organizations and networks in the PUL population?
MJ: It has been difficult in the past but I can feel now that its getting easier, that people are now realizing that its important to come together as a comunity. Protestantism is based on individualism. You know, the individuals right to choose. Look at our churches - how many churches do we not have? You could have 6 people living row houses and and each one would go to a different church. There's no one common bond there. But I think theyre starting to realize now that it is important to come together as a community to deal with the issues.
A group voice is much more effective than a lone voice. So we are seeing that there is a change in attitude, and that people are starting to come together to form community grpous and organizations and to network more with other groups.
KM: How do you define community?
MJ: Community, for a lot of people, is just the community where they live. You know, there are several layers of community. Theres the community in the estate that you live in; theres the community then in the town you live in; theres the protestant community; theres the catholic community. Theres so many different communities that we have. It depends on each individual and people how they feel and what they look on as their community.
KM: What kind of youth work does REACT do?
MJ: Our youth work up until now has been based around our youth club - we have a membership of over 100 young people. Recently because we got a full time youth worker employed, were now setting up prgrams. Were involved in one at the minute - with a girls group from Drogheda, just across the border. Theres a group of ten girls here from Armagh, age 11-13, and a group of ten from there went on a residential together to the YMCA Green Hill, up at Newcastle, for 3 days. Theres a follow up visit coming up now this week where our girls are going down to Drogheda, and theyre going to visit the sites down there. Theyre going to take them to the site of the Battle of the Boyne and all that. And theyll then be coming up to us in the new year.
Were also setting up programs doing single identity work with them, which is all around their culture and their identity. Were going to do some anti-sectarian work with them as well. Were doing drug and alcohol awareness. Personal development. Anything that they feel they want to be involved with. Were working in small groups with them. Next year we hope to do a summer scheme as well with the younger ones 'cause theres basically nothing here in the summer for them. So theres a lot going on.
KM: When you talk about anti-social behavior, what do you mean? What does REACT try to do to prevent it?
MJ: Well in some of the estates, you get young ones hanging around, doing graffiti, annoying neighbors and things like that. We have been working with some of them around citizenship, to try and make them realize that thats not the way your behave. That its their community and people living there that theyre affecting.
Weve also been involved with the PSNI [Police Service Northern Ireland] here. Around the time that Ireland won the All Ireland Gaelic [football championship], there was a bit of problems here in Armagh, where cars were coming through with flags and driving through what would be perceived as protestant loyalist areas. And a lot of poeple were unhappy with that.
So we went out onto the streets and talked to the young people and worked with them to try and avoid - they were throwing stones at cars and things. We worked to try and avoid that. And we were successful, particuarly on the Sunday night, when the cars were coming home. We were out with them that night and on the Monday night when the celebration was going here in town.
Its trying to get young people to recognize that its their community, and that the only people that theyre hurting when they do things like that are themsevles and their community.
Were also establishing a restorative justice program, which will work with young people - young offenders or those on the verge of offending, and those at risk. Putting them through a program which looks at their lives and tries to redress some of the problems. And if they have offended, part of the program is where they have to make restitution to the victims, to their community. Its a new way of dealing with young offenders rather than taking them to court and them ending up with a record thats going to affect them for the rest of their lives. Its trying to change their attitudes and change the way they live and make them better citizens.
KM: So theyd have to make restitution to the person theyve actually offended directly?
MJ: Yes, if the person who would be classed as the victim, if they want to; the ball is very much in the victims court, so it is... You know we hear so much now about the rights of victim, and nothing happens. If someone offends or breaks into someones house and goes to court over it, thats it. But this is different. They have to actually face up to what theyre done. To the individual. And to their community. And work to make that right. Its complicated, its not straight forward by any means.
I was in a meeting last week of the local strategy... A local counselor who was there said there was these young lads in court who treated it like a joke. He said they were sitting giggling and laughing. They knew they were going to maybe get a fine out of it, and that was nothing to them. They came out giving each other the thumbs up and it hadnt changed a thing for them. So theyre probably going to go out and do the same thing all over again. And thats no good for them or for the community.
There's been a very successful program running down on the Shankill called Greater Shankill Alternatives. And the program here is going to be based on that. Its under the umbrella for Northern Ireland Alternatives. And the Greater Shankill Alternatives are now getting refererrals from police, from social services, from schools, and even from parents who feel that their children are getting out of control and that they need to do something. It has been very very successful. And were hoping that the one here in Armagh will follow that.
KM: since the Good Friday Agreement, do you feel like tensions have eased or gotten more polarized?
MJ: Recently, I would say particularly within the last year, communities have become much more polarized, so they have. You know there was that feel good factor after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement; we had peace, that was it, it was all over, problem solved. But it wasnt. It was an agreement, its a process that has to be gone through. And people didnt realize. I think they thought once that was signed, thats it. They didnt realize what was going to happen, that it wasnt over. And that youre going to have people who disagree with it. And you cant ignore those people either. But just recently I feel that the catholic and protestant communities here have become even more polarized because its as if everyones trying to get their bit and get as much out of it as they can.
KM: how do you think the tensions have manifested themselves?
MJ: Well theres been a lot of sectarian clashes going on up in the town. People just arent willing to meet and talk anymore, where they would've been in the past. The politicians need to remember that whatever they do has a bigger impact on the people who are living in the community, that we have to live with their decisions and what they do.
KM: You spoke about living in the past and the need for people to move on...
MJ: Living in the past... there are a lot of people here, for one reason or another, who dont want to let go of the past. Its very easy to look back and accuse people of doing things. But for me, theres no one who has come out of the conflcit here whiter than white. There have been things done by people on all sides, by loyalists, by republicans, by secuiriy forces. Everyone has done things to each other and theres no one can hold up their hand and say, "Im completely innocent."
But if we keep harking back to the past, were never going to move on. Im not saying that people will forget - its very dificult, particularly if youve had someone killed and your family has been affected - but if we continually live in the past, people are just being retraumatized, time and time again. The only thing we can do is try to move on. We try to draw a line and say that happened but now we have to move on.
It's the same with all these people calling for inquiries about everything that happened in the past. As long as that goes on, its renewing that hurt and that conflict and we're going to continually be going back and back and back. We really do have to say, "Yes these things happened and we all admit that they happened." But we have to, for the sake of our children and the future, we have to try and move on and draw a line.
It is difficult. For one reason or another, theres politicians, theres people in all sections of our society, who don't want to move on. It suits a lot of people to keep reminding people of what happeed in the past. But I feel as long as we do that this is never going to end.
KM: What does the word activism mean to you and do you consider yourself an activist?
MJ: Activism... activism... someone who is actively involved in their community. I suppose I am actively involved. But Im not the only one here. I can't do it without the support that I have, without the staff here, without my family, without my husband. I mean, Im out at meetinfgs most nights of the week. I have a family. Without their suppprt I just cant do it.
And I can't do it without the community support. The whole basis of what we do is rooted in the community, and without the support of the community we wouldnt be doing it. Its all those poeople, thats the reason I do it. Theres a lot of people who give me a lot of support. And there's people there, when theres problems with young ones, that I can lift the phone to and were all out. They let me be up front and they work away in the background. But its not just me; its the whole support from the community and particularly from my family.
MT: Can you give us a sense of what a typical day would be for you?
MJ: It varies; the work is very varied. You can have your day all planned out, and then you get a phone call about somehting and everything just changes. This morning I had a phone call from someone who has been trying to book a visit to maghaberry to see their partner and they cant get through - because the telephone operators have been taken off to go and do other duties and they cant get through. So therefore I had to make some phone calls about that.
This afternoon Im involved in interviews for the post of coordinator of the local confederation of voluntary groups - I'm on the managing committee and Im on one of the panels.
This evening Im at the AGM of the PUL Network. It varies... Ive all the admin work to do here - as project coordinator , youre responsible for all the budgets as well. And then you have all your community work on the ground - we provide a welfare rights service. Like if people come in , we can help them with completion of forms for benefits and things like that. And theres the community problems. You get a phone call from the police, maybe there's a problem in a certain area, can we help sort that out... or from someone about their noisy neighbors, or there's intimidation going on, and can we help sort that out? So everyday is different. And maybe thats why the work is so interesting and it keeps us going. Because no two days are ever the same. And you just never know what is going to come in through the door.
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