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A historic turning point but the road ahead was hard

(Barry McCaffrey, Irish News)

UDA's ceasefire in October 1994. Although in the years that followed he was feted by world leaders, loyalism is today said to be in turmoil and its political voice faces extinction. In the first in a series of interviews looking back at the ceasefires Barry McCaffrey speaks to the former leading UDP member.

As a key thinker within loyalism Davy Adams was guaranteed a seat at the top table at Fernhill House in north Belfast when the UDA and UVF announced their ceasefires on October 13 1994.

As the leadership of the UDA-linked Ulster Democratic Party and UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party faced the world's media, the founding father of militant loyalism, Gusty Spence, apologised to the victims of loyalist violence and pledged a new beginning for Northern Ireland.

"Let us firmly resolve to respect our differing views of freedom, culture and aspiration and never again permit our political circumstances to degenerate into bloody warfare," he said.

"We are on the threshold of a new and exciting beginning with our battles in future being political battles, fought on the side of honesty, decency and democracy against the negativity of mistrust, misunderstanding and malevolence, so that, together, we can bring forth a wholesome society in which our children and their children will know the meaning of true peace."

However, despite the initial optimism of a new dawn, the last 10 years have seen the UDA embroiled in three separate feuds. UDA icons such as John Gregg and Johnny Adair are either now dead or in jail.

UDP leaders Gary McMichael, Davy Adams and Joe English are no longer associated with the organisation and have come under threat from their former colleagues.

It is almost three years since the then secretary of state John Reid announced he would no longer recognise the UDA ceasefire because of its involvement in a number of sectarian murders.

One month later the UDP was disbanded amid internal disputes over support for the Good Friday Agreement.

However, despite the bitter feuds and the lack of a political mandate for the UDA, Davy Adams insists Northern Ireland is a better place 10 years on from the paramilitary ceasefires.

"If anyone thinks things are bad today, I challenge them to look back at the late 1980s and early nineties and tell me things are not considerably better now than they were then," he said.

"History will show the 1994 ceasefires laid the foundation for whatever stability we have today."

Now working as a political commentator Davy Adams cautions against a complacency that the north could not slip back into bloodshed.

"The reality is the two communities have moved beyond open conflict against each other but there is still no resolution to the outstanding problems which divide us.

"While people may be prepared to live with that scenario, my only concern is that there is a new generation which doesn't remember the sheer brutality of the Troubles.

"My generation worked to bring about the ceasefires because we were sick of the killing.

"My biggest concern is that the ongoing political instability could provide the conditions which could allow this current generation to go back to the Troubles."

Reflecting on the negotiations which brought about the loyalist ceasefires, Adams insists that persuading the paramilitaries to lay down their guns was not as difficult as people might believe.

"Yes there were difficulties but in many ways it was a lot easier than people think.

"The entire community was suffering a conflict which was self perpetuating. It was a cycle which had to be broken."

During the early 1990s the UDP leadership of Ray Smallwoods, Gary McMichael and Davy Adams worked closely with the PUP's Gusty Spence, David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson to encourage the UDA and UVF to bring about an end to the violence.

"There were regular discussions with the leaderships of the UDA and UVF about the logic that this society needed to move away from the gun.

"In reality we had run out of excuses for the need to continue fighting."

However, early in the summer of 1994, with a loyalist ceasefire tantalisingly close, those efforts were dealt a crushing blow when the IRA shot Ray Smallwoods dead outside his Lisburn home.

Two weeks later republicans gunned down UFF leaders Joe Bratty and Raymond Elder on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast.

Adams believes the killings were a deliberate attempt to destabilise loyalism to such an extent that it would not agree to the ceasefires.

"There was an argument the conditions were in place for the announcement of the loyalist ceasefires in June or July of 1994, but the three murders put those ceasefires back more than three months.

"There was no doubt that the killings were a concession to the hardliners within the IRA before they called their own ceasefire.

"There was a belief that if loyalists had called their ceasefires first, we would have stolen the limelight from republicans.

"It was clear to us that the IRA was trying to push loyalists away from calling the ceasefires but instead it made us more determined."

However, the 51-year-old said loyalists were under no illusions of the challenges they faced following the 1994 ceasefires.

"Only a fool or an eternal optimist would have thought that everything was going to go swimmingly."

Between 1996 and 1998 Adams was part of the UDP talks team which negotiated the Good Friday Agreement at Castle Buildings.

"The highlight of the last decade for me was the agreement.

"I don't buy into the idea that it was a fantastically thought-out process.

"A lot of time was taken up with political flirtations but at the end of the day we managed to get an agreement. We delivered something for the people.

"The challenge for the politicians now is to get that agreement back on track."

For Adams the lowest point of the last decade was the Real IRA's bombing of Omagh in August 1998 which killed 29 people and two unborn children.

Reflecting on the impact of the bombing, he said: "It was the absolute naked brutality of Omagh.

"As human beings we had become accustomed to some sort of peace and then we were plunged back into the nightmare. It was a reminder of what we were working to get away from."

Admitting that even back in 1994 there were those within loyalism who were opposed to the ceasefires, he said: "There was all this talk that the peace train was leaving and everyone needed to be on it but in reality it is impossible to bring everyone on board with you.

"But we had walked behind enough coffins and seen enough families visiting jails for 30 years to let this thing go on.

"As a society we had run out of excuses to stop fighting."

Despite the political kudos gained from delivering a UDA ceasefire, the UDP failed to gain electoral success.

Adams insists his party accepted even in 1994 that it could not develop as a political force against the dominant unionist parties.

"There was never going to be room for us to develop within unionist politics.

"The two main parties had already captured the votes.

"Our main aim was to point a way out of the conflict and from then on to provide some kind of voice for working class loyalism."

More than any other paramilitary organisation, the UDA has been severely weakened as a result of feuds and internal disputes.

In August 2000 a feud erupted between the UVF and Johnny Adair's 'C' Company following a UDA gun attack on the Rex Bar on the Shankill Road.

That evening the UDA drove hundreds of families from their homes in the lower Shankill because of alleged UVF links.

Days later UVF gunmen shot dead UDA leader Jackie Coulter and loyalist Bobby Mahood on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast.

Within 24 hours, the then secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, ordered that Johnny Adair be returned to jail.

When it ended, the feud had claimed seven lives.

Released from prison in May 2002 Adair already had plans to take over the UDA. By September he was involved in an all-out war with the organisation's ruling 'inner council' and was expelled from the UDA.

In January last year Secretary of State Paul Murphy ordered that Adair again be returned to Maghaberry prison.

Eight people died and more than 60 had fled to Scotland by the time the feud ended.

Adams says it was impractical not to believe there would be paramilitary feuds during the last decade.

"Unfortunately the reality suggests that feuds are always going to happen.

"If you look at any country which has come out of conflict there have been similar feud situations.

"They are impossible to avoid."

But while he believes that loyalist and republican paramilitaries will continue to remain in existence for another generation he argues that history will judge the 1994 ceasefires as a watershed.

"It is always hard to assess how history will judge your actions.

"I am no longer involved in loyalist politics, I'm an outsider looking in.

"I believe there are good people in loyalism who are gradually pushing it in the right direction.

"Were the ceasefires a turning point in our history? Definitely. Am I am glad to have played a small part in that process? Most certainly."

July 28, 2004

This article appeared first in the July 26, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News