Loyalist parties were keen to gain status after ceasefire declaration in 1994

In talks with British officials, Ervine was emerging as the leading loyalist spokesman

Billy Hutchinson and David Ervine of the PUP. Photograph: Frank Miller

Billy Hutchinson and David Ervine of the PUP. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

The first exploratory dialogue between the loyalist political parties – representing the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando – and British officials in 1994 are detailed in previously confidential files released today in Belfast under the 30-/20-year rule on state documents.

The talks followed a commitment by the British prime minister, John Major on October 21st, 1994 that his government would enter dialogue with the loyalist groups following the ceasefire announced by the Combined Loyalist Military Command on October 13th, 1994. The files reveal that, in the run-up to the talks, Northern Ireland Office officials were engaged in “tortuous discussions” with the UDA-linked Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) about the talks agenda.

Stephen Leach, an Northern Ireland Office official, noted: “Both the loyalist parties are anxious to gain status, not only by comparison with Sinn Féin but also at each other’s expense. The UDP, in particular, is an incoherent organisation with a weak central figure in [Gary] McMichael . . .” The UDP have little room to negotiate, he wrote, due to the preconditions laid down by the UDA leadership. “In this context”, he confided to officials, “bluff-calling is a highly uncertain exercise”.

The opening meeting with the loyalists took place at Stormont Castle on December 15th, 1994. In a later report to officials, Jonathan Stephens of the NIO said that, after “relaxed introductions, a series of robust, often antagonistic, exchanges followed on arms, prisoners and the denial of public funds to loyalist projects” with the loyalists saying that “early movement in arms was unrealistic but the government should make an early signal gesture on prisoners ‘to cement the process’.”

As in their exploratory dialogue with Sinn Féin, the NIO side stressed the importance of arms and ruled out early prisoner releases.

For the government, Leach said it was “not the gun and the bomb” which had brought the parties to the table, but rather their association with violence had created the need for exploratory dialogue before they could enter “normal political life”. The UDP leader, Gary McMichael, claimed, however, that the loyalists had “a latent mandate” because they had “dictated the peace”.

For the PUP, David Ervine, now emerging as the leading loyalist spokesman, said that the government was a “bit player” when it came to arms: It was really “a crux between Loyalists and Republicans and could not be resolved until trust was built. For their part, the Loyalists wanted to retain their arms as long as there was a possibility of a Republican offensive.” Both parties raised the issue of paramilitary prisoners and said it was disappointing that the government had “so far made no gesture”.

In his report, Stephens concluded that Billy Hutchinson and David Ervine had led for the PUP though Ervine was “the most impressive performer” . Gary McMichael led for the UDP “with his strings rather obviously operated by Mr [Joe] English [a prominent UDA commander]”.

The second meeting between the negotiators on December 13th, 1994 was overshadowed by the sectarian murder of a Catholic student in Belfast which all sides condemned. Both Loyalist groups demanded an “imaginative” approach to the prisoners issue, including a phased release. The government side tabled a paper on arms which the loyalists agreed to address at a future session. (Significantly, Martin McGuinness had rejected a similar paper tabled by the NIO at the initial Sinn Féin-NIO talks).

At the outset, Stephen Leach, an NIO official raised the “brutal murder” of the Catholic student in the Village area of Belfast. “It had”, he said, “many of the hallmarks of a terrorist murder” and might be a breach of the ceasefire. However, both Billy Hutchinson and Gary McMichael said the murder was abhorred and this was supported “with vigorous nodding of heads”.

For his part, David Ervine voiced concern about a device found in Enniskillen but the NIO was “satisfied the IRA intended to stand by the ceasefire”.

Ervine warned that there was a perception in the loyalist community that the government was only talking to the loyalists as a “counter-weight” to Sinn Féin. “It was very important Loyalists were not seduced into this role”, he said.