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Society free from UVF arsenals will take time

(, Irish News)

Before Gusty Spence read the UVF statement last week he referred to three loyalist ex-prisoners – David Ervine, Billy Mitchell and Billy McCaughey. Each had helped prepare the way but had recently passed away and must have been in many minds. David Ervine became a very impressive politician whereas Billy Mitchell inspired community development behind the scenes.

I first met Billy McCaughey at Glencree Reconciliation Centre in the Wicklow Mountains a few years ago. He had come to 'new thinking' late and said he was as hardline when he left prison in 1994 as he had been in the 1970s.

Yet around two years ago he was a founder of Community Voice: Transforming Conflict in Ballymena. This was to encourage dialogue between Catholics, Protestants, loyalists, nationalists, republicans and others. Local Catholics and Protestants praised Billy's work and said his death had a profound effect on them. One priest preached a moving sermon about Billy's life to a large congregation.

When Billy McCaughey was released from prison in 1994 he found that his own political party had become 'more liberal'. I expressed incredulity at this but Billy explained that the DUP had become a 'career structure' – a typical modern party caught up in the struggle for power. He was also disappointed by some of the good people of the town who told him: "Great job – pity you got caught." Billy didn't appreciate this and told them: "No, it's a pity I did it." Despite everything his early evangelical upbringing never quite left him and helped him move towards better relationships with his Catholic neighbours.

Billy Mitchell had a similar upbringing. His mother was a Baptist Sunday School teacher who reared her two boys on her own after their father died. Billy followed his mother in becoming a Free Presbyterian Sunday School teacher. In his youth he had Catholic friends but lost touch with them and struggled with an image presented by fundamentalist preachers of Catholics as slaves of the antichrist. He found that this image did not fit his former Catholic friends.

He left school at the age of 14 but his ability flourished before, during and after his time at Long Kesh with some prodding from Gusty Spence. He became an able writer and thinker who in another setting might have been an academic.

In 1976 Billy returned to his evangelical roots but with a new perspective that propelled him towards work with deprived communities. He had been central to the re-thinking within loyalism and when released in the early 1990s agreed to join his old friends in the PUP and threw himself into a colossal amount of work in many contexts. He inspired many people across the board and worked with Catholic priests.

David Ervine was more influenced by labour politics in his home but in 1972 he reacted angrily to vicious IRA bombings including those on Bloody Friday and became involved in the UVF. In prison he and others developed the ability to 'think on our feet'. Like Billy Mitchell and Billy McCaughey, rather than escape into some kind of retreat, he chose to stay with fellow loyalists and help them move towards something better.

However, unionists generally rejected progressive loyalists and in the context of Provisional violence they were presented as weaklings if they did not respond in kind.

One unionist politician/fundamentalist clergyman claimed the progressives were 'hard men, gone soft' – which seemed designed to goad them into demonstrating a capacity for brutality. Respectable members of society – including some evangelical clergy – reportedly told them to hold on to their guns. Loyalists still find this incredible and evangelicals have not yet acknowledged that a certain twisted fundamentalism helped to stymie progress.

Some outsiders encouraged the UVF to move forward but generally they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Those boots are weighed down by history or, as David Ervine put it, "stuck in concrete". Despite everything loyalists have engaged with nationalists and republicans and have been castigated for doing so. They spilt their sweat and sometimes their blood and yet would have welcomed their former enemies in Sinn Féin and the DUP into government. When we read the UVF statement we should tread carefully because we tread on their dreams. Those dreams were for a community free from fear, free from threat and free from sectarian, class and other divisions. Ultimately I believe they wanted a society entirely free from arsenals but this will take time.

May 8, 2007

This article appeared first in the May 7, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

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