All politicians, all politics, all political movements – even those that descend into violence – contain contradictions. Loyalism, and specifically that of Billy Hutchinson, the most prominent surviving former loyalist paramilitary still engaged in electoral politics, is no different.
The figure that emerges from this memoir, My Life in Loyalism, co-written with Gareth Mulvenna, is of someone both persuaded of the futility of violence but still convinced – at least to some extent – of its occasional necessity, or perhaps its inevitability, in certain circumstances.
This tragic contradiction runs through the book in a constant seam, but is certainly not the only feature of Hutchinson’s story. It includes important strands of working-class loyalism that are usually obscured or misunderstood, particularly in the years since his own party – the Progressive Unionist Party – has declined in prominence.
The early part of the book focuses heavily on the way of life in the postwar, pre-Troubles Shankill where Hutchinson grew up. Protestant working-class pride in industrial achievement and military service in the cause of a greater British imperial endeavour are real, deeply meaningful to those communities today.
Whatever about the similarities or differences between working people on the Falls and Shankill, on which the author does have interesting views – his dad spent lots of working life in Catholic west Belfast – he is also keen to point to the shared experience of the working class in Belfast with those in Glasgow, Sheffield or Leeds.
As well as industry and military service, part of that shared experience is passion for football. Hutchinson’s local team is Linfield, long the most successful team in the Irish league and closely associated with inner city unionist support, and his English team was Leeds – which when he came of age was having a golden period under Don Revie and whose intense and uncompromising style seem to chime with Hutchinson’s own approach to both politics and paramilitarism.
After the second World War, Hutchinson says, for the men who returned to these industrial cities from military service, “there was little… of material benefit”, and it was the same, he writes for the “cannon fodder” who had come back from earlier “empire-building pursuits”.
This book regularly strays into this kind of class-based analysis of not only the Irish or Ulster questions, but of war, peace and capital in general. Some of the sentiments could have come from a Workers’ Party activist, but crucially Hutchinson stops short of a total rejection of the structures of tribal division inside Northern Ireland.
He is contemptuous of most shades of “Big House” unionism, not least Paisleyism, with its naked sectarianism and disinterest in advancing the economic wellbeing of working-class Protestants. But it should be acknowledged that it is the interests of working-class Protestants, rather than simply working-class people, with which Hutchinson himself is primarily concerned. His class-based perspective and shrewd analysis of the geometry of northern politics and society alternates with cruder statements about “defending Ulster” or rescuing Ulster at her hour of need.
In the same way as Hutchinson quite rightly criticises republicans for defining the freedom of Ireland as meaning getting “Brits Out”, he fails to disabuse us of the assumption that his definition of Ulster is based on similar but parallel ethno-national lines.
When placed in the context of the deep divisions of the Belfast he grew up in, that may be understandable. What’s more, perhaps the most striking aspect of Hutchinson’s story is that he barely had the chance to grow up before paramilitarism and violence took over his life.
He founded the Young Citizen Volunteers, a militant group which then became aligned to the UVF after he was noticed by older loyalist paramilitaries when he was barely 16, having graduated from football hooliganism and endemic street violence from 1969 onwards. If a human rights group came across his equivalent in a conflict zone today, he would surely be categorised as a child soldier.
He was just 18 when he was involved in the murder of two other young men, Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan, Falls Road Catholics on their way to work. Hutchinson does not deny his involvement, but comes at the account of the killings obliquely, first explaining that the police arrest him and tell him of the murders, then acknowledging the YCV had been responsible, then finally that “our active service unit” had carried out the attack. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he finds it hard or unpleasant to address directly the memory of the act. And that too is understandable.
If there are questions over Hutchinson’s true reckoning with acts he carried out, there can be little doubt that he and the party he helped lead made a real contribution to the ending of conflict. His public profile in the 1990s was shaped by his contrast with other UVF-turned-PUP figures Gusty Spence and David Ervine, both gregarious and extrovert where Hutchinson was intense and ascetic (a teetotaller who runs for miles every day).
By speaking not only for an armed militant group but, at least in part, also for the working-class community from which they drew support, the PUP (and to a lesser extent, the UDA-aligned Ulster Democratic Party) lent the Good Friday settlement an important credibility.
Hutchinson himself bemoans the relative absence of working-class loyalist voices from Northern Ireland politics, and it is hard to disagree with him, especially when both main unionist parties inevitably lean right (and sometimes far right) in economic orientation. This book is a reminder of how distinctive and forceful voices such as Hutchinson and Ervine can be – but also a reminder of some of the dark and unresolved contradictions that exist within the myths of loyalism.
Matthew O’Toole is an SDLP MLA for Belfast South