A coffin or a prison cell. Those were the two fates that fighters believed awaited them in Northern Ireland’s long and brutal sectarian conflict.
More than 3,500 people died during the Troubles, the four-decade battle between Irish nationalists wanting to end British rule and Protestants loyal to the British crown. Paramilitary groups like the Provisional Irish Republican Army waged a guerrilla war in Belfast’s streets, with bombs and bullets claiming the lives of combatants and innocent civilians alike. Tens of thousands of people were sentenced to prison for their actions during the conflict. Some of them were given life sentences for vicious and brutal crimes.
The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought a nominal end to the conflict after decades of battle. As an effort to draw a line under the past, the treaty released all those still imprisoned for conflict-related crimes. Today, those fighters who once prepared to face death in jail or in the streets must learn to live alongside one another in peace.
Survival, it turns out, comes with its own struggles. The men and women are beset by psychological trauma, poverty and crippling rates of alcoholism. Those with criminal convictions associated with the conflict have struggled with unemployment and the prejudices of a society where many still view them as terrorists and murderers.
Nearly two decades later, some on both sides are willing to talk — albeit guardedly, given that they could still face conviction for crimes committed but not tried. They provide a rare window into the lives of people labeled as terrorists, and the minds of those willing to kill to achieve their political goals.
At a time when it feels like Britain and the US are waging an endless war on terror, Northern Ireland is a reminder that all wars end eventually. Even terrorists get older.