Audible Voices

This is exile. You don’t know
Perhaps we create an identity unique for this climate?
Perhaps it is the homeland that
reaches into the soul of the exile
this morning –
chokes him

Mansur Muhammad Ahmad Rajih – Another Sky

Expac, the non aligned ex-prisoners assistance committee, has established something of a reputation for itself in the community and voluntary sector as a publisher of booklets, pamphlets or research reports which detail problems that former prisoners experience. Its commissioned report, No Sense of an Ending: The effects of long-term imprisonment amongst Republican prisoners and their families, was welcomed by considerable numbers as a pioneering work in the field. Expac, despite its genesis in the environs of the North’s political prisons, has to its credit refused to allow itself to be pigeon holed in that narrow bandwidth and has steadily advocated the cause of the marginalised and disadvantaged into which the ex-prisoner community readily fits.

Once travelling by bus to an Expac meeting, I happened to be reading another of the group’s publications, Coming Home, when I fell into conversation with the passenger beside me. In the cramped conditions of a fairly packed bus he could not help but glancing at what I was reading. He explained the difficulties he had experienced in his daily life trying to deal with agencies and layers of bureaucracy. He asked for a copy of the booklet to be sent to him as it was so packed with advice and information that red tape would in future not seem so daunting. I let him have the one I was reading.

Now Expac has produced a further addition to its already small but worthy collection. No Place Like Home is a collection of voices of those who have been displaced as a result of the conflict in the North. Part funded by the European Union’s Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and the Irish Government’ National Development Plan, the booklet ventures into territory that has much mining potential. Having written the forward to it I make no claim to be a disinterested party or impartial reviewer.

Displaced people, like ex-combatants as distinct from those combatants who were in prison, constitute one of the areas of silence in the vast range of quantifiable surface discourse that has flourished around the Northern conflict. Despite the widespread recognition of victims the displaced do no seem to figure on the radar. In the banks of victimology if you have no home address you cannot open an account.

No Place Like Home seeks to dig beneath the surface discourse and get to subaltern voices which are then allowed to speak on their own behalf. At one point an ex-prisoner details his difficulties holding down employment because of Gardai harassment. His delivery van, frequently delayed by police, made fewer runs over the course of time, his employer having lost confidence in his ability to meet the demands for punctual delivery from customers. Nor was the boss warm to the idea of his work vans being kept under Gardai surveillance. The former prisoner had come to realise ‘how difficult it was for northerners to get work in the south.’ In Monaghan 30 years he only slowly became part of the community.

Another former activist made the searing point that:
The experience of displacement leaves scars that are not visible to the naked eye … the early days of displacement were ones of having nowhere to call my home. Uncertainty, loneliness and coldness in body … there are times you wonder how you survived, and luck played a big part in it.

A former blanket man told of his inability to hold onto a flat. In what was eerily reminiscent of constantly shifting cell during the blanket protest this exile told of his flit from flat to flat as landlords were unwilling to put up with Gardai raids on their property. His closing words: ‘I am now in my mid 50’s, have no marketable qualifications and have no job and few prospects of finding one.’

Former activists or prisoners are not alone in facing displacement. Children whose parents were suspected of involvement in republican activity narrate how they came to discover that they ‘were somehow apart from other children in the street.’

Others showed that after a prolonged struggle against poverty and managing to overcome the harsh reality that in terms of entitlements the benefits system north and south were ‘poles apart,’ some turnaround in fortunes could occur. With the aid of a lifelong friend a state of self sufficiency through self-employment was attained. It brought to mind the words of an introduction to a chapter on exile in the book Another Sky: ‘for some the pain of exile never goes away. Others find a way of forging a new identity melded from the old and the new.’

Still others, with no political history, moved South because of an increase in sectarian hostility after the election of Bobby Sands in 1981. In the case of a young married couple ‘at first we were delighted with the peace and security that we enjoyed in Donegal, but gradually we came to realise that it was taking us some time to settle into the local community.’ Over time the community made them feel welcome but ‘my husband and I still see ourselves as outsiders.’

This booklet is to be complimented for bringing so many murmuring sounds to the surface and giving them the clear tone of audible voices. Problems that for long existed but which were ill defined or were mumbled rather than spoken are increasingly coming to be heard, if not yet listened to by officialdom.

No Place Like Home. Published by Expac. For a copy send Stamp Addressed Envelope to Expac, Unit 3, 14 Market Street, Monaghan.

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