Billy Hutchinson: talking at rallies and protests doesn’t necessarily make you a leader

Billy Hutchinson – leader of the PUP – said during a workshop on Thursday that the media often used the word “loyalist” as a shortcut to mean “criminal”. He quoted the example of a DUP councillor up in court for some misdemeanour who was described in a newspaper as a “loyalist” rather than a “member of the DUP”.

Billy HutchinsonI asked him afterwards whether there is much the PUP can do to address the media’s perception of loyalism?

One of the difficulties is that they never see us as the Progressive Unionist Party. They see us as spokesmen for the UVF which we aren’t. I’m leading the party now and what I’m making sure is that we have a broad church. We have over 500 members so they represent society as a whole.

The point I was trying to make was this is what happens whenever a prime minister [Tony Blair] says he would look after republicans and the chief constable would look after loyalists. The difficulty is that I don’t deny there are individual loyalists who have been involved in criminality. But we all shouldn’t be hit with that broad brush. Because it’s not true. Just as republicans aren’t all criminals because there are republicans who are at criminality as well.

Billy Hutchinson is keen that young loyalists are politicised and are encouraged to use the party as their vehicle to change their communities.

The PUP is promoting a number of meetings across the province. We’ve also got an education officer within the party and he’s working with groups of … young people and women in how they work together to politicise themselves. We’ve got a Women’s Commission and we’ve also got Progressive Youth. That’s what we want to do so they come back into the party stronger.

When the PUP is talked about today the focus is nearly exclusively around flags. Where are the examples of the PUP talking about health and life expectancy, education and training?

We are talking about that but the media’s not listening … Certainly our policies in terms of all those socioeconomic issues haven’t changed. Our arguments about the cultural thing is I’ve been saying this since 2011 and people wouldn’t listen to me when I said that we need to communicate with working class people on both sides …

I’ve been saying since before there was a flags protest because I knew that all of this was bubbling underneath and that of Sinn Fein were going to do anything big in 2012 it was going to be around the union flag. And they did that. Irrespective of all of that, what we need to do is we need to move forward …

We know that people are going to get worse. I work in a community where a year ago on a day when we had people coming in to get welfare advice there was probably three people. Now we’ve got thirty people coming in. So it shows you how much Tory policies and the policies of the Assembly affect working class people.

During the flag protests some new leaders seemed to appear within loyalism. Was that as a result of new talent or was it filling a vacuum where there wasn’t a lot of other leadership?

Well it’s probably a combination of both. The PUP were lucky enough to get young Johnny Harvey from the flag protest who I think’s quite capable and in fact very articulate. He’s 32. So from that point of view we were lucky in that. He had no connection with the party before the flag protest started. I think that both him and me had a discussion along with others in the PUP and others from the flag protest and I think the two of us just clicked. He liked my style of leadership and I liked what he had to say.

But other leaders appeared out of nowhere … and disappeared due to bail conditions? Billy was dismissive of the long term leadership that emerged.

There’s an argument whether those other people were leaders or whether those other people were just people who were speaking out about the flag. I’m not sure all of those people wanted to be in a leadership position but might have found themselves talking at rallies and talking at protests. Doesn’t necessarily make you a leader. Therefore a lot of people gravitated towards them. There were whole lots of reasons for that. Some of the language they were using which political party leaders couldn’t say, and it was also that they were young. There was a number of factors in that. But I don’t think many people came out of that who are going to lead political parties or join political parties but I do think those people have concerns and we will listen to them and try to rectify them.

It’s a couple of months since the Unionist Forum was set up along with a number of alternatives. Has anything concrete come out of those?

I don’t think there is. As leader of the Progressive Unionist Party we have two representatives on [the Unionist Forum], Councillor Kyle being one of them. Last night at [our] executive meeting I’ve asked him to report back to our party council on what is actually happening. I think they have been doing good work under the radar but they’re not doing the work where they need to be doing it with people in communities who are already working on some of these issues.

Should more have happened by now? There’s an urgency to this debate.

I think there is an urgency and I think that’s why the Unionist Forum was set up. It was set up not to do urgency but what it was set up to was to try to get the PUP and TUV and other small parties off the radar because they were supporting the flag protesters.

Realistically the PUP is a small party and has to lobby and work with larger parties, possibly even with Sinn Fein who have a constituency with the same issues?

There’s no question that we will not have to talk to Sinn Fein. We’ve two councillors in the City Hall, they’ve to talk to Sinn Fein. If we get people elected elsewhere then they’ll have to talk to Sinn Fein.

Back in 1994–1998 the PUP “thought we were on the same page [as Sinn Fein] in terms of socioeconomic issues”. However, Billy Hutchinson singled out support for Private Public Partnerships as an example of Sinn Fein’s failure to “stick to the working class issues or to try to create politics of the working class”.

Has the flags issue put their relationship back?

I think what the flags issue does is that it shows how far apart that we are around agreeing around the constitutional and the cultural position. And I think that they are important. But as I said we will push the socioeconomic issues when we’re in. My view would be … the idea that comes up is an idea that is good or bad. If it’s good we support it irrespective of who it comes from.

Lastly, I asked Billy Hutchinson what would be best that could come out of the talks in Cardiff this weekend. His answer was bland – though in his defence his ride home was waiting for him. He hoped for “broad agreement” on how to “move forward” on the issues up for discussion.

I also think it’s important that we build that consensus and that broad agreement and we stick together to do it.

Billy Hutchinson was just one of the attendees at an all day workshop on Thursday – Has the Protestant Working Class lost out in the Peace Process? – organised by the Political Studies Association’s Irish Politics Specialist Group and the Fellowship of Messines Association. A broad group of loyalist and other working class voices, along with interested academics looked at the challenges in dealing with the past and the place of the PUL community [their term] in a shared future.

I’ll post audio of some of the speakers’ prepared remarks over the next few days.

In the meantime I’ll finish the post with a link to an address given by GP and PUP councillor John Kyle in January 2012 at an event organised by Contemporary Christianity. He talked about Where Faith and Loyalism Collide and gave his description and critique of loyalism. Well worth a listen.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.