A REFLECTION of how far the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland have come is how former IRA prisoner, hunger striker and now playwright, Laurence McKeown, describes working with ex-RUC members and gardaí for his play, Green and Blue.
The play, which aims to humanise the police officers working on both sides of the border during the Troubles, will be staged at the West Cork Fit-Up Festival by Kabosh theatre company.
Last year, the company introduced West Cork audiences to McKeown’s hard-hitting political play, Those You Pass on the Street.
His latest play explores the lives of a Cork garda and an RUC officer who patrolled the border during the height of the Troubles. It is described as being full of humour and pathos.
Sixty-year old McKeown, born in Randalstown, Co Antrim, joined the IRA at the age of 17. In 1976, he was arrested and charged with causing explosions and the attempted murder of a member of the RUC.
He was found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Maze Prison. Following the deaths of six IRA prisoners on hunger strike, on the 70th day of McKeown’s hunger strike, his family authorised medical intervention to save his life.
In the play, the characters discuss their “life in a uniform”. The RUC character talks about not being seen as a person but rather “a peeler” or a “black bastard”. The Garda character speaks of his isolation in his community. “We are a uniform, not real people,” he says.
McKeown’s play, which premiered at a former British military base in Belfast last year, is based on an oral archive of serving Garda Síochana and RUC officers. The archive was compiled by Diversity Challenges and Queen’s University Belfast.
In their respective green and blue uniforms, the characters talk about policing the south east Fermanagh and Monaghan areas.
While writing the play, McKeown “worked with a committee of former gardaí and RUC members. They weren’t dictating what the story should be. It was more about correcting actual things such as how they would have communicated and the correct type of car they’d have driven.”
Over the years, says McKeown, the arts have been used as a way of bringing the different communities in the north together, “to deal with some very difficult issues. In terms of republican ex-prisoners, there has always been an informal network that developed over the years. There was a very vibrant network under the Sinn Fein POW department that developed into a more formal setup. Funds became available and at one time, there were about 24 groups.”
McKeown used to work with Coiste (an ex-prisoners’ committee) founded in 1998 to facilitate the integration of released IRA prisoners.
“Our role was to engage with funders, with governments north and south. It also dealt with everything from insurance queries to trying to set up businesses and even at one time, it dealt with companies trying to get licenses to drive taxis.”
While Coiste is still operating, McKeown left it when his funding ceased.
When McKeown was a newly recruited member of the IRA, he never dreamt that he would one day be writing about Troubles from an empathetic RUC perspective as well as from a Garda point of view.
“Certainly, at 17 or 18, I wasn’t thinking along those lines. But after the hunger strike, we were very much into promoting education. I did my degree in social sciences in jail through the Open University.”
After being released in 1992, he obtained a PhD in sociology from Queen’s University Belfast. He has written two books about republican prisoners in the Maze Prison.
“Republicans were very much into engaging with different issues. Things were not as black and white as we would have imagined at one time. I still retain the political outlook of a republican. The seeking out of a resolution was long drawn out and it brought up a lot of difficult conversations. But once you have an opportunity to tell your own story, I think people are actually open to that. Green and Blue goes beyond the uniforms. Because I’d seen a lot of work in the past, in novels, plays and films depicting republicans that bore no resemblance to the type of people I met, I felt I had to write a truthful story about these people.”
While in prison, McKeown was in charge of the prisoners’ education programme.
“We started a prison magazine, The Captive Voice, which was originally produced covertly. In the latter part of the ‘80s, a lot (of prisoners) were involved in academic and political education. We started poetry workshops and developed the artistic and the cultural side of things. Ten years after the hunger strike, I was still in prison. Myself and Brian Campbell, who I did a lot of writing for as a prisoner, decided to put together a pamphlet. It was a collection of memories from that time. We ended up with such a volume of material that we decided to publish a book. We had difficulty getting it published but in 1994, after I was released, we got it published by Beyond the Pale publications which specialised in publishing books that nobody else would publish. Brian went on to write a film, H3.”
McKeown feels that writing is cathartic.
“In terms of [writing about] conflict, theatre is a great way to do it. Someone can be anonymous in an audience and hear a character speak on stage. They may never want to meet that character but they might identify with them and will go away with something in their head that challenges stereotypes.”
McKeown says Blue and Green was well received by both sides of the community when it had its premiere at the Belfast International Arts Festival.
But there was controversy initially when “a number of unionist politicians kicked up about it. They hadn’t seen the play. All the reviews were very good. Was it only because I wrote it that there was a problem? It turned out that unionists couldn’t find any fault with it. So it played in the PSNI headquarters and was attended by the chief constable.” McKeown has avoided stereotypes. But is he consigned to writing about the Troubles? “I don’t want to be type cast in what I write.”
He says he will “definitely” write material that has nothing to do with the conflict.