On the banks of the River Foyle sits the Erbington Barracks, built in the early 1840’s. A former British Army base with a long history linked to the troubles. A few steps away spans the symbolic and functional peace bridge, joining a town once divided by the River, divided by politics and religion. Just behind the barracks, up a narrow flight of stairs, Nigel Gardiner spends his days with people who twenty years earlier wouldn’t dare come to the Waterside, people who wanted to see Nigel dead. Now, these past enemies have become friends. Peace and reconciliation energies have replaced his duties of control and security. Just as he once embraced his security duty responsibilities, so too is his passion and fervor evidenced in his current mission.
In 1968, at the young age of 16, Nigel saw his country being torn apart in civil strife. A struggle, centuries in the making, was building and threatening to destroy his country. Many young men chose to go the route of the paramilitary – to fight to protect that which they believed in and loved. Having been raised by a single mother who taught him the importance of family, of community, of strength and honor, Nigel instead chose the legal path of duty joining the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) at 18. The UDR was set up to replace the Ulster Special Constabulary (B specials) and tasked with the duty to support the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constable (RUC) in keeping civil rest, to thwart the violence of the terrorist, and to maintain order. Nigel spent the next 22 years in this role.
Each morning Nigel would leave his home to drive to his day job as a shirt cutter at the Hogg and Mitchell Shirt Factory. Before getting in his car, he first had to bend down and check for bombs, something that he finds himself still doing today. Instead of driving directly to his work, he would drive different routes each day, often going 7-10 miles out of the way to not be caught in a routine that could potentially make him a victim. He and his family lived in constant fear.
A “normal life” was not available to Nigel and he regrets that, people should not have to live in constant fear. After the Good Friday Agreement, he began working with the Irish Street Community Association. “I tried to build bridges between various groups in the Waterside and extend those across the city – working with every group within the city regardless of class, creed or culture,” working to build a cross cultural, inclusive community. During the conflict, Nigel lost 34 colleagues in the violence. He can tell you how each one died and the awful atrocities that he witnessed. He works to “move the peace process forward” and “create a future for our children.” In his words, "We want to engage with people who have emerged from conflict. We need to learn from the past, not repeat it."
The organization Nigel has now dedicated his energy to is the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Center (EPIC). Their mission is to further the peace process, to help political prisoners re-enter society. EPIC works to create a bridge from prison to peace; working for peace and reconciliation, citizenship (telling their stories in schools to encourage kids away from the violence) and social economy and sustainability. Additionally they offer welfare rights consultations to the entire community.
What was achieved in the 38 years of violence and struggle and the 3700+ victims who lost their lives? Not very much, in Nigel’s eyes. There are no winners, everyone in the struggle suffered, everyone was a victim, and everyone was touched by the violence. Nigel believes in the peace process. He believes in the necessity of dialogue and of finding that place where both sides of the conflict can live side by side in an inclusive community; where one’s religion does not define neither the in nor the out group. Working with this group, Nigel shared that through the work he has been doing he has learned the true meaning of respect and to not judge others as he did in the past.
Although Nigel believes politicians are not the ones to solve the peace troubles; he is running for election in May as a member of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). Through this work he feels he will be better able to facilitate the communication that will move the peace process forward more quickly and inclusively – by the citizens of the community. By people who are committed to overcoming differences, finding a common ground from which to work and fixing things to provide adequate services and quality of life for all people. It's time to find peace in Londonderry / Derry.