What came first – the paramilitaries or the polluted politics?

My new book UVF: Behind the Mask has drawn considerable media attention since its publication two weeks ago.

Much of this is to be expected given that I have gained unprecedented access to the UVF in a way that presents a detailed, three-dimensional picture of many of the well-known – and lesser well-known – individuals who belonged to the group.

Most of these men (and a few women) joined the UVF, they argued, because they felt they faced a direct threat to their way of life.

As the UVF’s former Mid Ulster commander Billy Wright remarked in an interview in 1995, he believed that Provisional republicanism “was a danger, and that it was a danger to my people. Not even to my way of life but to my people.”

A decade earlier, prominent Belfast UVF leader John Bingham believed that the Anglo Irish Agreement posed a direct threat to the unionist community.

Like Wright, he was prepared to respond militantly.

As he told a reporter shortly before his death, loyalist paramilitaries “so far have harnessed the frustration of the young men. We don’t want to bring anarchy but if you think of the harness as being held up by a number of buckles then the unbuckling could begin tomorrow.”

Bingham, like many other leading loyalists, was murdered by the Provisional IRA as a result of his staunch and uncompromising views.

But this is not the only story that can be told about the loyalist paramilitary response to the perceived threat to their position within the United Kingdom.

Many loyalists I interviewed for my book were prepared to respond politically instead of militarily.

Image courtesy of Long Kesh Inside Out

Quite a few of them found themselves in the ranks of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).

The PUP was formed in 1979 by members of the UVF and RHC as well as former members of the pro-union Northern Ireland Labour Party.

PUP members believed it was imperative to offer political analysis to their more militant-orientated associates.

Not all of the PUP’s views were taken onboard by the UVF and RHC leaderships, with the exception of when these armed groups decided to seek out a peaceful solution to the violent conflict in the early 1990s.

Leading members of the PUP who offered such assistance to the UVF and RHC included current PUP leader Billy Hutchinson, as well as his colleagues David Ervine, Gusty Spence, Eddie Kinner and Billy Mitchell.

Image from Author’s Collection

They had all at one time soldiered in the ranks of the UVF.

By way of their prison experience, they became radical thinkers and set about offering an alternative to the doomsday rhetoric trumpeted by hardline members of the DUP and the UUP.

They were well-aware that mainstream unionists had been conspicuous by their absence during the worst years of the conflict.

Some of these men, like Gusty Spence, even talked of “fifty years of Unionist misrule.”

As Billy Hutchinson reminded me a couple of weeks ago, it was the late David Ervine who used to ask himself “did stinking, polluted politics come before paramilitarism?”

He believed that the answer to that question was yes.

Unsurprisingly – and given my long record of writing on the subject of the UVF-RHC and PUP – I have to concur with David Ervine’s analysis.

You will find this analysis reflected in the pages of my book UVF: Behind the Mask.

I have little doubt that my book will make for uncomfortable reading for some people.

And I don’t mean in terms of the violence which percolates its pages – and which the Northern Ireland tabloid media has focused on disproportionately over the past two weeks.

What I mean is that the book brings to the surface some inconvenient truths about the causes, course and consequences of the “troubles”.

Inconvenient truths about the “stinking, polluted politics” that gave rise to paramilitaries in the first place are laid bare.

We should be under no illusions.

This is the same “stinking, polluted politics” that keeps loyalist and republican paramilitary groupings in existence today.

My analysis shows that key individuals who engaged in the violence of the past were also the same people who tried to arrest the descent into anarchy on the streets in the 1990s.

They saw the radical possibilities of what Billy Mitchell would later brilliantly term “progressive loyalism.”

He believed that it was right and proper that we hold a mirror up to the legacy of past violence.

But he – like me – also argued that we must not ignore the other reflection that shone through and offered radical hope for successive generations.

Former UVF members like Billy Mitchell once believed that what they were doing was right.

However, they also recognised that the context which gave birth to their militancy was changing and that they needed to change with it.

This was not an easy conclusion to reach.

As I explore in considerable detail in my book, Billy Mitchell was a visionary who reached this conclusion much earlier than many of his former comrades.

As I have made clear in the interviews I have given to the media in relation to my book, the example of Billy Mitchell should serve as an example of the ability of human beings to change for the better.

Billy’s example should be a shining light guiding other working class Protestants away from the gravitational pull towards the darkness of our troubled past.

He demonstrated how human beings could inflict considerable hurt, pain and suffering on those around them but he also showed that they could change.

Billy Mitchell showed how reading, debate and education – whether formal or self-prescribed – could help people come to terms with their past.

When I look back at paramilitary loyalism – whether it be the UVF or the much larger UDA – I see a legacy of violence but, unlike the tabloid journalists, I also see the example of self-discovery, internal questioning and honest debate and discussion.

I see the ability to change for the better.

However, this transformation remains an ongoing process.

At the present moment, the peaceful transformation of paramilitary loyalism is like an unfinished song.

While acknowledging and welcoming the fact that loyalist paramilitary groups have moved significantly since they called a halt to their armed campaigns a decade ago, we must encourage them to complete their journey.

They must have the support of every willing hand if they are to do so successfully.

Society needs to assist in any way it can.

This is too serious a task to leave to the DUP or UUP who helped create the stinking, polluted politics in the first place.

It requires the commitment of everyone – Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, if it is to be successful.

And it requires input from a whole host of radical thinkers who have since moved on from involvement in paramilitary politics.

It is time for them to return to the stage – inhabited by people who have been deeply hurt and traumatised by past violence – in order to move the entire community towards their earlier vision of true peace and reconciliation.

It is time for these radical thinkers to eradicate the basis of the “stinking, polluted politics” of the past.

UVF: Behind the Mask is published by Merrion Press: http://irishacademicpress.ie/product/uvf-behind-the-mask/

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Why I wrote UVF: Behind the Mask – Part Two

Without doubt this has been the most difficult book I have ever written.

My other books are on a variety of different subjects, ranging from a history of the labour movement in Northern Ireland to insurgency in South Yemen.

Although challenging to write in their own way, they did not pose the same unique problems as UVF: Behind the Mask.

Professional historians are used to scrutinising the past by way of documents and interviews with eyewitnesses.

They are supposed to triangulate these kinds of sources with what is already known about the past.

Sometimes this means challenging their own preconceptions and beliefs.

In the case of the UVF, this meant adjusting my own previous analysis on the group because some of the facts had changed as new evidence came to light.

Interestingly, as I neared the end of my project, these new facts augmented most of my previous analysis on the UVF, which was completed well over a decade ago.

More seriously, however, was the changing context within which I now had to conduct my research.

It became difficult to check facts because many people suddenly become reluctant to talk to researchers, even those with long-standing ties to the local community.

As readers might well be aware, a few years ago researchers compiling oral history testimonies for Boston College’s Belfast Project had run into trouble due to attempts by the authorities to gain access to interview transcripts.

Those involved in the Belfast Project found out to their cost that interviewees who had disclosed specific details about their involvement in political violence had inadvertently exposed themselves to future legal investigations.

It has since emerged that participants in the project had been given assurances that their testimonies would not be made public until after their deaths.

Unfortunately this disclaimer did not withstand a so-called ‘fishing expedition’ by the authorities who wanted access to the interviews.

Having been involved in a similar oral history project at INCORE in the Ulster University a decade ago, I was well-aware of the legal, security and ethical challenges posed by this kind of research.

However, I was puzzled by the furore over the Boston College Belfast Project.

For one thing, journalists and academics had always talked to paramilitaries, even when the ‘long war’ was on and this was accepted as a legitimate way of bringing to public attention what these groups were doing and why.

As a result, I made several public interventions in defence of historians’ use of oral history as an appropriate method for collecting information from the past.

I remain convinced that the furore over the Belfast Project had more to do with a battle within republicanism over narratives about the past than it did about the efficacy of the method of recording peoples’ recollections about the past itself.

Regardless of my own personal views on the episode, the result of the fall-out led to a huge chilling effect for researchers working on political violence in Northern Ireland.

In order to progress with my own research, I took soundings from legal experts.

Their advice proved invaluable.

It seemed that the only way I could get people to talk in confidence about their involvement in loyalist paramilitarism was if I made it clear that they should not incriminate themselves in specific incidents.

I knew from my conversations with several people that the police have a duty to investigate where there is reason to believe a crime has been committed.

Nevertheless, talking generally about peoples’ views on violence – as so many academics and journalists have done – can be very instructive.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the work of respected researcher Dr Gareth Mulvenna whose own well-received book Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries prized open our understanding of why young men became involved in conflict in the 1970s.

My own book, however, focuses on the UVF as an organisation and, specifically, on three aspects of the group’s long and bloody campaign.

The first aspect is the motivations of its members.

Why did people join the UVF?

How were they recruited and why did they do the things that they did?

When I looked around the working class areas where I grew up, I saw UVF men who were window cleaners, bricklayers, warehouse workers, businessmen, taxi drivers, local government representatives, labourers, and so on.

It struck me then that most of those people who joined the UVF were fairly ordinary and unremarkable individuals, despite the popular tabloid image of them as tattooed, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.

That is not to say that loyalism doesn’t have such people in its ranks but they have always been a minority.

As one of my interviewees put it to me, ‘we were just ordinary guys doing what we were doing because we were taking a stand and doing what we thought was right. You might criticise that today but that’s how we saw it.’

This struck a chord with me for I recall a chance encounter with Billy Moore, perhaps one of the most infamous members of the Shankill Butchers gang, in November 2000.

I was walking through Rathcoole estate at the time with someone who stopped to have a chat with him.

It wasn’t until we were walking away that the person I was with said, “do you know who that is?” I replied that I didn’t. “That was one of the Shankill Butchers,” he said.

The thought of a close encounter with a mass murderer sent a shiver down my spine but the whole experience left me somewhat confused.

I had read Martin Dillon’s book The Shankill Butchers five years earlier and the Billy Moore of 2000 looked nothing like the Billy Moore of 1977.

If anything, he just looked like any other middle-aged man.

He looked like an ‘ordinary guy’.

For me, it has always been difficult to square the red top media caricature of loyalist paramilitaries with those men and women I have come into contact with over the years.

The same could be said of republicans too.

I’ve met and interviewed scores of former paramilitaries, most of whom are reasonably inconspicuous.

Many are disarmingly charming, a few have a keen interest in reading books and talking about history, while others are family men.

It is for this reason that I really wanted to dig deeper into why and how these ordinary men and women could have become involved in organised violence.

Who were they really?

How did they become involved in paramilitary activity?

What drove them to commit such violent acts?

These were the sorts of questions I knew my readers would be interested in finding out.

The second aspect that intrigued me about the UVF was the nature of their armed campaign.

There is a considerable amount already online about the technical side of the loyalist paramilitary campaign, including, in recent years, that compiled by Iain Turner at the Balaclava Street blog.

As an academic specialising in terrorism and insurgency, I have been principally concerned to explain the UVF’s strategy as well as their tactics.

How and why the group used violence to accomplish the goals it set for itself?

It is not widely known that the UVF’s principal goal of maintaining the connection between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was accomplished.

Unlike the Provisional IRA, the UVF is the only terror group to have achieved its objective of ensuring that the link was maintained between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

This was done at an awful cost.

The UVF and their allies in the Red Hand Commando killed 564 people and wounded many thousands more, some who whom were left with life-changing injuries.

It is important that researchers do not forget the horrendous consequences of illegal armed groups, like the UVF, who have taken the law into their own hands.

For that reason, I felt it was important to detail the impact and consequences of UVF violence on victims and survivors.

This was perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of writing the book.

To paraphrase the German theologian, pastor and author Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man hanged by the Nazis at Flossenberg in 1945, those of us who lived on the ‘troubles’ front-line were the ‘silent witnesses of evil deeds’.

One of my first memories is of a troubles-related killing.

When I was three years old I was travelling in the family car up through the Bawnmore area from the Shore Road towards our home in Rathcoole when I caught a glimpse of the body of a young man lying prone on the ground in front of some shops. The police officers attending the scene had covered his body with a blanket.

I now believe it was twenty-six-year-old David Nocher, a member of the Worker’s Party, who was shot dead by the UVF as he cleaned a shop window on Mill Road in October 1983.

It is a memory that will live with me for the rest of my life.

Although the vast majority of the UVF’s victims were Catholic civilians, it is often forgotten that they murdered a significant number of Protestant civilians too.

The internecine feuding between the UVF and UFF and LVF ripped the heart out of my community in 2000-01.

Men were chased down in the street and shot in cold blood.

It is difficult to put into words the electrified atmosphere of those days.

In researching this book, I interviewed the PSNI’s Senior Investigating Officer who had responsibility for leading enquiries into the loyalist feud.

He told me that when the police put out an appeal for information they got no leads. He said it was “as if the bodies had fallen out of thin air. There were no witnesses and few leads.”

Once the PSNI released details that a horse in a nearby city farm had been shot while the LVF were pumping bullets into thirty-five-year-old UVF member Martin ‘Chin’ Taylor, the confidential hotline rang off the hook.

Those who called in were ringing up to inquire about the welfare of the horse. They were uninterested about the man who had been shot dead.

Such was the contempt most people felt for loyalist paramilitaries at the time.

I am under no illusions that many people feel nothing but contempt and antipathy towards loyalist paramilitaries today.

Yet, I believe that it is essential that those of us writing about militancy in some of the most marginalised and deprived areas in the UK ask difficult questions about the legacy of that violence.

What was it all for?

What do those who picked up a gun or a bomb in anger feel about their actions in hindsight?

How might we move forward into the future together, given the hurt and pain inflicted on a great many people?

It is my belief that these questions demand urgent answers, particularly since loyalist paramilitaries still have not made the transition to a fully civilianised role.

UVF: Behind the Mask is a genuine attempt to pose and answer key questions about this transition.

It is a challenging read and I know that some people will disagree with many of my findings.

However, it was written with an honesty and integrity that I like to think has characterised all of my work as an academic historian.

It is also written from the point of view of someone who believes that the best way to move on from the toxic legacy of the past is to adopt the mantra of ‘never again’.


UVF: Behind the Mask is published tomorrow in paperback and is priced at £14.99/€17.99. It is also available now as an e-book for £8.99 and can be downloaded via the Amazon Kindle.

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Why I wrote UVF: Behind the Mask – Part One

UVF: Behind the Mask

Next week my book UVF: Behind the Mask will be published by Merrion Press.

The book has taken me three years to write but has a much longer gestation, stretching back nearly twenty years.

I first began researching the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 2000, prior to the outbreak of the bloody feud between the UVF and their rivals in the Ulster Defence Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters.

My focus then was to interrogate the critique by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that the UVF’s political associates in the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) were merely ‘mouthpieces for gunmen and bombers’.

I discovered that the PUP’s politics were a lot more complex than what these critiques were suggesting.

Indeed, many of the critiques were disingenuous, especially given the close ties between individual members of the UUP and DUP and loyalist paramilitaries since the mid-1960s.

Digging deeper I found that the PUP was actually trying to offer a political alternative to mainstream unionist parties like the UUP and DUP.

In my interviews with Billy Hutchinson, Billy Mitchell and Dawn Purvis in early 2001 – together with a systematic reading of PUP documents – I pieced together a much more nuanced story of the party.

The PUP was a by-product of UVF and RHC members coming together with independent unionists and former members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the mid to late 1970s in order to find a political voice for working class Protestants.

In 1979 the PUP was formed as a labour-based unionist party offering a radical alternative to the UUP and DUP.

PUP activists made the case that working class communities which had borne the brunt of the conflict had not been served well by traditional ‘big house unionism’.

My interest in the PUP and UVF had originally emerged from in-depth conversations with people who I knew well, such as PUP spokesman and UVF commander for East Antrim Billy Greer.

Greer was a close friend of a relative of mine and, consequently, I spent many hours in his company talking to him and others around him about Ulster loyalism.

I always found Greer to be a principled man with a strong belief in the community-based ethos that lay at the heart of his brand of Ulster loyalism.

Billy Greer believed that he had become involved in militancy (and also later politics) to defend his community from violent nationalism.

He was unshakable in this belief.

He later came to articulate a vision of progressive loyalism that was based around family ties, a shared culture and an insatiable appetite for opposing the threat he saw coming from the Provisional IRA and their political bedfellows Sinn Féin.

Because of my knowledge and understanding of militant loyalism, I was asked by PUP strategist and former UVF Brigade Staff member Billy Mitchell to look at the state of play within PUP-UVF-RHC ranks a decade on from the loyalist ceasefires.

My research took me (and my fellow researcher and community activist, Stephen Bloomer) into long conversations with progressive loyalists.

The reports we compiled were both launched at the PUP’s conferences in 2004 and 2005.

They were widely read and commented upon not only by members of the PUP and UVF-RHC but also those outside this brand of political loyalism.

At the same time, Billy Mitchell was designing a model for conflict transformation that would see options put to the UVF to help it along the road of ending its terror campaign.

Billy was adamant that conditions had to be right for the UVF to make an informed decision about its future.

Our model, known as the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum, provided a practical guide to how the UVF might facilitate its own move from conflict to peace.

It was at one of Billy’s briefings on the EACTF in Monkstown in 2005 that he asked me if I would be interested in writing the history of the UVF and its long move from war to peace.

I said I would but the idea was parked after Billy’s death in 2006.

In 2011, I decided to look for a publisher and after over a dozen false starts I was fortunate enough to be signed by Merrion Press, an imprint of Irish Academic Press.

The book is the culmination of over 16 years of research, reading, reflection, writing, debate, discussion and determination in bringing the story of this brand of militant loyalism to a broad readership.

In a second blog post, I will discuss my approach to writing the book and the many challenges that researching armed groups poses for those who wish to look ‘behind the mask’.

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A Personal Reflection on David Ervine

Like many other people who were fortunate enough to meet him, I have several abiding memories of the late David Ervine.

My first encounter with him was in early May 2001 in the PUP’s old offices on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast.
‘Alright kid,’ he said to me, as I waited patiently in the office reception to meet PUP Chairperson Dawn Purvis. I was a little shy then, not quite believing that I had just encountered a man who had an enormous influence on my own thinking about politics in Northern Ireland. ‘Who are you here to see?’ he asked pointedly. ‘Dawn,’ I replied, before speaking up. ‘I’m here to interview Dawn Purvis.’

Ervine stood tall behind the front desk with his hands behind his back. He had the bearing of a military man about him, with his sharp tidy suit, smartly done up tie and sensible shoes. His heavy moustache completed the picture I always had in my mind’s eye of what a paramilitary turned politician ought to look like. Ervine seemed to be waiting on a phone call. I didn’t think he was interested in continuing the conversation. ‘What for?’ he asked me in his deep Belfast voice. I ‘ummed and ahhed’ a little before I answered. ‘For my undergraduate dissertation on the PUP,’ I told him. Ervine immediately raised his eyebrows as he glanced over at me with a smile on his face. ‘Very good,’ he said. ‘It sounds like a very ambitious undertaking.’

Just as we were about to delve further into a conversation, the phone rang and he answered it. I went back to waiting but couldn’t help but listen in to the conversation he was having. Whoever he was speaking to made him quite animated. He spoke with humour, colour and a degree of charm in a manner that was forthright but respectful.

It seemed that the call was regarding a housing issue. He was clearly conversing with a representative of a statutory body on behalf of an elderly constituent. Just then I realised what PUP politicians meant when they spoke about ‘bread and butter politics.’ It’s something I have seen countless times with Billy Hutchinson over the years too. It’s about being a good constituency representative, speaking up for those who feel powerless or voiceless, and speaking to people how you would like to be spoken to yourself. It’s what makes the PUP the PUP.

A few moments elapsed before a shout came through from the back office. Dawn was ready to meet me. I got up to move. Ervine looked up from the phone. ‘All the best with your thesis,’ he said, as I brushed past him. ‘You’ll need it.’ He smiled at me, then went back to his phone call.

When I think back to that day, I knew then that David Ervine was one of the most impressive politicians I’d probably ever meet. I’ve since met countless politicians from all around the world but none of them have ever been as genuine, down to earth or honest as David Ervine.

In my eyes, what made Ervine special was that I could identify with him and his politics. I come from a similar Protestant working class background as he did, I was engaged politically as a teenager (though, obviously, took a very different path than the one he walked at that age), I believe strongly in the creative potential of my community, and I’m unafraid to engage in self-critical analysis about the world around me. Ervine encouraged people like me to do all of this and to remain in the corner of the most vulnerable people in our society, to do all that we can to highlight their plight and, above all, to support them as they seek to productive members of their communities.

Meeting people like David Ervine has been one of the greatest privileges in life. The void left behind by his passing a decade ago is still keenly felt today, especially at a time when working people need champions now more than ever.

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A Tribute to David Ervine

‘It’s alright creating monsters but there is a legacy to live with beyond the monster’

Ten years on from the passing of David Ervine, Aaron Edwards asks what his life and legacy means for the current generation.


In his acclaimed 1998 novel, The Corner Boys, Geoffrey Beattie introduces his readers to a tale of working class life in a Protestant part of Belfast. Those of us who grew up in this community will be immediately familiar with the trials and tribulations of Beattie’s central characters.

Beattie’s main protagonist is James, a 17-year-old lad from a working class family in North Belfast. His father is dead. His mother is overworked from trying to make ends meet in the absence of the family’s main breadwinner. She works in a mill, suffering poor working conditions and low wages. Her weekends are spent in the company of people who share a penchant for too much booze and a heart disease rich diet. Their life expectancy is severely limited in comparison to those in more affluent areas.

Amidst such embattled circumstances, Beattie’s characters, like the real people they are based upon, still find a remarkable way of surviving. In a tribal-based society, these are people who know how to stick together as they desperately seek to weather the socio-economic storm brewing against them.

When James meets a friend of his father’s in a local social club, he discovers that his late father was a member of a loyalist paramilitary grouping. In a heady mix of lager fuelled banter, ‘Kingo’s da’ explains to James how the bond the two men shared was unbreakable. ‘On our own, we’re nothing,’ he tells the teenager. ‘We’re fuck-all. We have to act together. We have to depend on each other.’

The man then tries to convince James that he should follow in his father’s footsteps. ‘I think you’ll turn out OK like him, now that you realise all that fucking Latin and maths isn’t for the likes of you. Or me.’

Beattie’s novel explores the generational conflict between those older people who want things to continue as they are and the young people who want them to change.

The most remarkable achievement of The Corner Boys, however, is how holds a mirror up to the narrow-mindedness of the old ways, demonstrating that only when the old ways are challenged by education, self-analysis and reflection, can this community move forward towards a more positive future.

This is a familiar story that reaches into the very heart of Protestant Ulster, and it’s a tension that is reflected in the life and legacy of one of that community’s best known politicians, the late David Ervine.

David Ervine Mural

It is now a decade since Ervine’s tragic death. He was regarded then and since as one of the most pugnacious, articulate and honest politicians ever to have emerged from Northern Ireland’s troubled past. A former member of the UVF, Ervine served a prison sentence in the 1970s for possession of explosives. After his release, he became a key spokesman for the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), eventually rising to become the party’s leader.

Together with Gusty Spence, Hugh Smyth, and the UVF’s Second-in-Command, known as the ‘Craftsman’, Ervine formed part of the ‘kitchen cabinet’ in 1989-90, which acted as a strategy group for the PUP-UVF-RHC, feeding into the process that eventually led to the loyalist paramilitary ceasefire of October 1994.

The ceasefire signalled a triumph for Ervine’s cool, objective analysis of the situation. ‘No one can take away from the Progressive Unionist Party the role it has already played,’ he told researcher Stephen Bloomer in an interview on the tenth anniversary of the ceasefires.

Ervine was at the core of the analysis that the PUP provided to the UVF and Red Hand as they moved towards peace. Rev. Chris Hudson facilitated the meetings between Ervine and the Craftsman and the Dublin Government in the run up to the ceasefires. ‘David did more of the talking,’ Hudson told me in 2007, shortly after Ervine’s death.

‘As things moved on, David was always giving the analysis,’ which allowed the Craftsman, to work towards a de-escalation of the military scenario between the Dublin Government and its ruthless non-state adversary.

It was in Ervine’s ability to offer a vision for the future that he will be best remembered.

As someone who had contributed to the armed conflict with his actions as a UVF member in the mid-1970s, Ervine so desperately wanted to see Northern Ireland become a normal society twenty years later. He was an implacable opponent of the politics of fear propounded by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which he blamed for limiting the life chances of working class Protestants.

‘We live in interesting times,’ he told Stephen Bloomer, as he tugged on his pipe during an interview. Politicians were playing on people’s emotions and fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance. ‘To be loud and course and tough on the other side,’ he said. ‘And we’ve seen that. I would estimate that in the nationalist community Sinn Fein are the most likely to wind up the unionists and the DUP are most likely to wind up the nationalists. You can see where that is, well, an adopted tactic that clearly works for the ‘extremes.’’

For Ervine and his party colleague Billy Hutchinson, the PUP had always a difficulty with stoking the fears of the people. They were anti-populists in the sense that they believed no real benefit could be gained from playing on the emotions of the people.

Unlike the DUP, which whipped people into a frenzy over issues around parading, flags and Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, the PUP was different. As Ervine himself said, ‘if the Progressive Unionist Party were to play that simplistic game and steal other’s clothes it only had to look over its shoulder at the potential destabilisation of the UVF and the Red Hand.’

The PUP has always had a core cadre of community development workers in its ranks – exemplified by Billy Hutchinson – and have always been conscious of how republicans manipulated interface tensions for their own political gains. ‘It’s alright creating monsters,’ Ervine told Bloomer, ‘but there is a legacy to live with beyond the monster.’

A similar view was held by Ervine’s party colleague, PUP strategist Billy Mitchell, who often likened the DUP’s early attempts to manipulate loyalist paramilitaries as something akin to the creature in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818). For Ervine and Mitchell, they were only too aware of the unchecked potential of this monster. ‘For if we were to wind things up,’ Ervine said, ‘the consequences were such that, one, we couldn’t control and the second thing was, if we couldn’t control, then what was the legacy? The legacy could have effectively been dead people.’

In his unparalleled insight into this dangerous form of populism Ervine articulated a coherent political opposition to the DUP. ‘If anybody in Northern Ireland thinks that the Protestant working class community has benefited from the mechanisms that they [the DUP] advocate, then there is something wrong with their heads,’ Ervine told Bloomer.

As a direct result of the position he adopted in opposition to the DUP, Ervine became an unapologetic champion of the most vulnerable people in Northern Irish society. He wanted to see practical benefits generated by the nascent ‘peace process’ in the areas of health, education and the environment. For him, these were the most important areas for improving the life chances of his community. Only ‘when the community settles down, and having been frightened and lived through a history of abnormality, then maybe, just maybe, the focus of attention shifts.’

His solution was simple in theory but difficult in practice:

“One of the core issues for the Progressive Unionist Party… is its socialism. There are no other socialists in Northern Ireland. And I mean that. I mean, I don’t believe the SDLP is a socialist group. I certainly do not believe Sinn Fein are a socialist group. And one would have thought that one of the biggest tests that was offered to us in political conditions was the speed by which their two ministers introduced PPP and PFI, which… they did… without debate. They did it without discussion. They did it to me without any moral wriggling from a socialist perspective. Are they a socialist party? I think not. We know the Alliance Party are not and we certainly know the Ulster Unionist Party are not. So, the Progressive Unionist Party is the only socialist party. And avowedly socialist, still retaining (although some would say it is silly to do so. I disagree) Clause 4, which is a straight lift from the British Labour Party’s constitution. Old Labour. Old Labour, I emphasise.”

Disappointingly, the 2016 Assembly elections exposed how far the PUP had shifted away from its democratic socialist roots towards what Ervine himself regarded as the ‘unionist wing’ of the party. Although Ervine believed that the PUP could accommodate both traditions in its brand of ‘socialist unionism’, he didn’t believe the party should move too far in the direction of DUP-lite politics. The countless interviews and speeches he gave while he was alive confirm as much.

When the flag protests of 2012-13 came along, which many loyalists saw as the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ in terms of their attitude towards the ‘peace process’, the PUP saw an opportunity to mop up disaffected youth, many of whom felt the mainstream unionist parties had abandoned them. As I have argued elsewhere, in recruiting large numbers of these young people into the party, however, the PUP arguably shifted too far in the direction of cultural loyalism.

Can the PUP return to the socialist-based politics articulated so eloquently by Ervine and many others who helped found the party and shape its character? Hopefully, though it faces an uphill struggle.

Politically, the Protestant grassroots are divided. On the one hand, there are those who – through fanaticism or fear – continue to vote for and support the DUP, regardless of recent scandals. And on the other hand, are those who are apathetic, who have grown tired of the politics of the past and who have retreated from political engagement altogether.

Only by following through on Billy Hutchinson’s vision of politicising the latter – while appealing to the former with a re-energised political vision – based on the party’s founding principles – can the PUP have any hope of electoral success in the future.

Ten years on from his passing, as we mourn one of the greatest losses to political unionism, there is much to celebrate in David Ervine’s political legacy.

As current and future generations face the same stark choices, of either repeating the mistakes of the past or by breaking free from its vicious cycle, we should encourage them to be self-critical and to never shirk from challenging why things are the way they are.


My thanks to Stephen Bloomer for permission to quote from the interview he conducted with David Ervine on 21st September 2004. More extracts from interviews with Ervine and a range of other PUP and UVF leaders on the tenth anniversary of the loyalist ceasefires can be found via this link: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/edwardsbloomer04.pdf

For a more in depth look at David Ervine’s life and political outlook, see Dr Connal Parr’s lecture on YouTube: 

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We all have role to play if loyalist leopard is to truly change its spots

This article first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 16th October 2015

This week’s announcement that loyalist paramilitaries are to move away from criminality and violence should be welcomed, writes Aaron Edwards 

The announcement this week that paramilitaries from the Ulster Volunteer Force, Red Hand Commando and Ulster Defence Association have established a Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) to transition away from violence and criminality is welcome news. 

It is now 21 years since loyalist paramilitaries called a ceasefire and, in that period, they have remained active with involvement in killings, threats, intimidation and extortion all commonplace.

However, many people within these groups have also tried to move things on, to transform the conflict in Northern Ireland beyond violence.

Sadly, those with a more positive agenda have not always been given the oxygen of publicity and have, in some cases, fought a losing battle against others who have remained committed to more nefarious activities.

We can be in little doubt that the more positive elements within Ulster loyalism have reasserted themselves by way of Jonathan Powell’s announcement that they would be “recommitting to the principles of the Belfast Agreement” while eschewing “all violence and criminality”. Yet, as they themselves recognise, we cannot take this for granted.

In his comments to the Belfast Telegraph at the launch of the initiative, the UDA’s Jackie McDonald said that loyalists must be supported in their endeavours to move things on.

Having interacted with loyalists on a number of peace-building programmes over the past 15 years, I do believe that there are people out there who are committed to driving forward a more peaceful agenda and who wish to see the back of paramilitarism and crime.

The challenges for these positive voices within loyalism are, nevertheless, daunting. For one thing, we know that loyalism is beset by factionalism.

This week’s announcement may have signalled a united front, but within these organisations, if not between them, there are those who are ploughing a very different furrow.

At the PUP conference last weekend Chief Constable George Hamilton said that he did not believe the “corporate leadership” of the UVF was involved in criminality, and this has been supported by Powell’s announcement on Tuesday. With that in mind, we must accept that there are individuals, as in republican groups, who are committed to criminality.

Although it would be unwise to second-guess the report of the Secretary of State’s expert reviewers for the assessment of paramilitary organisations, there is every possibility that they may come to a similar conclusion.

Those of us who were involved in earlier initiatives to persuade loyalists to abandon their armed campaigns will know the problems that still face those loyalists who seek to end criminality within their organisations.

To take but one example. Ten years ago this month leading members of the UVF met in Newtownabbey to ascertain how they should “leave the stage”.

It was part of the organisation’s internal consultation process and its senior brigade staff were there to hear from the PUP’s strategist, Billy Mitchell, about how a conflict transformation model he had designed would help create the conditions for the UVF to leave the stage honourably.

At the time one senior UVF leader said he felt it was not in a position “anywhere even close to decommissioning. Paramilitarism going away – that’s a different ballgame. They believe very much in that and they would see a marked difference between going away and decommissioning – they don’t see the two running in parallel”.

Behind the scenes, he disclosed, the UVF was convening an internal consultation process to address its continued existence. These so-called “roadshows” drew in various numbers of attendees, from groups as big as 500 to other meetings between a couple of individuals in a cafe on the Shankill Road.

At the same meeting another leading UVF figure emphasised how “volunteers” needed to engage with change, even though “there is no help ahead from the Government”.

It was at this point that someone piped up and asked what was on everyone’s lips: “What is the future for the UVF?” The reply from the senior figure was instantaneous. “Volunteers did it for the people,” he said. “The question is how do you bring those young volunteers who joined in the last 10 years to this situation? How do you respond to the new Provo ceasefire? And their new role?”

The questions were strategic and perhaps beyond the gift of those present to deliver on. Having said that, it did show that the UVF was committed to leaving the stage.

Between 2004 and 2006 regular meetings were held in this local community and others like it, from north Belfast to east Antrim, in order to hammer out the specifics of this disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration model.

It was an incredibly bold, but ultimately unsuccessful, initiative. The main reason it failed, though, was something beyond the control of loyalists.

The deaths of Mitchell in July 2006 and David Ervine in January 2007 robbed the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Initiative of its most visible and vocal supporters. Not long after Ervine’s death, the conflict transformation model was completely destabilised in the wake of Police Ombudsman revelations that the UVF’s leader in the local area had been working as a State agent.

In spite of the chaos that ensued, the UVF continued to work towards its endgame and would announce it was ending its military campaign in 2007.

The UVF’s Shankill-based leadership redoubled its efforts to ensure that positive conflict transformation work continued and supported the establishment of the Action for Community Transformation (ACT) initiative.

ACT and its membership continue to work towards facilitating capacity-building for former combatants so that they might play a more positive role in society.

The formation of the LCC this week undoubtedly means that the work of groups like ACT has been vindicated. However, it does not mean that the conflict transformation process has reached maturity.

Billy Hutchinson has said that this initiative is not about money. In fact, he told me that he would be “doing all in my power to do something to move the process on”.

Furthermore, he stressed loyalist initiatives, like ACT, EPIC and Alternatives, have been doing this sort of positive work on the ground for many years.

At times like this it is so easy to be negative and to point to the continuing existence of drug dealers, extortion rackets, loan-sharking and general “taxing” by paramilitaries.

What earlier initiatives have suggested is that it will not be an easy process. However, that does not mean people shouldn’t try.

In September 2014 I called for a “whole of community” approach to deal with the legacy of our violent past and to dismantle the paramilitary structures that still remain in place. At that time, I said this was not something that loyalists can, or should, do on their own. They require other people to roll up their sleeves and muck in.

“It is about people working together,” Hutchinson told me in relation to the LCC initiative.

Only when paramilitaries secure assistance from right across the community will the process begun by the announcement of the loyalist paramilitary ceasefires 21 years ago be complete.

Dr Aaron Edwards is an academic, writer and historian. His book, UVF: Behind The Mask, will be published by Merrion Press next year

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Film world’s rare focus on loyalism often hazy

This article originally appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 25th September 2015.

Why do fictional representations of loyalism obscure more than they reveal, asks Aaron Edwards

Look fella, it’s a nasty business, but this sort of thing has to be done, for the country’s sake. Right?” So runs a line spoken by Kenny, the main character in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s 1995 film Nothing Personal, which starred James Frain, Ian Hart, John Lynch and Michael Gambon.

It is a powerful scene in which we witness the leader of a loyalist paramilitary gang articulate his principal motivation for killing to a new recruit, before they head out to stalk the dimly-lit labyrinth-like streets of 1970s Belfast in search of those they have labelled “enemies of Ulster”.

It is 20 years since Nothing Personal got its major theatrical release and in the intervening period there have been only a handful of big screen films featuring loyalist paramilitaries.

Perhaps the two best-known films are Resurrection Man (1998) starring Stuart Townsend, James Nesbitt, Derek Thompson, Brenda Fricker and veteran Belfast actor Jimmy Ellis, and Five Minutes Of Heaven (2009), marked out by the powerful performances of its two leads, Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt.

By and large the majority of film depictions of paramilitary violence have been shot through the lens of republicanism. Odd Man Out (1947), The Crying Game (1992), In The Name Of The Father (1993), Some Mother’s Son (1996), Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008), Hunger (2008) and Shadowdancer (2012), to name but a few, are all well-known examples.

This dearth of film portrayals of loyalists has only been marginally improved upon by playwrights writing about Protestant working-class life, from Sam Thompson’s Over The Bridge (1960) through Graham Reid’s Billy plays (1982-84), Stewart Parker’s Northern Star (1984) and Pentecost (1987), and beyond to the loyalists portrayed in Gary Mitchell’s plays Trust (1999), As The Beast Sleeps (1998), later adapted as a made-for-TV drama, and In A Little World Of Our Own (1997).

In recent years Mitchell has been joined by Robert Niblock, who has had two plays staged, A Reason To Believe (2009) and Tartan (2014), which focuses on loyalist paramilitaries.

For the most part these fictional representations of loyalists have been reasonably accurate – especially when they are created by people who lived cheek-by-jowl with paramilitary violence.

It was the American novelist Norman Mailer who once wrote that the point of fiction was not to “recapture an experience; we write to come as close to it as we can” to it. And who better to get us as closer to the reality than those who have experienced it at first-hand?

So, why then have loyalists been conspicuous by their absence in visual representations of the Northern Ireland conflict?

The academic Connal Parr makes the case that voices articulating different, three-dimensional interpretations of loyalism mainly go unheard, because they are lost in the deluge of ridicule and mockery that too often passes for informed comment.

Parr is onto something here. It is interesting, for example, that we treat loyalist and republican violence so differently, something reflected in the films mentioned above.

After all, the same destructive urge in Ulstermen and Irishwomen that drove them to kill other human beings is present in those who commit acts of violence elsewhere in the world.

So what makes violence in Northern Ireland so different? For anyone who has ever interviewed loyalist and republican paramilitaries, there is a tendency for them to put their violent acts in the context of the society that gave rise to them.

In other words, they blame “conditions at the time” for propelling them into violence.

The problem is that many of the individuals who took actions similar to the ones depicted on screen or even on stage were conscious of what they were doing, and not simply swept along by a tsunami of communal fear and loathing.

In short, they were acting rationally, according to the beliefs they held at the time and in light of the prevailing political context in which these violent acts were perpetrated.

In her travelogue, A Place Apart (1978), which details her cycling tour of Northern Ireland in 1976, the writer Dervla Murphy advocated that we “peel off the terrorist labels and look at the individuals underneath and try to understand why they are there”.

Curiously, to even suggest that we try to understand the motives behind loyalist (and republican) violence in Northern Ireland is seen as conferring legitimacy upon them.

In another sense, this call to apply a wider lens to something so obviously emotionally-charged as nationalism – be it Irish nationalism or Ulster unionism – is difficult in a place where society, culture and politics are so deeply divided.

However, by simplifying complex and multi-layered motivations, we risk perpetuating negative stereotypes of loyalists and reduce their whole demeanour to angry, flag-waving Neanderthals who cling onto an outmoded view of the world.

In reality, the maintenance of the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is no more antiquated a political belief than the one held by republicans that Ireland should be politically united because it is an island.

Equally, to say that loyalist paramilitaries only became involved in violence because their political beliefs were threatened is to ignore other motivations like revenge, peer pressure, or even “in the heat of the moment”, that explains political violence elsewhere in the world.

Is it any wonder that we lack cultural representations of loyalists whenever we reduce their actions to one-dimensional motivations that obscure more than they reveal?

Dr Aaron Edwards is a historian, writer and the author of UVF: Behind The Mask, which will be published by Merrion Press in 2016 

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An Extract from an interview with Billy Mitchell, 27 Sept 2005

As part of LINC Resource Centre’s commitment to preserving the legacy of their former Director, Billy Mitchell (1940-2006), I was asked to give an interview on my personal and professional connections with Billy. It as a privilege to put my own views about Billy on record for posterity but it also reminded me of the many interviews I conducted with him while he was alive. Here is a short extract from an interview I did with him on 27 September 2005, which covered a wide range of themes. The following extract has considerable purchase on events on the ground as they currently stand, though I wasn’t convinced then – and I’m not convinced now – that they have to remain that way.

Aaron Edwards (AE)   The concept of the People’s Army – you said this term came later – is the UVF engaged in revisionism like the Provos to re-write history – you have said to Peter Taylor that conditions were created that meant people wanted to join the UVF, you have talked about the elitism – how representative of the community was the UVF then, how much is it representative of the community now?

Billy Mitchell (BM)   It depends on what you mean by representative of the people. In terms of people with a UVF background… they are no more electable now than they were then – then you had two councillors [Hugh] Smyth and [Ernie] Burton – today we have two councillors – OK there was the highpoint around the ceasefires when we had two MLAs.

AE   But are they of the community they wish to represent? Defend?

BM   The bulk of the UVF are working class Protestants, from working class areas. The ones that I meet on a regular basis – they come from the same housing estates, went to the same schools, as me, similar hopes and aspirations, they come from the community, not parachuted in. Probably for [every one] individual that joins the UVF there are twenty that don’t – but who do they turn to to get a problem solved? Many people will say we don’t like the paramilitaries but we need them – e.g. when there is interface violence or conflict people turn to the UVF or UDA – in the Whiterock it was marshalled for years by the UVF – the DUP are criticised for being in the Parades Forum with paramilitaries although it represents the people of west and north Belfast, of which the UVF and UDA are a part. Most people would accept that if you are going to have a solution the organisations need to be part of it.

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Democratising the Mindsets: Loyalists and Conflict Transformation

This article first appeared in The Other View magazine when Billy Mitchell and Tommy McKearney were still joint editors in the first iteration of the project. Shortly before Billy’s death in July 2006 the project was earmarked for continuation funding and I was being talked up as a possible part-time journalist, a role I subsequently took up and served in for 2 years, resigning when I went to Sandhurst in May 2008. It was a privilege to work for The Other View and all those who were associated with it were proud of the achievements of Tommy, Billy and others who had founded it as a vehicle for loyalists and republicans to exchange frank views in the spirit of peaceful relations, debate and discussion.

The article reflects what I felt at the time was a genuine desire to move things on positively. However, the initial good feeling was to be completely undermined by the double-dealing of agent provocateurs, who worked at every turn to prevent a comprehensive conflict transformation process from coming online that would have delivered disarmament and demobilisation and, ultimately, reintegration of combatants much sooner. As I stated in an earlier blog piece, this would all come to light with the publication of the Police Ombudsman’s report in 2007.

Democratising the Mindsets: Progressive Loyalists and Conflict Transformation

Aaron Edwards

Over the past few years loyalists have been responsible for multiple deaths in Northern Ireland. Yet, strangely, there are countless other loyalists who have sought to bring an end to the killings by trying to entice paramilitaries ‘out of the jungle’. This conflict transformation process is aimed at democratising the mindsets of those who previously resorted to politicide as a means of tackling the irredentist threat posed by physical force republicanism. Despite the positive outcomes already evident there has been little actual media exposure of these important peace-building initiatives.

According to the Chairman of the Loyalist Commission, Mervyn Gibson, this is due largely to the inability of loyalists to manage their media profile: ‘I think [what] the organisations need to be doing is more clearly sending out signals that they want peace. They have been on that path for some time but the message hasn’t got through to mainstream unionism or the Government’. It might be said that providing loyalism with a rational political voice – amidst the calamity of inter-community violence and internecine conflict – is a thankless task for those who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet.

Gibson remains undeterred. He has consistently stated that he ‘wouldn’t be involved in working with paramilitaries and transformation if I took them for gangsters and criminals’. Gibson is not the type of public figure to have the wool pulled over his eyes by those individuals who see militant loyalism as a lucrative business enterprise. As he admits: ‘Some individuals are involved in criminality. The vast majority I deal with are in the organisation for ideological reasons’. As someone close to loyalism Gibson is responsible for heading up many high profile initiatives in loyalist communities. The most notable being the ‘Loyalist or Racist: You Can’t Be Both’ campaign spearheaded by the Loyalist Commission.

Fortunately, this is one high profile campaign which has attracted media attention. One could think of others, including the ‘Love Ulster’ campaign, but there are countless other initiatives which receive no media attention. This article looks at one of these: the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Model – devised and superintended by the PUP in partnership with the UVF.

Under the Radar

The East Antrim Model aims to tackle the conditions which give rise to paramilitary activity, to challenge these and to provide young men, in particular, with an alternative route away from paramilitarism and into more community-orientated enterprises that will have an ultimately desirous affect on their communities. This grass-roots initiative has received little (if any) media exposure. Yet it has been jointly undertaken by the leaderships of the PUP and UVF in conjunction with various community based groups, including: Monkstown Community Resource Centre, New Mossley Community Group, the Factory Community Group in Larne, LINC Resource Centre and Carrickfergus Mediation Network.

The absence of direct government support for such initiatives inevitably saps away at their legitimacy in the eyes of the general public. An additional problem for local activists is the presence of an obnoxious view that these activists are merely front men/women for terrorists. This is simply not the case. In most cases programme leaders are ordinary people from beleaguered working class communities who have suffered disproportionately from the socio-economic catastrophe caused by ‘the troubles’. Moreover, they feel let down by populist Unionist politicians who appear to be much more concerned with accumulating power than with offering any kind of visionary leadership.

That the East Antrim initiative has received the support of the UVF is encouraging. For an illegal armed paramilitary organisation like the UVF, which has been responsible for over 400 deaths since 1969, one would have thought that a move in a positive direction would invite intense media scrutiny; but none has yet emerged. Given the local UVF commander’s commitment to scaling down his organisation’s operations (in terms of recruiting and punishment beatings) in the area – as well as his comments that ‘I would buy into the conflict transformation approach 100%’and ‘It’s time for the organisation to start thinking about jobs, getting back to work, moving away from the violence’ – it seems surprising that this should be ignored. Hitherto unpublished research has even verified that the UVF has come full circle in recent months to a position where it fully supports the community from which it pools its personnel.

The Emergence of Principled Loyalism

The reasons why an open channel between the loyalist community and the British Government has not been in evidence may be due to the traditional bulwark of a media inimical to any kind of grass-roots initiatives from loyalist or republican areas. Similarly, the voice of principled loyalists has been overshadowed by the mafia don image of militarists (such as Johnny Adair and the late John Gray) who would make HBO’s fictionalised Capi Tony Soprano weep with envy. Arguably, this ‘tail wagging the dog’ affliction has been something more acute to the UDA/UFF.

It could be said that whatever way paramilitaries package themselves they will generally fail to curry favour amongst the professional classes in Northern Ireland. That is not to imply that working class Protestants (particularly those from the skilled strata) will be anymore endearable to the highly publicised criminal activities of those who seek to line their own pockets to the detriment of their co-religionists.

One of the reasons why non-combatant activists have been permitted such a free hand is due principally to the support given to the project by the UVF leadership at a local and province-wide level. As one senior UVF Brigade Staff Officer told us: ‘I personally don’t think the UVF are in any position (anywhere even close) to decommissioning. Paramilitarism going away – that’s a different ball game. They believe very much in that and they would see a marked difference between going away and decommissioning: they don’t see the two running in parallel’. It is obvious to us – from what we have seen on the ground – that the UVF leadership is committed to applying the methodology of the East Antrim Model in other areas.

At a time when the IMC has declared the UVF and RHC to be heavily wedded to organised crime it might be a suggestion for this quango to at least give a nod and a wink towards the organisation’s endorsement of this Conflict Transformation project. Moreover, it might be worthwhile for those analysts of paramilitary organisations to actually take the odd stroll through loyalist areas. What they would see in some of these most deprived areas in Northern Ireland is ‘a lack of a fair educational system, few skilled job prospects and a community with low self-esteem – these problems lie at the very core of loyalist angst’ according to Kelly Haggarty the Community Development worker for Monkstown Community Resource Centre. Above all they might also discover that driving a desk can only take one so far.

Towards a Panoramic View

Beneath the shallow veneer of loyalist youths throwing Molotov cocktails at the security forces – and the copious layers of bling coating those self-appointed gangsters – there is a community crying out for a better life. The trouble is that seven years after the Belfast Agreement peace has not brought the dividends wished for by the Unionist community. Unionists are without a voice and they resent it. Moreover, they have recently seen their political culture tarnished by the illogical ranting of a cadre of unrepentant ‘priests and presidents’ who fail to see the irony of their interminable bleating comparables of all Protestants as ‘Nazis’. Unlike Nationalists, Unionists do victimhood very badly, especially those working class Protestants who attempted to keep to a semblance of civility with their Catholic neighbours during an unrelenting war of attrition waged by the Provisional IRA.

It is impossible to get a panoramic view of these grassroots projects by navel gazing. But that should not detract from the positive impact they are having at the coalface. The allegations appearing in the Sundays about individuals involved in conflict transformation in East Antrim remain unsubstantiated; the truism is that nobody wants to admit that the UVF has taken a grip of its renegades, disciplined them and installed a new leadership in the area. Our proof comes to us through empirical research, not from a mystery ‘loyalist source’ plied with beer tokens by unimaginative hacks. As Dawn Purvis writes in her foreword to our latest pamphlet ‘loyalists are to the Sundays what celebrities are to the red tops’ (i.e. the tabloids). It is doubtful that this heavily moralistic culture will change in the future but as the world’s most gifted intellectual, Noam Chomsky, has rightly commented ‘If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all’.

This article first appeared in The Other View magazine, 2006.

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The Progressive Unionist Dilemma

I studied Irish Politics as a postgraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast between 2001 and 2006, becoming friendly with a range of unionist and nationalist political representatives who were also studying there at the time. At that stage the unionist political fraternity was fairly active, though the DUP were hoovering up some of the most effective Young Unionists as they capitalised on the UUP’s vulnerability on the issue of IRA decommissioning.

Although I was not politically active myself (but, nevertheless, fairly close to the analysis of the PUP), I had been approached to write a piece for the UUP’s student edited publication Ulster Review, which would place the Progressive Loyalist analysis in its wider political context.

The article was written in late 2002 and published in the June 2003 edition. It sought to analyse the PUP’s political direction in light of the leadership provided by its MLAs, David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson, with an eye on the violence that still plagued loyalist and republican communities at the time.

‘Jumping Ship’ or Tightening up a Leaking Bulkhead? The Progressive Unionist Dilemma

Aaron Edwards offers an alternative analysis of the current political crisis

Sinking the Devolutionary Project

The Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ is currently in a stationary position. The Provisional IRA, it seems, are to blame. Columbia, Castlereagh and Castle-buildings – Bertie Ahern’s three ‘C’s – have aptly served to illustrate, or inadvertently expose, the capabilities of what still remains a well-oiled military machine. Instead of entering into a semi-retirement scheme of ‘voluntary’ decommissioning, whereby a few rusty old guns and some caked-over semtex are put beyond use, Irish republicans have been working overtime at perfecting their “dual approach to the peace process”.

Similarly, recent events appear to add buoyancy to the anti-Agreement argument that old adages are now, conveniently, being exchanged for new ones. No longer is it a military or political necessity to stubbornly follow the proven strategy of “an armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other”. What we now seem to be witnessing is the exportation of indispensable resources from an indigenous Irish terrorist laboratory, on the one hand, and the skilful advances of a seasoned Public Relations apparatus on the other. Either way both programmes are operated concurrently, by the leadership of the Republican Movement, in a bid to placate militarist personnel, whilst permitting non-combatant politicos to continue to project themselves, domestically and internationally, as marshals in the cause of peace in Ireland. Whether such anti-Agreement pessimism is warranted, or not, these operations do ultimately tell us more about the internal dynamics of the Provisional IRA than they do about their public endorsement of the ‘peace’ and ‘political’ processes.

From the perspective of mainstream republican disciples and their sympathetic flock, this twin-track approach remains a stabilising foothold on the preordained ‘stepping stone’ route towards a united Ireland. While nationalist bags are packed for eventual territorial completion, and a 32 county state in the sun, unionism has been plunged into periodic crisis and despondency in its haste to counter republican determinism. What, then, are the consequences of this invigorated republican confidence in their chosen ‘peace strategy’ and why do loyalists, in particular, perceive it as a cynical ploy to “kick the oxygen out of the process”?

Gasping for Breath

While republicans continue to portray their personnel as a principled band of faceless good Samaritans, eager to resuscitate the terminally ill patient that is the Good Friday Agreement, loyalists, seemingly, have resorted to imitating the past actions of their political and paramilitary adversaries. This fine dance between rival combatant ideologies has now, most strikingly, resulted in the UVF and RHC breaking off contact with the International Decommissioning Body thereby placing the process in further jeopardy – or has it?

While there is certainly profit to be made by retreating to a position where wielding a ‘big stick’ in the face of an enemy strengthens your supporters’ resolve, more so than the supine acceptance of meagre scraps from a perfunctory negotiating table, it seems likely that loyalists have made these moves for ‘housekeeping’ reasons. Some cynics have hastened to add that this is really a tactical manoeuvre designed merely to capture belligerent voters for the PUP, from among the unionist grass-roots, in the forthcoming Assembly elections, while other thoughtful analysts offer a rather different view. They argue that mundane reasons can often provide better, or more apposite, illumination whilst traipsing through the darker depths of Northern Irish political behaviour and organisation. And that, perhaps, uncomplicated explanations may well be vindicated when all parties duly return to the pre-existing power-sharing programme.

Loyalists, it could be convincingly argued, have finally realised that the insidious republican modus operandi – which stresses collective leadership and policymaking from the top down – works wonders for morale and have therefore re-appropriated it for their own personal usage. In any event retreat over a decisive political issue, as all experienced practitioners know, can be both a dogged and promising manoeuvre in Northern Irish politics more so than just a cunning way to save face. This is especially important in a game of two halves where each segment is played out, interchangeably, in the debating chamber or negotiating table, and on the streets.

That Drowning Feeling

It is interesting to note that mainstream unionism – both pro and anti-Agreement camps – regard the recent UVF and RHC move as symptomatic of widespread unionist disillusionment with a ‘one-sided’ concession-baring process – although obviously for differing reasons. Meanwhile it is not clear what these loyalist organisations intend to do to ensure their representation is given the necessary audience at Downing Street or Leinster House. Actions in this respect may speak a thousand extra words to those in authority choosing to abide by the same dogmatic formula of concession and tenacity. Even though loyalist motivations are unclear their message, we are told, is a vivid and damming one. Put simply, the loyalist community has lost confidence in the Good Friday Agreement believing that their heavy subsidisation of it has brought them nothing in receipt.

There is a danger that during this clandestine morale-boosting exercise the preparedness for peace might well be overshadowed by a readiness for war – or, perhaps, something on a much smaller scale. One should remember that these are paramilitary organisations; therefore, “they collect weapons not stamps” and that their contribution to the political process must be treated with the utmost delicacy, and on the same par as that of republicans, if any progress is to be made towards the restoration of devolution. Bitter pills may well have to be swallowed by mainstream unionists, once again, if we are to see a return to local administration any time soon.

Voyeurism in the Depths Below

Such an argument of ‘inclusiveness’ in dialogue is enough to unsettle opinion among middle-of-the-road unionists and nationalists – or at the very least to give them minor indigestion. But unpleasant though it may be to advance electorally peripheral parties (or paramilitary groupings for that matter) a wager in this process one must not lose sight of the underlying dynamic in all of this – the need for meaningful peace and reconciliation. Sadly a repetitious chorus of democratic angst, from within mainstream unionism, has done absolutely nothing to cajole fellow citizens into active decommissioning. No, in this regard, the real business is left to the ‘spokesmen’ or ‘apologists’ – that is to say those who have invested credibility and confidence in their standing among their constituents – and it is to them, and their valuable maintenance work, that we must now look for the next move.

If one were to consider the constraints which PUP activists work within when consulting their grass-roots support-base colourful reasons can be unearthed which focus attention more on the pragmatism underpinning recent actions than on the pig-headedness often associated with loyalism. In this regard, the involvement of senior Provos and loyalist paramilitary commanders in an allegedly strategic, and well-orchestrated, campaign of violence at interface areas cannot be diagnosed as a spontaneous flare up of violence devoid of purpose. The threat of politically motivated violence is clearly the undercurrent which edifies the ideological exchange between republican and loyalist politicians when any quick-fix settlement is on the horizon. It is essentially the crutch against which competing mandates are propped. To completely remove this dependency would effectively eradicate support for peace itself within those marginalised communities for as long as ‘the other side’ continues to retain its war-making materials.

It should be borne in mind that democracy has been moulded into some odd shapes in Northern Ireland in order to provide a viable template for structural reconciliation. Physical force, distinguishable inside conventional modes of democracy elsewhere, has undergone a long incubation period in Irish politics and is not something easily removed from this historical context. Having been part of the problem it must logically be part of the solution.

Exploring the Wreckage

PUP leaders have explained the UVF-RHC move as a response to the suspected backdoor Anglo-Irish deal, thrashed out at No. 10, which is concerned solely with the need to reinstate a fledgling devolutionary project “at any price”. Certainly with the British Government preparing for a looming war in Iraq one should expect the Prime Minister to work within the now reliable methodology for jump-starting devolution. The successful neutralisation of the domestic Irish problem, for the time being, also ensures that two additional concerns are placated. Firstly, that valuable military resources are not tied up at home as they were back in 1991, and, secondly, that those who still subscribe to the dictum “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” are increasingly isolated from any potential support.

The coincidental effect that this blueprint may have for those political parties who withdraw from negotiations now at the behest of ground-level opinion might well be that they are left, in the long-term, without an appropriate forum to air ‘ordinary’ issues of social or economic significance. One outcome, which is discernible from the PUP walkout, is that they will get little succour from those regular guests at the negotiating table even more so with the possibility of Assembly elections in May.


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