The past – bigger than one man’s war

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Loyalist William ‘Plum’ Smith and Republican Sean ‘Spike’ Murray. Image courtesy of Colm McGlone


(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

At Monday’s PUP news conference on the huge issues of reconciliation and the past there was a notable absentee – the party leader Billy Hutchinson.

It wasn’t a snub but an acceptance on his part that on these issues he is “a bad messenger”.

Hutchinson was a life sentence prisoner associated with the UVF and the wars and the killings of this place.

So, on Monday, he left the talking to Dr John Kyle; talking on a statement under the heading ‘Transforming The Legacy’.

This was not intended as a definitive thinking out, but rather an initial contribution to a debate with further detailed documents to follow.

In part, it was also an answer to the recent Sinn Fein commentary on national reconciliation and the objective of an agreed Ireland and, within its news event, the PUP offered its own context set within a very different frame.

“Northern Ireland in an integral part of the United Kingdom and reconciliation needs to be sought in the context of that political reality,” its document reads.

The headline positions stated in this  first paper include:

– “There are no political parties in Northern Ireland qualified to drive a process of reconciliation. All have contributed to a greater or lesser degree to the divisions that we must address.”

– “Just as there can be no hierarchy of victims there can be no hierarchy of responsibilities either. The suggestion of any hierarchy will turn reconciliation into a political game and this cannot be allowed to happen. The focus must be on the social impact of conflict.”

– “For Northern Ireland to deal with its past everyone must be involved.”

– “Only when we have a process which is comprehensive enough to accomodate all the stories and experiences of conflict can we say that dealing with the past is now possible.”


Progressive Unionist Party launch their document on an inclusive future for Northern Ireland at Cllr Dr John Kyle’s office in east Belfast. Left to right. Raymond Laverty, Cllr Dr John Kyle and Paul Robinson from Progressive Youth.


There is no guarantee that a process on the past will be constructed and no certainty about participation.

Progress will depend on will and on a realistic assessment of what can be achieved.

I have argued before that we should stop calling it a ‘truth process’ and try instead to create something within the frame of explanation, information and story-telling.

On Monday John Kyle accepted that building any process might need international contributors and participants and if so, “then so be it”.

His message was on the need for an inclusive process stretching across political parties, governments, churches and others.

Into that frame you can place the media, police, military and security service.

There are of course some who argue that a process on the past will not be achieved, that some type of line should be drawn and that we all move on, but this type of thinking ignores and forgets those who can’t.

What the PUP is offering is a kind of scaffolding within which it might be possible to build something more.

That will depend on the contributions that others are prepared to make and not just republicans.

This debate cannot be left to two sides, cannot be reduced to blaming those who have been to jail – people such as Billy Hutchinson.

It needs to be more thinking than that, and those who argue that nothing is possible should look at an event scheduled for later this month.

Under the title ‘Beyond The Wall’ Sean ‘Spike’ Murray and William ‘Plum’ Smith will discuss the events of 1969.

They will bring to the conversation different perspectives and different truths – their stories of the beginnings of the different wars and then the evolving peace.

So, we have an example of what is possible if people want to try – an example of the type of discussions that are happening all the time between and involving former enemies.

It is not about one truth, but constructing a narrative out of many pieces of information and different and competing explanations.

With the 20th anniversaries of the ceasefires nor far away, republicans and loyalists are opening up a debate and creating a stage onto which others are being invited to step.

That’s the challenge, and if they don’t then we will continue to dwell in the past rather than deal with it.

(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

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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. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at


  1. It seems, the PUP seeks primarily to focus not on how a ‘shared future’ of equals can be built but rather on how to re-write the generally accepted historical narrative so it doesn’t reflect badly on Loyalists. But, the simple truth is that in the 1960’s Loyalists such as Gusty Spence engaged in sectarian violence and incited hatred in order to prevent Stormont signs of “appeasement” of legitimate Nationalists civil rights demands, and the PUP’s Billy Hutchinson et al exacerbated the divisive sectarianism that we now need to
    In a nusthell, the very creation of a gerrymandered Northern Ireland state presented us with a unique and divisive situation that will in its present form forever be capable of being
    exploited by extremist Republicans. What we most need is, to help working-class Loyalists rediscover their Irish national/country identity and to develop a visibly ‘Irish state’ of equals that may or may not for the foreseeable future be governed under a Union flag. Look around and pay serious attention to the fact that the state has only ever recognised the relatively fledging ‘British Protestant State For A Protestant People’ despite the native Irish identity, their heritage and culture were here a millennium before a Unionists/Loyalist/Protestant people who persist in feeling like “planted” immigrants under siege – the UK is made-up of British subjects who are the English, Scots and Welsh and Loyalists are none of those.

    • Irish Celt, your purist view could exacerbate the difficulty today.

      Your view denies the rich ethnicity of our Island and the historical reality that for 18000 years the Island was planted by pioneering livestock or agric-culturists; invaders;raiders; nomadic travellers; planters fleeing religious persecution & more
      latterly immigrants seeking to improve their lives. The Irish of today
      originate from Iberian Peninsula Pioneers; Gaels of these various Islands; mid-Europe Celts; the Romans; religious Missionaries; Vikings; invading Normans &
      Saxons; Presbyterian planters & latterly immigrants from further a-field
      like Africa and Eastern Europe.

      The rich names for the Island – Fódla, Ériu, Banba or Louerne, Hiverne, Hibernia
      or our provinces of Ulster, Munster, Connaught & Leinster shine as clue-beacons that we Irish are a rich diversity of peoples in origin. No single cultural identity, today, has a right to promote their tradition as pure because to do so denies reality.

      Irish-Celts descendents are no more ‘pure’ Irish than any of the other ethnic groups that arrived here.

      You’re also confused on what makes the UK and what makes Britain. The UK is a multi-cultural society primarily of Irish, Scot, Welsh and English while Britain is the Scots, Welsh & English.

      None of us living today can change the political social economic decision making process of the past. Events such as The Act of Union; The Penal Laws; the Home Rule Crisis; the Ulster Covenant; The 1916 Rising; The Government of Ireland Act; or the Irish Civil War ensured that all of us, inherited, a Constitutional and Political system that none of us helped create and which when used as propaganda today is often presented in fictional perceived ‘ideals of purity’ that are devoid of the suffering the events actually created, then & now.

      We, today: Protestant, Catholic, Agnostic, Atheist, Unionist, Nationalist and Republican have all suffered by the hands of others from our shared, inherited, political, social & economic past.

      The recent legacy of Armed Struggle & the Right to Defend Ulster is the dead and casualty list:

      3529 dead of which 1842 where innocent civilians, that is not a State or non-State combatant actor, and over 47000 injured.

      As a former State combatant (HM Field Army) I am prepared to rise above propaganda or specific events, viewing things in a wider societal context.

      Today, most of society can see that throughout our difficult and dreadful recent past, so many loved or valued members from both communities tragically lost their lives, most un-necessarily. Only a sectarian or irrational fool would argue otherwise?

      The heartbreak, the loss and the hurt of those violent violations has damaged many minds leading to emotions of anger, resentment or revenge – a raw legacy issue.

      The living reality is that death doesn’t comprehend political ideology, religion or army. The dead know only one thing: they’d rather be living yet the raw legacy today are the suffering broken hearts because loved ones lives where cut short.

      We can never forget those that died, largely un-necessarily, by what ever side.
      Their legacy must be that we who survived communicate to one another, and to
      the generations yet to come that we will never again succumb to worshipping at
      the high alter of violence and hate by destroying each other.

      Let the below radar engagement continue, let respect be earned and trust built – therein is the answer to our shared futures.

      • @ Glenn B
        The thrust of my post was to cast
        doubt on the motive underlying the proposal presented on behalf of
        sectarian murderer Billy Hutchinson of the PUP; he knows that unless
        he can change the narrative his face can’t really ever again surface
        on the political stage.
        In my opinion, the majority of
        Unionists/Loyalists never intended engaging in building a genuinely
        ‘shared future’ wherein the state would meaningfully portray and
        respect my Irish identity, heritage and culture – show me even a
        single emblem or monument in a Government institution that reflects
        the Irish people who inhabited this island a long, long time before
        the creation of Stormont?
        With respect, I don’t subscribe to your
        rather romantic view that seeks
        to wipe-out the evil ‘heritage’ of
        the PUL community and particularly the endless Loyalist hate-fest
        marches that they perversely describe as a ‘culture’. Oh and I’m
        fully aware of the history of the “native Irish” and the
        latter “planters” who came to aid and abet the English in
        their quest to destroy the inhabitants of this island; the former
        were my forefathers (yes we’ve traced our family lineage).
        all is said and done I come to believe, the GFA was a confidence trick
        designed to do no-more than dupe Republican extremists into
        (thankfully) decommissioning and that the majority of the PUL
        community always intended to thereafter revert to business as usual
        in their bigoted, supremacist Protestant State For A Protestant
        People – I would vote a resounding ‘No’ to the GFA if I could turn
        back the clock, even realising the alternative outcome I would have
        experienced… I truly get the feeling our children – or their
        children – will experience our worst ever blood-letting and until it
        happens there will never be a lasting peace on this island.
        I’m not at all confused about what represents ‘British’ as I lived in
        England for almost 25 years. What I see and hear leads me to
        conclude, there’s very little ‘Britishness’ in the PUL community; the ordinary decent people
        of England would speak-out loudly against offensive conduct, or any
        form of blatant unfairness and injustice.

        • Billy Hutchinson is but 1 man amongst almost 975000 people who (according to the last census) see themselves as ‘British’ or ‘Northern Irish’.

          As an individual Billy cannot change his past, none of us can, but he can help build a better future. The reality that people have a past doesn’t mean they cannot have a future, be they Loyalist, Republican or other.

          Regarding our most recent spate of troubles, there where sectarian killers on all sides – a casual analysis of the casualty figures indicate that, and it’s a tad selective if not intimidating to single Billy out for ridicule.

          However, I’m not writing to defend Billy H or indeed the PUP.

          You’ve missed my point entirely on the ethnicity of the Island – we’re all Irish. There is no such thing as ‘native’. At some point in time all peoples arrived here & in 2013 it is ethnic racism to assume that there is some higher form of ‘purist’ irishness – there is not.

          I am making the assumption you’re a Republican & if you are then such racist ideology denies the founding principles on which Republicanism was built, and indeed denies the statements to the 1916 proclamation, but that’s another debate.

          You also make the assumption that all members of the Protestant faith or the political ideology that is Unionism and / or Loyalism hail from either the Plantation or Presbyterians who fled persecution when that is not the case. My own paternal family lineage to Donegal & Derry trace to the 14th Century a prime case.

          No doubt post partition in 1920 both States set out to limit and diminish their minority communities. The Nationalist / Roman Catholic community of the new Northern Ireland state share similar suffering to the Irish Unionist / Protestant community of the new Free State.

          The fact our architecture & symbolism is largely ‘Georgian’ ‘Victorian’ or ‘Edwardian’ across Ireland in overture is because that was design practice. Post partition, of course, each state symbolized it’s beliefs in the new builds created – that was life then however a casual walk around Dublin, Cork, Kinsale etc will show a rich ‘Britsh-Irish’ architecture that we should all actually be proud off.

          My initial reply to you clearly indicates that I am not seeking to wipe out anyone’s inherited past, whether that be Republican, Loyalist or Unionist so I don’t know why you make that charge.

          As for Loyal Order marches – yes sectarian coat trailing is prevalent at some demonstrations, and I am on record as stating it needs to be sorted because flags, flutes and drums don’t satisfy Loyalist or Unionist community need. As time advances, and the Loyal Order numbers in strength diminish so does their relevance to the wider pro-Union community, and thus change is inevitable.

          I disagree with your ‘war’ rant. The Global situation and Western view on acts of ‘terrorism’ mean that any campaign won’t be tolerated for long. Closer to home, I believe there are enough of us unapologetic peace processors discussing, debating, eradicating ignorance, securing mutual respect and evolving to assure that prolonged suffering will not happen. I’ve no doubt dissident Loyalists or Republicans may kill but a sustained campaign is not achievable. Finally, any ‘blood letting’ flows against the will of the people of this Island.

          As a member of the Unionist community, I am also unimpressed with political advances post GFA. Against my own expectations, the GFA has failed the people, namely:
          a) Community Segregation is rife evidenced through the need of growing “peace walls”
          b) No policy is yet agreed on a “shared society”
          c) There is no Bill of Rights
          d) There are still active non-state paramilitaries on the streets and huge alienation with some communities
          e) The “peace dividend” for disadvantaged communities never, largely, happened.
          f) The economy is bad & would be in ruin but for the imbalanced dependency on the public sector – conversion from such dependency in itself being another huge challenge
          BUT those failures wouldn’t make me throw the baby out with the bath water.

          You don’t understand what being ‘British’ is. It is certainly not, solely, about ‘English’ culture. As stated in my first reply, the British Nation are a multi-cultural diverse people primarily made up of Irish, English, Scot & Welsh each with their own rich culture & traditions. Here and to a lesser extent Scotland, some of the culture & tradition, was built around the Loyal Order demonstrations which I’ve covered my view on in the paragraph above.

          I’m a proud provincial Ulster-man who is an Irish-man from this Island, also British by way of the present constitution & the geographical reality to these British Isles. I, personally, respect all traditions & culture on this Island, and it is a shame that you cannot respect mine because in your rhetoric you appear intent on 1 sided condemnation, ridicule & the path to destruction of almost 1 million people?

          I say, as an unapologetic peace processor, lets rise above propaganda and selective suffering. Lets overview with balanced eyes firmly fixed on the horizon that we will never again inflict suffering on one another (regardless of outside manipulations) and let us, together, earn trust, respect, creating a-new.

          • @Glenn B
            I stated in the Census, I was ‘Northern Irish’ as that describes where I was born and my accent; I never considered it would or could be misused to describe the very opposite of my allegiance.

            I know, we’re all Irish on this island (as did mouth-piece Ian Paisley and the late David Ervine of the UVF/PUP) but you try explaining that to working-class PUL people brainwashed by the Orange Order into hating all things Catholic and Irish.

            I have difficulty acknowledging the PUL community have any unique ‘rich culture & traditions’ worthy of praise or otherwise not the same as those of the English/Scots/Welsh. The point I seek to make is that in my experience (and I’m someone who lived among British people in England for a quarter of a century) even the silent/moderate PUL community seem to lack any of the core trites of British people that I find admirable (see previous post). It also severely irks me to hear certain PUL people unjustly whinge that their ‘heritage’ is “under attack”. The undeniable truth is that the heritage of those PUL people of English and Scottish ancestry is; their forefathers volunteered to be planted here at various times to aid and abet the English state to destroy the Irish people.

            Likewise, the majority PUL community silently setback watching expressions of a vile Loyalist “culture” that just isn’t acceptable in a civilised society; endless marches through shared streets triumphantly waving that hated, blood-soaked Union rag while spewing anti Catholic and anti Irish sentiments intended to cause offense to neighbours and fellow countrymen.

            Billy Hutchinson is the author of the above referred to PUP proposal thus I wasn’t being ‘selective’ in referring to him; he’s the low-life telling Irish Republicans if we don’t stop expressing our desire to achieve a united Ireland, his proposal will not work.

            I will never cease agitating for the banishment from this island of the British establishment and its blood-soaked Union rag and I don’t care what any UVF/PUL sectarian murderer or any other Unionist/Loyalist think of that stance. In fact, Evil Billy boy truly has so infuriated me that I intend focusing my energy on composing and disseminating to the widest possible Nationalist /Republican youth audience my view of the true ‘heritage’ and hate-fest ‘culture’ from whence Billy boy originates.

            It’s become apparent especially during these past 5-6 months, our 15 year old GFA is dead and needs formally buried.

            In closing, I maintain my belief that we live in a biased ‘Protestant State For A Protestant People’ that will only ever meaningfully recognise the identity, heritage and culture of a hate-fuelled and/or acquiescent (fast dwindling majority) PUL community. I might add, this is a community that shown no interest whatsoever to demand their elected representatives took action to build a genuinely shared future wherein my Irish identity, heritage and culture would receive equal state recognition under a Union flag.

            I’m signing off now to go spend my future spare time agitiating and undermining this vile entity we call Northern Ireland… I truly have had enough of sectarian self-serving PUL individuals personified by Billy boy and Peter Robinson.

          • Your unbalanced, irrational, selective, extreme views on the history of this Island, it’s peoples, the evolving political process and our relationships with other countries, display, how hard the reconciliation work ahead of us will be.

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