The onset of loyalist paramilitary violence from the late 1960s was not something that progressed naturally from within the Protestant working class community. Arguably, this community was no more predisposed to militancy than any other and, in fact, the purported “mass mobilisation” of young men to join loyalist groupings obscures the fact that terrorism has always been a minority pursuit wherever it has reared it’s ugly head.
One of the important restraining influences on the UVF, particularly, has been the calm urged on its members by the PUP. However, in the years prior to the formation of the PUP in 1979, the UVF took its political advice from individual loyalists and members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP).
A key NILP figure in the Shankill area of West Belfast was the Reverend John Stewart, a Methodist Minister and community leader. In my research on the NILP (published by Manchester University Press in 2009) I discussed the influence of John Stewart on UVF thinking at the time.
Here is an extract from that book:
One of these charismatic figures was the Reverend John Stewart, Minister of Woodvale Methodist Church in the heart of the West Belfast interface, and member of the NILP Executive in the mid-1970s. Stewart was a down-to-earth character, with deep democratic socialist convictions. As one former party colleague [Jim McDonald, later a founding member of the PUP] recalls:
“I mean John – he was an ‘odds on’ guy. This was at a time when the district was just hiving and street confrontations. Where I lived (still live), it was directly opposite Hooker Street. I mean John was right there in the thick of it and was there for the people. He didn’t look at it from an ivory tower. He was in there amongst the people.”
…For Billy Mitchell – who was a key UVF leader in the 1970s – the NILP’s influence was being felt across the ranks of his organisation, which was beginning to explore political alternatives to its military campaign:
“During late 1972 a number of key figures within the UVF began to engage in dialogue with members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. One of the NILP members was the late Rev. John Stewart, then Minister of Woodvale Methodist Church in the Greater Shankill area. Rev. Stewart met regularly with senior members of the UVF during the next few years and encouraged them to think in terms of bread and butter politics as well as the constitutional issue. He also encouraged them to respond to republicanism through non-violence and dialogue. A number of the UVF members who met with Stewart had a labour or trade union background and were open to both the working class politics and to the moderate unionism that he espoused.”
…At this time there had been little love lost between the NILP and loyalist paramilitaries as each tolerated the other, accepting that both were germane components of working class society. Nevertheless, on numerous occasions, Labour leaders displayed their disgust at the ‘butchering’ of Catholic workers by loyalist terrorists.
Had it not been for people like John Stewart there is every possibility that loyalist violence would have been a lot worse than it turned out to be amidst slaughter of the 1970s.
To find out more about working class leaders like Reverend John Stewart, you can purchase a copy of my book on the NILP via this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Northern-Ireland-Labour-Party/dp/0719086388