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.
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’.