After the peace
Sharon Murphy's husband was a Republican prisoner. She remembers how, when he was sent to Mountjoy Prison (where he spent four years), Sharon had very little support, either financial or emotional. "At least I had some family," Sharon tells an attentive group from the Hartford unit of Irish Northern Aid. "Many wives didn't even have that."
"It was the financial contributions from Northern Aid that put bread on the table, for me and my child" she tells us. And now, as a representative of Coiste, Sharon provides the same kind of support she received back in the 90s, before the Good Friday Agreement.
She tells the story of Sean, who after 23 years of imprisonment, was not even able to leave his house until the support group helped reintroduce him to the world, a society that had dramatically changed since he was first imprisoned. And she tells of a young man, permanently disabled, who was born in prison because his mother was serving time for her Republican activity. He too has been helped by the group.
Today, the ex-prisoners' support network has provided personal, financial, and political support for 10,000 people who still suffer the effects of imprisonment by the British government. Although Republicans were released from British and Irish prisons as a result of the GFA, "imprisonment left a wake of broken lives," Sharon says, dismissing her own story as minor compared to some others.
Sharon talks about the long, hard work of her group
Coiste na n-larchimi, this network of 20 organizations that fights for the re-integration of prisoners into society. "Ex-prisoners can't get a civil serivce job, they can't get car insurance, they can't open bank accounts. No one wants to know them," Sharon tells us. A Republican ex-prisoner is still "on licence," which means he or she can be re-arrested by the authorities at any time.
Her own group is based in the town of Clones, County Monaghan. It serves a region that includes parts of two other counties as well. "More than 200 people have received support from Northern Aid in my small area alone," Sharon reports. Her group has bought the old police station and renovated it, giving ex-prisoners the chance to sharpen their construction skills. They have started a day care center that is used by Republican families and the wider community as well. "At first there was a lot of fear," Sharon says. "The town thought we were coming to take over." But now everyone benefits from the work of Coiste.
That benefit will eventually extend to Loyalist ex-prisoners as well. They have their own support group, called Epic. Coiste has started to reach out to the loyalist organization. They want to lay the groundwork of reconciliation. "But before there can be reconciliation, there must be an understanding of where we come from," Sharon says. She notes that Republican ex-prisoners had never been arrested before they were incarcerated for their political "crimes." Loyalist prisoners, on the other hand, were mostly petty criminals with extensive records. "That's where the loyalist groups recuited, from the poorest sections of their community," she tells us.
There are 15,000 ex-prisoners in the north and south of Ireland. Several thousand live in West Belfast alone. Many need assistance of one kind or another. Sharon is visiting the U.S. to make sure we don't forget that honoring the peace process means recognizing the needs of the women and men who fought for a free Ireland, many of whom gave the best parts of their lives to the struggle.