Round-up of the PUP conference (including audio from speeches)

The Progressive Unionist Party’s annual conference was held on Saturday morning in the large conference room in City East this morning. About 60 people attended. This year exhibitors hadn’t been invited, curtailing a conference revenue stream, but also keeping the focus on party business.

I’ve a theory that most party conferences are identifiable from a photo of the back of delegates’ heads. This morning’s conference was dominated by older men, though some younger people and some women were present.

back of heads PUP conference

As mentioned in the preview post, the PUP are definitely going through a period of reflection. Party chair Brian Lacey started by giving an overview of the last year, changes of leadership, explained why Brian Ervine wasn’t present (he’s in hospital and they sent him warm wishes), paid tribute to the interim and outgoing leader Hugh Smyth, and gave noticed that nominations for a new leader had to be with him by the end of the mid-morning coffee break.

PUP chair Brian Lacey introducing the conference (mp3)

Hugh Smyth spoke well, the first of many speakers who echoed the statement that there was still a place for the PUP in the Northern Ireland political scene. While it would never be a major party, it still had a role to play. He suggested that there wouldn’t be an Assembly up at Stormont if it hadn’t been for the PUP.
Outgoing leader Hugh Smyth addresses PUP conference (mp3)

Hugh Smyth speaking at 2011 PUP conferenceWhile reckoning that if Jim Allister had his way “he’d be taking us back to 1690”, Smyth recognised the impact that the single TUV MLA has made. He made a comparison with the level of opposition put up by the PUP’s former MLA (Dawn Purvis).

Smyth suggested that the PUP’s lack of electoral success hadn’t been helped by the Assembly elections running on the same day a the local government poll and looked forward to the next council elections which would be held on their own.

John Kyle spoke next, again asking “is there a need for the PUP?” and “what makes the PUP different?”

Councillor Dr John Kyle addresses PUP conference (mp3)

He advised that the PUP hadn’t been born out of big house unionism, and hadn’t emerged from a church. Instead it had sprung from authentic working class communities. He said that the PUP was committed to communities and committed to social justice.

Three or four times during his speech, Kyle quoted from Billy Mitchell’s Principles of Loyalism, reminding the delegates that social justice policies had been at the core of the PUP’s thinking for a very long time, and yet these policies were rarely acknowledged by the media.

Referring to the aftermath of this week’s racist attack in Antrim, Kyle congratulated his party colleague Ken Wilkinson for “speaking out clearly and unambiguously about drugs, racketeering, …” and stated that “the PUP is willing to work with anyone who has common concerns with us”.

Two external speakers then addressed the conference.

Prof Tony Novosel (history lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh) was well known to many in the room and posed the question “what would NI be like if the PUP and working class engagement hadn’t happened?”

Prof Tony Novosel @tnovosel addressing PUP conference (mp3)

Tony Novosel speaking at 2011 PUP conferenceNovosel focussed on the ‘friend’ aspect of being a ‘critical friend’, offering little challenge to the delegates. Looking back at the party’s history, he quoted Secretary of State Jim Prior who said that the only constructive suggestions from NI parties came from the Workers Party and PUP.

Much of Novosel’s research and analysis of loyalism will be collated and published next year in a book. After twenty minutes, he drew breath for questions.

During the Q&A, Hugh Smyth reflected on the danger of excluding people in their wider community with dissident opinion, pointing to what’s happening with those groups Sinn Fein left behind. Smyth also suggested that rather than always criticising the DUP and UUP, the PUP should highlight when other parties make positive contributions in working class areas.

Leadership nominations closed at the end of the coffee break.

William Mitchell from ACT was up next. He started by referring to the frequent confusion between him and Billy Mitchell. Both were imprisoned at the same time in Long Kesh and on one occasion William went down for a visit only for the lady to complain that he wasn’t her husband Billy!

William Mitchell from ACT speaking at 2011 PUP conference

In his presentation “The ACT Movement: Emerging from the Shadows” William Mitchell explained what the Action for Community Transformation programme was doing in UVF and Red Hand Commando areas. ACT is basically the civilianisation programme that seeks to create a stable transition from past ways into positive community involvement.

William Mitchell telling PUP conference about ACT (mp3)

The first phase was about capacity building and identified 191 leaders who were put through a set of training modules that looked at aspects of individual, group, community and society and introduced a series of approaches (self reflection, socio-metrics, action planning, inter-relations) backed up with a series of theoretical concepts (Johari window, Iceberg principle, Conditioning, Restorative practices).

Phase 2 set up local area action groups that bring people together to look at specific issues such as youth development, parades and interfaces, etc.

ACT has got this far with no core funding, instead relying on volunteers over the last three years. (A small amount of funding has been promised from an English trust, and it sounded like Belfast City Council had contributed to an aspect of one ACT training module.)

The final phase is small ‘p’ political, encouraging the 1440 people now signed up for ACT to take part in representative and collaborative politics within their communities. There’s a layer of governance for accountability and to identify best practice worth sharing across the seven or eight zones.

The powerpoint diagrams that illustrated Mitchell’s talks including scary organisational charts and I suspect several forests-worth of flip charts have been destroyed as ACT has come to fruition.

The exciting thing about ACT is that it has reached a stage were it has something positive to talk about. The UVF and Red Hand Commando aren’t a single homogeneous structure. So to get 1440 people signed up to the programme is no mean feat. There were a lot of nods of agreement during Mitchell’s presentation from PUP members with UVF links. If the area action groups can funnel time and energy into community building activities, fostering new skills and confidence, ACT could have a very positive contribution to make to many working class loyalist areas.

During the Q&A, John Kyle asked whether ACT had considered incorporating a literacy strand into their programme. Literacy is traditionally low in loyalist working class communities, and given the stigma often attached, men might find it more comfortable to learn together. Hugh Smyth suggested that it was time that ACT was presented to First Minister Peter Robinson.

During coffee, some delegates explained that the HET enquiries (that are so focussed on loyalist crimes) and supergrass trials may put men back into prison. The need for family welfare (finance, transport, etc) will increase. The trials are unsettling and could lead to instability within some communities, with senior ‘leaders’ who are signed up to ACT being imprisoned and leaving less committed men behind. The next few months and years could be a worrying time.

It was then onto the main business of the conference. Only one nomination for leader was received and Billy Hutchinson (nominated by John Kyle and Philip Hamilton) was elected unopposed as the new PUP leader.

Billy Hutchinson speech to PUP conference as new leader (mp3)

(part 2) Billy Hutchinson speech to PUP conference as new leader (mp3)

Hutchinson spoke from the podium, saying that he was grateful to be given the position, and confirmed his view that “there is life for the PUP”. He cast doubt on Sinn Fein’s credibility, saying that they were not interested in working class issues but were instead more interested in “power”, citing their support for PFI deals to build new schools (“leasing buildings off ourselves”).

Billy Hutchinson speaking after taking over as PUP leaderHe spoke about the poverty that exists in Protestant and Catholic communities and said it was unacceptable. Hutchinson cautioned that “we’re on a hiding to nothing” if we argue for “five GCSEs”. Instead we felt that the party should talk about “learning”. He talked about needing a bill of rights addressed loyalism’s demonisation and his own demonisation (that he said had led to his arrest and subsequent release without charge in 2007).

In his closing remarks, Hutchinson talked about setting up a “think tank” to look at issues the PUP needed to tackle. He questioned why there were not more women in the party and at conference, and asked the women present to come back to him with ideas.

He also tied in the ACT presentation with the PUP’s future, asking “UVF men who are going to join the PUP to recognise that not everyone [already in the party] has our background” but pointed out that they bring plenty of experience of working with communities.

Hutchinson finished his impromptu speech and was given a standing ovation. As delegates tucked into a buffet lunch of sandwiches and cocktail sausages, I spoke to the new leader. You can watch the interview in yesterday’s post.

It was strange – though no surprise – to sit through a morning of speeches and presentations and not hear any reference to the victims of the actions carried out by the UVF organisation during the Troubles. Perversely, more is made of the unfairness that loyalism was not rewarded by the peace process unlike players in nearly every other post-conflict peace solution around the world.

Overall, at conference I sensed a party that was coming to grips with its limited size and finances, and that was keen to turn a corner and set a course for a more confident future in which they could continue to stand up for working class communities, be pro-union, draw attention to social injustice, and work with other parties to bring about sustained improvements. I heard a party that was clearly proud of its historical progressive leadership, and was keen to make further contributions.

One such area will undoubtedly be its potential ability to provide a space where former paramilitaries can come along to refine their political sense through the last phase of ACT. Of course, the reality is that the PUP isn’t the only party receiving UVF votes, and that the politicisation process of ex-combatants will feed into a number of parties.

Another challenge to the PUP will be the limitations that its current level of electoral success puts on its ability to advocate strongly for working class communities. They can point out injustices until they are blue in the face, but without backing from the DUP and Sinn Fein, their lobbying will be in vain.

Billy Hutchinson sounds like he is starting his leadership with energy. But he’ll be quickly reminded of the PUP’s minor position as a small fish in a big pond when he realises that (at the time I’m writing this post) twelve hours after being elected as leader, neither the BBC nor UTV websites have mentioned his elevation. (Update – as Nevin points out, UTV ran it on their website from Saturday teatime.) It’ll be an uphill struggle to get noticed in a positive way.

, , , ,

  • aquifer

    “neither the BBC nor UTV websites have mentioned his elevation.”

    But they would cover a paramilitary attack. Working class democrats have an uphill struggle to get publicity. They can also struggle to recruit technocrats who can describe what government should do to make a difference for the poor, especially with a background that includes intimidation and killing people to silence them.

    The PUP have a similar constitution to the UK Labour party, but Unions here don’t sponsor a party nor even single out the ones that are working against their interests. I guess in a powersharing executive it is hard to pin down responsibility, but with PRSTV it can take from 15% of the vote to get in. If the unions named a few favoured candidates it could swing elections.

    Maybe the PUP should do the same, even when those being endorsed would not appreciate it publicly.

    How else would they expend their influence out of their core areas?

  • http://www.thedissenter.co.uk thedissenter

    Ref one TUV MLA: “He made a comparison with the level of opposition put up by the PUP’s former MLA (Dawn Purvis).” Indeed.

  • Turgon

    thedissenter,
    Can I trade mark Eliza Doolittle re the former PUPleader in this context.

  • Turgon

    I think there is a point in one of the above interviews with Hutchinson where he says that getting support in an economic downturn will be more difficult. The idea that a left wing working class party will struggle more in a downturn in bizarre.

    Overall one of the PUP’s problems (leaving aside the support for terrorists etc.) is that they seem to have grave difficulty defining the people for whom they claim to wish to speak. I have blogged before about the working class now being smaller as many who would once have self defined as working class now self define as middle class. However, there are many in relatively poorly paid jobs who might be attracted to left wing politics: that is clearly the case in most places in the world.

    The PUP, however, seem disinterested in people outside the inner city working class unionist areas (along with the larger out of town Housing executive estates). Their definition of the potential support base is actually numerically very small. Then when one adds their lack of garsp of politics it is difficult to see them gaining much political traction. All that leaves aside the terrorism problem which is their biggest.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “neither the BBC nor UTV websites have mentioned his elevation.” … Alan – Sunday 9:00 am

    Ahem ..

    Hutchinson elected PUP leader” .. UTV – Saturday before 7:00 pm

  • http://[email protected] joeCanuck

    It says that about 60 people attended. Does anyone know how many signed up members the party has?

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    Nevin – you have a point …

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    Just a correction, Alan.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I just did a quick check and noted that Hutchinson has made no attempt to run for the assembly since he lost his seat in 2003, and he’s not been on Belfast City Council since he lost his Oldpark seat in 2005.

    It is hard to take that speech especially seriously, coming as it does from a new leader who hasn’t made even a token run for office in six years. I’m not sure what function the PUP see themselves realistically having beyond being a go between for the UVF.

  • quality

    Comrade Stalin

    So playing devil’s advocate, an absence from elected politics rules someone out of a return to it? I would say his employment as a community worker (as opposed to the ‘community representatives’ many of us will be familiar with) is entirely tied in to the political.

    But I agree with you on the PUP, they certainly need to move beyond simply being UVF defenders in the public realm if they are to be remotely successful.

    Decent organisation and a couple more articulate candidates (if they’re out there) could certainly increase their Belfast CC seats and quite possibly a North Belfast seat in the Assembly (not so sure about East Belfast given boundary changes).

    Given relative dissatisfaction with the DUP in some PUL areas, with many seeing going to your local SF councillor as a means to getting something done, there’s certainly scope for some small growth there. I’m relatively sceptical though.

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    Nevin – it was a positive “Nevin – you have a point …” rather than a sarky “Nevin – you have a point?” – post updated!

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    Thanks, Alan. I didn’t know which you meant so I came back with a soft reply :)

  • Turgon

    “David Ervine spoke at a meeting (not sure if it was early assembly or council) and commented that its a sorry state of affairs if a soldier has to come and show the polititions how to do their job “

    David Ervine a soldier? No: actually he was a terrorist.

  • Nunoftheabove

    So, in a nutshell then, “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government grant aid….failing which we’ll, like, probably turn an oul’ blind eye to the lads out robbing, stealing, intimidating, injuring, maiming, extorting, threatening and lynching. They may be hoods but, like, they’re our…etc”.

    At least three things to look out for in the PUP, none of which are healthy and which makes it a blessed relief that they’re a vaccuous organizational shambles and going nowhere in haste electorally – they’re self-pitying, self-righteous and self-loathing.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “prepare for government grant aid” et al

    Hard to disagree with any of that, Nun. Of course, there’s a bonus if you make it into government – you get to sign the cheque.

  • Nunoftheabove

    Nevin

    Natch. That necessitates though of course fooling enough people enough of the time and I shouldn’t think that the Hutchinsonian brigade have the wit, the patience or the wherewithal to fool any other than the most inebriated and/or lumpen and/or intellectually undernourished within society.

    I dare say one could – with strain – conceivably construct a recognizably political message around “we stiffed all them sub-human taigs an’ we got nothin’ an’ it’s not fair so it’s not” – essentially, the party’s raison d’etre – but I shouldn’t think that the sectarian murderer Mr Hutchinson and his handful of associates and supporters – jailbirds, drunks, football hooligans, housebreakers, pavement pirates, wifebeaters, social security fraudsters, cornerboy riffraff and the like that some of them are – will quite be the fellows to do it somehow or other.

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    Nunoftheabove – Hutchinson was plain in the interview that

    You can’t be a criminal and a loyalist at the same time.

  • Nunoftheabove

    Alan in Belfast

    Of course..unless of course the criminality has what he calls a political motivation – that appears to be quite alright unless of course he wants to issue a follow-up statement clarifying that for us. Mr Hutchinson himself was convicted of a vile criminal offence, is he now applying a new definition to that which he wished applied to himself ? Does he consider UVF membership a criminal offence these days ? Does he consider robbery or extortion on behalf of the UVF (and/or the PUP) criminal ? Is he prepared to share all he knows about UVF membership – past and present – and activity with the police ? Does he explicitly consider the Beast From The East a criminal and if so why will he not cooperate with the police in compiling evidence against him ?

  • http://[email protected] joeCanuck

    So, once again, does anyone know how many card carrying members they have? Are there any, or do you just turn up to a meeting if there is nothing interesting to see by looking out the window or the pub has run out of beer??

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “You can’t be a criminal and a loyalist at the same time”

    London and Dublin put their own spin on this. “If you’re a ‘good’ paramilitary, loyalist or republican, we can do business with you. However, the sweeties go mainly to those who best suit our agendas”

    Does anyone know whether or nor President McAleese issued an invitation to any of the UVF fraternity to participate in the Royal visit to the Irish state?

  • Liberal Loyalist

    Joe – the party has around 120 members – though that will increase once the 1440 former paramilitaries complete their ACT courses and take a more active role in NI politics.

    Nunoftheabove – in reference to this ‘insight':

    I dare say one could – with strain – conceivably construct a recognizably political message around “we stiffed all them sub-human taigs an’ we got nothin’ an’ it’s not fair so it’s not” – essentially, the party’s raison d’etre – but I shouldn’t think that the sectarian murderer Mr Hutchinson and his handful of associates and supporters – jailbirds, drunks, football hooligans, housebreakers, pavement pirates, wifebeaters, social security fraudsters, cornerboy riffraff and the like that some of them are – will quite be the fellows to do it somehow or other.

    Interesting that you feel the need to insult the entire membership of a political party with such disgusting, childish name-calling simply because one or two of the party’s members served prison sentences for political violence many years ago. As a PUP member who has a clean criminal record, rarely drinks, has been in paid employment continuously since I left school and is more likely to be beaten by the wife (leaving the toilet seat up) than a wifebeater I apologise for ruining your dirty little fantasy of what our party members are like. I’m guessing you’ve probably never met a member of the PUP but get some sort of adolescent thrill from slurring decent, honest people behind the security of internet anonymity.

    Finally, I don’t recall anybody from the PUP ever complaining we didn’t get anything from the peace dividend. Of all the ‘players’ who took part in the peace talks it was political Loyalism who emerged with the most of it’s demands met. If that’s all we ever get I’ll be happy enough.

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    Nunoftheabove – “unless of course the criminality has what he calls a political motivation”

    He was pretty clear when he said it. And since he didn’t hint at any caveats, I’d suggest you don’t infer any. You’re sailing pretty close to the wind in some of your comments above.

  • Turgon

    Liberal loyalist,
    Indeed Nun was a little caustic. However, you said “…one or two of the party’s members served prison sentences for political violence many years ago” but also said that the membership would increase “…once the 1440 former paramilitaries complete their ACT courses and take a more active role in NI politics.

    If any significant persentage of the 1440 join the PUP then there will be rather more than one or two ex criminals in the PUP. Indeed there are probably rather more than one or two at the moment. As such Nun’s rather caustic comment is probably more accurate than you admit.

    Furthermore the simple fact is that most people in Northern Ireland regard the PUP as little better than Nun has described or if they are not criminals themselves, then as apologists for the above mentioned. Unless and until the PUP sever all links with the UVF few are going to see the PUP as anything other than cheerleaders and fellow travellers.

  • Nunoftheabove

    Alan in Belfast

    I’ll be the judge of what he meant thanks and what is appropriate for me to infer based on the words of political representatives or would-be political representatives in this case – I didn’t ask you to interpret on my behalf and I am unclear as to what you believe qualifies you to do so.

    My questions aren’t difficult to understand and I’m afraid that Mr Hutchinson’s comments simply don’t address them per se. As and when he does so I’ll be happy to accept his assurances or otherwise based on a fair and reasonable assessment of his track record and character.

  • Liberal Loyalist

    Turgon,

    You’re assuming all 1440 have served prison sentences when, in reality, only a minority of that number would have been in the Maze.

    Most of those who done time in the 70s or 80s are in retirement or Roselawn.

  • Nunoftheabove

    Liberal Loyalist

    “Interesting that you feel the need to insult the entire membership of a political party”

    – I did not insult them all and was not referring exclusively to members; if you’d read what I said you’d have been able to figure that out all by yourself. At least, I think you might be able to.

    “one or two of the party’s members served prison sentences for political violence”

    – Really ? One or two ? Absolutely sure about that ? How many have ‘ordinary decent’ criminal records ? How many are virulently opposed to the existence of and modus operandi of all/any section of the UVF – approximate number out of your 120 members would you say ?

    “As a PUP member who has a clean criminal record”

    – You mean you don’t have a criminal record, …or do you ?!

    “I apologise for ruining your dirty little fantasy of what our party members are like”.

    – Trust me, it wasn’t my fantasy and I don’t believe it’s fantastic in any respect, notwithstanding your own self-description which I’m on balance prepared to accept. Incidentally what’s a self-named liberal doing in a so-called socialist party – care to expand ?

    “ I’m guessing you’ve probably never met a member of the PUP”

    – Not so, as a matter of fact I have spent time with Mr Hutchinson on perhaps three occasions. I have had encounters with UVF members and their supporters too. Not all of them were desperately pleasant.

    “Of all the ‘players’ who took part in the peace talks it was political Loyalism who emerged with the most of it’s demands met”

    – It’s (sic) demands ? Political loyalism’s demands you mean ? Or the UVF’s ? Where does unionism end and loyalism begin in this analysis please ? The views of an unaccountable paramilitary group with negligible political support prevailed – and you’re proud of this ? Also, if you got all you ever wanted from that why bother being a member now ? Why the need for a PUP at all ? Why all of the ‘poor forgotten-about disadvantaged us’ groaning that Mr Hutchinson tries very hard to articulate ?

  • http://[email protected] joeCanuck

    Liberal Loyalist ,

    Thanks for the info. The numbers are lower than I expected but, they are very low.

  • Stephen Blacker

    I got to say that Dawn Purvis makes a good Eliza Doolittle Good call!

  • Stephen Blacker

    The PUP have some hard work ahead to build the party up to where it was. Talk is easy it is the actions that can prove difficult for some.

  • Turgon

    Liberal Loyalist,
    “You’re assuming all 1440 have served prison sentences when, in reality, only a minority of that number would have been in the Maze. “

    Sadly you are in a way right. Only a minority may have served a prison sentence. Hiowver, in terms of being criminals I am assuming that if the 1440 are all members of paramilitaries they are committing a criminal offence: being a member of the UVF is a criminal offence.

  • carl marks

    Upon hearing that Billy Hutchison had become leader of the PUP I thought give the man a chance maybe he means what he says, then I was listening to the radio (talkback I think) and Billy was answering questions when asked about the recent UVF organised rioting in east Belfast his reply was a version of the standard unionist/loyalist line “it was the taigs fault we done nothing wrong” so much for a new open type of unionism. But you have to admit he has learnt from the old hands and is following that old unionist tradition of no matter what happens or who does what, blame on the Catholics.
    The man has a future

  • Comrade Stalin

    Quality:

    So playing devil’s advocate, an absence from elected politics rules someone out of a return to it?

    I did not say that.

    Hutchinson during his acceptance speech talked about how the PUP could still make a contribution and still had a future. If he truly believed that, then surely he would not have bowed out of electoral politics ? Up until hearing that speech my sense of things would have been that he had given up.

    The PUP’s initial success during the 1990s was because they were the political wing of a paramilitary group that seemed to be exploring peace. I’d say a lot of their vote at that time came from transfers from nationalist voters who may have voted for or transferred to SF, who felt likewise that those seeking to lead the men of violence towards normal politics should be rewarded at the ballot box. However, unlike SF, they were never able to translate this success into real post-ceasefire politics.

    I would say his employment as a community worker (as opposed to the ‘community representatives’ many of us will be familiar with) is entirely tied in to the political.

    I have nothing at all against Billy, I don’t think he believes that violence has a future, and I am sure he works hard for the local community. I just don’t think he’s serious about reinventing the PUP.

  • Chris Donnelly

    A PUP actively seeking to transform itself to make it attractive to working class protestants can only be a good thing for our society as, along that journey, they’ll quickly realise that antics such as agitating for sectarian violence at interfaces and erecting hundreds of flags along roads are not vote winning strategies.