‘The Loyalism of 1994-1998 Needs to be the Standard for the Present’: 4 Corners Festival Opens with Panel in St Michael’s on the Shankill

The 4 Corners Festival opened last night with a panel discussion in St Michael’s church hall on the Shankill,  billed as ‘20 Years On: A Conflict Frozen in Time?’ In light of the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, it promised to reflect on how loyalism contributed to peacebuilding in the past – and to ask how loyalism might move forward into the future.

Journalist Barney Rowan summed up the evening as the discussion was winding down: ‘The loyalism of 1994-1998 needs to be the standard for the present.’

The 4 Corners Festival runs 1-11 February and is focused on the theme ‘Now. Here. This.’, a phrase intended to encourage people to focus on the present moment and take the next step towards a better future, no matter how big or small.

The church hall was filled to capacity to hear a panel consisting of Rowan; Prof Monica McWilliams, a founder of the Women’s Coalition and former Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; Rev Ken Newell, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland who has been engaged in reconciliation work both publicly and behind the scenes for many years; William McQuiston, who served over 12 years in prison and was a prison spokesperson for the UDP; and Martin Snoddon, who served 15 years in prison for UVF activity and now has been heavily involved in grassroots peacebuilding. The discussion was chaired by Jackie Redpath.

The speakers focused on the period between 1994-1998, which included the ceasefires and the 1998 Agreement. They praised loyalism’s constructive role in the peace process and lamented current portrayals of loyalism as backward, criminal or opposed to political progress. Such stereotypes mean that loyalism’s contributions have been forgotten, and that their potential for further contributions has been dismissed.

During contributions from the floor, Chief Constable George Hamilton said that he was fascinated to hear the living history recounted by the panellists, but somewhat disappointed that more had not been said about the future. He added that he was willing to engage in dialogue about his own organisation’s role in inhibiting progress. Hamilton also said that the people who use the ‘flag of loyalism’ to discredit their community need to be ‘called out’ by their own community.

All the speakers highlighted the positive contributions of people like the late David Ervine and Ray Smallwoods; McQuiston and Snodden also recalled some of loyalism’s significant political documents like ‘Beyond the Religious Divide (1979),’ ‘Common Sense’ (1987), and ‘Shared Responsibility’ (1985). Loyalists regard these as precursors to the Belfast Agreement and indeed, there are certainly family resemblances between these documents and what resulted from the Agreement negotiations. Snodden directed listeners to University of Pittsburgh historian Tony Novosel’s excellent 2013 book, Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, which offers a comprehensive analysis of progressive loyalist political thinking during the period.

There were also moments of fascination and inspiration.

McWilliams displayed old newspaper cuttings and passed a personal photo album from the period around the hall as she described how the Women’s Coalition (WC) would not have made it into the talks, had it not been for loyalism. The system the British Government devised to include small parties in the negotations was designed to accommodate the small loyalist parties, but the newly-formed WC benefitted from it. Recalling that she had pushed for this proportional representation system to be the one adopted for the Assembly, only to be rebuffed by the larger parties, she said: ‘To be inclusive, you’ve got to be creative.’

Once the talks started, the WC worked closely with the PUP and UDP. McWilliams recalled how ‘the UDP and the PUP were the gentlemen of the process. When we were being verbally berated and physically pushed by other parties, they stood up for us.’

She said that one day after Ervine had observed her being physically pushed, he told the offender that, ‘if you touch those women again, forget about the ceasefire!’ McWilliams laughed and said, ‘I told David, “We’re not worth it!” But those men gave us confidence to find our own voice when we were being silenced.’

Newell described secret, behind-the-scenes talks during which clergy met both loyalists and republicans – which resulted in some unlikely friendships. When Smallwoods was killed by the IRA in 1994, Redemptorist priests Fr Alec Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds visited his wife in a loyalist estate in Lisburn, and later walked in his funeral procession. Newell said: ‘[People] were wondering why they were there. They were there for friendship and because Ray included them in his vision for the future.’ Newell also said that his friendship with Ervine ‘changed me’, and that ‘David Ervine and Ray Smallwoods showed me what a better way of living looks like.’

There were even opportunities for historical clarification. Rowan said it took him a long time to figure out how loyalists had known that the 1994 IRA ceasefire was coming. He now knew that the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds had received a document about it from Fr Reid, and that Reynolds had then rung four people to give them advance warning: Bill Clinton, John Major, the late Presbyterian minister Rev Roy Magee, and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister Rev Bill Hudson. Rowan said he figured either Magee and/or Hudson told loyalists, but he wasn’t sure how. Hudson was in attendance and was able to describe how Reynolds had Dick Spring get in touch with him, urging him to talk with loyalists about how this signalled the IRA’s commitment to democratic principles – and assuring them that it was not a pan-nationalist front.

Rowan also read from a handwritten note he had received from Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames, explaining that he had decided to talk with loyalists. Eames said he couldn’t allow himself to condemn deaths, and then refuse an opportunity to speak with the people who could change the violent situation.

But still, there was a sense that the optimism of 1998 had given way to disillusionment. Newell expressed his ‘regret’ that ‘hope and confidence’ had been lost. Rowan remembered how Gerry Adams had attended Ervine’s funeral on the Newtownards Road, but said ‘I don’t think Gerry Adams could walk down the Newtownards Road today.’ Redpath warned that ‘there is no future without dealing with loyalist educational underachievement.’

The event had opened with a short performance by  local Shankill drama troupe, the Heel and Ankle, which depicted three loyalists discussing how to move forward during the 1994-1998 period. Among the lines were:

‘They labelled us terrorists, and washed their hands of us … Reconciliation and negotiation will take courage – but that’s something we have no shortage of.’

This 4 Corners event captured something of the spirit of that more optimistic time in loyalism. It should remind us that pessimism is not inevitable and that people do have the power to change their future for the better.

Click here to see the full programme of Festival events.

Disclaimer: I am on the committee of the 4 Corners Festival, and work at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University, which supported this event.

Photos by Bernie Brown, www.bbphotographic.co.uk