It was during a conversation with a former political prisoner in Colombia that Derry City Councillor, Barney O’Hagan, heard the sobering line “you’re our passport to life”.
The man with whom Barney spoke was imprisoned by the Colombian government for being a member of a trade union.
Barney visited Colombia, along with other members of Sinn Fein, UUP, DUP and various trade unions. The group spent five days travelling around the country meeting with politicians and those affected by the violence. The cross-party delegation was organised by Justice For Colombia (JFC).
Barney said that the recent visit not only gave many Colombians a reason to be optimistic about the current peace talks but it also helped to raise international awareness about one of the world’s most violent conflicts.
The delegation comprised of Brian Campfield, NIPSA General Secretary; Paul Maskey, Sinn Fein MP for West Belfast; Conall McDevitt, SDLP MLA; Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MLA; John McCallister, UUP MLA; Patricia McKeown, UNISON Northern Ireland Regional Secretary.
“It was a very worthwhile trip,” said Barney who is a Council representative for Northland. “The objective of the trip was to examine and support the current peace process talks that are happening out there at the minute.
“The whole trip was organised by Justice For Colombia, hosted by Colombians for Peace, and we as politicians and members of trade unions got the chance to listen to the stories of people who have been affected by the consequences of the conflict.
“We spoke with prisoners linked to FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - English translation - Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and spoke with the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, he said that they had studied the Irish peace process and they had studied the IRA.
“Whilst there are vast differences between the Irish peace process and the Colombian peace talks there are also many similarities.”
Colombia - a former Spanish colony which gained independence in 1810 - is suffering the consequences of colonialism that left a few landed elite of 1% owning 80% of the land. The current political violence has been part of Colombian life since the 1940s when the newly elected Conservative Government used violence to reverse moderate reforms. As the violence intensified armed revolutionary groups emerged like FARC.
Government attempts to crush the guerrillas with the formation of paramilitary groups, to help the army, fuelled the violence even further.
In the last 12 months secret peace talks have taken place between the government and members of FARC in Oslo and more recently the peace talks have continued in Havana in Cuba.
Barney and the rest of the delegation left Ireland on November 3 and travelled from London to Paris before embarking on a ten-hour flight to the Colombian capital of Bogota.
The delegation spent the next five days meeting with various groups, politicians and trade union members.
The group also had the opportunity to address both houses of governance in Colombia - the senate and the congress.
Barney, addressed a seminar, attended by: members of Congress and Senate, retired Military Generals, academics and Human Rights Lawyers, and stressed that all peace talks should be open to all of civil society and not just to government representatives and FARC.
“Full involvement of all of civil society is so important to peace talks. We know that from what was achieved through the Irish peace process talks and the eventual Good Friday Agreement in 1998. We talked about this when addressing the Congress and Senate. We stressed that the talks have to be totally inclusive.”
Talks between the government and FARC representatives were to resume in Havana a few days after the delegation had left Colombia.
“However, after our meeting with President Santos and the Government negotiating team, the addresses to the senate and congress, a decision was taken to postpone the talks by a week so that the government could work out a way to make the talks more open to civil society,” the Derry councillor said.
Barney said that one of the most shocking discoveries of the trip was how many people had been murdered, disappeared or jailed by the government for being members of trade unions.
“There’s a reason why trade unions are hated so much by elements in the government in Colombia. These elements of government are working in conjunction with the large land owners and foreign business interests and the last thing these businesses want is a workforce that is organised and have a voice - they want to maximise their profits as much as they can and the best way to do this is to defeat the trade unions - this was why it was important to have trade union representatives on the delegation.”
Barney, who is also a former republican prisoner, said he was saddened when he met with a group of mothers who all lost their sons in what is known as the ‘False Positives’ scandal.
The ‘False Positives’ scandal took place when members of the military had poor, and at least one case of mentally impaired, civilians lured to remote parts of the country with offers of work, killed them, and presented them to authorities as guerrilleros killed in battle, in an effort to inflate body counts and receive promotions or other benefits. As of June 2012, a total of 3,350 such cases have been investigated in all parts of the country and verdicts were reached in 170 cases.
“We met with women from the suburb of Soacha, south of Bogata, whose sons had been murdered during the ‘False Positives’ scandal. One of the women’s 26 year-old son went missing off the streets of Soacha. He had the mental age of nine and realising that something wasn’t right she went to the authorities and the police but did not get any assistance. A while after she picked up a copy of a national newspaper and saw pictures of her son dressed in military clothes - he had been taken away by the army, dressed up to look like a guerrilla, executed and the army used the pictures to convince people they had won a great battle against FARC - it was very emotional talking to her.”
Barney said that during his conversation with the women he noticed similarities between their situation and that of the families of those murdered and injured on Bloody Sunday in Derry.
“The sense of loss and pain that I saw on the women of Soacha’s faces reminded me what I saw on the faces of the mothers who lost sons on Bloody Sunday. Like the Bloody Sunday families the women of Soacha are starting out on their campaign for justice and I plan on speaking to some of the Bloody Sunday families to see what advice they can offer the women of Soacha.”
The delegation’s trip was covered widely by the national media when they were there and Barney said that he hopes the ongoing peace talks will work.
“FARC have called a unilateral ceasefire but the government have not. For the talks to work, violence has to cease. But even within the last few days there have been assassinations and eight academics and doctors from Patriotic March were falsely imprisoned. Many of the politicians and President, Juan Manuel Santos, seemed genuine when they told me they wanted the peace talks to work. I hope they truly are genuine. I hope that both sides of the Colombian conflicts benefited from what we as a delegation had to say and hopefully they will have a peace process like ours someday soon.”