Belfast has always had peace lines, says Billy Hutchinson, “but they’re in your head.” He was 14 when, in 1969, many of these demarcation lines became real barricades, thrown up along the previously invisible boundaries between Protestant and Catholic areas as the Troubles began.
Hutchinson tells how, as a teenager, he accompanied his father to see a Catholic colleague who lived in Cupar Street; nowadays, it is adjacent to a peace wall which continues to divide the Protestant Shankill and the Catholic Falls.
“When I went into the house there were all these girls. There must have been six or seven girls, and I went in there as someone who was very shy. I had one sister and that was it,” he explains.
Years later, he met their brother, who said his mother wanted to ask him a question. “He says, ‘she felt you were very strange the day you came into our house ... was it because we were Catholics?’ I said no, it was because of all your sisters.
“That probably took 40 years to find that out,” marvels Hutchinson.
Now almost 65, Hutchinson is a politician and as well as community development worker in a deprived area of north Belfast. The leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and a councillor on Belfast City Council, he is a former Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and took part in the negotiations that led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
He is also a former paramilitary leader who as a teenage rioter set up his own paramilitary organisation, the Young Ulster Volunteers, as a way of gaining entry into the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Before his 15th birthday he was on the British Army’s “most wanted” list and a few months later evaded capture from the security forces waiting to arrest him when he got off the school bus.
At 18 Hutchinson was involved in the sectarian murders of two Catholic half-brothers, Edward Morgan and Michael Loughran, in Belfast in 1974; he was subsequently jailed for life, and served 15 years in prison, where he became the commanding officer of the UVF/Red Hand Commando prisoners.
This has been Hutchinson’s “life in loyalism”; it is the title of his autobiography, which is written with Gareth Mulvenna and published this month by Merrion Press.
As he explains in the introduction: “I want to take responsibility for my actions, actions I took because of the circumstances I and other young men found ourselves in during the violent early 1970s in Northern Ireland.
“I made choices in my life and I want to be honest about how I came to make those choices,” he writes, adding that he wants “to show that the story of working-class loyalism during the Northern Ireland conflict is not a one-dimensional story.
“The tabloids have filled plenty of column inches about me, and thus people perceive me in a certain way which is based on what they read or hear ... I aim to show that my story, and the stories of other young men of my generation, is more complex and nuanced than the way journalists and propagandists have tried to portray it.”
It was obvious to me that there were invisible and often unspoken-of barricades that separated the Shankill and the Falls roads
The Shankill is the centre of Hutchinson’s world. A Protestant, working-class area, it is based around the road of the same name which marks the boundary between west and north Belfast. It is where he was born and raised, and where he still has his constituency office.
He speaks warmly of the “sense of belonging, that sense of place” in his childhood landscape of small, terraced houses packed tightly together, an outside toilet “which rarely worked”, and street parties held to celebrate any occasion. He recalls Somme commemorations and veterans returning from military service in the outposts of the British empire, but also the area’s working-class politics which translated into support for independent unionists, trade unionists and the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
“I always say I was born into a mixed marriage because my father was a socialist and my mother was a unionist”; as a child, his father took him to the Falls to play in the park, and to the cinema.
Yet those aforementioned “peace lines in your head” were ever-present. “It was obvious to me that there were invisible and often unspoken-of barricades that separated the Shankill and the Falls roads,” he writes; later he would realise that there was more that united Protestant and Catholic communities than divided them.
With hindsight, the collapse of the British Empire and the emergence of the civil rights movement meant “the 1960s should have been a turning point for working-class Protestants in Northern Ireland. Instead of being resistant to this zeitgeist, people in the Shankill and other Protestant areas should have demanded better from those unionists who took their seats in Stormont.”
Hutchinson quotes a future UVF comrade and PUP colleague who used to invoke his father: “’Hutchie’s da was right. We may have got a slum quicker than a Catholic, but it was still a slum’.”
We were afraid. It wasn't a personal fear, but it was a fear for what was going to happen to my community
From an early age, “I knew I wanted to be in the UVF”. As a young teenager Hutchinson became involved with a “Tartan” street gang, fighting other Protestant gangs, as well as republicans and the security forces which, as they saw it, were “not prepared to interfere with republicans but were giving loyalists a hard time”.
The attraction of the UVF was that it was “obviously keen to create a coherent strategy and identity for loyalists who were interested in taking direct action against the IRA.” As the Troubles gathered pace, he describes the “tangible sense of fear” in Protestant communities such as the Shankill.
“We were afraid. I worked in Mackie’s [factory] and had to leave the place because they were attacking me. It wasn’t a personal fear, but it was a fear for what was going to happen to my community.”
He was among those who searched through the rubble for survivors after an IRA bomb exploded at the Balmoral Furniture Company on the Shankill Road in December 1971, killing four people, including two toddlers.
“I saw an 18-month-old baby, I knew him, but I didn’t know it was him at the time, and whenever the ambulance people were picking up the body parts it was a clear plastic bag ... it was the shock of all that and you think, where does it all go next?
“You say to yourself, they’re attacking me as well.”
With hindsight, he would realise that similar emotions, not least the palpable sense of fear, was also being felt in Catholic communities. Less than a week before, 15 people – including two children – had been killed when the UVF bombed McGurk’s bar in north Belfast.
“When McGurk’s bar happened, all the adults that were about on the Shankill, they all said ‘no, McGurk’s bar was an own goal, they were building a bomb ...' you’re in a bubble, and you go on what you’re being told.”
I accept responsibility for what I did, but I also accept responsibility for what the organisation did, I call that corporate [responsibility]
The “strategy” from loyalist paramilitaries was “that if they killed enough Catholics then the Catholic community would in turn put pressure on the IRA to disband,” writes Hutchinson. “This was pure sectarianism, and it didn’t work ... at the time, however, I truly believed that if we pushed the Catholic community to the edge, they would go begging the IRA to stop their terror campaign.”
In October 1974 he was one of two UVF members arrested – and subsequently convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment – for the murders of Edward Morgan and Michael Loughran, two Catholic half-brothers who were shot from a passing car as they walked to work.
In his autobiography Hutchinson writes that they had been identified as “active republicans. How accurate the information was, I don’t know,” he admits. “At 7.30am our active service unit spotted them on the Falls Road and assassinated the two men.”
According to Lost Lives – the volume that lists every Troubles death – the court was later told that the paramilitaries had selected their victims at random. “The judge told them: ‘They were cold-blooded murderers. You set out yesterday and toured Belfast looking for victims. You found them and shot them down in cold blood’.”
He tells The Irish Times: “I accept responsibility for what I did, but I also accept responsibility for what the organisation did, I call that corporate [responsibility].”
Put to him that he had a choice, he responds: “Choice is a weasel concept. You don’t have choice in life. Sometimes you have options, which aren’t a choice – you have to do one or the other.
“You only get the options in front of you, and you take one. There were lots of young men who went to school with me who didn’t take that option, but I did, and I suppose I took it because I felt threatened, people shooting at you ... We had an organisation before we went into the UVF and we were all young, and the difficulty with that was we just couldn’t see a way out.”
Did he ever think that this was wrong? “I use coping mechanisms,” he explains. “I’m a loner and always have been ... You don’t get involved in something like that and not feel it.”
Does this mean he does think about it? “I can’t justify anything to you, can’t justify anything to anybody out there, I can only justify it to myself, and that’s what you need to do ... we all need to do that, I have to do that, if I want to survive life.
“I justify everything that I did in the Troubles, and I have to do that to stay sane ... I was in a conflict, and I would say to you that in that conflict the thing that concerns me most is all of those people who had to die, and what was it all for? But I still believe in the cause that I was involved in.”
In the book, he describes how his mother came to visit him in prison, and asked him about a Catholic man who had been killed by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). “I felt at the time she was asking me a question, have you killed somebody ... I suppose in many ways I realised that’s when I needed to make sure I had coping mechanisms, for the next time she asked me.”
I have dissuaded others from using violence while constantly living under the threat of death myself
In prison, Hutchinson became friends with the UVF leader Gusty Spence, who had come to advocate a political rather than paramilitary approach. For the first time, he was able to reflect and to discuss – “to vocalise ideas that would perhaps have caused physical fights on the streets of the Shankill if we had dared air them,” he writes.
He realised that his own experience was “no different from somebody in the republican movement,” and found himself “drawn” to the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) – a working-class unionist party linked to the UVF – and also to education; he eventually graduated with a degree in social science.
In the “cages” of Long Kesh, he and his comrades discussed the possibility of loyalists sharing power with nationalists and the argument, still put forward today, that the best way to protect the union was to convince middle-class Catholics of its benefits.
He used his time in prison, he writes, “to try and make society a better place. I have dissuaded others from using violence while constantly living under the threat of death myself.”
“The problem with people who are [were] against the ceasefire is they haven’t had their door kicked up their hall, and maybe if more of them had they’d want a ceasefire, and I’m not talking paramilitaries here, I’m talking influential people.”
He frequently quotes a warning from his father about Ian Paisley Senior: “He’ll fight to the last drop of everyone else’s blood’.”
“He wasn’t prepared to do what he wanted to do openly,” says Hutchinson. “From when I was a young man, I watched this preacher preaching hate and wanting people to kill people, but whenever people had to do it, or were doing it, he didn’t want to know.”
Decades later, he recalls watching television and suddenly seeing Paisley and Martin McGuinness had become First and Deputy First Ministers. “The hairs on the back of my neck went up. I was angry. And after 30 seconds I set the remote down and I said, isn’t this what we wanted, the two extremes in government?”
I'm not white trash, and I won't allow anybody to treat me like white trash
Today, Hutchinson speaks of the challenges ahead for loyalism, not least the sense of anger and disillusionment that they have been left behind economically and through the political process.
Those who are involved in criminality are not loyalists, he emphasises, and need to be dealt with by the police; that said, he makes a broader point about the narrative that loyalists are “bad boys” rather than “working-class unionists”.
There is a “huge task” ahead, he says, “to ensure that the loyalist people feel part of society and the mainstream political process and the decision-making that goes on at Stormont and Westminster.”
“We need to change society as a whole,” he says. “I’m not white trash, and I won’t allow anybody to treat me like white trash.
“I have the right to change, and in fact I demand the right to change. People look down their noses at me because of what I’ve done but they were the people that were talking out of the side of their hands, [saying ‘good job’]."
There are other challenges, not least Covid-19 and Brexit; Hutchinson voted to remain because “I believe in Europe”.
“In terms of trade deal we were better off in Europe; we don’t need a hard border between us and the Republic, and the other thing I felt but wouldn’t say [at the time] was that it would lead to a united Ireland.”
He agrees that one of the outworkings of Brexit has been a renewed impetus towards unity. As it stands, “I think unionism would win any Border poll now”, but he acknowledges this may not always be as certain.
That said, he is adamant it cannot lead to any dilution of Britishness within Northern Ireland, but is dismissive of any suggestion there might be a violent loyalist backlash. Former paramilitary leaders, he says, are “quite settled about this”.
His strategy is to “call out political unionism and say, ‘right, where are we going on this?’ I’ll be the first person to be directing them away from any sort of violence because we’ve had enough of it, and these are the sort of people who didn’t have their doors kicked up the hall, but they’re quite prepared to encourage people ... I’m not going to put up with anything like that.”
He takes his comfort from the fact that he is a unionist among millions in the UK. “There’s more to the union than Northern Ireland ... we want Northern Ireland to be part of a modern UK.”
My Life In Loyalism by Billy Hutchinson is published by Merrion Press, available from Merrion Press, Waterstones, Easons, Amazon and online booksellers