Loyalist Billy Hutchinson on the play for the past

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From the loyalist side lines Billy Hutchinson has been watching the DUP-Sinn Fein political fallout.

The row was framed within two speeches in the past week, the first from Declan Kearney and then from Peter Robinson.

It has all the feel of tit-for-tat, even though both parties might argue differently.

As for those watching, they are not sure if they are observing a kind of sham fight or something more serious.

“You would think they weren’t partners in Government,” Hutchinson, a former life sentence prisoner and leader of the Progressive Unionist Party told me.

Jeffrey Donaldson and Danny Morrison at the John McMichael Memorial Debate at Laganview Enterprise Centre Lisburn last week


On the Sunday Politics show today, MP Jeffrey Donaldson said Kearney’s reconciliation speech at Westminster had all the characteristics of outburst – not outreach.

The response of the Sinn Fein national chair was to explain that reconciliation “isn’t about throwing flowers at one another” and that criticism is part of the rough and tumble of politics.

Donaldson said his party had a policy of no first strike, but if attacked would respond.

So, are we to trawl the different speeches of the past weeks and months to find the starting point in this latest row between the two main parties in the Executive?

Or is there the possibility of a calm and grown up conversation such as the one staged under the heading of the John McMichael Memorial Debate a few days ago?

That event brought one-time enemies under the same roof.

It was an event to remember the IRA killing of a loyalist leader, but, in a developing peace process, it found room at the top table for republicans Sean Murray and Danny Morrison.

Was this not a major gesture in reconciliation?

Those who say nothing has changed should look more closely at such events.

They should not be ignored, something a number of mainstream media outlets were guilty of last week.

There is unfinished business in the peace process – parading, the dissident threat and the unanswered questions of the past.

On the latter, is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission the best way to do it?

“Gerry Adams can’t even bring himself to say he was in the IRA,” Jeffrey Donaldson argues.

“What prospect have we of a proper truth process?” he asked.

It all depends on whether people want that process to be about Gerry Adams and the IRA or about all sides in a long conflict.

A few days ago, Declan Kearney made clear that a process that looks back “will have to mean everyone’s role in the past being placed on an even playing field”.

That means all sides, but there is no agreement on such a process or structure.

“There are people out there who want to know what happened,” Billy Hutchinson told this website.

“That can’t be done unless you give people [combatants]a safe way of doing it without persecution or prosecution,” he continued.

He means an answering/information process made possible by amnesty or something that means the same thing, but knows how politically sensitive this issue is.

Billy Hutchinson facing the media


Hutchinson’s party is not part of the political mainstream but is linked to one of the major players in our wars – the UVF organisation.

So, he is an important voice in this debate.

“We certainly need to deal with the past,” he said – “otherwise the divided society will become more divided.”

The unanswered question is how to deal with it.

Hutchinson has asked for a paper to be prepared on the past and reconciliation – a PUP perspective that will be made public when ready.

“Sinn Fein’s arrogance around reconciliation is driving Unionists mad,” he said, but this is not where his criticism ends.

“My view about the main unionist parties is they don’t have a clue how to deal with the past…I contend they don’t understand republicanism.

“We can deal with them because we know them as well as they know themselves,” he said.

Hutchinson will also understand that to go down this road will mean many awkward questions for loyalists – as difficult as those that will be asked of republicans.

He also knows there is no way of avoiding the past, something another loyalist leader Jackie McDonald clearly understands.

“The peace process won’t be complete until the victims and the perpetrators can sit in the room together and discuss their different experiences of the past,” he said recently, while accepting “how difficult that is going to be”.

The past will only be a republican project and process if others allow it to be, and it is worth remembering something the then Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde said a decade ago.

He argued that a way had to be found to close the book – a way that did so in a dignified manner for victims.

That is the challenge – to think how to do it in a calmer atmosphere and inside a realistic process.

It doesn’t have to be called a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.



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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.


  1. I attended the South Belfast UPRG John McMichael Commemorative Debate, and I went with a tad of reluctance post the Kearney speech on Wednesday evening because I felt Kearney lost a major opportunity to publicly reach out with authentic reconciliation overtures.

    For me most of Declan’s speech was ‘poking the eyeball’ in it’s selective blame gaming. It was a serious case of wallowing in victim mentality as Declan verbally attacked all involved in the history of this Island for 800 years but failed to include reference to the role and subsequent impact of violent Irish Republicanism.

    A day being a long time in ‘politics’ I should not have held such hesitation or doubt because, as has happened on numerous occasions in this process, when those who participated in ‘the Troubles’ at the coal face get together genuine understanding is achieved & respected.

    Rationale consensus can be made and I took comfort from Danny Morrison when he stated on Thursday “…. no matter how frustrated the situation becomes as society we must agree to never engage in violence ….. discussion and debate is the only way forward …” I also felt a truth when Morrison spoke regarding agents of the State stating HMG and IG involvement “…. the States orchestrated agents and we have to remember that it is probable that they had us killing one another and we must question why….” Many answers to the questions from the floor by Sean Spike Murray also gave frank clarity to a great many taboos arising in the Unionist community from suspicious sources, for example on the Maze Regeneration plans.

    In that room we had representatives of the UPRG, Sinn Fein, former British Army, former PIRA Volunteers, former UVF and UDA activists, Mainstream Unionism, the PUP, the SDLP, victims of the Troubles, representatives of Religion along with a the local community from young to old. No one left that room converted to other political ideology or indeed religious beliefs but all left the evening with a wider viewpoint and dare I say it, understanding & hope.

    Ground truth discussions without the presence of Party Political Policy which often lead to sham-fights?

    • Glenn – a day is a long time in politics, and last Thursday’s event showed what is possible. We have a long journey still to travel back over 40 years to achieve that understanding you write about – an understanding that will make the next 40 years better for everyone.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Glenn and I totally believe that Sean and Danny were very frank in their statements. Also felt that Conall had great input to the debate. All 3 deserve a great deal of respect coming into a Loyalist area to take part in a debate organised by a ‘loyalist’ group. Hopefully as Billy has indicated we can build on this

  2. Barney,

    whilst many of our local dialogue groups have expressed a myriad of concerns around how we can begin to effectively deal with the past, and many of the viewpoints can invariabely collide around this sensitive issue; one thing people tend to agree on, is that dealing with the past and the issue of reconcilliation, remains one of the last pieces of the jigsaw of our peace process, a piece that many cannot even bear to hold never mind slot into place, and which many are still trying force that remaining piece into a slot much too narrow or slanted.
    Many i talk to welcome the fact that politicians are at least talking about this sensitive and unresolved issue, and are no longer silent on the subject matter, albeit the conversations may be at present exclusively geared towards their own particular constituency and are more akin to positioning, but nevertheless this is precisely how a mapping out the parameters of what is required begins.

    For us all, dealing with the past, means many uncomfortable conversations and questions and ultimately answers that we may not particularely like. And many of us are already dealing with the issues that the past throws up on a daily basis.

    The thing is, If Loyalists, or Republicans, cannot begin to be truthful with themselves and their respective communities, then what hope have we in being truthful with each other?

    • John – everyone will understand how difficult it will be to slot those jigsaw pieces into place, and we will never have a complete picture. But at least there is a conversation about how more of the story can be told by all sides and from all sides.

  3. It should not surprise us that a game of ‘poking the eyeball’ (of your political opponents/ & partners) has developed in relation to the issue of dealing with the past, and that this game would become beset and bogged-down with the concepts of justification and blame.

    Indeed, there was a recent publication, in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, with research being conducted on behalf of the UUJ Transitional Justice Institute, by Professor Colm Campbell and Ita Connelly, entitled ‘the sharp end: armed oppostition
    movements, transitional truth processes and the rechtsstaat’, that gave us many clues that ‘poking the eyeball’ would be the chosen game.

    It is important to understand that this research exclusively involved, IRA affiliated ex-combatants and as such would give valuable insights into where the debate around the past would end up, as it began to frame the parameters of the discussion.

    In this report, Professor Colm Campbell makes the point well that;
    “the data suggests that transitionary armed opposition movements see transitional justice as a site for continuing their political projects and potentially inflicting damage to their opponents, as well as attrition, giventhe victim-perpetrator character of such movements.”

    To many, this presents any truth-process as a battlefield!

    The problem is many simply cannot strip the rhetorical armoury that frames the debate.

    Also the apology/apologia route is explored in advance of this seemingly new thinking. Indeed, according to this report “the words ‘apology’ and ‘apologia’- (with apologia being more a defence of one’s own position)…and thus Apology may encompass elements of
    apologia in the self-affirmative potential it represents for the perpetrator…thus in saying, ‘sorry’, we contradicted principles of humanity to which we ourselves adhere, perpetrators may square the circle of simultaneous regret and defence”

    Is this not what we are seeing playing out in the public domain?

  4. The ‘rhetorical armoury’ i refer to is best exemplified through a question a participant posed to the panel at the John McMichael event –
    Why are Republicans quick in calling for enquiries on the supposed actions of State and Loyalists, yet have never called for a similar enquiry into the actions of Republicans and State, in particular the alleged role of ‘Stakeknife’ in relation to collusion?
    The simple why, is that this doesn’t fit into their neatly defined world-view of what happened during the conflict, falling well outside of their rhetorical and ideological armoury, and as such this truth would inflict as much or more damage on themselves rather than their opponents, so it is conventiently overlooked, whilst the role of others is highlighted.
    If you want the truth, it cannot be a selective one, and the underlying suggestion was that you begin to look at what occurred on your own doorstep first.

  5. The John
    McMichael commemoration event was, in my view, both historic and groundbreaking
    by way of the tone, content and diverse nature of the debate. On the positive side the exchanges were open,
    frank with little time or inclination for waffle or ‘politicking’. Alternatively, the replies were rushed,
    sometimes amounting to sound bites, as speakers had scant time to develop their
    positions on important topics. On
    reflection, we should explore the possibility of developing a forum to
    facilitate discussion / debate in depth on key themes and issues on a regular

    The wide
    range of issues covered was revealing.
    While the unfinished business of our peace process was highlighted as
    expected, socio-economic issues were also to the fore. Working class communities are now
    experiencing the consequences of Tory cut-backs. A class that did not create the conditions
    for the current economic crisis is now expected to pay for it in a
    disproportionate manner. The
    consequences manifest themselves by way of increased levels of social
    deprivation and poverty, low educational attainment, low life expectancy, high
    suicide rates and an uncertain future for our young people. Such manifestations do not respect interface
    boundaries, political beliefs or national identities. We all suffer its ramifications.

    Can such
    shared experiences lead to the promotion of a shared understanding of the core
    issues and their genesis? Could this be
    a precursor to developing a shared approach to both highlight and confront
    their impact on working class areas?
    Maybe it’s an agenda item for any forum that may evolve!

    • Sean and everyone who attended the John McMichael memorial event – one had to be impressed by the unemotional and dispassionate debate which took place. The mature tone which came across, given the diverse range of views was proof positive of where our communities can go together with a little help.

      As you point out Sean there is an argument for the establishment of a forum in which to debate many of the issues raised in the course of the evening. I sensed that participants and those who attended the evening felt edified as a result of the experience. If I can help in any professional way I would be happy to contribute.

    • Sean,
      What you suggest is not simply practical and preferable, but more importantly, is also already existent in practice.
      I would just like to point out, from both my own experience and indeed the experience of many of my colleagues, that is mainly centred within and across the North Belfast area, that Republicans and Loyalists already meet within a myriad of dedicated forums for discussion/debate etc, on what are sensitive and complex issues, with this engagement occuring on an almost daily basis, and where that engagement is defined around 365 days of the year, rather than being restrictive in nature.
      This has helped the development of shared understandings based on the exploration of commonality and difference, between those once at the coal face of conflict, and who now find themselves at the cutting edge of peace.
      This level and depth of engagement has also produced many tangible benefits that i am sure you are aware of.
      By their very nature, many of these often happen outside of the media spotlight, and may go un-noticed, but nevertheless the level and depth of the engagement that is already occurring should be acknowledged.

      • John,

        While you may already have the type of forum I envisaged in
        North Belfast, to my knowledge it doesn’t exist elsewhere. What I had in mind was a forum capable of
        facilitating themed discussions/debates on key issues of mutual concern, and
        open to all perspectives. It would not
        be area specific, and the dialogue would be of a strategic nature as distinct
        from the normal house-keeping or business type discourses, essential as they
        may be.

        One of my main frustrations with some of the interface
        forums that I have participated in over the years has been the clear lack of
        strategic engagement with essential follow-up i.e. viable, time-framed
        actions. Such a process would link
        theory to practice and could happen outside of the media spotlight. However, any success stories emanating from
        it, would certainly be newsworthy as an exemplar of good practice.

        In the final analysis John, it’s not about recreating the
        wheel, its more about getting the wheel to move into other areas, where such a
        process is clearly absent. The challenge
        is to get the concept operational, with the capacity to deliver meaningful
        engagements leading to tangible change and improvement in the quality of life
        for all working class communities. Maybe
        we could pull together all interested individuals with Eamonn as chair, if he
        agrees, to explore the concept and its potential viability?

        • Sean,
          What i write is done on the back of many conversations that are taking place in North Belfast, so often, in using my own words, i attempt to bring in many of these perspectives, being expressed from Loyalists such as John Bunting etc. I certainly see this conversation with you, as do others, as an extension of those conversations, albeit occurring within a public forum.

          As such, this is only about outlining our opinion and expressing where we are at, and is nothing more than that.

          Whilst we have no problem with the concept of a forum, as we already engage in many, that we, and i would argue many Republicans also, would consider as strategic, that have delivered on strategic issues such as shared space, shared housing, regeneration and the opening of peace-gates in Alexandra Park etc.

          I didn’t restrict this engagement in any way to the interface forums you mention, and indeed it cuts across various themes and issues, far beyond the few i have mentioned here.

          For these, and various other reasons, many of those we talk to, do not subcribe to the theory that just because something is local, doesn’t mean it is not strategic in nature, and indeed the strategic can benefit in terms of transferable learning from what is often mistakenly considered local. Indeed, what we have seen delivered is local benefits with strategic outcomes.

          If there are, as you suggest, places where the wheel does not exist, then the emphasis is on those with the responsibility or interest to put the spokes in place.

  6. I posted this on my blog after the events of last week and called it – doing politics and mending our broken relationships.

    “The reconciliation we seek is a genuine healing of community divisions today and not the airbrushing of awkward history. It is based on working together for the future and not seeking to allocate blame and responsibility for the wrongs of the past.”

    These words, it seems to me, could have been penned by either Declan Kearney or Peter Robinson. As it happens, they were penned by Peter Robinson and delivered on Friday evening past. They are, of course, the crux of the matter. If there is any point to dealing with the hangovers and intrusions of our troubled history it is to seek a genuine healing and reconciliation which has no intention of pretending or diminishing the things of the past. But somehow the debate, the public debate at least, has spiraled out of control and into the old rhetoric. I guess those of us who come from the community of the ‘worthy’, which is unlikely to be a compliment, have been misheard. So let me state my position on this one – there is no point in attempting to deal with the past if it is a matter of dumbing down or pretending. I am not interested in wondering if a new Ireland is possible right now but I am interested in a better, more reconciled Northern Ireland in which people can find the human flourishing that worthy church-people like me believe is possible when the context is such that human beings can find place and self-esteem to be more than they are not. I am convinced that we can yet construct a society that enables people to be all that they can be but I am also convinced that we need the political relationships to build that new society.

    Some people believe that what we have is better than we had and so enough. I am of the view that we can still do better. This last weeks flipping into rhetoric says it all for me. We are still caught in that rhetoric which is our return to position in a situation where we don’t know how to take our opponents and don’t want to work alongside them as they are. So the new politic requires a new relationship which we are yet far from.

    I want to be able to hear Gerry Adams say that he was in the IRA. I want to hear him admit what role he played and what position he held. But we are not in a situation where that is possible and so we all have to accept a laughable untruth to which we can all lift an eyebrow knowingly and disparage our old enemy. I want to know if it is true that the conflict brought with it a spiraling downward into the morass of collusion and tit-for-tat killing and use and abuse that I suspect was the case. I want to know because I want to stop living a lie and start into a new relationship which is bursting with a new hope.

    Where the Bible urges me to love enemies and pray for those who persecute me I want to sit down and wonder to myself who exactly that is and then to respond, however inadequately, to the challenge. I want to test out what the writer to the Hebrews could have meant when he wrote:

    Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12 v14

    I want to know what it actually means to:

    Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4 v32

    There is much to be learned if there can be a new openness to one another and to the things of the past which cannot and should not be allowed to control the future. I want to be able to sit in rooms like the hall I sat in on the Old Warren Estate on Thursday evening past when old enemies, literally those who looked at each other down the barrel of a gun, could sit down together and talk about education and poverty and health and all that matters in a society reaching to a new future. I find it somewhat ironic that in that room those old enemies were shaking one another’s hands while others were still caught in rhetoric and debate only over the airwaves. It proved to me that new relationships are what makes the difference and there is no doubt in my mind, despite the strength of feeling on the social networks and in other places, that the only way to move from this moment is through a daring set of new relationships which bring honesty, even aggressive honesty, into the same room. There is nothing to be left outside if we are to make those new relationships and that in itself takes a daring spirit – to be prepared to set before old enemies the things that have to be addressed. If combatants can do it so too can those who wield the power of words.

  7. John, Lord Alderdice on

    The John McMichael commemoration event was clearly of great importance and more promising than some others. Those who put it together are to be commended. I agree with Sean’s comment that this process will (at some stage) require a forum for engagement that goes beyond the way we are conducting the current conversations, though it is clear that they are already very useful. Three thoughts – I doubt that the professional ways of thinking that politicians, journalists, lawyers and many others have used so successfully in the past will serve us as well in this unprecedented process. Secondly, I think there is an urgency about this. I see a new generation rising up in the various communities, and in Governments, who really do not understand the ways of thinking that had to be developed for the Peace Process to get anywhere and I am becoming concerned that this loss of shared communal memory could ultimately lead to a falling back. Thirdly and more reassuringly perhaps, as I have remarked elsewhere, these processes are like playing an accordion. Each time you appear to be moving together you are just about to move away from each other again; and even as you are moving away from each other it is not necessarily a deterioration, but a prelude to moving back towards each another again. I think that our ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘difficult’ conversations are already demonstrating this pattern. Meantime, let us continue to explore how we take them forward as inclusively as possible, and keep Sean’s question about creating an appropriate context in mind.

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