The PUL Community and the Peace Process: An Audit

The third session of the all day PSA/Fellowship of Messines workshop – Has the Protestant Working Class lost out in the Peace Process? – looked at the peace process through the eyes of two loyalist leaders and an academic.

Strong views on the Social Investment Fund, how paramilitary actions gave unionists confidence in the peace process, loyalism being equated with criminality, loyalists’ sacrifices for peace, the tsunami of hate and bigotry that came out of the flag protests, and the need for a change in loyalist tactics.

Billy Hutchinson is leader of the PUP; the party “provides political advice to the UVF” when asked. Jackie McDonald was wearing his Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) hat but would still be recognised by many as the most senior leader of the UDA. Lastly, academic and organiser of the workshop Dr Aaron Edwards has a background in researching loyalism and facilitating dialogue between community leaders and an interest in learning from conflicts around the world.

PSA working class loyalism  workshop

This post includes recordings of the individual speeches that started the session, not not of the follow-up discussion. I have removed two short sections from Billy Hutchinson’s remarks to prevent any accidental defamation or contempt of court. Also note that the workshop concluded a couple of hours before news broke about two local journalists being targeted by loyalists, – so there wasn’t an opportunity for this issue wasn’t discussed.

Billy Hutchinson spoke about loyalist participation in ceasefire discussions with diplomats, the IRA and others which had been under-reported and until recently absent from academic discussion. [listen/MP3]

From my point of view the problem isn’t with the peace process or with the Good Friday Agreement. The problem is with those people who are in government and have decided that they’re not interested in the peace process. What they’re interested in doing is not having a shared future but sharing it out.

If anybody wants proof of that, look at the [Social] Investment Fund, the baby of both Peter and Martin. It’s an utter disgrace. And what they would have been better doing is sending £10 out to everyone who voted for them because there would be more benefit doing that rather than trying to put money into communities for all the wrong reasons.

I also think that this relationship – or whatever it is – between Martin and Peter doesn’t actually work in the positive. It works in the negative a lot of the time. It’s about sharing it out but it’s also about blocking so that people can’t move and what you end up with is a stalemate. Then what we get is deals around education which is affecting Protestants because the DUP are a middle class party and so are the Ulster Unionists. They refuse to recognise that inner city loyalists who go to primary schools are not getting the proper education … because the Ulster Unionists threw us all out in under the [Morgan?] Plan in the Sixties. They sent us to Craigavon, Lisburn, Carrick and everywhere else. And then those companies they sent us out to work for all folded and you ended up with people stuck out there and they can’t get back. They moved 50,000 out of the Shankill alone and left behind an aging population and a population with no skills. And then they refused to take any responsibility for it.

In terms of the education they have supported this notion of selection at the age of eleven when they know it doesn’t work. They won’t even listen or won’t actually go and examine the guy [Burke?] who introduced the Eleven Plus. He introduced it at eleven not on any scientific notion, he just picked eleven. Now we all know that when children go to school, selection happens at the age of 14 because that’s when they’re asked to pick their subjects that they’re going to do for to get a job. Still, they ignore all of this.

The other thing about the peace process was that we’ve had a number of attempts by people who describe themselves as constitutional unionists and constitutional parties to try and bring about a political process that never happened. And the reason why it never happened was that they never had any confidence in working together. It only came about after the Combined Loyalism Military Command called a ceasefire. And they started getting confident and they started to talk. And that was the reason why we have a political process. Now some people might not like to hear that, but it’s a fact …

The reason why we didn’t have an administration in 1974 was because paramilitaries side with the politicians to block it. In 1978 when Paisley asked for another workers’ strike it didn’t happen. Why? Because the paramilitaries didn’t support it. And I can recall whenever we were announcing to people that we were going to call a ceasefire they said don’t be doing that, you need to keep killing people. And these were from some constitutional politicians who didn’t want to see ceasefires. And the reason they didn’t want to see them was because loyalist paramilitaries became the bogeymen. Anytime they wanted to talk to the British Government they said well if you don’t deal with us the bogey men will come out. And that’s the reality.

We talk about the flag protest and everything else. The difficulty with that is once you teach your children to be afraid of the dark they remain afraid of the dark until somebody shows them that there’s nothing there. And that’s what we’re living in this society. We’re living in this society where people have used and abused people in terms of saying that you can’t move forward because of X or you can’t move forward because of Y. While people are sitting in government with Sinn Fein, and Sinn Fein are sitting in government with them, Sinn Fein can then do political agitation on the streets right across Northern Ireland, then they expect people to respect them. We can respect people who make the right decisions in government, or we can respect people who respects peace process, but whenever they start to attack others and become part of the criminalisation policy, that’s when this gets dangerous and difficult.

In terms of loyalists, from my point of view I recall having a major row with the British Labour Party whenever Tony Blair told people – told the world – that he was going to look after the republicans and Sinn Fein and the Chief Constable would be looking after loyalists. What sort of statement is that about a set of people? Because we don’t even know what the term loyalist means. I know what it means for the BBC and UTV. It means it’s a derogatory term, that everybody’s a criminal.

Billy Hutchinson described newspaper headlines that associated criminal activity with loyalists rather than DUP members who would normally be described as unionists.

I came back in 2011 to take leadership of this party because for four years previous to that I was treated like a second class citizen and criminal. I think I’ve had two parking tickets and three speeding fines since I was released as a life sentence prisoner in 1990. If people want to say that that’s criminal go ahead.

But I haven’t been involved in any other criminal activity. The Sunday World accused me of being involved in criminal activity and I took them to court and won the case. Unfortunately not many people know that and why do they not know it? Because on the same day George Best’s sister took an English paper to court because they said she was an alcoholic when she wasn’t. And her case overshadowed mine. Which I was quite glad about as a lot of people would have tapped me if they’d known I’d got money. (laughs in the room)

[After the session, I asked Billy Hutchinson about some of the issues he had raised.]

Jackie McDonald spoke next. [listen/MP3]

I’m glad to hear Billy defending loyalist paramilitaries because we’ve been demonised for a long, long time. I’ve never once said all the good guys are orange and all the bad guys are green. There have been villains and rogues within loyalism and Billy and I have both suffered and our respective colleagues have suffered at the hands of these people and they’ve got us all a bad name. But we’ve weathered the storm and got ourselves through it.

I imagine that most people reading this post with no paramilitary sympathy or involvement would protest that paramilitaries all got themselves a bad name because of their unlawful action and the distress, harm, injury and murder they afflicted on society.

Jackie McDonald said that “there wouldn’t have been a peace process without the intellect and the thoughts” of people like John McMichael, Andy Tyrie, Gusty Spence and David Ervine.

It took those who made war to make peace.

People has to remember that. Some people think the peace process came up the Lagan in a bubble. They don’t realise the effort that it took from the people who used to kill each other, individually to talk to their own membership, and then collectively to sit down together to move the whole process on …

John McMichael says in Common Sense that allegedly he was the leader of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the killing machine or killing apparatus of the Ulster Defence Association. At the same time he knew that could not go on, that there had to be an end to the violence, an end to the killing and we had to learn to live together.

We’ve learned to die together. It’s time now to learn to live together.

Jackie McDonald outlined part of the journey towards UDA ceasefire. For thirty years the DUP wouldn’t speak to the UDA, before starting to communicate “on the QT where nobody really knew about it and we certainly didn’t tell anybody”. Whenever talk turned to decommissioning the DUP started to talk to them in public to show “they have some kind of influence”.

Loyalists have made one hell of a sacrifice because they gave up all the strengths they had. They moved away from the strong bases they had. There was no murder. No killings. No punishment shootings. No people getting beaten with baseball bats. People getting put out of the country. All that stopped.

And people like Billy and the PUP, and other people like ourselves in the UPRG had spent years convincing people that this was the way to move forward. We had to talk to people. We had to sit down and respect there won’t be a united Ireland but there can’t be a Protestant Ulster. We’re going to have to learn to live together. And the prisoners were the ones that were saying that to me in early days.

Jackie McDonald spoke of community fears about safety in the wake of both republican and loyalist paramilitary decommissioning: “we’ll be killed in our beds”.

He offered his analysis of the flag protests.

We’ve sort of taken a back seat because we’ve been trying to share space, we’ve been sharing ideas, we’ve been listening to people. We’ve been appreciating each other’s points of view. We feel totally let down. When the flag came down we were totally disgusted with Sinn Fein as I’ve already said. Things are moving along all right.

Shared space can’t just mean a muster point whenever the alarm bell goes.

We were getting there. People were [beginning?] to accept we were working together. Republicans were coming into Sandy Row and the Shankill, East Belfast. We were going up the Falls Road, different places. That changed, turned it all around.

I don’t blame the protesters for the anger and the tsunami of hate and bigotry that came out of it. Because they were totally shocked. The DUP and the UUP sent apparently 40,000 leaflets around East Belfast. [Ed – the leaflets were distributed right across Belfast, at least in the East and North.] We knew nothing about it in South Belfast. Certainly the rural areas Dromore, Banbridge, Ballynahinch around that area had no idea that this was going to happen. It was a culture shock when it happened. And that turned the whole dynamic upside down. The politicians went and hid. Instead of loyalism uniting, it imploded. And as a result this last six months we were at odds with each other. There’s many different ways of getting to the same destination.

I’ve said to some of the protesters: I’ll protest with you all day long but not violently, that’s not the way to do it. But if you don’t want to do it their way then there is no other way. Some of them, the genuine ones … there’s other people there who are in no way genuine protesters. They’ve created a wee identity for themselves or they’ve been undesirable with one organisation or another until this happened. They’ve created a whole new identity. I blame Sinn Fein on that.

I went to see Peter Robinson, myself and a couple of other fellows and said: you thing you’re going to hide here till this all blows over, it’s not going to blow over, you’re going to have to do something about it, you’re going to have to go out and listen to the people. That’s how the Unionist Forum came about. And I agree with Billy that it has potential, it certainly has not delivered. It’s been frustrating to say the least. It has not delivered to its true potential. Some of the subcommittees and some of the stuff that’s happened is okay, but not enough.

On the Cardiff discussions:

Everybody needs to do more. We’re going to Cardiff tomorrow for a few days. We’re not there representing all of loyalism. But we’ll be saying basically some of the stuff I’m saying here. And [I] hope everybody can come together and some sort of resolution or some sort of determination and accept that everybody is going to have to do more.

Jackie McDonald said that loyalism needed “tactics different from the tactics we have used”.

People were saying to me before the flag came down, people were saying to me: see if there’s benefit cuts we’re going to block the roads, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. The answer to everything for loyalists is block the roads, burn your neighbours car and throw stones at the police. We have to have different strategies. But they’re that angry and that frustrated that they don’t want to hear it. The best way to demonstrate they think is by blocking roads with a Union flag around them. They are better than that. But they’re that angry they’re not even prepared to hear that.

There should be young people here listening to what we’re saying. There should be some of those protesters here listening to what we’re saying. Because there is great value in this. I’ve heard a lot of great stuff here today. We’re just preaching to the converted. We need to get that people that need to hear what we’re saying in a room. Not three or four of us going somewhere to explain it. That doesn’t work.

Dr Aaron Edwards finished the speeches in this session and referred to Billy Mitchell’s Academic article Nationalist Euphoria – Unionist Despondency in The Blanket (now defunct) which he felt was still relevant today. [listen/MP3]

“Personally speaking, I believe that Sinn Fein’s preoccupation with flags and emblems has more to do with wanting to remove any visible sign of their failure to break the link with Britain than it has to do with republican ideals. Having lost the constitutional battle they have resorted to agitating for the removal of the symbols that remind them of their failure.”

He also noted Brendan Hughes’ reflection on republicans’ triumphalist celebration of the ceasefire: “all I saw was defeat” [from Ed Moloney’s Voices from the Grave].

Aaron Edwards went on to talk about “the stereotyping of loyalism”.

There are academics in this room who have railed against that: Graham Spencer notably, Jim McAuley and others. But loyalists emerge as caricatures. They emerge as figures of fun. They emerge as feckless. They emerge as undesirables. They are constantly dehumanised. Some of the names … used in the red tops in the main: The Beast, The Mexican, Doris Day, and of course this is encapsulated by that great symbol of the dog wearing a T-shirt.

Now portraying working class as bigoted, sectarian, tracksuit-wearing scum has political repercussions. I don’t think that’s particularly accurate. But judging by the reaction to the Stephen Nolan Show a while back [the one during the height of the flag protest that unsurprisingly had a less than balanced audience given the flag protest immediately outside the Great Victoria Street entrance]. If you’re on Twitter you’ll know what people thought of some of the working class people who turned up on the audience of that. The comments were nothing short of a disgrace.

The caricatures, they have been demonised. These things have been written about in the past by Billy Mitchell so it’s not new. But what I think we need to do is to challenge those stereotypes. Not to see things in caricature, but to actually add a little bit more complexity to it and to tease it out a little bit more.

The other stereotype that comes up is not in relation to paramilitaries necessarily – or those who may be seen to come from those areas where paramilitaries roam free – is the privileged Prod stereotype. Comes out time and time and time again. It’s been challenged by academics. it’s been challenged by commentators on the left. But it’s a stereotype that’s out there. It’s a perception, it’s not reality for the reasons Billy outlined earlier.

So I think there’s an obligation there for people like me, for academics, to look at this thing a little more dispassionately, to challenge it, to keep challenging it, to remind people that there is much more to it than that. I hope that’s one of the things that today will begin to do, is just to try to break away those caricatures and to really see the reality of things. To see that Protestants can be progressive. And dare I say it – I may get shouted down by a few people in the audience here – they can be socialist too. Not only do we have to bring in the east west dimension that Gareth [Mulvenna] mentioned this morning and see them as part of the British working class. I know you’ll not agree with [all] me but that’s the way we need to look at it.

Nearing the end of his remarks, Aaron Edwards listed three things that academics can do, citing work by Christopher Hitchens on the role of public intellectuals:

  • to survey the present through the optic of a historian – to add complexity and detail, you don’t go in for the stereotypes, you bust myths – Malachi O’Doherty was given as an example of a local myth-buster;
  • to survey the past with the perspective of the living – “if you’re perpetuating the myth that all Protestants are privileged … they have real consequences because people believe that even though it’s a perception”
  • to survey the culture and language of others with the equipment of an internationalist – rather than parochial, narrow-mindedness that pervades a lot of commentary in this country, a lot of punditocracy, a lot of blogosphere comments.

I wrote a piece not too long ago that dared to suggest that the Progressive Unionist Party was a broad church because I’ve interviewed people who say I’m a socialist, I’m agnostic, I’m working class. There are a number of identities there. People lambasted me for that and said how could that possibly be, they’re all fascists. Now the person saying that has no idea what fascism is. Fascism sends people to their deaths on an industrial scale. Fascism is something that you should equate with Hitler’s Germany. But those terms are used and abused.

He finished with a quote from George Orwell’s 1946 essay on the Politics of the English Language:

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.”

Similarly he complained that the term ‘democracy’ was being abused as were other terms. There’s no universally accepted definition of ‘democracy’. The same could be said for that other word, the big T, ‘terrorism’. We disagree over these issues. We add complexity, certainly academics do. We try to assess these things, keep our analysis balanced as far as possible. But the phraseology that’s used – I think – needs to be clarified. And we don’t have an understanding of what a loyalist is, though I started off today saying that to me it’s something pejorative and it’s used to pigeon hole people so you stop them from realising their potential, their ambition in life. You narrow their horizons. How are they ever going to equip themselves with the tools of an internationalist to look at what’s going on here without those blinkers that we’ve talking about …

Some delegates commented afterwards of their surprise at the warmth of the exchanges between Billy Hutchinson and Jackie McDonald. While Jackie McDonald has a history of speaking from a different hymnsheet to other loyalists, the pair seemed genuinely to have much in common that afternoon. While the UVF and UDA are not exactly on a course towards loyalist unity talks, it should be viewed as positive that leaders within those communities are showing some respect for the role each played in the peace process.

Wednesday’s workshop didn’t uncover new issues facing loyalist working class areas, or bring to light fresh revelations about loyalist involvement in the conflict, the ceasefires or the peace process. Yet the very act of continuing to meet and talk (a bit like the outcome of the Cardiff discussions) cements the stability of a once unstable and still fractured community that perceives – most likely correctly – that the two largest parties in the Executive do not prioritise policies and actions that will address the issues faced in working class communities.

The final post in this series will tomorrow examine The Place of the PUL Community in a “Shared Future”.

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