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Beyond the Wire: Former Prisoners and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland

Beyond the Wire: Former Prisoners and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland by Peter Shirlow and Kieran McEvoy. Pluto Press, 2008, 176 pp.

Beyond the Wire is a critical examination of an oft-overlooked aspect of counterinsurgency warfare—what to do with political prisoners after hostilities have ceased. Combining sociology and statistical history, authors Peter Shirlow and Kieran McEvoy provide a detailed analysis of the former prisoner population after the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Their book breaks new ground and is especially pertinent for understanding today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Employed at Queen’s University Belfast where Shirlow is a senior lecturer and McEvoy a professor of law and transitional justice, each has edited and written a number of other books and published several journal articles. They bring to the table more than 20 years of experience researching the conflict in Northern Ireland and its effects on the Irish people. Most of their research for this book is based on interviews with former prisoners and their families—Republicans as well as Loyalists. This wide and varied sample of interviewees helps to allay concerns of bias toward one group or another.

The authors argue that upon reintegration with their communities, former prisoners have become strong advocates for conflict transformation in Northern Ireland. Conflict transformation, they say, is different from conflict resolution or even conflict management. The former implies the disappearance of conflict, while the latter suggests an inability to resolve a conflict. Instead, conflict transformation involves identifying the underlying causes of the conflict and incorporating that knowledge into a solution.

The authors present a brief historiography of the scholarly literature on former prisoners in Northern Ireland, contending that there exists no quantitative and qualitative study of both Republican and Loyalist former prisoners. This book, they state, represents the first such comprehensive study. Finally, they summarize the objectives of their book and its structure.

The main body of the book consists of eight chapters divided into three sections. The authors start their investigation by determining how political prisoners differ from ordinary criminals. This distinction is important for both the imprisoned and those who imprisoned them. Serving a sentence for political reasons is less of a stigma than doing the same for a crime. They then discuss some of the strategies used to deal with political prisoners and the methods the prisoners use to resist. Key for contemporary military thinkers is that Shirlow and McEvoy see “the prisons as but one element of an overall counter-insurgency strategy” (p. 26).

After providing a background on what types of prisoners were in the Northern Irish system, Shirlow and McEvoy examine the process of reintegration and how it affected former prisoners and their families. The third chapter concludes the first section of the book with a look at former prisoner groups. One important concept offered here is the difference between the Loyalist and Republican groups. The Loyalists had to contend with their imprisonment at the hands of the system they were trying to support. The Republicans, meanwhile, formed groups more easily because they had a longer history of political imprisonment in Northern Ireland. This chapter is also useful because it includes a number of quotes from interviews with former prisoners, their families, and group organizers to give the reader a firsthand glimpse into the groups.

The second section contains the heart of the authors’ argument and features a daunting number of tables filled with statistics, portraying the experience of former prisoners through numerical data instead of interviews and written memoirs. This quantitative approach may not appeal to all readers, but it offers a relatively unbiased consideration of a difficult subject. It also juxtaposes the previous chapters’ interviews nicely, using numerical data to support verbal evidence. The information in chapters 4 through 6 is thoroughly researched and very detailed.

The third section is an analysis of the use of former prisoners during conflict transformation. The authors examine the leadership of former prisoners in the process, which takes three basic forms—political, moral, and military. After describing these three leadership types, Shirlow and McEvoy focus on how effectively former prisoners have been used in the process. Finally, they show the differences between how Republican and Loyalist prisoners interact with their communities upon release. The authors follow this analytical chapter with a strong concluding chapter, wherein they restate three important themes—that Republican and Loyalist views of former prisoners were different, that most literature discussing conflict transformation has neglected a study of former prisoners, and that former prisoners can be extremely useful for conflict transformation due to their experience both in and out of jail.

A 25 August 2007 New York Times article reported that the prison population in Iraq was almost 25,000 strong and the average incarceration lasts approximately one year. US military officers interviewed for the article also identified a problem with the Iraqi prisoners: upon release, most of them continue or even increase the intensity of operations against Coalition forces. The leadership in Iraq, both Coalition and Iraqi, clearly needs to understand how to prevent the prisons from becoming a breeding ground for insurgent forces. The prison situation in Northern Ireland during the Troubles is similar to that currently existing in Iraq, and many parallels can be drawn between the two.

Beyond the Wire is meant for an academic audience, primarily sociologists and those interested in criminology or the conflict in Northern Ireland. The staggering amount of statistical analysis in the latter half of the volume will probably discourage most readers from continuing. However, for those responsible for planning for a postconflict Middle East or any future counterinsurgency fight, this book is vital for understanding the role that former prisoners can play in conflict transformation.

Stuart K. Archer

Florida State University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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