Our lack of an agreed ‘Legacy’ is now a legacy of ‘the troubles’. The ‘troubles’ were a legacy of our divided history and in Ulster our divided history is a legacy of other histories; which are also divided.
Sometimes we might try to change history but we can’t, because we live in the present.
How we choose to live in the present shapes the future and history demonstrates that those who confront their fears are the ones who deliver the brightest outcomes. Their courage is characterised across the human experience when risk is the only means to reward. Whether it be the suffragette who chained herself to a well-connected railing or a terrified young man who ventured into the ‘No Man’s Land’ of human conflict that which we take for granted today was forged by their capacity to over-come the doubts of others. Our peace process was no different.
In the context of our peace process those who built its foundation asked and sought to answer questions that challenged the orthodoxies of the day. The voices for politics questioned the orthodoxies of victory in conflict. The compromise at Stormont was an answer that demonstrated that none of us is ever alone and that some needed to give more than an inch. At times people’s reaction to those difficult questions proved that in demanding situations, those who challenged conventional practice faced the most robust responses; but it was they who made the difference.
In 1974 RTE broadcasted two programmes called ‘Firing Line’. In one the Irish journalist Vincent Browne questioned SDLP member of the Northern Ireland Executive, John Hume. He moved that Hume had ‘broke’ his ‘word’ to the electorate when he spoke to the British government before internment was ended. Browne’s question was legitimate and for many Hume’s action must have been thought-provoking to say the least; but he did not back down. Instead he replied that he saw ‘no other way forward other than by political discussion’. In one sentence Hume managed to challenge conventional wisdom and articulate the actionable principle of dialogue that would eventually underpin the Good Friday Agreement. And fair play to him because he was right.
In November 1990 Peter Brooke, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland answered a question that went to the heart of Britain’s commitment to ‘Our wee country’. He said it had no ‘selfish economic or strategic interest’ in it. At the time I myself was heard to babble some rather uncharitable thoughts about the question and the answer but I now understand that Brooke’s words opened the door to dialogue and thus, it had to be said.
In June 1992 while speaking at Bodenstown, Sinn Fein activist Jim Gibney answered those who might have wanted to know how Republican strategy was evolving. He said they knew and accepted that future ‘negotiations will involve the different shades of Irish nationalism, and Irish unionism engaging the British government either together or separately to secure an all-embracing and durable peace-process’.
At that time like most Unionists I was not an avid follower of the annual Bodenstown address and did not read it until I became politically active a few years later. On first reading I was again uncharitable feeling that Republicans would eventually tire of negotiating with the ‘West Brits’ recognising instead that peace on the island could only be built by engaging the Unionists of Ulster.
Two decades on I now see that one person’s Ulsterman can legitimately be another person’s Irishman and thus, it’s as well Gibney said what he said.
In 1997 David Trimble answered a question that went to the heart of how Unionism in Ulster would respond to the challenges of the peace process. He was confronted with the reality of being the first Unionist leader since partition in 1921 to negotiate with Sinn Fein and to the chagrin of many, Trimble said yes. Ten years later as he was being sworn in as First Minister, Democratic Unionist Party leader Dr Ian Paisley might have had a good old chuckle to himself when he considered how he was benefiting from Trimble’s answer and the foresight contained within. It would be unreasonable not to acknowledge Dr Paisley for what he did that day himself; had he not led the ‘No’ camp into power-sharing the whole concept might have died for at least another generation.
Power-sharing had been under its greatest stress in the period 1998-2001 when First and Deputy First Ministers David Trimble and Seamus Mallon sought to steer the new Assembly through its infancy. Trimble’s position was difficult as the costs of delivering the Good Friday Agreement mounted. The reform of policing and the release of paramilitary prisoners were never vote winning policies in Unionist areas and throughout (more often than he was comfortable with), Trimble’s political survival relied on Progressive Unionist Party MLAs David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson.
Ervine and Hutchinson were themselves not the issue, both had been part of the Stormont negotiating process and informed commentators knew their votes were safer than many of Trimble’s own MLA’s. The problem was the background because both were former Loyalist prisoners and Trimble would and could not get close. Ervine, Hutchinson and the entire PUP knew and understood this and thus it is fair to say no favours were offered, none were asked for and none were given.
Ervine and Hutchinson gave their assistance on a no strings attached basis because they backed the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation. They would have supported any Unionist leader who was working towards that goal and it is now recorded history that their position was directly attributable to their experience decades earlier in Long Kesh prison camp. Back then Loyalist prisoner Gusty Spence created an education led environment and it enabled the political awakening of Ervine, Hutchinson and others. It’s a subject that remains a source of understandable dis-comfort for Unionism but we can’t change history and nor should we try, because in the end we have to make peace with the histories we do not like and sweeping them under the carpet eventually takes us back to conflict.
This writer was neither a paramilitary nor a prisoner and thus I am not in a position to do justice to the experience; most especially when other writers and commentators have already done it better. I recommend the reader take time to digest Roy Garland’s 2001 work entitled ‘Gusty Spence’; it is an excellent source. As are Henry Sinnerton’s ‘David Ervine: Unchartered Waters’ published in 2003 and ‘Inside Man: Loyalists of Long Kesh-The Untold Story’ by the late William ‘Plum’ Smith, published in 2014. I was a teacher, and thus I will comment on the environment Spence created from that perspective.
Spence arrived in Long Kesh in December 1972 and was put in charge of the Loyalists in compound 12. Conditions were poor and Spence used that to do what every teacher must do firstly with young men; routine and discipline. He initiated a regime to boost morale, health, discipline and cleanliness and it worked. Republican prisoner Martin Meehan watched the effort from a neighbouring compound and later observed in Garland’s book that Spence ‘ran a very tight regime in terms of discipline’ ensuring his men were ‘out drilling, keeping fit and running around’.
Next Spence initiated an informal education process that enabled political discussion. In his book Smith described how removed ‘from the day to day chaos of conflict on the outside we were able to discuss, debate and produce a document tackling core issues in a mature and open handed manner without the fear of being called a traitor or a coward’.
After that when opportunity arose Spence encouraged those who wanted to progress with formal education. Hutchinson gained an Open University degree in Social Sciences and there were many more but most importantly for history, Spence had nurtured a group of informed individuals willing and able to return to the streets as advocates of ‘politics over conflict’. As they were released the Progressive Unionist Party grew.
Named the Progressive Unionist Party in 1979 the PUP always sought to reflect Spence’s ‘politics over conflict’ approach and in doing so it achieved beyond its size. In 1994 in the earliest days of the peace process party leader Hugh Smyth’s two decade record as honest broker was recognised when he was made Lord Mayor of Belfast and in 1996 as Northern Ireland Forum members Smyth and Ervine built political relationships beyond their constituency; as their influence grew Ervine caught the eye.
Never an apologist Ervine set his stall out and stuck to the task from the moment he was released in 1980. Spence had taught him that he was in it for the long haul and that’s how he did it. He challenged his immediate constituency to think strategy over emotion by investing in politics and then he got himself elected. Initially into the beauty parlour that was Belfast City Council Ervine never wavered from his belief in politics, always challenging the wider Unionist world to engage in the peace process. His finest hours were during the 1996-98 Stormont negotiations and he backed his words with action when he contributed to the Assembly’s infancy in 1998-2001 by voting pro-agreement at every turn. The respect Ervine was held in was best reflected on the day he was laid to rest in January 2007. All shades of Ulster, Irish and British politics turned out and the mood was well captured by Irish News cartoonist Ian Knox. He portrayed Ervine as the Loyalist who had ‘swallowed a dictionary’ and it contained not ‘a single sectarian word or phrase’.
At Stormont Ervine was joined by Billy Hutchinson.
Unafraid to wear his Loyalist heart on his sleeve Hutchinson was elected by Loyalist/Unionist communities in North and West Belfast throughout the 1990’s. Always one to do what he believed to be right Hutchinson was true to Spence’s philosophy and had a voting record to prove it; thus as Ervine’s vote helped secure the Assembly’s infancy so did Hutchinson’s. That he is still around today as a Belfast City Councillor is tribute to the regard in which his voters continue to hold him and whilst it has been difficult to deliver the benefits of peace to North and West Belfast Loyalist communities, ‘Hutchy’ is a marathon runner not a sprinter, so he won’t have quit.
History will record that in the Unionist camp the heavy lifting for the Good Friday Agreement was done by David Trimble and his colleagues in the UUP. They had the numbers and the lion’s share of the credit is theirs but they did not do it alone. It required the support of Ervine and Hutchinson and it secured the Assembly through its infancy. As young men entering Long Kesh Spence had challenged them with the question ‘Why are you here?’ and two decades later when the Agreement’s survival needed their support, they answered that question, which leaves only one issue to consider – what of Spence himself, why was he there?
His contribution to politics in Long Kesh went a long way to explain why he was there but that is not the full picture. He lived the troubles in its entirety and he knew the meaning of conflict, most especially its costs and that experience was reflected in the Loyalist ceasefire statement he read on 13th October 1994. It articulated a narrative of history and expressed an inclusive vision of the future. Only a figure like Gusty Spence could have read it and it is now a part of Ulster, Irish and British history and in this writer’s opinion it is why he was here – it finished,
‘We are on the threshold of a new and exciting beginning with our battles in future being political battles, fought on the side of honesty, decency and democracy against the negativity of mistrust, misrepresentation and malevolence, so that, together, we can bring forth a wholesome society in which our children, and their children, will know the meaning of true peace.’.