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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Understanding new beginnings

by Armando "AJ" Davila

Taken from his home in a raid by RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) police and British Army on Easter Sunday in 1978, Charlie McMenamin at the age of 16 was tortured so severely, physically and psychologically, that after the first few hours, he attempted to take his own life with a little metal screw he pulled from a radiator in his cell. Charlie was an average kid from the Bog Side who had little education, but was never a criminal. His exposure to the Troubles that overwhelmed the communities of Derry were almost surreal and were imprinted into his memory for the rest of his life. How does one take all the bad experiences and hatred built up from those experiences and make a better life for himself and others based on forgiveness and wanting change? Charlie McMenamin is a man of vision and ambition to make a difference for his people and his country.

Charlie McMeniman
“For 3 days I was badly beaten. I had all my hair pulled all out. I had my ears slapped. I was made to stand a lot. Shouted at. Psychologically tortured. And on the first day, after about 8 hours of torturing and interrogation - being told that I was accused of things I never did. I was taken to my cell for a break, which was the first break I had taken. I grabbed a screw from a radiator and tried to cut my wrist.”

At the age of 16, Charlie McMenamin was imprisoned and held without trial before being taken to a judge to face accusations that he later in life proved were not true. He was accused of serious offenses like attempted murder, possession of guns, and multiple other charges. Charlie pleaded his case and defense to his attorney, who in no way helped him convey his innocence to the court. Charlie says "The System", as he called the judicial set-up at the time, was allegedly corrupt and he was forced to plead guilty to offences by his attorney's incompetence in seeking the overturn of the case. It was a choice of either pleading not guilty and receiving 30 years imprisonment, or guilty and only one year in prison. During his three long and agonizing years behind prison walls, Charlie developed a hatred for anyone wearing a uniform or that stood for the so-called judicial system in Northern Ireland.

DRAC from 1978
While in prison awaiting trial, Charlie was exposed to other pressures. The first two years of his sentence were spent in the Crumlin Road Jail in the H-blocks. The last year was served in a junior prison of Millisle, 100 miles away from his family. During his time in captivity, he was encouraged to join “the fight” against wrongful imprisonment and a corrupt government system which tailed into the the main agenda set forth by the strong Ireland resistance – wanting the British to leave and have no rule over Northern Ireland. Even though Charlie was against the government system, he was not considered part of "the Struggle."

At one point, Charlie decided to stop his prison protests against the government system, because his family was not getting the financial support that the other families of political prisoners were getting from support organizations. His decision to stop protesting was in support of his mother who had just lost her son to a corrupt system and the financial hardships that were beginning to stack up. This created a lot of tension with his fellow inmates that were very proactive in "The Struggle" as political prisoners. Charlie was ostracized by his fellow inmates, which added more pressure to a young man already fighting "The System." He eventually rejoined the prison protest to help claim the right as an innocent man wrongfully accused.

After prison, due to his high resentment of the Northern Irish systems and hatred for the RUC and British Army rule, Charlie supported the use of violence by those opposing British rule in Irish affairs. Throughout the 1980's, Charlie was in and out of prison. He finally found himself moving to Paris, France, in 1988, where he lived for two years. “It was the first normal period I had had in my life. Normality was not something I was used to. It was so nice to be around really good human beings. Even the British people there were nice.” This experience of humanization was a revelation to Charlie. He knew that at this point, there were good people in the world and that the people of Ireland needed to look for a peaceful solution. During the 1990’s, Charlie attempted to start his new beginning by looking for better ways to combat the Troubles, mainly through peace and dialogue.

Local youth group Charlie
helped facilitate
Given that the 1990’s were still very chaotic in Northern Ireland, Charlie started his foundation trying to improve the life of those in his community. It was a slow start for Charlie, as he was trying to find ways to promote the thought of unity and peace. It wasn't until the mid-2000 that Charlie began to rise in his community as a leader and mentor. Organizations like Triax, which oversaw smaller groups and helped facilitate anti-sectarian and anti-community work, and Drink Think, whose aim is to encourage the local population and beyond to adapt a responsible and sensible approach to alcohol, were stable organizations that Charlie helped facilitate. These organizations have proven to be very effective in the recent years, which in turn has made Charlie a prominent citizen of his community and a leader that poses better solutions towards reaching peace.

In 2003, due to the changes in the new judicial system of Northern Ireland, Charlie was able to take his convictions back to court and eventually have them overturned and declared a "miscarriage of justice." Charlie finally had a sense of closure for the hatred that had built up in his body and mind for all of those years.

“Being in the heart of any community is the only place you can be at times of war, troubles or strife. When you understand it from within, you can be an encourager and enabler of change; empowering those around you to make informed choices about their lives and showing leadership to those who may have become disillusioned or misguided in the process.”

Charlie emphasizes a popular quote stated by Albert Einstein, “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.”

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