10Qs: Sam McClean

10 Questions Interview with Sam McClean by Lewis Mooney

Sam McClean is an ex-prisoner from the Tiger’s Bay area of North Belfast.  Since being released from prison five years ago he has been heavily involved with the Educational Shakespeare Company, an organisation that works with ex-prisoners and youth in creating educational videos. 

Sam has recently been presented with an UnLtd award which provides practical and financial support to social entrepreneurs in the UK; “people with vision, passion drive and commitment, who want to change the world for the better.”  Sam has proven himself as somewhat of a remarkable yet unconventional leader in his own community, he admits and has faced up to his wrongdoing in the past but is now able and wants to use his own experiences to help young people who face trouble, to turn their lives around.

1. What were you doing when you were my age (21)?

My Father had just passed away and I had returned from England where I had been living.  I found it difficult to find a job when I first arrived back to Belfast but eventually I started working in the shipyard, like a lot of people in my area did.

2. How did you get to where you are today?

When I returned to Belfast, the Troubles had just begun and I was living in one of the frontline areas.  Tiger’s Bay was one of the worst hit areas during this time, there was fighting and bombing every night and often Catholics from the New Lodge area were able to make their way into my Protestant community and attack our homes, they became a threat.

All of my friends had joined the paramilitaries and I suppose it seemed like the thing to do at the time, collectively since 1973 I have spent 36 years in prison but I’m not proud of that and during my last spell I made a real attempt to turn my life around.  By the time of my third prison sentence I had no education to speak of and no qualifications whatsoever so I thought I would use the time to sort myself out.  In my first year of prison I got five GCSE’s, I surprised myself because two of those were A*!

Why did I do it?  I wanted to pass the time and wanted to educate myself, I thought don’t let the time use you, use it and so I did with computer courses, I qualified in Braille and learnt how to teach the Toe by Toe literacy course to other prisoners (a skill that Sam is now using in the recently opened Helping Hands centre in Belfast).

I suppose the major turning point was when a representative from the Educational Shakespeare Company came into the jail, at the time I was in charge of and running what was known as the “Education Block,” where we inmates were able to train ourselves how to read and the like.

Tom from ESC asked about trying to start up a drama group in the prison and we thought why not, it’ll pass the time.  I wrote the script for the first film which was called Inside Job, about a banker going to jail and we filmed it in a block of the prison that was getting refurbished.  When I came out of prison five years ago I stayed involved with the Educational Shakespeare Company, in order to get released from prison I had to get a job and so I did some part-time administrative work for ESC.

(I interrupted Sam and asked what would have been his job prospects if he had not been able to get work with ESC): Horrendous, absolutely horrendous.  As an ex-prisoner I couldn’t have come out and got a job & I was so old, my age made it difficult, it would have just been a vicious circle.

Mickey B, the film that ESC made a few years after I got out really took off, it’s been sold around the world and I helped to write the script and acted in it.  It’s allowed us to raise the profile of what we do and given us the opportunity to do what I’m doing today, opening the new Helping Hands Centre.

3.     What is Helping Hands and what made you want to set it up?

We’re going to be able to train young people who are heading for trouble or who have been in prison, a lot of them can’t even read or write so with the courses that we’re going to do hopefully we’ll be able to show them that turning to crime isn’t the best option.

What made me come up with the idea?  Well that’s easy, seeing the futility of people going into jail, it’s not only them that suffer but their families and there’s no need for it.  It puts huge pressure on a family on the dole; they’ve got to bring new clothes, money and all that to the son, daughter, brother or sister that’s in prison.  You’re classed as a scumbag going into prison and so you are, I want to show the young guys that’s this isn’t the way it’s got to be!

A lot of them don’t know any better and I wish I had somebody to talk to me when I was that age; maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get to where I am now!

4.     Who was the most influential person in your life and why? 

At what stage, there’s been so many?!  But I suppose in my later life the most influential person in my life has been Tom Magill, the Artistic Director of the Educational Shakespeare Company because if it wasn’t for him, I mightn’t have had the opportunities to turn my life around.

I used to be fixated by money, what you could get and what you couldn’t get & robbery fueled this.  Now I don’t care, Tom’s taught me that there’s more to life, he’s helped me understand new values and given me opportunities.

5.     If there was one thing that you could change about the Northern Irish political system, what would it be and why?  

Sometimes there’s too much focus on the Troubles and on the needs of ex-paramilitaries.  Maybe that’s not fair, they’ve served time in jail as well but “ordinary” prisoners only have the statutory bodies and there’s not much other support for them.  Young prisoners who probably need the most help aren’t given enough time and that just means they’ll stay in trouble.

We’re trying to help that a bit with the Helping Hands Centre; we’re trying to supplement what the Probation Service already have.  We want to pay attention to prisoners who weren’t involved in the conflict, as well.  If you stop one person going to jail you save £91,000 a year, you make a better citizen and you save a family a lot of heartache.

6.     What advice would you give to a young person in trouble or at risk from Northern Ireland?

Look put it like this, I know it’s difficult to get a job but committing crime to get money is not the way to go.  You should use what’s on offer because there’s a lot out there, educate yourselves.  Learn how to read and write, get better skills and then you might be able to get a job, if you don’t then nobody is going to employ a young person.

I try to teach the young people that come into Helping Hands that with every action, there’s a reaction.  My advice to young people is take responsibility and be accountable.

7.     What role do you think there can/should be for ex-prisoners in Northern Irish society, e.g. do you think ex-paramilitaries can now act as role models and transformational leaders in grassroots communities?

Yes they can be, very much so.  In some communities, sometimes we’re the only people that will be listened to.  I’m not saying that’s right but that’s the way it is, we can tell people our stories and try to teach them from our experiences.

Ex-prisoners are able to get into the psyche of young people who are heading for trouble and relate to the concerns of people in the communities in Belfast.  Maybe you could say that we are able to talk to people on a ground level.

8.     What three qualities do you think are most important in a leader? 

1)    Able communicator

2)    Trust

3)    Integrity

9.     What aspirations do you have for your own professional future and for Northern Ireland?

All I want to do is stop people, young or old going to jail.  I don’t care about money any more, if there’s one less victim of crime, I’ll be a happy man.

I want Helping Hands to be a success, we won’t know if it is for about a year but if one person is out of trouble then we’ve been able to achieve what we wanted to.

(I asked, how exactly will you judge if they are out of trouble)?  If they’ve got a bit of training, can read/write, use a computer.  Hopefully they’d have a good relationship with their family, if they have one, maybe be in a relationship and a job or be volunteering here with us at Helping Hands.

10.  Do you think if the youth in society aren’t given leadership, past conflict could reemerge?

I think we have to show the youth in Northern Ireland leadership yes but I don’t think the Troubles returning is the problem.  Of course we should learn from history, we never do.  Most of the lads coming in here would never get involved with the paramilitaries but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t commit crime and wreck victims’ lives.

They could cause chaos, it might not be put down to a political conflict but they’ll still create havoc in Belfast if they aren’t led and shown the right path.