The PUP – at another of those crossroads – writes Brian Rowan

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It has been a long journey since the ceasefires year of 1994.

Almost 20 years and on a road on which loyalism at times has lost its way.

Now, it has arrived at another key point.

Because, these next few days of voting and counting will tell the story of the here and now – will be a measure of Billy Hutchinson’s tenure as leader of the PUP.

“When you are starting from a very low base, you aren’t going to rebuild Rome in a day,” party spokesman Winston Irvine cautioned.

“We are running a marathon and not a 100 metre sprint,” he added.

So from a party perspective – this is more a gauge of progress rather than some make-or-break moment.

Hutchinson – a former loyalist prisoner – reads in and out of the past twenty years.

He led the PUP delegation in the first exploratory talks with government officials that followed the October 1994 Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefire.


CLMC ceasefire 1994


And he was part of the electoral breakthrough – with him and David Ervine elected to Belfast City Council in 1997 and the Assembly the following year.

Hutchinson was also interlocutor with the de Chastelain arms commission.

So, he was central to those ‘good’ years, but this is only part of his story.

He has also experienced the political wilderness of more recent times.

“Loyalism still wants to see itself playing a very positive and constructive role in the peace and political processes,” party spokesman Winston Irvine told the website.

But, while Hutchinson and others have tried to rebuild the loyalist political project, elements of the UVF – particularly in east Belfast – have intruded and  embarrassed.

We see it in the painting of ‘war’ murals, in headlines of criminality and racist attacks and in the shooting and brutal wounding of a young woman.

They have acted in defiance of orders and direction given by the UVF leadership seven years ago – in what was supposed to be the endgame statement of May 2007.

So, all these years later, Hutchinson and the PUP need the UVF leadership to publicly disown those elements.

It has to be that clear, because those processes of politics and peace still need loyalist involvement.

This is when things have worked best – when everyone and all sides are inside the same tent.

I can remember Hutchinson once describing the loyalist mandate as “the silence of the guns” but, today, in the here and now, you need something more than that statement – something more than words.

The now imminent Council elections will be Hutchinson’s first as leader, a test of the mood in the loyalist community.

Much will depend on numbers when the counting is completed.

Part of the backdrop to these elections has been the street fallout over flags and marching, what Hutchinson has called ‘cultural war’.

His party needs a result – needs to get him and others elected.

Rebuilding might well be a work-in-progress, but this is a minimum requirement and today’s mandate.

There are no rash predictions.

I asked Winston Irvine what would represent success: “An overall increase in the vote and a number of breakthroughs in terms of seats – particularly in areas where the PUP hasn’t organised before,” he responded.

“It’s testament to him [Hutchinson] that this is the first time the party has ever organised itself in such a structured and co-ordinated fashion,” he continued.

“I think there’s always been a gap there that needed bridged between the working class communities and the political establishment.

“That has crystalized in recent times,” he said.

But will it show itself in votes and numbers? That’s the real test of these next few days.

From inside the PUP, eight names are mentioned – Hutchinson, John Kyle, Billy Mawhinney, Julie Ann Corr, Izzy Giles, John Stevenson in Portadown, Russell Watton in Coleraine and Jim McCaw in Carrickfergus.


Julie Ann Corr Progressive Unionist Party candidate for Oldpark

Julie Ann Corr Progressive Unionist Party candidate for Oldpark


And it is around those eight names that the numbers will be added up to see what they make – how many get close to the line in terms of success, how far away they are and what it all means in terms of seats.

From outside the PUP this will be the measure of success or failure – the make or break.

Think of the big moments of the past twenty years.

The ceasefires needed the loyalists, the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement needed the loyalists, decommissioning needed the loyalists.

Their presence was a comfort blanket for Trimble and the unionist negotiators.

But the loyalists were absent from Haass – given only a bit part role, and that process got stuck in the political mud of indecision.

Loyalists with many others, including the IRA, security, intelligence and governments, are critical to the explanations of the past as part of some information-retrieval process.

They also need to be part of the discussions on flags and parades, but it has to be about more than slogans and street fights.

Where one community shouts ‘cultural war’ another can see ‘coat trailing’.

Things aren’t going to be the same, can’t be the same, and these processes can’t be reduced to demands, but should be about what everyone needs.

Do they need loyalist involvement?

Yes they do.

Can Hutchinson deliver it?

We will know when the counting is done and the focus switches again to the unfinished business of the processes – both political and peace.

These are big days for loyalism – some might argue potentially defining days.

Can Hutchinson and the PUP deliver in this phase of their rebuilding process?

In the here and now, that will be judged in the counting of votes and seats over the next few days.



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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. Brian
    I’m reminded of a surreal joke that one of my friends told me some years ago. “what’s the difference between a duck” he asked. “One of its legs is both the same” That’s the way I feel about the PUP. Its in a confused other place representing a loyalist community coming to terms with its identity while still living in the past. A sense of two UVFs. One within itself not behaving like a good UVF should. So we talk about ‘elements’ within the UVF in East Belfast as if they were somehow separate from a good and benign UVF who have given up their evil ways and become community workers. In the same way the SF tried to differentiate itself as the political wing of the PIRA and failed, so too does the PUP.

    The PUPs appeal even within the heart of their own so called communities has been tiny. Behind the ballot box screen, where people feel safe they take their revenge on a party which is comfortable with its alignment to the UVF which 7 years on is still, murdering, maiming, extorting, blackmailing, intimidating and drug dealing. Many believe they are behind racist attacks in their areas. And that’s the point. They exploit their own communities through fear and then somehow expect them to come good at election time.
    So yes – their supporters will vote for them and they may get a councillor or two more to try and shift the flag vote in Belfast. Beyond that redneck vote in North and East Belfast their influence ends. There are 462 councillors to elect. In democratic terms they will be lost in the noise. In terms of influence on Policing Boards and as independent members of the PCSPs and on the media it is much wider than they deserve.

    The piece you don’t discuss is just how much the DUP have become associated with loyalist para-militarism as the Orange Order seeks to shore up its cause within a broad church of support which openly acknowledges UVF and UDA support.
    So as a unionist I find myself in the bizzare position of agreeing with Martin Manginess when he calls Unionist leaders cowards for their failure to denounce the UVF and other loyalist paramilitaries.

    Paramilitaries of whatever hue remain part of the problem because they by their actions have proved they are not part of the solution.

  2. Surprised you haven’t mentioned Billy’s recent outrageous remarks that his involvement in murdering innocent catholics stopped a UI. What sort of message is that sending to violent loyalists on the streets? Also allegations about Winkie in a recent Spotlight are also overlooked. An allegedly active member of the UVF on the policing board? Hmm.

    • Thanks for your contribution. I think we can take any individual or a couple of people and put them under the microscope, what they did and what they said. Is that the best way to address the questions of the past and to establish a context? I don’t think so. We need a process that is not about individuals but about all of the sides and the many sides to what happened here and we need international help to shape and structure that process. This has been my consistent argument. We can play games with the past or we can try to help those who’ve been hurt the most. Looking back shouldn’t be reduced to what happened or who did what or said what – but why it happened and why it should never happen again. That means everyone should be involved, including loyalists. That’s the point I make in the article above.

      • The idea that establishing a process will somehow equate to helping those who have been hurt most is debatable in a context where our knowledge and perceptions of the past differ greatly. Sapper Patrick Azimkar’s mother recently made the point most eloquently that the pain of loss is further heightened by the sense of injustice many victims and their relatives feel that the guilty go free.
        I could argue that establishing a process for ‘dealing with the past’ as if it were an insolvency dispute is as much playing games with the past as any other approach. The past and what happened in terms of deaths maiming and destruction is a matter of record and fact. How we contextualise it and explain it should be for victims to decide not a political class who are barely representative of the electorate in NI and who certainly own no rights to interpret the past as they see fit.
        In NI we seem to have turned every form of natural and criminal justice on its head in pursuit of peace. That ‘peace’ has signally failed to deliver and where victims were prepared to stay quiet and suffer for a greater good, they no longer are. Good on them. Lets have the big truth discussion about La Mon the Ballymurphy families, Bloody Friday, Pat Finucane, Teeban and let those who have remained silent for a greater good speak out in their disgust. Why should politicians who speak for a minority of voters decide how the past should be explained away?

        • barneyrowan on

          Thank you for your contributions to this discussion. We all know there is not going to be absolute truth from any side never mind all the sides. I think the important recommendations of Haass/O’Sullivan were the Archive for all stories, acknowledgement and the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval. I think it needs that outside element and I don’t think the past can or should be explained away. What the ‘peace’ has delivered is an end to the daily news of killing, but there is much still to be done in terms of addressing continuing threats, achieving stable politics and finding the right processes to deliver information and answers. I don’t think that process should be shaped by politicians.

          • Brian, thank you. I don’t think any process will be shaped independently of our politicians…however, it is time to forge an alternative narrative independently of politicians and forum’s such as Eamonn’s are to be encouraged. An alternative blueprint for NI must embrace much more than flags parades and the past and I believe must start with a debate around whether trying to make enforced power sharing succeed is the best way. Personally I believe the majority of people here would like to see stable democracy. I also think that both SF and the DUP understand that there is power in maintaining political conflict, no matter what the cost on the street.
            I think we are far to deferential still to the failings of our political system and those in control of it, perhaps in the hope that it will eventually come good.
            Unfortunately my living room isn’t big enough to start a new movement, but we do need the collective space to start a new debate on our future, unconstrained by trying to find ways of making our current political penguin fly.

            Good debate.

          • I think the collapse of the Haass/O’Sullivan process at the turn of the year was about some wanting to write the narrative on their terms – trapped within their own party-political straitjacket. That would take us nowhere. Maybe there’ll be another move from Haass/O’Sullivan and we’ll see then if governments have the courage to pass their recommendations to an international team. I think we are all too close to what happened and this will need outside eyes and thinkers. That is if we really want to ask the hard questions of all in a serious attempt to get answers.

      • I understand, however the reason I mentioned those to incidents is precisely because of how recent they are. Our agreed and established context today is peace. Comments such as Billy’s and having questions to answer about being a current member of the UVF are ill fitting and out of place in the political environment that people voted for. Sadly you only have to look through social media to see that some PUP representatives routinely broadcast extremely sectarian views that go unchecked by the party. I’m sure that there are plenty of decent hard working members of the PUP that have integrity but, in all honesty, to me, they come across as a step in entirely the wrong direction. I think N.I has had enough of sectarianism over the years and given how recent the incidents I mentioned are I think the PUP either need to move forward and get in line with the rest of the population very quickly, or let us all move on. And I would welcome them to move forward with the rest of us but voting for gay rights does not a progressive party make.

        I completely agree with you about dealing with the past. An international effort would ensure impartially, allowing every side to tell their story which is vital to us moving forward as a collective.

  3. ELECTION UPDATE: in these elections the PUP has produced a number of good results in line with the assessment given by a party insider in the piece above before voting began. In one count, the combined first preference vote of Billy Hutchinson and Billy Mawhinney was 2325 with the party leader topping the poll. John Kyle and Julie Ann Corr were also elected in Belfast and Russell Watton won a seat in Coleraine. Party spokesman Winston Irvine, quoted in the article above, had said success would be an overall increase in the vote and a number of breakthroughs in terms of seats. This has been achieved and the party now has something to build on and something worth holding on to. There were other results for Ian Shanks, Izzy Giles, John Stevenson and others that are a platform on which to build. The immediate challenge beyond these elections is addressing the issues of flags, parades and the past. Loyalists need to be part of those discussions – talking inside the tent rather than shouting outside on the street. Over the past few days, the PUP has won something that should be used positively and not wasted. Brian Rowan

    • Brian,
      I’m afraid I’m struggling to see how the PUP have developed a platform on which to build. Both Billy Hutchinson and John Kyle were goods bets and two more in Belfast is a good result for them, but they have a long way to go on a very narrow message, which hardly translates outside East and North Belfast. Its a long time to the next council elections and 2016 is still some way off, plus nothing has changed in Belfast CC to put the flag back up and life has returned to normal in the City Centre. Winston Irvine’s comments are hardly insightful. Most people guessed they would get 2-3 into Belfast CC off the back of Twadell and flags. Their complete inability to turn that into mainstream and broadly acceptable politics means they will remain on the margins of the political debate. Add to that their UVF ‘credentials’ and they are even less attractive to the mainstream. How can the PUP address flags and parades in any other way than ‘no surrender’ and who in mainstream unionism, the so called ‘guilty prods’ really cares about these issues any more? Drumcree barely gets a mention now, yet Loyalism was prepared to defend that to the last man too. Shouting on the street is not a reason for bringing them inside the tent.

      • barneyrowan on

        The polls were suggesting one PUP seat in Belfast and there was a view that Hutchinson would struggle. So, they’ve performed better than that. ‘No Surrender’ doesn’t work and won’t work. These issues need to be talked off the streets and, on the past and answers people are seeking, loyalists have a contribution to make, which won’t be decided by the DUP and UUP negotiators. I think it’s important that loyalism has an elected voice and that they work their way back to the period 94-98 when they made an important contribution to the developing peace process. I’m not suggesting a major electoral breakthrough, only that they are in a better place on numbers and seats.

  4. Where would the PUP be without the rabble rousing, rioting, parading aggro of the UVF?
    This is not to say that the DUP and UUP have clean hands as it was the former who started the fleg protests by distributing the anti-Alliance leaflets, which have agitated the more extreme brands of unionism.

    So any political progress the PUP seem to have gained is just a protest vote by those who feel they have to be ‘agin’ everything.

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