Photography by Brian Moody
As a former paramilitary, Martin Snodden has served a life sentence in the Maze Prison for his activities as a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Fifteen years later he was released under licence. He now operates as an independent international trainer and consultant.
What drove me to take up arms was a desire for peace. Violence was visited upon me in 1969 when I was 15 years old. I lived in a Nationalist area of West Belfast, part of a small Protestant community that came under attack on a daily basis. So-called freedom fighters were denying my family, my neighbours and my friends the right to live in peace. State forces, the police and army weren’t present, so it was a question of self-defence.
Between the ages of 16 and 19 I actively engaged in violence, and before I had turned 20 I was imprisoned for my actions – in particular, for an attack on a premises that was a base for an IRA unit. Two people lost their lives in that attack. One was my colleague and comrade, who died when a bomb prematurely exploded. The other was a woman, an innocent civilian, who was on the premises at the time. My comrades in prison were like me; most had entered prison before the age of 22. All were cannon fodder.
While I was incarcerated I had the opportunity to explore Irish history, and to ask why, despite my Christian upbringing, and despite my strong belief in a moral existence, I had contributed to the violence of our political conflict. I have since come to the conclusion that these beliefs can co-exist: that respect for a moral/spiritual authority can live alongside the need to act to defend one’s community.
My personal inner journey was long and torturous, but I grew to believe that violence was not going to resolve our political conflict, or repair our damaged and divided communities. So while in prison I sat down and spoke with some of my enemies. I developed a very strong friendship with one particular Republican prisoner – a friendship that brought me a lot of hostility from my comrades.
In 1990 I was released under licence. The authorities expected prisoners like me to reintegrate back into society, but upon release I found that this was not a society I wanted to reintegrate with. The polarisation had only increased, and my moderate views were now as marginalised as my extremist views had been prior to my incarceration. Nevertheless, I still desired change in our society, and this time I resolved to do it through relationship building and conflict resolution.
This is the path I’ve been walking ever since – sometimes with extreme difficulty. I have to always consider my family and the risks I’m taking. In the last six months I’ve received two death threats – one from each side. The work I engage in antagonises people. It would have been so much easier to have taken a job in industry and just become insignificant in our society.
In my life I’ve been a peace breaker, a peacemaker and peace builder. My past violent actions were very destructive, but now I’m fighting for peace in a far more constructive manner. The risks aren’t really much different but the rewards are much greater.
The Conflict Trauma Resource Centre project, which I’ve been instrumental in developing, looks at the legacy of trauma, pain and suffering. People who use violence are not only likely to kill someone else, but also to kill part of themselves in the course of those violent actions. They lose part of their humanity.
I deeply regret how my violent actions hurt innocent people. I have had to seek forgiveness within myself and to reconcile my past and my present. That in itself has put me in a better place and empowered me to address the needs of others with regard to the legacy of the violent conflict.