Why Loyalism feels cut adrift – Billy Hutchinson explains

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(Please note the following article is a direct response to Brian Rowan’s article on this website ‘Hutchinson and the PUP – it’s not too late to talk Bill‘)

Billy Hutchinson facing the media


First of all, I would like to set the present day context in which we operate and how things have changed since the period 1994-1998 to which Brian Rowan refers.

As a Political Party we must accept that people are unhappy with the status quo. In the Unionist Community we increasingly find the rumblings of discontent; vast swathes of people who believe they have been neglected whilst their community has been made scapegoats for the wrongs of the past.

The recent summer stands as a testimony to how deep that chasm has become and is something that needs to be given attention by all Political Parties not just the PUP.

The frustration of the summer within working class Unionist communities came as close to boiling point as I have seen in many years.

That frustration is borne of a helplessness and a disenfranchisement from the process – a disconnect from the political class and a genuine belief that those reporting events do not give Loyalists a ‘fair crack of the whip’.

I said many years ago that the term Loyalist was becoming a prejoritive one; that Unionist representatives who fell foul of the law quickly found themselves defined as Loyalist representatives; that Unionist parades led to Loyalist violence.

That belief is more acute today and however it is argued away, working class Unionist communities are saying they have had enough.

They wonder quite legitimately why historical enquiries, in all their out workings, seem to concentrate on the Unionist community when the same community was responsible for proportionately much less of the violence.

They wonder why the media three months on is still concentrating on music being played outside a place of worship when a few hours later an automatic weapon was discharged outside another one but with little lasting coverage.

They wonder why media reporting of republicans is done in a sensitive manner but loyalist organisations are bandied about so casually.

They wonder why flute bands who bring much to the local economy, who give young people, vulnerable to the lure of anti social behaviour, a positive route away from crime and who despite hundreds of peaceful parades by tens of thousands of members are vilified when one person, or one band, does something regrettable without any mention of the other 99% of their positive contributions.

The nuances of all of this aside, this is a genuine feeling within working class Unionist communities. It was not created by the PUP, nor were its flames stoked for that matter.

I am willing to take any responsibility I have and use any influence I can to address these issues. But I am not making them up and I cannot resolve them all.

The lustre of the peace process has long dulled in these communities and as much as the PUP would like to deal with the ‘big issues’ we can only move on when the most vulnerable, and the most disconnected are included.

I feel that the new distribution of power at Stormont has left working class Unionists, and increasingly working class Catholics with no political voice.  It seems to me that the larger parties in the new distribution of power manipulate working class voters to satisfy the concerns of the better off.

The PUP can provide a real commitment to supporting the rights of working class unionists and other marginalised groups.

However if the PUP is to fulfil this role then the party must mobilise behind an agenda for social transformation.  The party can only effectively gain support from working class communities if it effectively shares this message for change.

As loyalism has left the conflict behind it must be ready to take up this new challenge.

I as leader of the PUP am committed to moving this society forward through politics. The Party will at all levels represent the people in the people’s interest – not in our own. The PUP have never been interested in carve ups, not interested in trade-offs nor buy-offs.

Former PUP leader David Ervine


I will repeat again the words of my late colleague David Ervine “this Party will put Country before Party in the interest of our people”. As leader I do not intend straying from that position now or in the future.

The vision of the Progressive Unionist Party is the same today as it was in 1977, in 1994, and in 1998. I was part of creating that vision and as leader of course I want to get back to when I was once described as the “authentic voice” of Loyalism.

Let me be clear, I was not and never believed that I was the “authentic voice” it was the Progressive Unionist Party and it members that provided the “authentic voice” and will continue to do so if the people are again to put their faith in us as we attempt to push back the tide that is engulfing our tradition presently.

I told conference on Saturday, “Loyalism is opposed to organised crime and this Party calls on the PSNI to deal with criminality and this should be done without let or hindrance.”

Let me repeat myself “you cannot be a loyalist and a criminal” people should not use a flag or badge of Loyalism as a convenience. The PSNI should be supported in their efforts to tackle organised crime.

Loyalists are working to improve the quality of life for people living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and reducing crime and anti-social behaviour is part of this.

We now have representatives on Policing and Community Safety Partnerships, supporting approaches that encourage the PSNI to work together with communities to tackle anti-social behaviour.

The Alternatives programme, developed by loyalists, is a leading and respected initiative diverting young people from crime through community-based interventions.  A community-based approach to tackling crime supports young people to realise better alternatives while addressing the issues that contribute to their offending behaviour.”

The Progressive Unionist Party truly understands the problems that exist and believe we are the Party that can truly address the issues.

There are a number of Social issues and policies that exist in the Assembly that must be challenged; we will do that as we believe that they are not in the interest of the most vulnerable in our society.

We must ensure that people get equality across all the issues and that people’s human rights are upheld. The PUP will strive to create a Good Society and doing that we believe will strengthen the Union.

All of this cannot be done by us alone. If we want to achieve a society that offers us a future without the remnants of the past then the Party need the help of civic society and that includes the media to build the society we all long for.

Irrespective of our past it is the future the people in the PUP want to build.


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About Author

Billy Hutchinson is leader of the Progressive Unionist Party. He has been active in Loyalism since the early 1970s and was involved in securing the CLMC ceasefire in 1994. He stood as a North Belfast candidate in the 1996 Forum elections, was elected to Belfast City Council in 1997 and became a North Belfast MLA in 1998. He played a central role in the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement.


  1. This is a valuable contribution from PUP leader Billy Hutchinson on this website: He points the finger at the media for misrepresenting his community. This is a platform for his people to articulate their feelings, conditional on staying within the laws governing publication to which I must adhere.

  2. whilst Billy flirts with the language of socialism as soon as he gets a chance he reverts to the us against them scenario. Lots of grand claims in his response and allegations but how much of it is actually factual ??? Anyone for example who has a cursory glance of reality in Belfast can see where fires are being stoked and who is doing the burning

  3. Billy – We don’t have to look far to see what still needs fixed as part of this developing peace process. The financial and human costs of failure are obvious – over 60 police officers injured in rioting last month; £7.4m the cost of policing contentious parades; dissident republicans still trying to kill police officers; £11.5m the cost of a ‘supergrass’ trial.
    This process has addressed a number of huge issues – the IRA and CLMC ceasefires, decommissioning, ending armed campaigns, power sharing and new policing as a number of examples.
    But it has failed to answer a number of big questions – including those on parades and the past.
    This process needs grown up conversations on these matters; not shouting across the road to use your words from the weekend, and that dialogue is needed sooner rather than later.
    The right to walk does not mean anywhere you want whenever you want, and as I wrote on Saturday many of us would join you on a march for jobs and education and the route would not be contentious.
    Young people need more than a band and a drum to define their place in society.
    This process has produced “ceasefire soldiers” in both the loyalist and republican communities – people who weren’t in any of the war trenches, but who are now playing dangerous games in the peace. I’ve heard them described as the “boy Generals”.
    They should not be allowed to direct the street plays that could end up in someone losing their life, and it will be too late if people wait for that to happen before recognising the need to talk.
    I have written on this website and elsewhere, that the dissidents are involved in pathetic,pointless and phoney wars, and people in your community should not march into their trap.
    There are huge challenges for both the republican and loyalist communities – and those two communities have shown an ability in the past to do the “impossible”.
    There is more to be done – and sooner rather than later.

  4. Billy and the Party should be applauded for the comments made on Saturday.

    Before Billy put his hand up in the YVC there was an embryonic PUP evolving. Men such as Hughie Smyth, Jim McDonald, Davy Overend, Ken Hagan, Billy Mitchell, Desi Balmer Snr and many others where providing a community service to the Loyalist people that delivered successive, sustained assistance & support to the local populace. From first aid training to filling in DSS forms to lobbying the NIHE to making up then delivering food parcels for the needy to taxi-ing the elderly for hospital appointments the Party played an effective community contribution that assisted society.

    As the conflict developed and young Volunteers went away to join Gusty in the cages or later to the Blocks the PUP role evolved to Loyalist Prisoner Welfare issues, and of course putting a public face to justify the armed actions of the UVF.

    It is a reality today, that Hugh Smyth is the longest serving Council representative on this Island and that he (supported by PUP party members) have been providing a community service for over 4 decades. A shining example of sustained community service. It is true that projects like Alternatives also provide a much needed service to the community.

    Therein are the words: community service.

    Post CLMCs, ceasefires, GFA, a staggering but evolving process of peace is it a con-incidence that the only 2 elected representatives the PUP have are hard working, dogged, constituency servants with high individual profiles for delivering results for their constituents?

    Is it plausible that some in the PUP have forgotten that an Army or a Political Party cannot survive without the sustained high regard, and support of the wider community from which they originate?

    Is it probable that negative actions in that community (rightly or wrongly perceived) are damaging the Party’s electoral opportunity?

    Those that know me, know that I often rattle off Kennedy: “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for it”. I feel that the PUP needs to get back to their roots within the working class community at large. It was done before and can be done again.

    Living in cloud cuckoo land on socialist rhetoric while wallowing in a victim mentality because of injustice is not the answer, is it?

    Self motivation and brave, planned sustainable co-ordination should be the order of the day?

    I agree that Historical enquiries have been quite 1 sided and Saville created a hierarchy of victims thus strategically planning then publicly challenging both Political Unionism & Sinn Fein to put a stop to the circus of enquiry is a priority. With that should come the articulate presentation of the emotion that the atrocities visited on working class Loyalist communities created – that bitter abandonment that was felt as countless innocent civilians where done to death or injured in the name of Irish Republican ‘Socialism’ but what mileage will really be gained by having enquiries?

    I am also tired of seeing the Young Conway Volunteers go round and round on TV. It was wrong and I personally believe playing music outside any place of worship is wrong. I condemn what the the band did that day however the band apologized. The issue was monopolized by Sinn Fein using a sympathetic press – Unionism was out manouvered (again). Get over it, and accept that the band did wrong in the eyes of society. 2 wrongs don’t make a right so I see no mileage in getting into the politic of one up man ship every time Irish Republicans play outside a Church, pose with weapons or dissidents use live rounds. Time and resources are better spent in community service & leading social reform that political unionism will not embrace.

    Media reporting of republicans is not done in a sensitive
    manner. Republicans are simply more articulate & dare I say it presentable. It is sectarianism that resents that they can publicly debate and perform better. There are many platforms for Loyalism to engage and debate (this website being one) and they should be utilized.

    Diverting young people into Loyalist bands has indeed helped anti-social activity in working class communities but the contentious Parading issue is perceived as a nuisance to wider society that seriously damages the Loyalist community, and more importantly risks potential investment and jobs. Policing same is also a cost this region can do without.

    It is true that only a small number of parades are contentious but they are contentious and the only way they will be resolved is face to face negotiations and debate with those disagreeing. Is this a role for the PUP, I don’t believe it is. GOLI and the other Loyal Orders are those who demand to walk these routes and thus I believe that they, alone, should be negotiating on this with residents.

    In today’s society any one who believes they have a right to march, is frankly, wrong and that needs explained because times have changed. A high level of maturity is needed to win that debate because the contentious issue is largely confined to West & North Belfast only, now.

    Working class children need real role models as examples to aspire to. Given the reality of generational unemployment it is essential that social reforms are the priority.

    Billy, your sentiments are honest and some of your words inspiring. You are however 1 man and the Party 1 segment of Unionism. Back to wide community roots, secure the mandate, lead positive change with positive, peaceful action and authentic community service.

  5. Billy and the Party should be applauded for the comments made on Saturday but is it enough to secure an electoral mandate to participate in the evolving process of Regional Government?

    Over the course of my life I have tactically voted for the PUP, I have fund raised for the PUP and personally gave of my own finance or time to support candidates, I have canvassed for the PUP across the country but would I do any of that right now, today: No.

    My personal example is an area that Billy has not mentioned i.e. the declining popularity of the Party and the reason why that is happening.

    I can remember a time when the embryonic PUP
    was evolving. A time when men such as Hughie Smyth, Jim McDonald, Davy Overend, Ken
    Hagan, Billy Mitchell, Desi Balmer Snr and many others where providing a
    community service to the working class community they lived in. Loyalist people where delivered successive,
    sustained assistance & support to a range of community issues. From DSS advice to practical help to delivering food parcels for the elderly or infirm, the Party played an effective community
    wide contribution that assisted wider society. I can remember queues outside the Eagle as the community waited patiently to seek help because they trusted those in the Party.

    As the conflict developed and young Volunteers went to join
    Gusty in the Kesh or later the H-Blocks the PUP role evolved to
    Loyalist Prisoner Welfare issues, and of course putting a public face to
    justify the armed actions of the UVF.

    It is a reality today, that Hugh Smyth is the longest serving Council
    representative on this Island and that he (supported by PUP party
    members) have been providing a community service for over 4 decades. John Kyle over the last 15 years has done same. Both
    shining example’s of sustained community service provision, trusted by their electorate..

    Therein are the words: community service & trust.

    That’s why I voted PUP or supported the Party at varying degrees over my life.

    Yet, today, after the ‘hubba’ of ceasefires, GFA, a staggering but evolving process of
    peace I see a party lacking in cohesive direction or policy.

    As an outsider looking in I don’t recognize the political party I once knew & valued.

    Perhaps it is designed that way now. Perhaps the Party is, literally, no longer about community wide service and politic. Perhaps the Party has become a one trip pony?

    For me a perception has been created that makes me feel that some in the PUP have forgotten that a
    Political Party (or indeed an Army) cannot survive without the sustained high regard, and
    support of the wider community from which they originate?

    For me, it is probable that negative actions in that community (rightly or
    wrongly perceived) are damaging the Party’s electoral opportunity?

    Am I alone in my perception? The polls would suggest I am not, and it is in addressing these negative connotations that I believe the Party Leadership should be looking because without an electoral mandate Billy will remain “a voice crying in the wilderness”.

    I love the quotation by Kennedy: “….ask not
    what your country can do for you but what you can do for it….”. Anyone who has heard me canvassing know it’s one of my rants regarding electoral apathy.

    For me the PUP needs to revert to service for the working class
    community at large. It was done before and can be done again.

    Self motivation and brave, planned, sustainable community co-ordination (including tackling rising electoral apathy) should be the order of the day?

    Some of the specific Loyalist issues raised by Billy, I agree with but my perception on the why, what, for is different as I have developed a wider world view.

    It is true that the complaints are very real, but equally, there appears a lack of cohesion to properly address them. Rioting, violence and games of one up man ship with neigbouring communities are not the answer , indeed such activity devalues the Unionist people at large and makes working class areas appear antiquated, dare I say it, primitive in rationale

    The fight today is political. It is a battle of informing the people, taking their feedback, then negotiating and debating. Importantly it’s about winning that debate through power of persuasion and charisma (individual or collectively). Threats or actual street violence have no place in our evolving society nor have such actions any place in addressing the much needed social-economic reforms required in Loyalist working class areas.

    There is no justification what so ever for violence.

    Given the history of the Volunteers, and the central role that the PUP has played for decades within Unionist society I am resolutely convinced of the positive input the Party can bring. Mature, level headed voices who will put country and wider society truly first are needed.

    Billy, your sentiments are honest and some of your words inspiring. I wish you every success in addressing all issues, securing a mandate and your endeavors to lead positive change which I pray will be by
    peaceful action and authentic community service.

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