Coming home

In 1991, Rosie McCorley was jailed for 66 years for terrorist offences. Today, she is a free woman, one of 300 prisoners released early under the Good Friday Agreement. How do these former paramilitaries feel about their actions, in a week that has seen Ulster inching ever closer to peace?

Across Monkstown, in north Belfast, a huge mural honouring the loyalist paramilitaries of the Ulster Volunteer Force still penetrates the dark, illuminated at night by a powerful spotlight. Peace may be in the air but the rival murals, flags and painted kerbstones which mark Belfast's divided territories are still manically maintained.

A few streets away, in a small terraced house, Noel Large, a former UVF man, and his wife Sandra are recalling how their baby son died two days after his premature birth, when Sandra makes a shocking connection. "God took my husband's first-born son," she says, "because of what my husband did." The words seem to ricochet around the kitchen, but Noel, sitting beside her, doesn't even flinch. Resigned, he simply nods and agrees that baby Ben was taken by the vengeful Protestant God both were raised to fear. As children they were warned that He would punish sin.

And Noel Large has surely sinned. In 1981, when Belfast seemed ready to implode after the funeral of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Large, then 22, murdered four men in separate raids on Catholic neighbourhoods. He could fudge the details now, offer excuses. He does neither. Two of his victims, he admits, were Catholics picked at random. Another murder was a case of mistaken identity. Only the fourth victim - allegedly a member of the republican paramilitary force, the INLA - could remotely be considered a "legitimate" target. These were not clinical, hitman assassinations but "raw, up close" killings and after the first, murder became easier, he says. But throughout the killing spree, Large says he always knew it was morally wrong.

"It sounds cold and ruthless now, even to me, and I don't offer this as an excuse, only explanation. After 100,000 people turned out for the funeral of Bobby Sands our view was that everyone in a Catholic area was a republican or republican sympathiser." It was a stupid view, then, and certainly not one he subscribes to now he says.

It's impossible to square the murders, now two decades old, with the small, intelligent, courteous man who has just finished cooing over Sandra's grandchild, made the coffee and has my coat warming on the radiator. There are two Larges, then, each as incongruous as the tattoos - Long Kesh Lifer and Sandra loves Noel - on his left and right arms. Sandra says that back then Large was very different.

It is a year since Large was freed early from Long Kesh (the Maze), having served 16 years. With 300 paramilitaries now released under the Good Friday terms (the 300th slipped quietly from the Maze this week while the public gaze was fixed on events at Stormont), the prison where republicans and loyalists ran their own wings is gradually emptying. Some sections have already shut down and the men who remain, waiting their turn, rattle around. "When you visit now you already expect the tumbleweed to come blowing down the corridors," says Martin Snodden, of EPIC, a support organisation for ex-loyalist prisoners and, himself, a former Maze inmate. It makes him smile. But opponents of the Good Friday Agreement warn of impending disaster. When the peace process falters, they say, a legion of killers will be on the loose, ready to murder again.

Mr Snodden winces at the apocalyptic warnings which, in a province crowded with victims after decades of violence, fuel public hostility towards paramilitaries on both sides. The vast majority of loyalist prisoners, he insists, would never have maimed and murdered except for the political conditions of the time.

Noel Large argues quietly that critics miss the fundamental point, that prison forever changed his generation of loyalist paramilitaries. Incarceration gave the boys (and many were just boys when they were convicted) of Belfast's Protestant ghettos time to analyse the madness. The prisoners concluded they had been used, and had bloodied their hands and damned their souls on behalf of "respectable" Unionist politicians, like Ian Paisley, who stirred others to action with fiery rhetoric but then retreated to their comfortable homes. From their ranks a small and influential group of paramilitaries- turned-politicians was born - a group which has done much to push the peace process along.

But love, Large says, transformed him as much as new political insight. For it touched a hardened man. In prison his first marriage had buckled under the strain of separation and by the time his only daughter, two when he was jailed, was a teenager relations had broken down. Sandra, separated with two daughters herself, was persuaded by a friend to be Large's penfriend. Even now she does not know why she started writing to a loyalist prisoner when she had no time for paramilitaries.

Somehow romance blossomed In 1996, during a period of parole, the couple married. Sandra was already pregnant with Ben. When Ben died in early 1997, Large was still holed up in the Maze. He was allowed a few brief compassionate visits home but mostly Sandra had to cope with grief alone.

Until he met his second wife, Large never thought of his victims as people with families and friends. If he had let all that in, he says, he might have committed suicide - like his friend Billy Giles did after release. Billy was always wracked by conscience after his murder of a 25-year-old Catholic man. Sandra believes that her husband could only have killed by blocking any thought about the victims. "How else could he have killed some woman's son or some child's daddy?" she asks.

A 16-year stretch, a failed first marriage, an estranged daughter (who has recently had a grandchild Large will probably never see), and the dead infant son. Sandra thinks that Noel has paid a price, though she understands why it will never be high enough for the families of those who were killed in terrorist attacks. "The families ask why should I be allowed to lead a normal life," says Large. "But I will never be able to lead a normal life. I know that's no one's fault but my own. But we are all victims - to a lesser or greater extent - of the conflict."

The notion of Loyalist killers as victims of the Troubles is not easily swallowed, even within their own communities. "There has always been wider home support for republican prisoners," admitted Martin Snodden at the opening of an exhibition about Loyalist prisoners in north Belfast this week. The exhibition, which appears to be a quest for understanding, aims to prevent marginalisation of the released prisoners as the peace process progresses.

Pictures of fresh-faced teenage boys with feathered hair - de rigueur in the 1970s - baggy trousers and pointed shirt collars hang on the exhibition walls. The boys could have been going to a Bay City Rollers concert, they were in fact exercising in the Maze. Their prison handicrafts are on display, an odd mix of machismo and kitsch. Hand-painted cotton hankies declaring "No Surrender" sit alongside leather wallets decorated with hearts and declarations of love for girls who waited. This is how the cannon fodder for one side of a civil war spent the best years of their lives.

The bitterness of many released Loyalists is neatly expressed in a displayed prisoner's comment about "the SuperProd figures [respected members of the community] who tell you how they nearly did what you did... but if you ask them for a job they do not want to know be- cause you were a Loyalist prisoner."

In republican working-class areas, always more politicised and organised, it is a different story. Prisoners are generally returning to a hero's welcome. There seems to be less bitterness among the released about "wasted" prison years. Tommy Quigley, 44, jailed in 1981 for a series of bombings in London, runs a prisoners' support group in New Lodge, north Belfast. He says it was the waiting, after the agreement was signed, that was worst, when prisoners worried that the politics would change and the door would slam shut just as it was their turn to leave.

On this side of the divide, too, convicted paramilitaries were young. When Quigley was inside, the average age of convicted republicans was just 22. If Loyalists tend to let their bitterness about the "wasted" years show, released republicans seem either convinced that their sacrifices were worthwhile, or are just more disciplined about hiding their feelings. Personal sacrifice may be being played down, as if such indulgence betrays the "rightness" of the cause.

Only a minority of republican prisoners, claims counsellor Michael Culbert, feel their time inside was a waste. A sense of loss, he says, is common, however, and only really hits home with time. "Things have moved on and prisoners feel left behind," he says.

Coiste, the umbrella body for republican prisoner groups, is campaigning for an amnesty to wipe out the "criminal" record of "political" prisoners, and so improve their job prospects. Whether someone has a criminal record is a standard question on job applications. Michael Ritchie, of Coiste, argues it is inconsistent for the Good Friday Agreement to support the full reintegration of released prisoners and then ignore the discrimination against them, especially when over 60 per cent of jobs in Northern Ireland are government funded. But the wider public is unlikely to lose much sleep over the job prospects of released paramilitaries.

Quigley says he has been lucky. He was jailed at 28, when his children were two and 10. Despite his long incarceration in England, his wife stood by him and held the family together. Somehow she managed to make him feel included in everything from family Christmas to first communions. "The biggest heroes of the conflict were the women who held it all together," he says. But other prisoners were less fortunate. Even those whose families remained intact may yet not survive the return of a father or a husband who has become a stranger.

Republican women did not just keep the home fires burning. Rosie McCorley, 42, the first republican woman to be released from prison under the Good Friday terms, recognises that being jailed for the cause has probably robbed her of the chance of motherhood. Softly spoken and gentle-mannered, the former housing officer was jailed in 1991 for 66 years for the attempted murder of an army officer and possession of explosives. She was in jail when her mother died of emphysema. But she refuses to dwell on the sadnesses and what might have been. She made the best of prison and like so many other republican prisoners completed a degree.

"I was conscious of the risks and I accepted them," she says. McCorley sings from the new republican hymn sheet - that the Struggle has now entered another phase to suit the prevailing political situation. The Belfast to which she returned earlier this year had indeed changed drastically. A switch in mindset had taken place, she says. Nationalists no longer stuck to their own areas. "They were taking possession of Belfast City and even the City Council, which we always considered such a bastion of Unionism," she says.

McCorley has no terrifying deity sitting on her shoulder waiting to exact a price, poised to punish. "I do feel sorry [about the past] but I couldn't say I felt guilty because that would suggest that what I did was wrong," she says. "I believed the armed struggle was the only way to bring about change." And violence, she insists, did just that.

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