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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About aaronedwards2012

Historian, Writer, Academic. Views all my own.
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