For the first time, in an exclusive interview with Vixens, senior members of the Loyalist Community speak in depth about criminality, racism, Adair, perceptions of the UDA and conflict resolution. Síofra O’Neill explains…
As someone who would be perceived to be from the Nationalist community, I must admit to reflecting to myself on the way to meet the West Belfast UPRG – the political wing of the UDA – that this maybe isn’t the done thing, and certainly would have been almost unheard of twenty years ago. I was slightly nervous. There’s probably no need for me to explain why…
I needn’t have worried. I was warmly welcomed into the offices of the UPRG on the Shankill road, and met with three members of the organisation, had a cup of tea, and got down to business. I was genuinely curious to find out what the UPRG had to say, but I also wanted to be hard hitting. They also had an objective – they wanted a fair platform to air their views, citing misrepresentation in the past – and they wanted to highlight some of the positive work which they have been involved in. It’s challenging for someone who has been at the wrong end of paramilitary violence to open their ears to such a message. It’s true to say that Loyalism has largely had a bad press, for a number of well documented reasons.
I met with the UPRG before the row over Pastor Mc Connell’s comments and subsequent events since, however we met as the debate around racist attacks was erupting in Stormont. I asked the UPRG if they condemn racist attacks in Northern Ireland. “We’re trying to make the future better for our children and our grandchildren, genuinely so. We have absolutely no hesitation in condemning racist attacks, sectarian attacks, any form of criminal violent attacks. They are not welcome, and they put the entire work which we are trying to do in jeopardy”.
The UDA is made up of 6 brigade areas, yet each area claims autonomy over its own. I ask the West Belfast UPRG, if, when they talk about leaving criminality behind, recent attacks by other areas of the UDA such as that in Larne, could be perceived by those outside of the Loyalist community as being the overall UDA?
“Yes, and that makes it more difficult, because a broad brush stroke is obviously taken, and we all get tarred with the one brush. But, we are trying to lead by example here, to show a model of good practice for other organisations, and we will condemn criminality, from whatever element. We wholeheartedly condemn sectarian attacks and racist attacks, including recent personal vendetta attacks, such as that in Larne and racist attacks in East. It’s wrong, and it should stop, now. We sit on the Greater Shankill Community Safety Network, which a number of people from other cultures also sit on, we welcome people from all cultures to live in this community and contribute to redeveloping the Shankill. Every area which would have been UDA linked is at a different level, but the goal is still the same”.
So, what about public perception that the west Belfast linked UDA are trying to ride two horses, by some members of the organisation being involved in criminal activity, while the political wing condemns it?
“Criminality among former west Belfast UDA members is practically non existent because of dedicated work on the ground. It was slow at the start, yes, but we have been able to show through community development, and through working alongside the PSNI on groups such as the Policing and Community Safety partnerships, and with bodies such as the Department of Justice, and interagency meetings -and with republicans on various forums, that we are committed. We’ve been doing that day and daily for the last five years, and in that time, crime statistics for the Shankill area have gone down. So, were obviously doing something right! We signed up to the PCSP principles and ethos – there is one force for dealing with law and order, and that is the PSNI”.
At one time, the UDA on the Shankill road was immersed in a bloody feud between loyalist factions. Does the West Belfast UPRG think that things have changed for the better?
“The community spoke and stood up to people like Johnny Adair and his associates. They sent out a clear message that they were not welcome. And, since Adair went, the fear factor on the Shankill has largely gone, and criminality levels have been greatly reduced”.
With regards to media reports of the UDA being active in North Belfast : “Clearly there is an issue in North Belfast, our desire is that the community resolve their differences and reaffirm their total commitment to peaceful means, because it is affecting the community on the ground there.”
We talk about murders which the UDA were involved in, and I ask the UPRG if they understand the public perception in relation to them as being gangsters etc ” Of course we get that. Some people will look at us and think “murdering bastards”. During the conflict, the Shankill Road was the “bastion of loyalism” because it took the war to the IRA, and yes, ordinary members of the Catholic community suffered as a result. And, yes, we recognise that terrible things were done. The UDA have a bloodied and chequered past, which we have never denied. The UDA under the banner of the Combined Loyalist Military Command offered “abject and true remorse” for conflict related actions. Republicans have not stated remorse for their part in a murder campaign. There was bad done on both sides, and we hold our hands up to that. But, we are having hard and difficult conversations with our neighbours, some of whom have shut doors in our faces because they don’t see any benefits coming to their community post Belfast Agreement. Our biggest problem now is showing the community the benefits, such as regeneration and access to education. And that requires us to have a business like relationship with those who are in positions of power”.
The tone of the discussion changes when I raise the issue of a time coming where paramilitary organisations will be consigned to history.
“Let us make this clear. We will not take lectures from unrepentant republicans such as Declan Kearney, Spike Murray, Martin Mc Guinness, Bobby Storey or Gerry Kelly. We’re not the ones standing on public platforms shouting about the dark side of our peace process or dark forces at work, we would rather concentrate on the present. We are conscious that our past needs to be left behind for the benefit of the peace. That requires working on the ground, in the present, and at every corner, certain quarters are taking us back to their past. We are in the midst of a journey which hasn’t been completed, and we are taking our ex combatants with us. We have gone through significant milestones; the ousting of Adair and Co, the ceasefires, decommissioning. That journey is not complete, but we know in a civilised society paramilitaries need to be a thing of the past – and we do that by changing attitudes, by changing things like lack of investment, and working to bring in better educational facilities for our young. A lot of Loyalist ex prisoners have PTSD, alcohol and isolation problems, just like republicans do, and we need to address those things also, so that people see their lives changing. Thats the only way it can be done. ”
So, where now for the West Belfast UPRG? Are they gearing up to move in a political direction? ”We engage with all the unionist parties for the benefit of our people. But the West Belfast UPRG at this time has no political aspirations other than to see unionist unity maintained”.
With that one of the representatives phones rings to the sound of “Mission Impossible”, we laugh and I ask if the transformation from violence to peace will ever be complete”.
“We think it can and will be, good leadership and tangible results are the key. We have to put a value on ourselves and our efforts to change things now for the better, despite the past. If we don’t, nobody else will”.