Establishing trust is necessary to move beyond violence

This article was originally published on on 16 January 2013.

By Aaron Edwards

That loyalists continue to protest at the decision to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall is unfortunate, but not surprising. At risk of sounding like some sort of revanchist throw-back, it was a fuse looking for a spark. I, like other dispassionate analysts of the ‘peace process’, have repeatedly warned that there has been a general malaise about confronting and debating outstanding issues, such as the real meaning of reconciliation between unionists and nationalists, ‘dealing with the past’, and the development of an underclass, particularly in Protestant working class areas.

The failure to face up to the imperfect realities of the ‘peace process’ has undoubtedly stoked the flames of frustration, anger and suspicion in marginalised communities and continues to act as an accelerant on an open fire of disenfranchisement, sectarianism and violence.

Yet, one must ask the question: why was nothing done to prevent such a destructive turn of events? Why do loyalists, in particular, feel out of sorts with the ‘peace process’ in this ‘New Northern Ireland’?

One plausible explanation has come from Billy Hutchinson and the PUP, who maintain that this is a natural consequence of republicans acting outside both the spirit and the letter of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Hutchinson sees the flags protest as a by-product of ‘people’s frustrations that Sinn Fein are allowed to carry out a “Brits Out” campaign in Northern Ireland’.

But is it really a surprise that Sinn Fein has been pursuing a policy of ‘de-Britification’ in Northern Ireland?

The evidence for their political campaign is certainly there for those who care to look for it.

For instance, the end of the Provisional IRA’s armed campaign in 2005 may have seemed like a magnanimous gesture, but it did not lessen the group’s determination to continue their struggle for Irish unity in another, political form.

In a statement released in 2007, which backed Sinn Fein’s position on policing, the Provos stated that ‘Irish republicanism is stronger, more united and more confident than at any time since partition and that we can achieve an end to the partition of our country and the establishment of a free and independent Ireland’.

Though by now signed up to ‘purely peaceful and democratic means’, republicans remained unbowed in their zealous commitment to realise their objectives at the expense of all else, including reconciliation with their unionist counterparts. Ostensibly, they were simply reaffirming the self-appointed goals of those who signed the proclamation of 1916, as well as those who formed the First Dail in 1918, by reassuring supporters that they could deliver on promises by way of the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland. With the ‘dissidents’ carping from the side-lines, Sinn Fein soon found its room for manoeuvre even further restricted; they had become prisoners of their own rhetoric.

So, where’s the problem, I hear you ask? Surely loyalists were smart enough to understand where republicans were coming from?

Well, the problem lies in the confusing narrative continually trumpeted by Sinn Fein (and their awkward partners in the DUP) since 2007, which claims to be moving everyone towards a ‘shared future’. It is a narrative that is attracting an ever-more hollow ring to it, especially given the evidence to the contrary that appears to be emerging on a nightly basis in Belfast, not to mention the failed attempts to publish the blueprint for the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) ‘strategy’.

As more and more people are beginning to suspect, rather than advancing towards a ‘shared future’, where tolerance for diversity flourishes, we seem to be destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. And for those familiar with George Santayana’s oft-quoted aphorism, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”, these words seem to be an apt description for the crisis unfolding on the streets.

In reality, as some critics have argued, we are moving headlong into something akin to ‘benign apartheid’, wherein both communities agree to disagree on constitutional issues and simply tolerate each other. As an experienced conflict mediator in Derry/Londonderry once confided in me a few years ago, ‘it’s not a “shared future”; it’s just plain co-existence’!

That is not to deny that individual Sinn Fein activists have engaged in community relations work. Some activists have worked with loyalists at the grassroots, addressing interface issues and promoting the work of ex-prisoner groups, but this is in danger of being drowned out by the forward march of ‘zero-sum’ ethnic politics.

The other tragedy in all of this is that Provisional republicans have been able to make their political agenda totally indivisible with the forward march of the ‘peace process’. Anyone who dares to criticise it, consequently, is labelled a ‘drug pusher’, ‘mentally ill’, or, simply, and perhaps most conveniently of all, a ‘sectarian bigot’. No attempt is made to try and understand the ‘non-criminal’, identity, issues behind the protests, or, for that matter, the violence that has followed suit.

It is little wonder that loyalism finds itself in a perpetual crisis.

On the one hand, we have a community that sees itself as having advanced its objectives, while on the other hand we have another that perceives itself to have ‘lost out’ and, lacking in clear political leadership, finds itself forced to take to the streets in an even more regressive way.

As we have seen from media coverage, the unfortunate net result is that Northern Ireland does not look like it is at peace – a travesty considering that we are almost 20 years on from the paramilitary ceasefires.

As people in this part of the world know only too well, peace is a highly politicised concept that has to be constantly negotiated and re-negotiated between ardent opponents to make it stick.

In divided societies across the world, particularly those ravaged by armed conflict, ‘peace processes’ are an unhappy equilibrium that must be constantly maintained so as to avoid slippage back into war.

In the end, the Agreement only served to copper-fasten a compromise that could enable all parties in conflict to draw back from the brink honourably. The fine details on how to move on to the next phase of reconciling ideological differences for the benefit of all the people of these islands were left to posterity.

Many thought that the billions of pounds invested in the ‘peace process industry’ by the British and Irish governments – not to mention multiple donors in the United States and Europe – would help build our ‘new Jerusalem’. They were wrong.

Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend how successful the throwing of money at the problem has actually been. So-called peace-walls are increasing in number, sectarianism is rampant and the parties to the conflict cannot even agree on a shared view of the past; or, as the flag vote shows, on the present.

So what? What is the sum total of this bleak assessment?

Well, it is clear that Northern Ireland will continue to remain divided, with little prospect of meaningful reconciliation, unless political representatives are honest about where they are leading their voters and supporters. They must reaffirm their commitment to accommodate one another in a way that fosters mutual respect and, above all, shows an understanding of the ‘other view’.

In other words, until trust is established at all levels of society, on all sides of this conflict, from the grassroots upwards, it is unlikely that a ‘shared future’ will ever be realised in Northern Ireland.

Building and rebuilding trust within and between communities, therefore, is what is required.





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Review of Ian S. Wood’s ‘A History of the UDA’

This review first appeared in Fortnight magazine, No. 446, September 2006, pp. 28-29, under the title Home Grown Terrorism . I had been lucky enough to be writing for Fortnight since 2003, when Malachi O’Doherty was editor. I contributed reviews and articles on Ulster Loyalism until the magazine sadly closely in 2011. This review reflects my thinking about the UDA and UVF at the time.

Ian S. Wood, Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA (Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

Reviewed by Aaron Edwards

Amidst recent speculation about the nature of ‘home grown terrorism’ it is reassuring to find a study which attempts to place the specific circumstances of the birth of a local variant of political violence in its proper historical context. Astute analysts of Northern Ireland’s own brand of militancy will appreciate that even though few of the armed protagonists have taken refuge behind religious piety as a flag of convenience, competing currents of religious fervour and secularism have helped to explode a potent cocktail. Protean in character and heterogeneous in nature, loyalist terrorist organisations, like the UDA, ‘often do other things’, suggests the sociologist Steve Bruce, ‘but their main point is to kill’. Ian S. Wood’s book furnishes us with an historian’s imaginative insight into what motivated individuals to join and, in many cases, to kill in the name of the UDA.

This is not the first time a book on the UDA has been reviewed in Fortnight, nor do I suspect it will be the last. That the topic has generated keen interest among writers of ‘troubles’ related literature is a sign of how the thirst for violence – retold in popular non-fiction – has been far from quenched. However, while books on the IRA have been many and varied, loyalist paramilitarism is still a minority pursuit for most journalists and academics. As the Rathcoole playwright Gary Mitchell recently remarked in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, traditionally, ‘the only things that sold about Northern Ireland were IRA stories’ (1 August 2006).

Loyalist paramilitants do themselves few favours by attacking those, like Mitchell, who have sought to transmit front-line despatches from the gritty reality of Protestant working class life to a wider audience. Undoubtedly Mitchell’s stage-plays touch on raw nerves; yet they are, above all, excellent Polaroid snap-shots of a community in crisis that beautifully illustrate the siege mentality and unreconstructed militarism afflicting those encamped in working class housing estates across Belfast.

This ‘Alamo-style’ mentality is something brought to the fore in Wood’s book. In a perverse way real life imitates the art of Mitchell’s plays. Though by far the largest paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, the UDA nevertheless remained a second-rate
terrorist organisation that could never quite match the military bearing or
sophistication of its UVF rival, summed up in a remark by PUP leader David Ervine that he would ‘rather have been a private in the UVF than a general in the UDA’ (p. 236).

The UDA suffered too from its inability to articulate a realistic political programme, famously advocating a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) for Northern Ireland (pp. 63, 80-82) without taking the trouble to solve the conundrum posed by the economic logic underpinning the huge British subvention. Nevertheless, the one redeeming feature of the UDA’s forward-thinking politics in the 1980s was captured in the document Common Sense (1987), which advocated integrative power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics. Wood’s ability to piece together the influences on UDA political thinking in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) is one of his great accomplishments (pp. 91-97).

Many readers will no doubt want to know if Wood’s book actually tells us something about the UDA that we didn’t already know. Well, yes and no. Wood is especially good at drawing out the organisation’s role in the 1974 UWC strike which brought down the power-sharing executive, and he aptly explains how the UDP campaign for
a ‘Yes’ vote was staffed by the ‘old guard’, who very quickly became disillusioned when internecine feuding broke out between the UDA and UVF. Wood also reminds us of the senseless killings carried out by the organisation in recent years (pp. 265, 273-277) which contributed to heightened tensions at interface areas, though there is perhaps too much attention given to the inflated chests of self-appointed UDA godfathers.

In this book Wood relies heavily on interview sources to illustrate the UDA’s origins and development. That said Wood has clearly gained excellent access to past and present UDA leaders – Andy Tyrie, John McMichael, Jackie McDonald, Ray Smallwoods, Johnny Adair and John White among others – while providing a superb insight into the political thinking of some of the more serious political analysts within the organisation. The interviews with McMichael and Smallwoods (undertaken shortly before their respective assassinations by the Provos in 1987 and 1994) alert us to the book’s long gestation. Indeed Wood has provided brief pen biographies of his dramatis personae as a useful appendix at the back of the book.

A particularly well researched chapter on the Scottish connection provides an insight into the logistical support given to the UDA by its fundraising supporters in Great Britain. As Wood points out, Scottish UDA units were of limited use during the conflict: ‘Incredibly, one particular package of explosive material was sent by them to Belfast by ordinary mail and with the sender’s name and address on it’ (p. 331). Scottish loyalists, it seems, talked a good fight but rarely had the stomach to take any active role in front-line combat. In Wood’s words ‘Much of the Scottish support for the cause was and remained ‘parade Protestantism’ Scottish bands strutting their stuff on Ulster Twelfth’s and other anniversaries – and of course the high octane fervour of the ‘ninety-minute Loyalists’ who supported Rangers’ (pp. 338-339). The UDA is a complex and multi-layered organisation that attracts individuals from across Protestant working class communities in Northern Ireland, and in some cases, as with the Shoukri brothers, from more exotic backgrounds. For those who think that internecine feuding within militant loyalism is a novel phenomenon then Wood’s book is a welcome reality check (see Chapter 10). From its emergence in 1969 personality clashes and local territorial dynamics have ensured that the UDA would never present a united front (pp. 17-24).

Sobriety confirms that the UDA is actually an ensemble of vociferous groupings brought together in an uneasy coalition of interests. Unlike the UVF, which has a central command structure with an autocratic ethos, UDA commanders have found it difficult to exert control over their personnel (p. 191). The culture of militarism within the UVF is much more pronounced and has meant that individual volunteers holding strong political convictions must move into the non-combatant ranks of the PUP. The UDA on the other hand has had military people masquerading as politicians who rarely performed well at the polls (p. 29).

Politically speaking the UDA has become a ‘busted flush’ since the signing of the Belfast Agreement (1998); when the now defunct UDP attempted to take it down a path a large bulk of its membership was reluctant to travel. It is fast returning to the position it occupied at its formation, minus the threat from physical force republicanism. Yet a question mark still hangs over the UDA’s future. Wood has not addressed the pressing problem facing Protestant working class communities today, i.e. will loyalist paramilitary groupings balkanise into a set of unstable Mafia gangs or community organisations; admittedly few other books about loyalism on offer have attempted to do so either.

Above all Wood’s book is much better than Colin Crawford’s rather awkward offering Inside the UDA (2003) and a more human depiction of UDA volunteers than McDonald and Cusack’s gripping, though forensically detailed, UDA: Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror (2004). It is not without its minor errors (such as the remark that Mark Quail was buried with full UFF honours – Quail was in fact a UVF member, or the misspelling of Newtownabbey). Nevertheless, it is a serious historical treatment by an academic who clearly buys into the ‘ordinary people forced to do extraordinary things’ thesis common in the work of those analysts who enjoy quiet conversations with dubious characters in the backrooms of smoky shebeens. As a seasoned academic historian Wood has written some excellent books on Churchill,
Ireland during the Second World War and God, Guns and Ulster: A History of Loyalist Paramilitaries and this latest offering is equally as accomplished.

While the work of sociologists Steve Bruce and James McAuley gives us a clearer picture of how the broader questions of power, ideology and socio-economic position unfold within loyalist communities, Wood has given his readership a rounded picture
of the human capacity for violent extremism. Thus Crimes of Loyalty is not a bad book, or even a poorly executed treatment of the subject-matter, but a different take on a familiar topic. I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to gain an insightful historical understanding of how loyalists associated with the UDA were propelled into violence.


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The unfinished business of the ‘peace process’

In September 2014 I gave a talk on the topic of ‘progressive loyalism and conflict transformation’ at at a University of Ulster symposium on culture and identity in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland. I made the case that there hadn’t been an effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy pursued by paramilitary organisations, nor had they been properly supported in this important task by the state or anyone else, regardless of the money thrown at some projects over the years. I called for a rethink and a ‘whole of community approach’ to dismantle paramilitary structures as a means of completing the task of conflict transformation in Northern Ireland:


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Rev. John Stewart, the NILP and the UVF

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:



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Review of Tony Novosel’s book on Ulster Loyalism

Here’s my review of Tony Novosel’s excellent Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, which was published by Pluto Press in 2013. The review originally appeared in Political Studies Review in September 2014:

“‘Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity’ takes its readers on a journey into the soul of Protestant paramilitary politics in the 1970s and 1980s. It is written by an American historian who has been studying the Ulster ‘troubles’ and peace process for many years. The book is an important contribution to the study of Northern Ireland because of the ‘frustrated promise’ of the progressive politics it details within a community closely aligned to the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando, two illegal terrorist groups that between them killed over 500 people between 1966 and 2010. Dr Novosel argues that loyalist attempts to find a way out of the Ulster killing fields, prior to the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, represent a ‘lost opportunity’.

Dr Novosel has performed an invaluable service for scholarship on Ulster loyalism precisely because he has challenged the weaknesses of glib criticism found in the otherwise invaluable work of Steve Bruce and Jennifer Todd that loyalists were ‘incapable’ of thinking politically (pp. 5-6). Indeed, this kind of caricaturing is echoed in the work of other established academics and has done little to deepen our appreciation of Irish politics or terrorism. Exploiting an impressive ensemble cast of interviewees and under-utilised documents, Dr Novosel disputes the empirically unreliable interpretation of loyalism as anything other than thuggish sectarianism. He argues, convincingly, that it is not true that loyalists never attempted to put their political thoughts into action. As he states in relation to the Progressive Unionist Party document Sharing Responsibility (1985), ‘if accepted as the basis for discussion and negotiation [it] would have accomplished what the GFA did twelve years later and in the process saved many lives’ (p. 195). Dr Novosel has shown conclusively how loyalism has much more nuance and complexity to it than is often admitted.

Dr Novosel’s book is also important for other reasons, including, vitally, by its challenge to loyalists themselves to plough their own fertile history for more positive political episodes. That public meetings have been held in Protestant working class areas, including the Shankill Road, to discuss ‘Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity’ is perhaps testament to how well the book has been received by the very people Dr Novosel has written about.

In sum, ‘Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity’ presents us with an alternative history of the origins of the peace process and the role of loyalists within it. It should be compulsory reading for scholars and students precisely because it overturns old shibboleths about Ulster loyalism and challenges us to think more seriously and imaginatively about politics in this deeply divided society.”

You can purchase a copy of Tony’s book via this link:


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Remembering Bobby Gourley

Three years ago Northern Ireland lost one of its most distinguished trade union leaders. The death of Bobby Gourley in January 2012 robbed working class people everywhere of one of their greatest champions. In a notice placed in the Belfast Telegraph shortly after his death, the members and staff of UNISON recognised Bobby as one of the most “courageous and committed trade unionists” who ever sat on both the Northern Committee and the Executive Council of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. “He stood up for the rights of all working class people in this society and was particularly courageous in his high profile support for the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement”, noted UNISON. “He also worked tirelessly on behalf of his local community and his achievements will be remembered.”

It was the latter contribution which Bobby made that will remain my abiding memory of him. An intelligent, honest and humble man, he was a ‘charge hand’ and a shop steward in the ICI factory in Carrickfergus in the 1970s. He later went on to serve in the Ulster Defence Regiment, though he will perhaps be best remembered as the long-serving chair of the NIC.

In a particularly grim time for community relations in 2002, he led the labour movement in a huge cross-community, anti-sectarian demonstration at Belfast City Hall. The rally marked a groundswell of public opinion in support of the peace process in the aftermath of the murder of Gerard Lawlor, shot dead by loyalists on Floral Road of North Belfast as walked home from the Bellevue Arms public house after a night out, and former UDR soldier David Caldwell, who was blown up by republicans in Derry/Londonderry as he worked on a refurbishment of the Territorial Army base on the Waterside. They were not the only murders that year, with 16 deaths related to the conflict in one way or another.

As Bobby told the rally at the time:

“The evil purveyors of bigotry have declared war on us all and wished to ensure that the legacy of hatred continued.

To each and every one of you in attendance here today, sectarianism kills all of us and we must all fight against sectarianism at every opportunity – in our workplaces, societies, clubs, as well as in our immediate and extended families.

By your presence here today and on behalf of the trade union movement we repudiate the right of any murderer to purport to carry out such atrocities in our name.”

The rally was not attended by the DUP because of the presence of Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Alex Maskey, though it did illustrate the level of political maturity that the PUP had reached that one of its senior members was prepared to stand alongside other parties and face down the sectarianism that was poisoning community relations at that time.

Apart from his trade union commitments, Bobby was also an active member of the East Antrim Constituency Association of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a former member of the party’s Executive Committee, and a staunch supporter of peace initiatives pursued by the PUP and others (like me) who were never members of the party but who, nevertheless, wished to offer a helping hand in the conflict transformation process, especially where it sought to challenge the basis of paramilitarism that had become an unfortunate part of working class life in Northern Ireland.

I have fond memories of political discussions with Bobby. In the lead up to the Belfast Agreement (April 1998), I recall challenging him to explain why loyalists had “sold out” by entering into negotiations with Irish republicans. I freely admit to being something of a teenage ‘hot head’ then, with an unsophisticated understanding of politics at that time – though this would soon change! Bobby sat back and listened (one of his great strengths) as he gave me just enough ‘rope to hang myself’ and I learned an invaluable lesson: never engage anyone in political debate unless you have your facts straight and know what you are talking about.

Bobby Gourley was certainly a man in command of the facts and, in this respect, he will be remembered by peacebuilders and trade unionists for his commitment to peace in Northern Ireland.

At the time of the Belfast Agreement I was only beginning my journey of self-education, which would eventually culminate in me pursuing a degree course in Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Ulster between 1998 and 2001. Bobby was on hand throughout my studies (and subsequent postgraduate courses) to pass on his vast knowledge of labour and Irish history. It was because of Bobby Gourley (and others like him) that I was inspired to write my PhD on the Northern Ireland Labour Party and to tackle the perennial issue of the conflict between socialism and sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

I last saw Bobby a few months before his death in October 2011. We talked about trade unionism, the PUP, and my plans for writing a book about the UVF. I have no doubt that had he lived he would have guided me through the trials and tribulations of sections of the Protestant working class who abandoned peaceful political discussion for what some termed ‘armed resistance to violent nationalism’.


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Billy Mitchell and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland

The process of conflict transformation has become central to the successful termination of armed conflicts and the rebuilding of relationships between warring factions lost in the ‘fog of war’. I learned this first-hand from the senior PUP strategist Billy Mitchell, who engaged with a range of people across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland in his peace-building work. This was also recognised by those who worked closely with Billy on his many conflict transformation and community relations initiatives. At Billy’s funeral in July 2006, his friend Liam Maskey told those gathered (a congregation that included people from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland and beyond):

“Billy was a man before his time. He was a visionary and passionately longed for peace between our two communities. But he wasn’t just a visionary. He was a doer. Billy was a true leader in every sense of the word and a man who people found it easy to follow but hard to live up to. Not only did he walk the talk he demanded that everyone walk with him. While in that lonely position of leadership he was always at the forefront of guiding and directing people and events.”

I wrote the following article in 2007, a year on from Billy’s death, as a way of explaining the practical advantages that could be accrued by people who wished to pursue the cause of peace across the barricades in Northern Ireland. The ideas I describe also drew directly on my own personal experience as a community relations facilitator (I had gained invaluable practical experience working alongside Billy Mitchell in the years prior to his death and was subsequently formally trained by the staff of the Peace and Reconciliation Group in Derry/Londonderry over the course of 10 weeks in 2007), working alongside community leaders in Belfast and Derry in 2007-08.

In the Journey’s Out project I coordinated for INCORE we worked closely with over 40 community leaders from across Belfast and Derry/Londonderry on the issue of ‘dealing with the past’. This was, of course, a time of real hope, when the DUP and Sinn Fein had just agreed a power-sharing deal. However, the peace process was not solely attributable to political leaders sitting down together at Stormont. In my experience it was ultimately dependent on those at the grassroots, who risked a considerable amount by engaging in the conflict transformation process.

Building Relationships in the Conflict Transformation Process

By Aaron Edwards

Since the 1980s the scholar and conflict mediation expert John Paul Lederach has been using the term ‘conflict transformation’ to describe his own unique approach to understanding the peace-building process. Lederach envisions ‘peace building’ as ‘a comprehensive concept that encompasses, generates, and sustains the full array of processes, approaches, and stages needed to transform conflict toward more sustainable peaceful relationships’.

At the heart of Lederach’s particular approach is the notion that conflict arises when relationships between parties in conflict become fractured or suffer fluctuations. Therefore, the key to transforming an environment beyond violence is to intervene and attempt to rebuild these relationships.

In Lederach’s opinion, peace processes emerge and are cemented by the actions and interactions of three distinct groups of people. He organises them by importance in terms of a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid (and constituting the vast majority of people) are grass-roots leaders – those who belong to indigenous NGOs, community leaders and those at the sharp end of the conflict. At the middle-range level are leaders in civil society, such as clergy, academics and professionals. At the narrower top-level of the pyramid are the political elites – politicians, diplomats and statesmen.

In the context of the Northern Ireland conflict, it is not difficult to see how these levels interacted to produce the peace process. Arguably, grass-roots and middle-range leaders brokered the 1994 cease-fires, which, therefore, enabled politicians to enter the negotiation process in the mid-1990s that eventually culminated in the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

Nevertheless, these changes could only come about in concert with a shift in the wider strategic environment, which enabled these leaders to reach accommodation. It was a commonly-held view among the ‘two communities’ that a military stalemate had been reached between the British security forces and the main paramilitary groupings.

There is much to agree with Lederach’s view that the conflict transformation process is about striking up relationships with both one’s friends and opponents and thereby opening up channels of dialogue in deeply divided societies. It is about confronting these issues and diffusing tensions within and between groups. However, little is actually known about how building relationships makes a difference amongst the grass-roots

Often practitioners of conflict transformation act out of gut instinct and conviction, rather than any commitment to a theoretical tradition or ideology. Personally speaking, in my own involvement in the East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum (EACTF) as a ‘critical friend’, it has always been important to leave academic baggage behind and get mucked into the hard routine of peace-building. In other words, to support the grass-roots conflict transformers by highlighting their day-to-day activities in terms of how they fit into the overall political and peace processes.

My introduction to the process came initially in my professional and personal friendship with one of the founding editors of The Other View. Billy Mitchell was a conflict transformation practitioner, working largely in single-identity and inter-community work in North Belfast; however, his influence extended across Northern Ireland. One of Billy’s passions was redressing the legacies of the conflict and we often talked about the practicalities of doing this within what he termed ‘the progressive loyalist constituency’, a grouping which consisted of those individuals and groups closely associated with the PUP and UVF-RHC.

Recognising the need to document the tireless work of peace-builders ‘on the ground’, Billy edited 12 Conflict Transformation pamphlets – published by LINC Resource Centre between 2002 and 2005 – which had the explicit aim of breaking down stereotypes, increasing dialogue across the academic-practitioner interface and facilitating intellectual exchanges between loyalists and republicans.

This series (to which I contributed two co-authored pamphlets) was an important exercise in the day-to-day programme of activities Billy co-ordinated. In the last pamphlet Democratising the Peace Process in Northern Ireland: Progressive Loyalists and the Politics of Conflict Transformation, Stephen Bloomer and I recorded the ongoing work undertaken by progressive loyalists at the sharp end of antagonism in the province; a constituency Billy himself represented and sought to transform.

In essence we captured the early preparatory work undertaken by Billy and those community activists who congregated under the EACTF umbrella. The EACTF remains a test-case for what could be accomplished by loyalist grass-roots leaders who chose to tackle the legacies of past conflict in conjunction with ‘critical friends’ in civil society. One of the main aims of the initiative is to lay the groundwork for the ongoing civilianisation of the UVF and RHC and a rebuilding of intra-community relationships. The EACTF epitomises Billy’s approach to peace-building and conflict transformation and in many ways it is his legacy.

Billy believed passionately in the application of the tools for conflict transformation in a practical manner. He had the particular foresight and moral imagination to diagnose and suggest remedies for grass-roots activists from within his own community and for peace-builders more broadly.

In honour of Billy’s work the PUP created the Billy Mitchell Conflict Transformation Award. At the PUP’s annual conference on 13 October 2007 it was awarded to Northern Ireland Alternatives in recognition of the organisation’s tireless work in the field of restorative justice. Accepting the award on behalf of Alternatives, Billy Drummond said that “the greatest tribute we could pay Billy Mitchell is to ensure that his legacy is carried on”.

As a practitioner of conflict transformation Billy Mitchell was instrumental in the construction of initiatives like Alternatives because he viewed them as a way to transform his community beyond violence. By building relationships within and between communities, Billy Mitchell proved that conflict transformation was the art of the possible.

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of The Other View magazine.

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Detective Superintendent Jimmy Nesbitt MBE (1934-2014)

I was privileged to have interviewed Detective Superintendent Jimmy Nesbitt twice in 2010 and 2011. He was an amazing man – his razor sharp memory and good humour despite having investigated some of the most heinous crimes during the troubles – and I learned an enormous amount about the visceral nature of loyalist paramilitary murders from him. Jimmy was one of the RUC’s most decorated detectives and will be remembered for bringing the Shankill Butchers murder gang to justice. These are just a few reflections on his life and career:

Aaron Edwards: Jimmy Nesbitt was a credit to the RUC

Detective Superintendent Jimmy Nesbitt, who died last month aged 79, was one of Northern Ireland’s most respected detectives.

I had the privilege to meet and interview Jimmy during the writing of a short book on the Troubles a few years ago and found him to be extremely candid about his experiences in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years in the course of my research but to me Jimmy Nesbitt was one of the most impressive.

He was affable, good-humoured and generous with his time and his memory was razor sharp as he described for me the layout of crime scenes, what the victims were wearing, even down to what they had in their pockets and who in the victims’ families he informed about the deaths of loved ones.

As Jimmy told journalist Martin Dillon, it was in relaying news to families that really hit him hard, ‘not simply seeing the bodies but witnessing the heartbreak and tragedy of the living and knowing that in those people it would remain’.

But it was in Jimmy’s recollection of his pursuit of the Shankill Butchers murder gang that I found a driven detective who could recall the forensic detail of countless interviews with those who were responsible for these grisly murders.

His depiction of the gang’s leader Lenny Murphy was particularly chilling. Murphy was a dedicated member of the UVF who was cool and calm under pressure, even during long hours of police interrogation.

Often regarded as a psychopath, Murphy could be ruthless, cunning and calculating.

Some police officers who worked on the Butchers case were unconvinced that Murphy was so one-dimensional. “When you talked to him he was intelligent”, one officer told me. “There was nothing sadistic in the murders. They were carried out without fuss and in a cold, premeditated manner.”

This squares with Martin Dillon’s own conclusions about the gang. He argued that despite the heinous nature of their crimes, ‘the defendants were declared by a psychiatrist to be sane and not suffering from a diagnosable mental illness. I suspect the same analysis would have applied to Murphy had he ever been so tested’.

Although the RUC detectives who investigated the Butchers gang have since been criticised for the length of time it took to bring the killers to justice, this overlooks the severe constraints on police investigations at that time.

Whether it was the inability of the RUC to venture into nationalist areas without military support or the lack of manpower in addressing thousands of other terrorist incidents, the force was resilient but poorly equipped to deal with the onslaught of murder and mayhem.

We know, for example, that in the case of the Yorkshire Ripper 304 detectives formed the investigation team – in the case of the Butchers it fell to a squad of only 11. They eventually succeeded in securing convictions, with 42 life sentences handed down.

In his service with the RUC it was reported that Jimmy solved 250 murder cases out of 311 and was awarded a record 67 commendations, making him one of the most successful detectives in British history.

I know that Jimmy will be sadly missed by those who knew him but he will forever be remembered as one of the most dedicated and professional detectives of the Troubles.

This article originally appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on 24 September 2014.


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The East Antrim Conflict Transformation Forum

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.

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The UVF and the Ending of Armed Resistance

Is Decommissioning ‘Beyond Reach’? The UVF and the Ending of Armed Resistance

Aaron Edwards

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of The Other View Magazine, where I served as a part-time Staff Reporter between 2006 and 2008, and made the case that the UVF’s declaration to end its campaign of terror fell short of decommissioning for several reasons which I outlined in this hard-hitting piece. The article was among a series of pieces of journalism (accompanied by many ‘fireside chats’) that I aimed specifically at the organisation to persuade it to give the conflict transformation strategy we had been helping to develop over the years a ‘fighting chance’ to bed down.

“All recruitment has ceased; military training has ceased; targeting has ceased and all intelligence rendered obsolete; all active service units have been de-activated; all ordnance has been ‘put beyond reach’ and the IICD instructed accordingly” – UVF Statement, 3 May 2007.

It was perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated statements of 2007. The UVF had reached the end of its three year internal consultation process. The findings and future intentions of the organisation were announced in a statement read out by none other than Gusty Spence, the ‘alpha and omega’ of loyalist paramilitarism. The UVF had taken this decision based on its findings that: ‘the six principles upon which our ceasefire was predicated are maintained; that the principle of consent has been firmly established and thus, that the union remains safe’. The ‘watching brief’ which the organisation was upholding since 1994 had finally drawn to a close.

The sticking point, though, was over the seemingly ambiguous tone with which the statement was designed and delivered. While internal consultation had taken place, no prior consultation with General John de Chastelain’s decommissioning body was in evidence – though representatives have since met the body. Instead the UVF chose to go it alone and place its ordinance ‘beyond reach’. In many respects the sovereignty of the UVF command structure – in both formulating and implementing its own policy – was maintained; unfortunately the significance of the statement made little impact beyond the immediate ranks of progressive loyalism. While the ‘army’ (UVF) declared its intention to leave the stage, it left behind many key questions unanswered, especially for the ‘party’ (PUP): what did it do with the arms and explosives it used to wage its campaign of terror since 1965; who exactly had control over it; and, more importantly, what form would the organisation’s civilianised role actually take? As I write we are still awaiting the answers to these questions; there is little indication that we will find out anytime soon.

Some of us who have worked closely with the key actors within progressive loyalism, have known for three years what questions the UVF was actually asking of its membership during its so-called ‘road-shows’, though we did not want to divulge the contents in public for fear of rocking the boat or stealing the organisation’s thunder. In retrospect, perhaps we were too naïve in avoiding writing about these matters or perhaps what we were writing (and by ‘we’, I include my regular co-author Stephen Bloomer) was just too detailed, clairvoyant or, perhaps, just too positive in its assessment. Nevertheless, Brian Rowan’s expert journalism meant that an accurate picture of what the UVF was up to was being communicated to a national audience. He had been reporting on the UVF’s internal consultation process since its inception in 2004. Much of his reportage was excellent, mainly due to the fact that he too had been listening to the UVF long after other journalists were simply burying their heads in the sand.

Like Rowan, Stephen Bloomer and I had been asking hard questions of the UVF. In an interview with a senior commander of the organisation in late 2005 the thorny issue of decommissioning was raised, though it will perhaps come as little surprise that the idea of a reciprocal suggestion was rejected: ‘I personally don’t think the UVF are in any position, anywhere even close, to decommissioning. Paramilitarism going away – that’s a different ball game – 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’. It was obvious that the UVF had been following its own rational military strategy since the ceasefires. Often this military strategy brought them into direct conflict with rivals in the LVF and UFF. Loyalism was at a crossroads and the UVF knew it. What direction it chose to take would depend not so much on mainstream republicans declaring their war over, but on détente within loyalism itself. The departure of the LVF in 2004 certainly facilitated a greater rapidity of change with the UVF. Progressive noises from within the UDA/UVF constituency – and a rapprochement between the latter and the UVF – meant that the UVF could take a decision in confidence: it did so and by the opening months of 2007 we had the semblance of a winding up statement from the organisation. The death of David Ervine in January probably delayed the release of the statement, but when it came it was warmly – if only sceptically in some quarters – welcomed.

Despite the hysteria whipped up by the local media the UVF has taken a command decision to put its ‘arms beyond reach’. That is, to place the ordinance under the control of local battalion commanders. This is both sensible and foolhardy. One must not forget that not all UVF members are motivated by patriotism or a genuine political belief in maintaining the Union. Some have profiteered from the conflict and it is these people that have trouble disengaging from an occupational commitment to criminality. As the UVF Brigade Staff Command made clear in its statement, these individuals should be subject to the due process of the law. Yet, these individuals have increased in number since the 1994 ceasefires.

The ‘ceasefire soldier’ is alive and well within the UVF in the organisation’s ‘civilianised’ guise, just as he (or she) is still paying dues within the other paramilitary organisations of the UDA, Provisional IRA, INLA, Official IRA and their splinter groups. Not that all of these individuals are motivated primarily by the promise of material gain, but some are. The sensible strategy for the law enforcement agencies – backed up by the security services – is to pursue these gangsters with the full rigours of the law.

As I revealed in Fortnight magazine in May 2007, the UVF has accepted that the way forward for their support-base is to roll out the EACTF programme across the Province as a practical measure designed, in the words of Billy Hutchinson, to ‘decommission the mindsets’ of paramilitants. It is important to stress, here, that from the UVF’s perspective this was not a decision arrived at by the promise of a ‘cash cow’ or by ‘collusion’ – as some critics have alleged (Irish News, 23 January and 7 February 2007).

To date the UVF and its associates in the community/voluntary sector have not received funding from the British government to oversee their organic disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy (though neither, incidentally, has the Provisional IRA), nor have they decided to ‘pawn their guns’ as is the case with the UDA. The argument put forward by the UVF is that as they are not motivated by aspirations for material wealth they do not require a cash windfall to stop their campaign of terror. Rather, they have taken a rational decision to dismantle their centralised command structure, downsize their organisation and wind up their paramilitary campaign. This is conditioned, in the main, by strategic choices available to them in the absence of violence from mainstream republicanism. Curiously, this is a point lost on many commentators – such as the IMC – who seem unable to accept the truism that, unlike the republican movement, the UVF is devoid of an elaborate political strategy. The UVF’s function since it went on ceasefire in October 1994 is to ensure that the CLMC principles (not the Mitchell Principles) are upheld.

The issue of UVF decommissioning is not so difficult to understand if one detaches that organisation’s campaign of terror from the actuality of mainstream republican violence. In fact the reason why the UVF still retains its ‘gear’ is simple: other loyalist paramilitaries still retain theirs and until that is taken out of the equation we will still have guns stashed away under floorboards and in attics, in burial plots and in dumps scattered across Northern Ireland. The main question arising from this assessment is: do loyalists have the wherewithal to give up their comfort blankets or – as Hugh Orde has indicated – will the authorities have to forcibly pursue them for it?


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