William ‘Plum’ Smith: Played central role in bringing about loyalist ceasefire
‘He was in the first group to study for the Open University in Long Kesh. It comprised Loyalists and Official IRA members’
William “Plum” Smith: January 26th, 1954-June 8th, 2016. Photograph courtesy of EPIC prisoners’ group
William “Plum” Smith, who has died after a short illness, chaired the press conference that announced the Combined Loyalist Military Command’s ceasefire. He was one of those central to bringing about that ceasefire. He was also a trade union activist; a former loyalist prisoner, who worked to find ways of reintegrating prisoners into society; chair of the Progressive Unionist Party and campaigner for social and economic justice. He was committed to tackling the lack of educational attainment among Protestant working-class boys.
Smith spent five years in Long Kesh prison camp, convicted of shooting a Catholic man 18 times: the man survived. By necessity he was forced to talk and negotiate with republicans. After release in 1977, he built on that experience.
William Blair Smith was born in January 1954 in Belfast’s Shankill Road area, first son and one of six children to Charles William Smith, a shipyard worker, and his wife Isobel. His father frequently had to emigrate to England for work.
He was swept up in the developing Troubles after August 1969. Believing his community was under attack, he first joined the Shankill Defence Association, then helped found the Red Hand Commando. This later became part of the UVF.
In the summer of 1971 he was convicted of rioting, and jailed for six months. In Crumlin Road prison he was an orderly to internees from Provisional and Official IRAs. He noted they never threatened or abused him.
The following year he was jailed for attempted murder. Years later he felt humbled when the victim’s mother attended a talk he gave, and later said she was impressed by his work to end violence.
He spent most of his five years’ imprisonment in the UVF compound in Long Kesh prison camp. There he was part of a “think tank” working on political issues. One of its conclusions was that the Catholic minority could not be shut out from power.
He helped initiate a “Camp Council” with the Provisional and Official IRAs, the INLA, and UDA.
In prison he learned about Irish history. He was the first loyalist to learn Irish. The Provisional IRA offered him safe conduct into their cage for classes. The authorities refused. Thus he learned by sitting at a fence, taught by a Provisional IRA member on the other side. His Irish teacher did not just teach him Irish, but how to make poteen.
He was in the first group to study for the Open University in Long Kesh. It comprised loyalists and Official IRA members. One of the lecturers he liked was Miriam Daly, later shot dead by the UDA.
On release, he went to work in Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard. There, he became active in the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (now part of Unite), first as a shop steward, then as convenor. On union bodies his contributions were thought out, and listened to. He was dismissed after leading a campaign against privatisation of the shipyard.
Thus he threw himself into work for ex-prisoners, and his community. One of his last public appearances was as defence witness for republican Gerry McGeough, charged with attempted murder.
Smith gave evidence that the British government had reneged on a promise of amnesty for those involved in Troubles-related violence before 1998. This was because he saw a future Northern Ireland as one that included all.
Plum Smith is survived by his widow, Elizabeth, son John, grandson Alex, sisters Jean, Elizabeth and Margaret, and brother Gordon. He was predeceased by his sister Nan.