Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), says politics isn't about changing the world but about making a difference. This is why he is still engaged in loyalist politics notwithstanding the low fortunes of the PUP, and the political deadlock and inertia of today compared with the energy and movement of 20 years ago when he and his friend David Ervine were about the business of negotiating the Belfast Agreement.
Everybody has Ian Paisley stories and he has one he particularly wants to tell. It was in the first Northern Assembly after the 1998 agreement. He was in Parliament Buildings at Stormont about to get a lift to an upper floor when he heard steps hurriedly approaching and someone shouting, "Get the lift, get the lift".
“Paisley came to the door. ‘What are you doing?’ he said. ‘I am holding the door open for you,’ I told him. He says, ‘Well do not open the door for me for I will not be getting into any lift with a UVF murderer’. And I said, ‘Well you should have told people that in the ’60s when you sent them to their deaths’. And the door closed.”
It goes back to the oft-repeated claim that the demagoguery of Paisley in the 1960s and 1970s drove many young Protestants into paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, of which Hutchinson and Ervine were past members.
Hutchinson said Paisley’s security minder later apologised, with the PUP man responding, “This is what pisses me off about this country, people lecturing me when I know UVF volunteers died and he [Paisley] denied them”.
Ervine used to make the same claim, saying that when he was in the UVF he knew “the colour of the wallpaper” in the homes of some well-known unionist politicians.
People react differently to having killed someone. Some just walk into the RUC station and admit the murder
Paisley always denied such culpability but it’s an issue that still rankles with Hutchinson (62) who, while a little mellower than he was 20 years ago, remains a passionate politician.
It is 11 years since Ervine died from a heart attack, aged just 53. The absence of his voice and personality was a blow to loyalism. Shortly after the agreement the party had two Assembly members at Stormont, Ervine and Hutchinson, and there appeared a good chance the PUP would grow and prosper on the foundation of a loyalist working-class vote. But it didn’t happen.
Feuds and killings
Internecine feuds and killings as well as UVF drug dealing and other forms of criminality deflated that sense of hope. The party now has just four councillors, one of them Hutchinson.
Hutchinson cottoned on fairly early in their joint political career that Ervine was a potential candidate for a heart attack because he was under such intense stress. “I can recall talking to him before he got ill. I told him, ‘David there are things that we can’t control in our lives and you need to let go’. I told him, ‘I don’t want to change the world, I want to make a difference. It’s about longevity’. But David always wanted to change the world. You will never change the world. If he was alive today he would be totally frustrated.”
In the days leading up to the Belfast Agreement, I did an interview with Hutchinson where to the minor annoyance of Ervine he said half jokingly, “At the talks, Davy’s the articulate one, I’m the authentic one.”
In 1974 Ervine was sentenced to 11 years on explosives charges. The same year Hutchinson was involved in the sectarian murders of two Catholic workmen in Belfast, Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan, for which he served 15 years at the Maze prison. The "bottom line" about people who have killed, he said, in that interview, is that you must take responsibility for your actions. But you also "have to survive", he added. He has never met any of the relatives of his two victims.
He added in 1998, “People react differently to having killed someone. Some just walk into the RUC station and admit the murder because they can’t live with themselves. Others find God, but I couldn’t do that because I am a devout atheist. Others just fall apart. But if you’re to survive you must cope. It’s as simple as that.”
Twenty years on chatting in his office on the loyalist Mount Vernon estate, he says the same rule applies: “If you did not have a mechanism to keep you sane then you were a psycho. We all need mechanisms to keep you calm.”
He is no longer a “devout atheist”. He has graduated to agnostic. That is because of interesting conversations he has enjoyed with his 16-year-old daughter Madison’s former Sunday school teachers. He liked that they didn’t “preach” to him so he listened. “But don’t write that or the bible thumpers will be trying to convert me,” he jokes.
I don't think we have moved on in the last 20 years, I think we actually went backwards
He remembers the long days and nights of negotiation at Castle Building, Stormont in the run-up to Good Friday, April 10th, 1998 when the deal was done. “It was a special day,” he says, on a par with the emotional charge he felt when he, Ervine and others persuaded the loyalist paramilitaries to declare their ceasefire in October 1994.
Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the late Northern secretary Mo Mowlam impressed him most of the political talent involved in the talks. "I always found them down to earth. Privately if they were in a room and they were talking they let their guard down. There was no pomp about anything. Bertie talked about doing his constituency work in his pub, Fagan's in Drumcondra on a Friday night and having a few drinks there at the same time. That gave him a bit of street cred. And Mo was the same. She'd come in, take her shoes off, put her legs under her bum and then you'd have your debate with her."
He liked the Women’s Coalition, feeling they combined pragmatism with sincerity – “they spoke from the heart as well as the head” – and also Ulster Unionist Ken Maginnis – “he was very rough and ready but he told it as it was and you could have an argument with him”.
Seamus Mallon too. "David [Ervine] liked to have a bet and Seamus gave him tips. I am not sure how many of them won. Seamus probably would not have agreed with our politics and he certainly would not have agreed with our background, coming from the UVF, but he never let it get in the way."
He was also very taken with talks chairman, US senator George Mitchell's chief aide, Martha Pope. Perhaps she wouldn't be interested, he muses, but, he suggests, if any talks to break the deadlock were to resume she could make a fine independent chairwoman.
He remembers two long, interminable discussions. “One that went on and on was, I think, about North-South bodies and the issue was over whether the word in the document should be ‘could, would or should’.”
Hutchinson is conscious that in the Sunday World and Sunday Life newspapers in Northern Ireland UVF figures regularly feature for their criminal exploits and high social living.
“If people are involved in criminality then arrest them,” he says. He queries how if a particular individual is driving an £80,000 (€91,000) car and has no visible means of support, why at the very least the assets aren’t seized. “For me you can’t be a loyalist and a criminal at the same time.”
As for current politics: “I don’t think we have moved on in the last 20 years, I think we actually went backwards. We never had shared responsibility because no matter who was in power, the two largest parties carved things up and that’s not good for society. It shouldn’t be a case of a penny for me and a penny for you, a pound for you, a pound for me, a million for you, a million for me. It should be about dealing with the issues that matter to everybody.”
But he is not despondent, believing a deal could be done at some stage to get Stormont functioning again. “I am always a glass half full rather than half empty man. I don’t see how we [can] do it but the DUP and Sinn Féin need to find a way.”