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I am ashamed of my paramilitary past. I won’t be writing about it again

Few things more sickening than self-pity of the manufactured, self-serving kind. Except, maybe, someone making a semi-career out of ‘oh, look at how I was able to change’

I occasionally meet people on the street, ordinary decent people from different backgrounds, who know me. But they walk silently past. Their attitude is wholly justified. I was once an apologist for a loyalist paramilitary organisation (the UDA) and its actions. These people, quite rightly, have nothing but disdain for paramilitaries and their past or present excuse-makers. Some in media have a similar attitude where I am concerned. Hardly surprising, given that they too are members of, and care deeply about, our society. I am told that their thinking is along the lines of: “This guy has some cheek pontificating about how things should be, given his past. A past that he has never sought to address or explain.” They too are wholly justified in taking that position. I should long ago have publicly addressed my past. I will try to do that here – and explain the reason for my recent pontificating.

I have never offered any plausible explanation for my joining a paramilitary organisation, for one simple reason: I don’t have any. Many paramilitary members, on all sides, could point to having lost family, friends, neighbours, and so on, as their reason for joining. I did indeed lose close friends, but that was after I joined. Others might have had their homes attacked, suffered overt discrimination, grew up exposed only to negative stereotypes of “the other side”, or were products of a terrible home environment. Again, none of that applied to me. I was raised in a large loving family, by determinedly anti-sectarian parents. They raised 10 of us (eight boys and two girls) on a tiny, mixed-religion, housing estate in a rural setting. Our closest friends, neighbours, and playmates were Catholics. Religious difference was never an issue. The common enemy was poverty, and we tackled it together: “Mammy wants to know can you lend her a few slices of bread and a wee bit of butter for the lunches tomorrow.”

So what happened?

I honestly don’t know. Perhaps there’s a clue to be found in a comment a family member once made about me: “Our David has tons of brains, but he hasn’t an ounce of common-sense.” Still, that is the thinnest of gruel where excuses are concerned. The vast majority of young people in Northern Ireland, on both sides, regardless of personal experience, upbringing, intellect, and whether or not they were endowed with common sense, were able to retain a clear enough sense of decency to steer well clear of paramilitaries. I wasn’t.

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What do I expect to flow from this addressing of my past? Absolutely nothing. Nor have I the right to expect anything

So what brought me to my senses? Was it the loyalist ceasefire of 1994; the Belfast Agreement of 1998; or what I witnessed during my humanitarian work with GOAL? The last would make for a lovely story, but it would be untrue. My humanitarian work had a profound and lasting effect on me, but my journey (to use a modern term) began much earlier than that. For quite a while before the loyalist ceasefire, despite my best efforts to keep them buried, my sense of right and wrong, and of decency and humanity, had begun to re-emerge. And it wouldn’t go away. Long before the agreement was even defined, I had decided to walk away from the UDA. My journey has, in every sense, been a backward one.

Back to the beginning, to what I knew deep in my heart to be right; to the spirit and togetherness of the wonderful people I grew up with; and to what my dear parents tried to teach their children by word, deed, and example. Brutal honesty with myself about myself was, and continues to be, the key. What do I expect to flow from this addressing of my past? Absolutely nothing. Nor have I the right to expect anything. I am merely addressing something that I should have addressed years ago. Do I obsess about my past? No. I am thoroughly ashamed of it, and regrets are never too far away, but to dwell too much upon it would serve no purpose. It would also run the risk of me wandering into “poor me” territory. And there are few things more sickening than self-pity of the manufactured, self-serving kind. Except, maybe, someone making a semi-career out of “oh, look at how I was able to change” – which is why I won’t be writing about this again. Do I apologise for my past? Yes, unreservedly.

Without a sustained effort to advance reconciliation, people who nowadays think ‘it could never happen again’ will also be proved wrong

And what about the recent pontificating? This is driven solely by a fear for the future. During my time with GOAL, when I was not working overseas I would only be home at weekends for a day or two with my family. This allowed me to divorce myself from the Northern Ireland situation. After I retired, there was no escaping it.

It is clear that, as a people, we are as divided as ever. Yes, we are enjoying a period of relative calm. But how many times in Irish history, during similar such periods (like the one I grew up in) must people have reflected upon previous sectarian bloodletting, and thought, “That could never happen again”? They were wrong every time, because underlying causes were not addressed, and reconciliation was not pursued. Without a sustained effort to advance reconciliation, people who nowadays think “it could never happen again” will also be proved wrong – regardless of whether we end up as part of a New Ireland or remain within the UK. Reconciliation of our people must be a constant process, with no end point. Character – not skin-colour, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, country of origin or any other difference – must be our sole criteria for measuring a person. The very point of the Belfast Agreement was reconciliation. Yet there has been no sustained effort by our politicians and other “influencers” to advance it. In fact, the reverse is often the case. I could not, and will not, remain silent on this. The future is at stake.

David Adams helped deliver the loyalist ceasefire of 1994 and to negotiate the Belfast Agreement of 1998. He later worked in media as a columnist and commentator, before spending many years with the Dublin-based international humanitarian organisation, GOAL. This took him to natural and man-made disasters across many parts of Africa and the Middle East. He retired in 2018.