PUP conference – Irish language, welfare reform, parading, Matt Baggott and the leader’s speech

Today was Billy Hutchinson’s second conference as leader of the Progressive Unionist Party. His taking over the reins last year was seen as a last gasp attempt to keep the party open for business. The number of people attending the conference was up this year: I’d estimate a hundred people were in the Ramada Encore room, though not all had yet paid their party dues.

The PUP seeks to give working class loyalists a voice. The big question for the party is whether its voice can be heard, and whether its message is clear enough and distinct enough to make a difference? Perhaps it is time for the PUP to cut down on their rhetoric and demonstrate their vision through more obvious action that cannot be misconstrued on nightly news bulletins.

While the DUP have appeared to assume the mantle of defending the loyal institutions in recent months, the PUP frames itself as the defender of the loyalist bands – particularly those in and around Belfast. PUP constituency groups are increasing in number and activity. However, the impact of their members has yet to be appreciated. Community workers undoubtedly do much work in the background, defusing tensions and keeping lines of communication open between neighbourhoods. But if none of this work is visibly linked back to the PUP, then the party will continue to be unseen and unheard.

Talk about and use of the Irish language held no fear for delegates. However, the chief constable’s statements about crime reduction got the room muttering under their breath. It was a conference of long speeches that sometimes lacked punch and focus.

Unlike last year, there was practically no talk of the party’s demise. Yet with a few councillors, no MLAs and limited funds, the PUP need to work very hard to make a noticeable difference. Lobbying on the welfare reform bill and working behind the scenes on parading may be commendable, but without results tied back to the PUP, the party won’t pick up further working class votes at the next council and Assembly elections.

Ex-leader’s wife Linda Ervine spoke about the “hidden history of Protestants and the Irish language”. In what was probably the best delivered session, she explained how she had been filling out the recent census online when she looked back at the 1911 census and discovered that her husband’s relatives had lived in East Belfast and spoke both Irish and English. Yet their signatures were listed on the Ulster Covenant. Linda deduced that their knowledge of Irish wasn’t linked to their politics.

She quoted Douglas Hyde, son of a Church of Ireland minister, who founded the Gaelic League in 1893, an organisation set up to preserve the Irish language. In 1905 he said:

The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither a Unionist nor a Separatist.

Linda went on to illustrate how Irish is behind many place names, and words and phrasing we use in everyday vernacular. She also pointed to the Red Hand Commando’s motto which is in Irish! During the coffee break, several delegates signed up for Irish language classes at East Belfast Mission!

She concluded that language was neutral, only a tool to communicate. Councillor John Kyle – now deputy leader of the PUP – added that unionists needed to be careful not to give up their non-exclusive yet rich culture, whether Irish language or a character like St Patrick. He explained that “Sinn Fein are experts at rewriting history” and quick to take ownership of the Irish language and St Patrick.

John Kyle went on to talk about the Welfare Reform Bill being examined at the Assembly. He praised some aspects of the reforms, particularly the aims to get more people into work, “delivering dignity, personal income, better physical and mental health and allowing people to contribute to the economy”.

For some people who are ill, what they need is a job which brings some satisfaction. I have patients, the best thing I could give them is a good job. It would do them more good than any of the medicines that I could prescribe for them.

But below the surface, he raised serious issues with the current proposals. How can you penalise somebody for not being in work when there are no jobs available? Unlike the current practice of paying housing benefit to landlords, and child benefit to mothers, the reforms propose paying universal credit monthly to a single named member of the household is “a recipe of disaster”. The vulnerable in society will have real problems budgeting across a full monthly. John Kyle predicted increased debt, increased rent arrears, increased family stress, and families stuck the end of the month with the choice “do I heat or do I eat?”

He also criticised the work capacity assessments. As a GP he agreed with the principle of the proposal: some of his patients are capable – and would benefit – from getting back to work; others could not provide good service to an employer and would find work detrimental to their health. But the record of ATOS’s computer-based decision-making system was “woeful” and “the ultimate blunt instrument”. The high level of successful appeals (70% of those who appeal) from failed applicants means its supplier “ATOS makes G4S look like an efficient organisation”.

John Kyle said that the PUP would “insist on a full, robust interrogation of the legislation at Stormont” and will work with colleagues – particularly Michael Copeland – and will support the Welfare Reform Group (a collective of community and voluntary sector along with unions) and their “sensible and reasonable modifications to the bill”.

Next up was Raymond Laverty proposing a motion asking for conference’s support for Families Against Supergrass Trials. He described the supergrass trials as “a gross manipulation of the justice system”. Issues were raised with the quality of evidence, the character of the supergrasses and the effect of the process on families. Given the comments of the judge at a recent (expensive) trial, the motion called upon the PUP to pursue prosecution the Stewart brothers for attempting to pervert the course of justice through perjury, as well as to raise objections with the Director of Public Prosecutions, Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.

Ken Wilkinson seconded the motion, quoting the judges comments and at one point comparing the Stewart brothers with Jimmy Savile. The trial was an embarrassment to the HET and the PSNI and caused the incarceration of those involved for nearly two years. He linked the HET’s trawl for testimony with a young man’s suicide.

Conference delegates unanimously supported the motion.

Party president and Councillor Hugh Smyth was warmly welcomed when he arrived.

Winston Irvine took to the podium to propose a motion calling on the party to seek an alternative to the current Parade Commission structure.

It would be remiss of conference not to share some support and to think about the Young Conway Volunteer band [who were arrested and questioned yesterday] in my view to placate republicanism. We need to remember that these bands won’t be scapegoated. These bands are only expressing their own beliefs and the cultural identity of many others, particularly those in this room. I feel that the bands are being demonised. We’ve seen the hate-filled campaign move from the loyal orders onto the bands. I think this conference and this party needs to stand up and confront this. (applause)

This motion comes before conference today in a bid to bring to a head the hideous and vindictive nature of some of the recent Parades Commission decisions against the Protestant community.

Winston Irvine referred to the “draconian restrictions” on the Twelfth of July on the Crumlin Road parade. A 4pm return was an “absolute rank insult to the unionist community” the north Belfast community, “all done to placate a dissident republican protest march which was designed from the outset to cause violence, to cause disruption and to damage any community relations that existed in that area”.

Having cited examples of republican marches that were not restricted and did not respect Protestant churches/areas, Winston Irvine described the Parades Commission as a “failed quango” that was “operating a two tier system” that needed to be stood up to.

The motion called for “a new conversation” to debate the structure of a new viable parades structure. He said that loyalists should exercise their freedoms with forbearance and respect and humility. Quality dialogue was the only way to resolve the difficulties: dialogue with generosity at the heart of it. And the PUP should be leading that. Violence on the streets hasn’t resolved anything.

As an outsider, interesting to note the lack of any mention of the DUP or the Orange Order. This motion was from the communities who support the bands in Belfast, rather than those who support and belong to the loyal orders.

Seconder Billy Drummond highlighted that the marching bands are positively engaging with hard-to-reach young people in working class areas in a way that no other organisation can.

There are things that have happened that are wrong. We’ve seen instances where someone defecates across a church, of course it’s wrong, but I think a lot more subtle and a lot more sinister sectarianism is the concerted campaign to demonise and vilify a whole community [ie, the bands].

Answering a question from a delegate, Winston Irvine said “parading is too toxic to place into the heart of government” (ie, OFMdFM) and should sit outside the framework of the institutions. Some members of the current commission are not independent and some are openly hostile to Orange tradition. They been to not only ‘be’ independent but to ‘act’ independent.

One delegate suggested that parading should be given back to the Chief Constable. Most seemed to disagree with this position. Another delegate pointed to the economic benefit of bands, propping up Translink and Londonderry hoteliers.

While there was a lot of analysis of what is wrong with parading and the deficiencies of the Parades Commission, there was very little practical suggestions of alternatives, other than for enduring, quality dialogue.

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott got to scratch off another name on his party conference bingo card this morning when he turned up to address the delegates. In some ways he spoke a lot, but said very little.

Someone commented afterwards that he had been “folksy”. He referred to his family’s working class police background and spoke about the “working class values of protecting communities”, a phrase which resonated well with the PUP’s original paramilitary background.

He praised those assembled saying their journey was remarkable, while being careful to object to some elements of their action along the way.

A banner on a recent Ardoyne parade stated “We are not second class citizens”. The chief constable saw this as a challenge, with communities falling behind and not benefiting from peace dividend.

Matt Baggott said that policing is more than law enforcement: it’s a social enterprise. Finding problems before they turn up as crime. Community policing needs more of an edge. He explained that 700 more police were back on the streets, mostly in disadvantaged and vulnerable areas, building relationships and using common sense. Though some delegates were less than convinced that they saw evidence in their streets of the reduced crime and crackdown on drug dealing that the chief constable referred to in his speech.

He praised his young officers, quipping:

Our young recruits are brilliant, they can use Blackberrys, I use a pencil. They can text faster than I can talk.

Matt Baggott rehearsed some of the barriers to policing, saying that the PSNI was still used as a political football, affecting people’s confidence in policing as legitimate.

One of his central messages in the speech was to highlight the role of the PSNI and to separate its investigatory function from the role of the PPS and the courts.

I don’t think that people understand in 2012 what police actually do. I think our roles get confused. Our job in terms of investigation is simply the investigation of fact, whether that’s a Parades Commission reach, through to a murder, through to anything that happens locally, I am absolutely adamant that we need to explain more that our job is simply the presentation of fact. And sometimes that involves arrest. And with arrest comes legal protection …

There are three parts to the process … There is the police who investigate, the prosecution service who then look at the facts and make a judgement on the evidential test or the public interest – that’s purely and simply for the independent PPS (and one of the controversies in Northern Ireland at the moment is that no one can tell the PPS what to do, including the use of their resources) – … and then thirdly the courts will assess.

The HET and inquests are the only historical truth-finding processes. No one has yet come up with an alternative.

But when that finishes in about 18 to 24 months time [when the HET is disbanded and inquests come to an end] my challenge to you is: Are you thinking about what happens next? At the moment, I suspect the threats to people’s reputations, the political controversy about this, the threat to people being prosecuted still remain too large for people to choose an alternative way of reconciliation. That’s Matt Baggott talking rather than the chief constable.

Next up was parading.

I won’t step outside the rule of law. Judgements about the Parades Commission are for others. Our job is to uphold determinations. If that determination being upheld means that we have to make a judgement later about how we investigate it because at the time then we do that in the interests of good order.

But I don’t think anybody would expect me to step outside of our job, which is the rule of law. I don’t think there’s space anymore for competing authorities on this. If there is to be a debate about the Parades Commission, then that’s a political debate and not one for the Chief Constable. If there’s to be a change in the Parades Commission and what happens, I don’t want that responsibility. Our job is to uphold the law, not to be drawn into what should be conversations taking place between people about how to do things with mutual respect, mutual tolerance and mutual acceptance. And for police to get dragged into that debate again would be difficult.

He went on to remark:

I think we’ve shown remarkable restraint. I don’t know anywhere in Europe, the German police, French police, let alone in South America where we would have stood and taken 62 injuries on three nights for the greater good of standing between people. I don’t know anywhere in the world that does that. If you’ve seen some of the footage from South Africa recently around some of that you know what I mean. And I think that’s remarkable. It’s the right thing to do. It’s absolutely compliant. But don’t take it for granted please.

Matt Baggott took the opportunity to call for an end to paramilitary action and behaviour.

I would love to see a total paramilitary withdrawal. Not just in terms of decommissioning, but in terms of people’s perceptions that even when that’s happened they are still frightened. I have lots of conversations with people privately who want to set up street warden schemes, local projects, community things, reach out build bridges between faith communities, and tell me that they are still frightened because if they do it they fear that even those who have withdrawn will hold them to account for somehow stepping on their toes and stepping in their turf.

In a Q&A session after his speech, the chief constable was asked about the non-disclosure of controlled informants during criminal proceedings. In the final question a community worker outlined how his relationship with the PSNI in his area had broken down over the summer through lies, being beaten, and being misunderstood as a resource for the police rather than being a resource for the community. The YCV band members had been picked up for a misdemeanour, with the PSNI acting politically and following a Sinn Fein and SDLP agenda. The delegate was applauded when he said: “I have yet to see republican bands in the same way”. In a sustained challenge, the delegate questioned why reports about recent riots referred to UDA and UVF men being on the streets, but never mentioned IRA men (of which there were “dozens”).

Your own press office seems to report loyalism equals bad people, republicans equal nice people. Because you’re not allowed to say the IRA word it seems to me.

Matt Baggott stood and calmly listened to the five minute rant before responding.

On the Young Conway Volunteers. There were serious allegations made. Not to investigate those would have been a lack of due process. The decision on whether they are prosecuted or not is not ours. They have been interviewed I think in a relatively sensitive way by appointment. They came in to be interviewed. We cannot step away from investigating allegations of seriousness. I am not making a judgement on that.

Interviewing the chief constable after his speech, I asked him about his use of the phrase that policing was a “social enterprise” as well as why he hadn’t demanded that the “total paramilitary withdrawal” he so sought should happen overnight.

Already overrunning their agenda and eating into lunchtime, Billy Hutchinson’s speech as party leader was not short.

He began by outlining his own journey into the UVF and violence that led to his time in prison.

From my point of view I, or the UVF, or other loyalists, are not responsible for everything that happened in this society. What I accept and what I take responsibility for is my actions. I also take responsibility and recognise that every death and every victim in this society is the responsibility of us all. I also recognise that every person who lived throughout the Troubles – every one of them were victims, irrespective of whether they lost loved ones, irrespective of whether they were caught in bombs, irrespective of whether they had people in prison, every one of them were victims because we were all affected by the Troubles.

He spoke about the need for the working class voice to be heard; of the party’s vision to create a good society.

Billy Hutchinson affirmed his Britishness and unionism with “the blood of the Covenanters” running through his veins. Like him, some of the Covenanters tool up arms.

If working class loyalists, protestants and unionists don’t decide to politicise and to tackle the political system, then they’ll be left behind. That is the problem with our community. We need to get it right. We need to articulate our arguments politically.

We are perceived to be sectarian bigots and we are not. We need to get the language right, and we need to challenge those people who are running us down. The media have not been kind to us. But it’s not just the media. It’s other people who are violence-setting and who blame it on loyalists. They’re a bunch of sectarian thugs and that’s what happens.

It was important that loyalists take confidence from their Britishness and their history and not run away from it.

We are a party of honourable, accountable and compromise. It’s not empty rhetoric and it’s not megaphone diplomacy … Because I talk or negotiate with a republican doesn’t make me any less a loyalist, doesn’t make me any less British, because when I come out of those talks I’m still British and I’m still a loyalist.

It was time for the PUP to “fill the gap and represent the people’s interest”, adding “this party hasn’t got involved in politics to gain things: it’s country before party”.

He touched on the subject of a reduction in Corporation Tax saying that whiel the Executive says it’s a good thing, it would not deal with poverty. It was only “one small piece from the Republic of Ireland” of the taxation system that had made “no button of difference to people living in poverty in Limerick, Cork or Dublin”.

VAT should be reduced for the construction industry, making house extensions VAT-free to create jobs. NI should do research and development and grow our own companies.

Key is to make sure working class voice is heard. I ask those of you in the party to work with me to rid ourselves of criminality and ensure that the most vulnerable are looked after.

On education he said that “children who fail the 11 plus are thrown on the scrapheap”. Parties in the Executive had “colonised the middle classes” and would not now go against them.

Billy Hutchinson called for an equal society of culture, environment and social issues. There had been no peace dividend in working class areas – neither in protestant, unionist areas nor in nationalist, republican areas.

He welcomed the kind of partnerships between communities and the police that the chief constable had outlined.

Let’s be clear, we need a legitimate police force that works for everybody, and we need to give them our support. I think Matt Baggott outlined something today that most of us could buy into if that was true. But I think we need to wait and see if Matt’s vision is the vision of the police who work on the ground.

Billy Hutchinson sees little of Sinn Fein’s electoral promises of equality and equity.

Sinn Fein hides behind the language of human rights to rob unionist citizens of the rights to practice their own culture. The Parades Commission has become vehicle to promote Sinn Fein in promoting cultural apartheid. That’s how loyalists see this … I feel like a second class citizen in my own land.

He went on:

The wicked and criminal acts perpetrated by republican groups should be left to the PSNI to address. When I say that what I mean that I hope that the PSNI will stick within the rule of law. We don’t want supergrass trials used to convict people. What we want is to ensure that those who are guilty of this are chased down by the PSNI. And I hope that they will do that.

The role of progressive loyalism is to challenge a real and insidious threat posed to our culture and traditions by Sinn Fein and the cultural apartheid that they are perpetrating, supported by the Parades Commission. The Commission must be abolished and a fit for purpose structure that doesn’t prioritise the rights of resident groups engaged in violent and criminal conduct over those working class unionists who are engaged in legitimate and lawful cultural expression …

Loyalism is opposed to organised crime. You cannot be a loyalist and a criminal at the same time. I’ve made this statement more than once. If you want to be a criminal do not use the flag of loyalism. Go and do it as a citizen. Do not bring shame on people because we don’t want it. The PSNI should be supported in their efforts to tackle organised crime … We need to be alert and ensure that we don’t let organised crime takeover our communities …

This wasn’t a “not giving an inch” speech:

What I want to say to republicans today is that we will meet the challenge. We will take you on. We will sit across the table. But it’s not about concessions. And it’s not about giving in. But it’s about an honourable compromise so that we can move forward.

There is no working class voice out there. There is working class party. What we need to do is to try to capture that ground. What I promise – not only conference but the community – is that they will see an honourable organisation who is only interested in bringing about change. As I’ve said, loyalists have put the conflict behind them. Now what we need to do is to move forward.

We have a big responsibility. A very large responsibility. And we have a large task ahead of us. There’s a number of issues we need to deal with, and we’ll deal with them. But the first issue we have to deal with is ensuring that our community believes that it has a voice, and believes that it has people who they can believe in, and we need to start to build that …

I’m sure people will judge me by my past, but I demand the right to change. Not only do I demand the right to change, I demand the right for everybody else to change. Some members of this party were at the front of this conflict. Not only did they suffer but their families did. What I want to see is young loyalists who can hold their heads up. I want to see loyalist communities that are free to made decisions. I want to see loyalist communities that are confident. And I want to see loyalist communities that move ahead without fear that paramilitaries or loyalists or whatever way you describe them will interfere. I’m saying from today, loyalist communities need to get on and make their own decisions. There is no let or hindrance from anyone else. This party will support the right for people to make those decisions and that’s where we need to move to.

Conference, in my view, we are in the right position. There’s a slogan going about Northern Ireland from the Tourist Board and I’m going to repeat it. This is our place, and from today, this is our time. Thank you very much conference.

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