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A Moment of Reflection

26 January 2016

A Moment of Reflection: ‘Volunteers, the very best of us’ Wendy Osborne OBE, CEO Volunteer Now

In November I received an email from Janette McKnight, Director of Quaker Service to tell me that as a result of an unsuccessful bid for a government contract Quaker Service would no longer be providing services at the Visitors’ Centre at Maghaberry Prison.  David Bass, Chairperson commented that for more than 40 years Quaker Service has given much needed support to families visiting Northern Ireland’s top security prisons.  As we turned from the old into the new year the Guardian Newspaper was proclaiming 2015 as the year of the volunteer.  Highlighting the importance of people giving time to help others, to reach out to strangers, using the volunteers reaching out to refugees as a prime example of our humanity, our compassion, our care for others, referring to this impromptu army of volunteers as ‘the very best of us’.

These two pieces of information connected together in my thoughts and brought to mind the book that was published in 2001 in Northern Ireland as part of the United Nations International Year of Volunteers.  The book about volunteering is called ‘Stories from the Edge’ it was written by the journalist, Martin O’Hagan, in his role as a volunteer with the then Volunteer Development Agency (Volunteer Now), Martin was sadly and tragically murdered before the book was launched.  It tells the remarkable stories of volunteers ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things’, one of these stories is about Martie Rafferty, who tells us about her volunteer experience with the Society of Friends.  It seems appropriate to encourage you to take a few minutes to read about Martie and the service provided by the Society of Friends volunteers who stepped in during the darkest days of Northern Ireland’s troubles and gave heart and support to prison visitors and prisoner families in need.  As the Guardian commentator puts it ‘the very best of us’.

Reading and showcasing the article below might also encourage you to read again all the Stories from the Edge, just click on the link and be impressed and inspired all over again. http://bit.ly/1OMEMP4

Let’s make 2016 in Northern Ireland the year when we tell the new volunteer stories, bring forward our unsung heroes and show how much we value those who give their time to reach out, join in and get involved in helping others and making our communities better places to live in.

If you have a volunteer story you would like to share contact Julie Cusick at Volunteer Now julie.cusick@volunteernow.co.uk


“A place of enormous contradictions”

Martie Rafferty

Friedrich Nietzsche may have proclaimed that God is dead, but in the 100 years since the philosopher's own premature death in August 1900, many people still look to religion as their ground for morals. It is the religious criteria that provides individuals with the basic rules of how to be good. Christianity with its emphasis on loving your neighbour as thyself and not judging others, does provide some sound sense in a world with absolutes - even to the confirmed atheist!

Those who can remember the dark autumn days of 1971 may also remember flickering black and white images on old television sets of men, women and children huddled in the wind and the rain waiting for their weekly half hour visit to Long Kesh internment camp. Into that dreary and desperate world of prison and prison visitors the Northern Ireland Government under Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, invited the Society of Friends. The Friends were asked to open up a 'neutral' visitor’s centre outside the internment camp.

The Society of Friends is a religious body which has no definite creed and no regular ministry. It was founded by George Fox who began preaching in 1647. Later Fox was to write in his Journal that the society was dubbed the Quakers by Justice Bennet of Derby because they 'Tremble at the word of the Lord'. The Society of Friends have always come with preconceived baggage as righteous people who daily lived their faith, and the more liberal wing embraced the opportunity to work with the prisoners, even though some had committed serious albeit politically motivated crimes. Yet preconceptions can be and are often wrong; for the Society of Friends is like any other human collective and does have its incongruities. There were elements that allowed more fundamental aspirations to dictate their attitudes. ‘Why should the Society of Friends become embroiled in a nasty little sectarian war between two religious factions?’ they reasoned. However the work of prison reformer and Quaker, Elizabeth Fry, who regularly went in and out of the dark satanic dungeons of early Victorian England, left a legacy that no Friend could afford to ignore. So within days of the incarceration of detainees the Society of Friends was handing cups of warm soup and tea to the relatives and children of the first inmates.

 In the beginning, the Quaker canteen was the only protection against the elements. Eventually the authorities provided better waiting rooms for visitors. The Society of Friends did not go away and their operation called for more volunteers to oversee the new crèche and the enlarged canteen facilities. Most of those Quakers who came forward had their own reasons. They made their own way out to the prison in all weathers and were only given their bus or petrol expenses. Despite the complete lack of monetary reward the Quaker volunteers managed for over 20 years to provide a continuous service and have rarely been acknowledged for their selflessness. In a recent edition of the fringe political magazine 'The Other View' the question is ironically asked, "Which organisation spent 25 years in Long Kesh and didn't get an early release nor a large state pension?”  Flick over a few pages and the answer is revealed to be The Society of Friends.

Teams of volunteers traipsed out to the Maze Prison for years to stand behind a small counter serving those who more often than not had travelled miles for a weekly half hour visit. Many had travelled for several hours in a variety of mini buses and coaches driven by volunteer drivers from different organisations.

 It becomes clear that if even if many of the volunteers had never become Quakers they would still have volunteered to help others. Their Christian beliefs correspond to a classical socialist attitude, which requires the individual to help those less fortunate. But why volunteer to work at the Maze, which was once considered the toughest prison in Western Europe housing some of the most ruthless killers and bombers? The volunteers find it hard to give a definitive answer. "Is it something human beings do or ought to do? Is it that their Christian beliefs were incensed at how the families of prisoners were also made to suffer by the authorities? Possibly," they admit.  It is the Quaker that believes there is a piece of God in everyone. Their task was not to judge, but many did believe that the families of prisoners were innocent.

The inability to point to any one particular cause suggests that maybe it is the totality of reasons both conscious and unconscious. Whatever their reasons many Quakers immediately volunteered for the Quaker Service Committee. For many years they prepared and served up food to the visitors. It was not haute cuisine but it was hot and filling. Like the outside world the makeshift portacabins of the visiting area were also strictly segregated but the volunteers recall that they found prison visitors generally congenial and well mannered to each other and also to the Quaker canteen and crèche staff.

There is the opinion that a lot of young men became involved out of peer pressure and that their strong ideological beliefs came later. In this way the volunteers who were mostly women, felt able to empathise with the mothers and wives of the young men locked up in the Maze and acknowledge that their own children could have also been fodder for the paramilitaries.

Most volunteers remember their time in the Maze as rather uneventful with few incidents if any. There are fond memories of the chats and craic with the volunteer drivers who drove relatives to the Maze.

Images and impressions of Long Kesh still remain vivid among those hardworking Quakers volunteers. The ominous and anonymous look out posts, the high steel fencing topped by deadly razor wire and the loud clump click of a hundred locks on a hundred gates still haunt the prisoners, prisoner's relatives and the Quaker volunteers.

 Martie Rafferty was one of those whom believed that ‘the problems of Caesar were Caesar's’ and should not be allowed to enter the rarefied heights of personal spiritual quest. Yet for Martie, volunteering at Long Kesh became a spiritual journey that has effected her entire life. At a Quaker meeting she heard a profound plea for help at the Quaker centre at the Maze. "I was so moved by the appeal that I volunteered," she said.

With pounding heart she approached the closed, dark and forbidding world of the HMP Maze unaware of what to expect. Today Martie still remembers the haunting faces of those coming for a visit. Queues stretched all the way to the back door especially on ‘Derry Day’. The day when busload after busload of hungry relatives came from the northwest.                                                                                                                                                      

 "Some came to us in tears, worried, angry, hurt; sometimes fragile and we shared in a lot of the personal pain,” she said. Still, for every down side there was an alternative and she also remembers sharing in the laughter, friendship and hope. As a young Martie Rafferty dealing with families of prisoners, she was taught about endurance, personal loyalty and the raw courage of relatives.

Looking back over the decades she recalls her first visit inside the prison to meet a prisoner group. Her stomach in knots and head throbbing she was now coming face to face with her nightmare. How should she react? What should she say? Why was she doing this? Here in front of her was not some herd of monsters but human beings. The contrast was stark. All her apprehension and fear evaporated. She found to her amazement that she came to know, respect and more importantly value as friends, some of the individuals she met.

Martie is of the opinion that the Maze can really only be understood at a deep level by those who in some way directly shared the experience. In the early days of the Nissan huts, which then give way to the H Blocks, life inside was harsh and the draconian rules strictly adhered to by the prison regime. Martie's experience of the Maze was that of a place of enormous contradictions that deepened her own spirituality. It was a place of great pain, frustration and restriction but this was matched by the human laughter, friendship, courage and growth.

Perhaps what has become clear during the research of this article is that understanding has still to be found. Perhaps it’s because Northern Ireland is still a very divided society that any comprehension of the problem of the Long Kesh experience can only be partial. And perhaps it’s also the reason why so many of the Quaker volunteers have yet to unravel why they did what they did.