On the 28th March 2013, I had the privilege to introduce the launching of the Loyalist Ex-Prisoners Art Exhibition in Crumlin Road Gaol. I opened the occasion with the following speech.
“First of all on behalf of the Ex-Loyalist Prisoners Community I would like thank you all for coming to the initial the Launch of the Ex-Loyalist Prisoner Art Exhibition.
EPIC (Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre) is an organisation that represents the constituency of RHC/UVF Ex-Prisoners. Over the course of the conflict more that 10,000 Loyalists ended up incarcerated in the Prisons and Prison Camps of Northern Ireland and beyond. Almost every one of them passed through the gates of this prison at some time. Each one has their own story, their own experiences and each had their own way of dealing with the sentences handed down to them from the courts. Many political prisoners took up various positive and constructive pastimes and careers while they were incarcerated including, music, arts, writing, handicrafts and education. Some, like Danny Strutt and Tommy Cull, were even more creative by designing their own early release scheme when they escaped from these walls in 1973.
Today we present a small example of the work of three ex-loyalist prisoners who took up art and honed their talents by painting and sketching their way through their years of imprisonment. Upon their release they continue to paint and sketch, some as a pastime and some as a profession.
Their art is also a record of their time in prison a pictorial history captured by vivid imagination captured by the stroke of a pencil or the swish of a brush. There is an ocean of talent and exhibits hidden within the wider ex-loyalist prisoner community and by launching this exhibition we hope to stimulate more of the ex-loyalist prisoner community to come forward and display whatever creativity or talent they developed while they were imprisoned during the conflict.
Today I can see ex- loyalist and ex-republican prisoners in the audience as well as the general public. I think both ex-prisoner communities can agree for the benefit of the general public that it certainly wasn’t like this when we were last in here. The samples of art you will see here covers over three decades of the conflict and a message and lesson to us all.
As 16th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement has just passed the beauty of these paintings and sketches also tells the story of thousands of young men, thousand more young families and loved ones who endured the suffering and penalties of incarceration during the course of the conflict. We must all tell our stories whether it be through art, literature, poetry or whatever medium so that future generations will never have to endure the suffrage of our generation.”
The Launch was attended by over 100 people and was on display for 4 weeks during which time 200 people viewed the exhibition. Seven Thousand Tourists visiting the Gaol for tours also were able to view the exhibition. Every comment from people from Northern Ireland and all around the World were positive and praiseworthy.
EPIC is a non-political organisation and will continue to collect stories, artefacts and promote the positivity of the ex-Loyalist prisoner community. I would encourage all ex-loyalist prisoners to come forward to their relevant bodies with any references or accounts of their experiences and opinions while they have been incarcerated over the decades of the conflict. The 10,000 ex-loyalist prisoners and the 40,000 plus families and loved ones who made that weekly trek to Crumlin Road, Magilligan, Long Kesh and the Maze must make sure that their experiences are not airbrushed or minimised from the annals of history, propaganda or political manipulation. That appeal also goes out to Prison Officers, Soldiers, Policemen, Victims and General Society. Everyone must be afforded the avenue and ability to express their feelings in a mature and constructive manner.
However, as we must remember the past and we must not forget the past, also the greater must is that the future must not be held hostage to the past. The unscrupulous politicians and opportunists who deliberately create a kneejerk reaction to every imagined and real emotion offer nothing to our children or the future.
Our youth and our children are our future and they must supersede the anguish of the past. The millstone of the past must be lifted from around our children’s necks by us the adults from whatever community, the politicians from whatever political party or we all become complicit in condemning future generations to a purgatorial country with a past but no future.