In Northern Ireland, 'Terror Gets Old,' But Divisions Linger A new documentary looks at the lives of some who took part in Northern Ireland's sectarian conflict, which lasted 30 years. Many are in their 60s now, grappling with their roles in a violent past.

In Northern Ireland, 'Terror Gets Old,' But Divisions Linger

In Northern Ireland, 'Terror Gets Old,' But Divisions Linger

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In Northern Ireland, "the Troubles" — the long and bloody conflict between Catholic Irish nationalists and pro-British Protestants — formally came to an end with a peace agreement in 1998.

But before the deal established a power-sharing government in the region, more than 3,600 lost their lives in three decades of sectarian violence. The Protestant loyalists wanted to remain part of the U.K., and the Catholic nationalists wanted to end British rule. Even nowadays, divisions and mistrust still linger in Northern Ireland.

Corinne Purtill, a senior correspondent with GlobalPost, considers the legacy of the Troubles in the short documentary When Terror Gets Old, which she co-produced with Mark Oltmanns. The film focuses on the lives of ex-militants, some of whom are now in their 60s. "Many still view them as terrorists and murderers," she writes in a story accompanying the documentary.

"Some people I spoke to said, 'Thank you very much, but I really prefer not to be public about my past,' " she tells NPR's Arun Rath. "They felt maybe their safety would be at risk if the community around them knew what they had been involved in." But others, she says, "were ultimately very, very generous with their time and their stories."

Speaking with former combatants from both sides, Purtill learned that many struggle with unemployment, alcohol abuse and depression.

Some are working together now to educate younger generations about the era.

Still, Purtill notes in the film, "There are no tidy endings in Northern Ireland." In fact, she says, there have been more than 200 terror-related arrests in the past year alone.

Interview Highlights

On why those convicted of past crimes are free today

That's a result of the Good Friday Agreement, which was in 1998. That was the peace agreement that officially brought an end to the period that's known as the Troubles. And one of the more controversial elements of that was that all prisoners who were still in jail for conflict-related crimes would be released. So everybody walked free, [even] people with life sentences.

On the role of regret

A lot of people, their regret is kind of hedged with justification or with a continued commitment to the cause that they were fighting for. A lot of the [Irish Republican Army] guys will say, "I don't regret being in the IRA; I think our aims were correct. But I regret some of the things that happened. I regret some of the things that we did."

On former combatants' ambivalence about speaking of the past

Most people that we spoke to said that the only people they felt totally comfortable sharing their story with were fellow prisoners.

We interviewed a counselor named Joe Barnes, who himself was a prisoner for his [IRA] activities. He said it's very difficult for men, in particular, to walk into his office and sit down and share what their past is.

It's also very difficult because there's no amnesty in Northern Ireland for crimes during the Troubles. So if something's bothering you that was never on a rap sheet, even a therapist has to disclose — U.K. law says — any terrorist activity that has not been prosecuted.

So everyone's kind of policing themselves about what they can say aloud about their past.

On the value of sharing these stories today

I think if there's no effort to understand why somebody does the things they do, then there can be no effort ... to make sure such things never happen again. And I think that the fact that a lot of these men and women have gone through these experiences, have learned to live with the regrets and difficulties of the things that they've done, I think that their stories are really valid and there's something worth learning from that.