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