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From the IRA to the principal’s office, the evolution of life echoes Belfast

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Jim McCann, assistant principal at St. Joseph’s Elementary School, walked through the hallway, pointing like a proud father to the colorful paper butterflies made by students hanging from the ceiling.

He cheerfully called out each child’s name as he passed, then poked his head into the classroom, where the students chorused, “Good afternoon, Mr. McCann!”

Outside the school, colorful fencing provides a bright backdrop for children playing soccer in a courtyard where gunfire once echoed, army snipers stood on rooftops and armored vehicles drove by.

But the neighborhood has felt very different since peace was restored 25 years ago. For Mr. McCann, 68, the transformation reflects his own evolution.

The current vice-chancellor spent decades in prison for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary group that sought to use violence to end British rule in the region. He was convicted of attempted murder and spent nearly 18 years in prison.

Like many of his generation, Mr McCann’s life was shaped not only by the Troubles in Northern Ireland but also by the peace process that ultimately ended the conflict.

“There is simply no need for violence right now and those who still engage in violence are doing no good to anyone – they are hindering progress,” he said in his school office earlier this year.

For more than a century, many Catholics in Northern Ireland have cherished a nationalist and republican dream: to undo the 1921 partition and reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. That vision has sometimes brought them into violent conflict with mostly Protestant unionists and loyalists who believe the region should remain part of the United Kingdom.

Mr McCann’s connection with the republican movement began with a series of Deadly crackdown The late 1960s and Early 1970s On Civil Rights Parade in Belfast and DelhiIn these marches, Catholics protested discrimination by the Protestant-controlled government and police force.

As tensions grew, communities divided along sectarian lines and paramilitary groups emerged on both sides. As a teenager, Mr McCann watched the city around him turn into a war zone. He joined the IRA, despite his parents’ objections.

“It’s a really strong sense of community to be a part of, and the community asserts itself,” he said. “And you know there’s no going back.”

In 1976, when he was 19, he was driving a stolen motorcycle during an IRA operation and was arrested when another man shot a police officer in the back. The officer was wounded but survived. Mr McCann was sentenced to 25 years in prison for attempted murder. He was released in 1994.

By the time the peace agreement known as the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, about 3,600 people had died in the conflict.

While Mr McCann does not glorify violence during the Troubles, he believes it was a necessary part of the fight for a more equal society.

“I’ve never regretted anything and I’ve always been proud of what I was involved in,” he said. “Even though I was in prison, I lived a very fulfilling life.”

Robert J. Savage, a Boston College professor and expert on modern Irish history, said that for some unionists, “the idea of ​​having a former IRA prisoner working in a school with young children is unacceptable. It’s upsetting.”

Although peace is firmly established, the memory of the Troubles has not yet fully faded.

“The violence may be over but for many people the deep trauma remains,” Professor Savage said. “The IRA was involved in the violence and society remains divided.”

He said there had been a “real lack of accountability” since the peace deal was signed, adding: “That’s a bitter pill for people to swallow, not just at the hands of the IRA but also at the hands of the British-backed security forces.”

In 2021, McCann published 6000 Days, a memoir of his time in the notorious Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The book chronicles the daily experiences of hundreds of IRA prisoners as they protested through a series of increasingly extreme and sometimes deadly measures, such as hunger strikes. A high-stakes prison break 38 escaped. Mr McCann and 18 others were captured within 24 hours.

The details he shared were stark. For years, the men, including McCann, refused to wear prison uniforms in a show of defiance and became known as “blanket men.” They staged “dirty protests” and smeared feces on walls. They were beaten by guards who sprayed them with fire hoses.

Mr McCann wrote that he witnessed 10 IRA prisoners of war being 1981 hunger strikeFor those sympathetic to the republican movement, even those who denied IRA violence, the deaths generated great sympathy and marked a turning point.

Later that year, the protest was called off and a compromise was reached allowing prisoners to wear their own clothes.

In prison, Mr McCann developed a strong friendship with another IRA member, Joe MacDonald, who was the fifth person to die during the hunger strike. Mr O’Donald attended St Joseph’s School as a child and was considered a hero by the community’s republicans. His name is engraved on a plaque near the school entrance. The plaque reminds Mr McCann every day of his friend, the area’s violent history and the hope for a conflict-free future.

Mr. McCann was 38 when he was released during the peace process. He soon became a father of three, married, and became a teacher after earning a college degree in prison.

“My father was a teacher, and from a very young age, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “For all these years, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.”

Many of his students’ families have personal ties to the conflict, and some have suffered its worst consequences, with some even having lost family members.

“They’re a diverse group,” he said of his students, noting that decades of peace have brought in immigrant families. “But there’s still a divide between Catholics and Protestants. Unfortunately, we’re still divided.” We are still separated

McCann sat in his childhood home, looking at relics of his time in prison, including small slips of paper with neat little lines of writing on them, on which he had scribbled messages he wanted to smuggle out to friends and family.

Mr McCann said that while he remained involved in the politics of the republican movement, he was committed to achieving that goal in a peaceful manner.

“I realized that the military side of this fight had run its course,” Mr. McCann said. “It had gotten us this far and it wouldn’t get us any further.”

He had campaigned for Sinn Fein, the former IRA political wing that renounced violence and joined the peace process. Once on the political fringe, Sinn Fein has emerged as a force, winning most of the IRA’s seats. Northern Ireland 2022 elections.

On an afternoon in early February, Mr McCann was in the Great Hall of Stormont, Northern Ireland’s government building, to witness Sinn Fein politician Michelle O’Neill making history. Became Northern Ireland’s first republican First MinisterThis is the highest position in a power-sharing government.

Ms O’Neill said she, like Mr McCann, represented the “Good Friday generation” committed to cooperation and peace.

Mr. McCann thought he might never see this moment.

“It was great to be in the company of people who had spent so much of their lives, particularly their teenage and adult years, working so hard not only to get us into Stormont but to help us move towards our ultimate goal, which was a united Ireland,” he said of the other members of the republican movement who stood alongside him that day.

“But at the same time, make this a place where everyone can live a happy life, a place of equality, a place of opportunity,” he said. “That’s what’s most important.”

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