OREILLY Amy JanePrisons Memory Archive: Using technology for peacebuilding
by Amy O’REILLY for Northern Ireland Foundation
13 May 2016

At an event organised by Transformative Connections held at Queen’s University Belfast, the Prisons Memory Archive screened ‘Armagh Stories: Voices from the Gaol’. The archive directed by Professor Cahal McLaughlin looks at the memories and experiences of those associated with the Armagh Gaol as well as the Maze and Long Kesh Prison during The Troubles.

The archive is a collection of 175 walk-and-talk recordings filmed within the prisons, amounting to 300 hours of film and involving 180 subjects.

The ethical framework was fundamental in the production of the film, which involved life storytelling, co-ownership and inclusivity. The life storytelling, told within the boundaries of the prison, stimulated the participants’ memories of their encounters there. Co-ownership allowed each participant to co-own their story and decide how they wanted it told, and where it was set alongside others within the film. Inclusivity meant hearing a diverse range of experiences from different perspectives on conflictual narratives.

Following the film, a discussion was held between a number of representatives from different organisations, looking at how the material can be used to promote peacebuilding within Northern Ireland. The talks mainly focused on what preparation and training would be useful within communities before using the archive, and what barriers it could potentially face.

It was discussed what role technology would play within the project and what platforms would be used. Mr Enda Young, co-founder of Transformative Connections, made reference to the success of the Humans of New York Facebook page and questioned whether some inspiration could be taken from that. Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat were also mentioned.

The question was raised as to what the purpose of the archive is and what the project aims to achieve.

Project manager Lorraine Dennis said, “I think the purpose of the prison memory archive is to prompt discussion around it; that can be very difficult.”

“The project aims to achieve information literacy and show that there are other viewpoints than the political binary. It aims to address dehumanisation. It highlights the significance and deep rooted impact of segregation,” she added.

It was accepted that segregation still very much exists and that the project would give communities the opportunity to integrate.

The discussion focused on how to assess the readiness of communities to use the material, whilst acknowledging that not everyone will be willing to get involved. It was recognised that some people would rather leave the past behind, whilst others may feel that they were unaffected by the conflict.

The point was raised that a lot of community practitioners don’t want to know. They want to maintain the status quo. They feel we’re in a safe place now in the absence of violence.

The footage touches on issues such as the strip searches introduced in 1982, which caused a lot of resentment amongst prisoners who deemed it unnecessary and an act of degradation and humiliation. It gives firsthand accounts of the no wash protest (1980-1981) and the hunger strike (1981).

Lorraine highlighted that mental health problems within Northern Ireland are much more significant than anywhere else, claiming that it’s “because we’re not talking”. According to the Office for National Statistics, figures released in 2016 show Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK for the second year in a row.

“We need to talk within a safe place, regain a sense of self: The Troubles challenged and changed identity,”she added.  

The workshop concluded that the project would have to be group and context specific. Participants would have to be carefully selected and the environment in which the workshops would take place would have to be assessed. Much importance was also placed on providing the right facilitator to make the project an overall success.

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