Bitter decade for loyalism since ceasefire

 

On this date 10 years ago the Combined Loyalist Military Command, representing the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando, declared a ceasefire and expressed "abject and true remorse" to all the "innocent" victims of the Troubles.

Six weeks after the IRA ceasefire, the loyalist parmilitaries had followed suit. Former UVF leader Gusty Spence, in reading out the loyalist statement at the time, said: "We are on the threshold of a new and exciting beginning, with our battles in future being political battles, fought on the side of honesty, decency and democracy against the negativity of mistrust, misunderstanding and malevolence, so that together we can bring forth a wholesome society in which our children and their children will know the meaning of true peace." That's still work in progress.

The IRA, by stopping its killing first, had stolen some of the loyalist thunder, but there was no gainsaying that this was a huge moment in modern Irish history. Look back through the cuttings files and you can see the sense of relief and jubilation on the faces of the loyalist negotiators.

There's a photograph in The Irish Times taken about an hour or so after the announcement. It shows John White, David Adams and Gary McMichael of the now defunct Ulster Democratic Party, the then political voice of the UDA, and Gusty Spence, David Ervine, William "Plum" Smyth and Jim McDonald of the Progressive Unionist Party, political side of the UVF - all of them beaming, all of them carrying the countenances of men who can hardly believe what they achieved.

Yet, that same photograph is a picture in itself of just how fraught, just how imperfect, just how questionable in many elements that loyalist ceasefire has been over the past 10 years. John White is in exile, dubbed by his former UDA allies a drugs dealer and criminal who paid the price in the most recent internal UDA dispute for throwing in his lot with the jailed Johnny Adair.

David Adams - now a writer, commentator and Irish Times columnist - and his family have been targeted by the UDA in his local town of Lisburn for unequivocally standing by the ceasefire and the Belfast Agreement. His good friend Gary McMichael is out of politics, focusing his energy instead on community work. Gusty Spence was forced out of his Shankill home by Johnny Adair and his henchmen.

Mr Ervine, Mr Smyth and Mr McDonald enjoyed a better 10 years, with the PUP/UVF always more united than the UDA. But for all of them it was a difficult decade. The PUP, with Mr Ervine, has just one Assembly seat.

Sinn Féin triumphed on the back of the peace, loyalist representatives didn't. The Protestant working class just never came out in sufficient numbers to give the PUP or the UDP the political clout they required to make an impact, to build on the hopes of October 13th, 1994.

Mr Ervine said at the PUP conference on Saturday that "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds" of lives were saved because of the ceasefires. It is said so often that it is almost trite but it shouldn't be forgotten.

Before the ceasefires, about 3,500 people were killed in the Troubles; since the ceasefires, about 190 have died, and that includes the 1998 "Real IRA" bombing of Omagh in which 29 people and twin unborn girls died, and the period during parts of 1996 and 1997 when the IRA was off ceasefire.

Loyalists were responsible for about 90 of those 190 deaths. There was much loyalist internecine feuding since then as well; there were drugs dealing, extortion, racketeering and myriad forms of criminality that tainted the many genuine loyalist representatives seeking to improve the lot of ordinary people. Against that background it was difficult for the PUP and UDP to make significant political advances.

Mr Ervine at Saturday's PUP conference said there must not be a general branding of loyalists as criminals, and he is right, but in the loyalist working-class areas there is no denying that many loyalist paramilitaries maintained sway with a strong culture of criminality, drugs-dealing and sectarianism that damaged those communities and the fledgling loyalist parties.

Fortunately for the peace process, there was a brief cohesion 10 years ago that allowed the Combined Loyalist Military Command declare a ceasefire with confidence and authority. That cohesion isn't there anymore.

But at least there are the beginnings of "what if?" heart and head-searching within the UVF and UDA wings of loyalism, as loyalist and security sources confirmed to The Irish Times.

If the IRA makes the radical move that is predicted, then pressure will fall on loyalist paramilitaries to reciprocate.

The more calculating of the paramilitaries, to the despair of people like Mr Ervine, may feel they will avoid isolation by operating some sort of half-way house between criminality and peace, mirroring any IRA commitment to disarm and end activity, but stealthily and "with deniability" continuing on in the same old way.

That can work for a time. But if the IRA really exits the active paramilitary stage, that duplicity eventually will be exposed. If the IRA does go away, the PSNI and the Assets Recovery Agency, which the wealthy loyalist godfathers fear and hate, will have more resources to tackle loyalist gangsterism.

The choice ultimately could be quite stark for loyalism: operate as legitimate community activists or continue down the criminal and sectarian road and face the consequences.

One senior security source told The Irish Times that there are senior figures in both the UVF and UDA who genuinely want to fully embrace the peace and move forward. But overall he tended to the pessimistic in terms of the capability of loyalism to act with the centrality of 10 years ago.

"There are some leaders in the loyalist community who think long term but there are a lot who only think short term, who have a very narrow focus, who are motivated by sectarianism, and many of those people are causing the mayhem in their own community," he said.

In contrast, people like Mr Ervine and Mr Frankie Gallagher of the Ulster Political Research Group, which provides analysis for the UDA, confirm that a serious debate is opening up within loyalism on the way forward. They say they need encouragement in promoting such a positive outcome but that chiefly they require support from the British government and the mainstream unionist politicians, who they argue have washed their hands of working-class Protestants.

It is a daunting challenge to fulfil the hope enunciated by Gusty Spence 10 years ago.