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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Former political enemies join forces to help those emotionally scarred by the Irish conflict

Embargoed until 04 June 2009

Two political activists – one a former member of the IRA and one a former member of the Ulster Defence Force (UDF) – have said that getting people on both sides of a conflict to meet and understand each other is the key to healing divisions and forging peace.

Joe Doherty and Martin Snoddon - both of whom now work with former activists and their families - served a total of 38 years in prison for their involvement in terrorist activities. The two men were invited to share their experiences and specialist knowledge this week at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Annual Meeting in Liverpool.

At the meeting, Dr Oscar Daly, consultant psychiatrist at Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn, Co Antrim, said only 10 per cent of politically-motivated activists who killed had mental illness – compared with 57 per cent of ‘non-political’ murderers”. “You often hear that people who kill for political motives are mad. Whatever they are, they are not mad,” he told the conference.

Mr Doherty, 54, an Irish Catholic, joined the IRA at 15. He recalled being regularly stopped on his way to school by British army patrols and his home being searched by soldiers in the early hours of the morning. “It wasn’t a normal society,” he recalled.” I was working class. I wanted to be a carpenter or an electrician and have a family. But I was in a back room learning how to put bombs together, how to strip machine guns and how to kill.”

His motivation was the removal of the British from Ireland. “The more bombs we put in London, the more force we could put on the British government to leave,” he said. While in prison, he read of the death of a part-time British soldier killed on the border. The 57-year-old man was a farmer by day and a soldier by night. He was shot dead on his tractor by the IRA in front of his child. “It hit home to me then that the armed struggle wasn’t working,” he told conference delegates. Since his release 10 years ago, Mr Doherty has worked with the Republican ex-prisoners group and has supported 20,000 former prisoners. He has met the victims of violence, including the relatives for British soldiers killed during the conflict.

Martin Snoddon, also 54, and on the other side of the political fence, became involved in terrorist activities through “love and fear” – love for his family and community and fear that it could be destroyed. At 16, he was given a gun and told to “defend his community”.

“I chose voluntarily to take up arms in defence of my community and take the fight to the enemy,” he said. “I was brought up to respect and love people and I was going out to kill people.”

He was part of a mission to destroy a unit of the IRA. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing two people and injuring another 17. He was captured and imprisoned in HM Maze prison, Northern Ireland. During his time in jail, he forged a friendship with a young member of the IRA. Mr Snoddon said: “We had grown to realise that the use of violence wasn’t going to win the war for anyone.“

Like Mr Doherty, on his release in 1990, Mr Snoddon began to meet former political activists and their families, as well as members of the provisional IRA.  He is now director of Northern Ireland’s Conflict Trauma Resource Centre, helping those who have been left emotionally troubled by the conflict. He said: “There were issues around overcoming the difficulties of dehumanising other people and dehumanising yourself, as well as issues around families and relationships with partners and parents. I started to realise the legacy of armed combat.”

Mr Snoddon has since travelled to Nicaragua, South Africa, and Gaza to help the recovery of activists and their families there. “The similarities are immense,” he told the Annual Meeting.

“Honesty, trust, talking to and understanding both communities on either side of a conflict was the key to peace,” said Mr Snoddon. “Try to understand what the leadership is, what the local economy is like and what their constituency is and how you can engage with them. It was only through engaging with the men of violence in Northern Ireland that we achieved a peace process.”

Both men agreed there was a considerable legacy left by the conflict, and unless this was addressed, the seeds for future conflict would be sown. “The last thing that I was is for my son to take up arms and commit to the same path as I chose,” said Mr Snoddon.

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Nevins
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Telephone: 020 3701 2543
Claire McLoughlin
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Telephone: 020 3701 2544
Out of hours contact number: 07860 755896



Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, BT Convention Centre, Liverpool, 2 -5 June 2009


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