Billy Mitchell had been a profound influence on my thinking about Ulster loyalism since I first encountered him in November 2000 (though he was spoken about with reverence in some circles in which I moved long before then), as he stood to attention and delivered an oration flanked by members of the Colin Caldwell Memorial Flute Band at Derry Hill in Rathcoole.
Then, the occasion was a commemorative one, remembering the sacrifices of the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 and, in more recent times, of Billy’s own comrades in the UVF. On that day, however, emotions were running particularly high as the UDA had just murdered a young UVF volunteer called Markie Quail at his girlfriend’s flat about a mile from the spot where Billy was speaking. In that phase of internecine violence, a total of 7 men would lose their lives and several more would be injured in tit-for-tat attacks between rival loyalist factions across Northern Ireland. The violence lasted many months and would see a huge number of people forcibly moved from their homes across North and West Belfast.
I recall a vast number of men – young and old – mobilised to pay homage on that day and the electrifying atmosphere that had been generated. Very few places were completely safe and young people like myself and my friends who had no paramilitary backgrounds often had to pay extra attention to the bars and clubs we frequented because of the risk of death and injury from members of our own community battling it out in a spate of violence that took on a perverse logic all of its own. Conflict, I believe, was only avoided on that Remembrance Sunday by the cool heads and restraint that prevailed in the leaderships of both groupings.
Nevertheless, the ‘loyalist feud’ gave birth to the idea that the violence needed to be de-escalated, and fast. In one key initiative spearheaded by Billy Mitchell and supported by the UVF leadership (and later involving myself, Stephen Bloomer and the local leadership of the PUP and UVF), the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum was launched. It’s aim was to seek to remove the causes of the conflict and assist the UVF and Red Hand Commando to bring their people “out of the jungle”.
The article which follows was written as 2006 drew to a close and did not yet reflect the stalling of the EACTF process that would soon happen, brought about by the death of Billy Mitchell and the loss of momentum compounded by the surfacing of allegations in a Police Ombudsman’s Report which detailed the criminal activity of a high level informer (or, as we now know, number of informers) inside the UVF in North Belfast.
Nevertheless, the EACTF was an important forerunner for what would later become the Action for Community Transformation (ACT) and it formed a key part of Billy Mitchell’s legacy. I was privileged to have worked alongside Billy and others as we sought to contribute to the positive process of conflict transformation. That experience continues to inform my thinking on conflict management even today.
The East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum: A Vision for the Future
By Aaron Edwards
It was the late Billy Mitchell who coined the term ‘the privileged Prod and the travelling tinker’ to describe the acute poverty and deprivation which surrounded him as he grew up in the Glengormley area of North Belfast. That was half a century ago when emigration provided the only natural escape for working class people who were wallowing in the depths of socio-economic despair that had battered the Province in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1951, when Billy turned 11, the average unemployment rate in Northern Ireland was a remarkably high 7.9% in comparison with the figure for the rest of the United Kingdom which stood at just 1.4%. Like any young man coming of age Billy started work aged 14 as a copy boy for the Belfast Telegraph, then as a shipping dispatch clerk and subsequently as a lorry driver. By his late twenties the so-called ‘troubles’ had exploded onto the streets thereby precipitating further unemployment and recession. It is the legacy of this conflict that we – certainly those of us born after 1980 – have now inherited. The Northern Ireland economy may have significantly improved since Billy’s youth, but what about the remainder of the surrounding social and political landscape?
In the many discussions I had with Billy over the years – since I first encountered him in the Rathcoole estate in November 2000 and the following year in his base of operations at LINC Resource Centre – I was impressed with the journey that he had taken over the years and inspired enough by his intellect to write an undergraduate thesis on the political thought of the Progressive Unionist Party and subsequently on the nature of his particular brand of ‘Progressive Loyalism’. As the years unfolded our debates and discussions often revolved around how to transform this society of ours’ and make a better future for my peers and those younger people who had yet to come of age.
It was in these conversations that our thinking converged into practical exchanges about how to transform the legacy of the conflict in the area of East Antrim – a place we both knew well. It is a testament of Billy’s own legacy that the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum (EACTF) has become a product of his ideas and survived his tragic death in June 2006. Recent months have shown that the EACTF has taken on a momentum of its own, as working class people residing in Protestant estates and districts, from Rathcoole, to Carrickfergus to Larne endeavour to make his vision a reality.
The EACTF has a number of aims. Some of these are altruistic, some are limited, but most have been strategically placed as a means by which the Protestant working class can emancipate itself from the unreconstructed militarism (paramilitary activity, recruiting, operations or ‘wee jobs’ and criminality or ‘procurement of funds’) that has blighted their areas, in particular, for almost 40 years – and perhaps much longer. It has as its prize a new order of things in a transformed society unbridled from the shackles of bigotry, indifference and apathy – and with an eye on the future in which it can articulate its strong Unionist political identity in a confident, though non-threatening and non-violent manner.
So what can we expect from this voluntary coalition of localised groups in the future? Is it appropriate to take a clairvoyant view of paramilitaries decamping from Protestant working class estates and giving the young people from those areas the future they deserve – free from the burden of swearing an oath to protect a province which has effectively been under threat since it was carved out by the British Government in 1920? In a future free from armed violence it may just be possible. As Billy Mitchell would have said, “nobody ever said that it would be all ‘tea and buns’ with one’s republican enemies”.
Billy possessed the remarkable foresight and imagination to look to a realistic future. He did not try and convince those who worked alongside him on the EACTF project that a utopian dream beckoned; rather he saw the future as something arrived at by the blood, sweat and tears of generations of Ulstermen and women who toiled in a unjust society where the ‘have nots’ far outnumbered the ‘haves’ – and where inequality ruled supreme regardless of creed, though in full recognition of one’s status in the social pecking order.
Perhaps Billy’s biggest regret was that his adolescence was shaped by the rhetoric of Ian Paisley, where the Catholics were portrayed as so-called ‘fifth columnists’ and that the Church of Rome was out to strike terror into the hearts of the average Protestant Unionist. A lot of absolute nonsense, but sophisticated sloganeering on the part of a populist politician who, if he could not warn of an imminent danger, simply made it up and pedalled it to anyone who would listen. The trouble was, however, that people did listen – many of them young people. In the evidence given at the trials of dozens of Catholic youths arrested for their part in the infamous Divis Street riots of October 1964, almost all of them gave the personal intervention of Paisley into the Falls as their reason for engaging in violence against the police. The oral testimony of numerous UVF men in subsequent years would also lay the blame for their involvement in paramilitarism at the door of Paisley – the churchman and politician.
As a result of the recent conflict in Northern Ireland the total number of deaths sits at approximately 3,523. Out of this figure some 454 young people – aged between 16 and 29 – are thought to have been affiliated to loyalist paramilitary organisations when they met their demise. The vast majority were young men who saw paramilitarism as the only avenue open to them in a society which underwent an enormous socio-economic, cultural and political transformation for the worst from 1969.
Billy Mitchell recognised that social injustice on both sides of the divide fuelled this recruitment during the conflict. Above all, he resented that an entire generation had come of age in such inauspicious surroundings, and he set about reversing this practically. Yet he knew that this was a legacy of the troubles that had to be rectified and so he threw his weight behind the Young Citizens Forum, a group of 40 young people who came together in Carrickfergus to pursue a creative and positive avenue away from paramilitarism in ways that they hope will have ultimately desirous outcomes for their communities.
At the PUP’s annual conference in East Belfast on 14 October 2006 the Young Citizens Forum was allocated the first Billy Mitchell Award for Conflict Transformation. In my personal capacity as a critical fiend of the EACTF I was proud to witness Billy’s legacy being honoured in this way, particularly as our divided community prepares to enter a new and more peaceful phase in its history.
Roy Garland wrote in the Irish News shortly after Billy’s death that his ‘work took on a new urgency’ in the openining months of 2006, as he encouraged others to take responsibility for peace and progress. Even though the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum is a small part of his legacy it is testament of his enduring character and energy that it will continue in its (largely voluntary) successes as we move beyond violence and into a new phase of post-conflict Northern Ireland.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of The Other View.