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Loyalist used his past for a better future

(, Irish News)

Senior loyalist Billy Mitchell, who died 11 days ago, worked with LINC (Local Initiatives for Needy Communities), an initiative of the Church of the Nazarene, fostering peace, reconciliation and social justice.

Nazarene evangelism is closely linked with a compassionate ministry for justice, freedom and dignity for all, especially for those who cannot speak for themselves.

This is a fitting description of Billy Mitchell's work. Billy was associated with evangelicalism since his mother was a Baptist Sunday school teacher in the 1940s. Through listening to Ian

Paisley as a teenager he became interested in politics and joined the Ulster Protestant Volunteers. By the early 1970s he was a senior UVF officer and one of loyalism's most radical thinkers, churning out new ideas and questioning tribal unionism.

He was acutely conscious that old-style unionism had neglected, marginalised and abused working people. He rejected the dangerous nonsense preached in his name and tried to foster a new rational unionism. But his rethinking took place while loyalists were under vicious attack from republicans and many unionists tried to damn them as weak on the Union. Ministers in the Irish government lent credence to unionist paranoia through the arms plot while the British government appeared weak and vacillating and Paisley thundered on and on.

Despite the risks, Billy Mitchell engaged with all shades of opinion and realised that Cathal Goulding, leader of the Official IRA, was trying to take the gun out of politics. Better relationships were formed with members of the Workers Party though Billy sometimes questioned their stance as perhaps more dangerous than that of the Provisionals. He appealed to the latter to stop killing UDR men and women and encouraged loyalists to stop attacks on Catholic public houses and break the connection with sectarianism – with limited success.

Billy Mitchell underestimated the value of his early work, for which in any case, he received little thanks. He claimed his progressive views flowered after imprisonment in 1976 but he had already espoused radical ideas before this. Despite terrible hardship, prison proved in some respects liberating. It removed Billy from the turmoil of conflict and gave him space to think. He could bounce ideas off Gusty Spence, David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and others critically analysing how and why they had been led into a violent cul-de-sac. Nothing was considered sacred or beyond criticism, least of all the baleful influence of what passed for traditional unionism.

Billy had no Damascus Road conversion but came to a gradual realisation that we are spiritual beings before making a reasoned rediscovery of his spiritual roots. By November 1979 he made a conscious decision to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ and allowed his social and political actions to be moulded and informed by spiritual values. When Billy emerged from jail in 1990 fellow loyalist Eddie Kinner asked if he was interested in politics. He responded hesitantly but was favourably impressed and joined the PUP. Billy never looked back. He could have chosen an easier path but he enjoyed working with all sides out of a deep love for his people, the disadvantaged working-class.

This was his background, which he never forgot.

Some years ago he and I shared a platform at a New Lodge Festival with Gerry Adams in the audience. Billy spoke directly from the podium, "Sure you must be an Ulster-Scot with a name like Adams."

Gerry responded: "No, I'm Scotch-Irish," which brought hearty laughter from the audience.

Billy Mitchell was warm-hearted. He respected others, including those who talk, or fail to talk, about bringing loyalists in from the cold. But for Billy the major unionist parties had become cold houses once unionists questioned the supposed wisdom of which they claimed to be the exclusive custodians.

In Billy's funeral cortege, priests and clergy, members of Sinn Féin and other republicans, ordinary people, Catholic and Protestant, from north and south, mingled peaceably with hundreds of UVF men deep in thought. With the exception of one UUP MLA and David Ervine MLA, no elected politician or leader of any other political party was to be seen.

Things have changed – but not that much – since Billy Mitchell and others during the early 70s sought better futures for us all.

August 2, 2006

This article appeared first in the July 31, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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