Looking back in sadness

By David Adams (for the Irish Times)

Ten years ago, on October 13th, 1994.the Combined Loyalist Military Command, representing the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando, declared a ceasefire and expressed “abject and true remorse” to all the “innocent” victims of the Troubles.

David Adams was a senior figure in the Ulster Democratic Party, now defunct, then the political wing of the UDA, in 1994. He was intimately involved in the negotiations that led to the loyalist ceasefire.


On October 13th, 1994, I was sitting on a panel at Fernhill House in the greater Shankill area of west Belfast with a half-dozen or so other men, and feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the presence of a world media that was listening intently to an elderly colleague’s every word.

Slowly, Augustus Andrew “Gusty” Spence lifted his head and stared straight at the cameras. He needed no script to remind him of the next line: “In all sincerity, we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past 20 years, abject and true remorse. No words of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during the conflict.” The previous day I had been helping him put the finishing touches to the statement that would announce the loyalist declaration of a ceasefire when he beckoned to me (in all truth, Gusty needed little help from me or anyone else): “There you are, young Davy,” he said, stabbing a finger at the computer screen, “they’re the lines that really matter.” The media’s excited reaction to his words that day in Fernhill House, and the subsequent widespread public approval they generated, proved way beyond any doubt how right Gusty had been.

More importantly than that, the loyalism of 1994 meant every word of it.

It has been a long, hard road since then and, sadly, a long time since loyalism has said or done anything that was greeted with even the tiniest measure of public approval.

Inter- and intra-organisational feuding, sectarian attacks, organised criminality of virtually every kind and numerous violations of their ceasefire have seen to that.

So what went wrong? Highly sceptical and paranoiac elements within unionism and the unrelenting, gravitational pull of their anti-peace process (and subsequently anti-agreement) position, proved irresistible for many; the gradual realisation of what, in real terms, the full implications of a peace process taken to its natural conclusion would mean, did it for yet others; but, more than anything else, the unfulfilled expectation that there would be, as of right, a substantial electoral reward for helping bring the conflict to an end undermined the best of efforts of most.

We can add to that mix the ever-present scourge of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, our determination to revisit the conflict at every opportunity and, 10 years after the ceasefires, the continued failure by politicians to establish, for any meaningful period of time, the local structures of government that were so widely endorsed at referendum.

Governments can do many things to help move people beyond violence and into the political mainstream.

They can, and did, encourage, consult and, in various ways, provide a large measure of assistance.

However, within any democracy worthy of the name, what they can’t and should never be allowed to do is dictate to the electorate whom it votes for.

The sole motivating factor for loyalism in helping to bring the conflict to an end should always have been that it was quite simply the right and proper thing to do.

Any electoral reward that subsequently flowed from the ceasefire should have been viewed as an added bonus - not something that was due as of right.

Most of us at Fernhill House in 1994 fully realised and accepted that fact. Regrettably, too many others didn’t.

There are still people within loyalism who would, if given the chance, take it in a more positive direction.

But, for the time being at least, their voices, if heard at all, seem not to be carrying any weight.

It now looks highly likely that any prospect there might have been that genuine, left-of-centre and non-sectarian politics would take hold within working-class unionist areas is going to be washed away in a tidal wave of support for the Democratic Unionist Party.

For those of us who announced the loyalist ceasefire 10 years ago, things have certainly changed, and not always for the better.

David Ervine, the most articulate amongst us, is, to his credit, still ploughing what has become an increasingly lonely furrow, continuing to argue passionately that violence should be banished from our society forever and replaced only by meaningful politics.

Gary McMichael, as ever, is working hard to try and improve the lot of local communities. He now runs a drugs awareness project and also works daily with young people from disturbed and disruptive backgrounds.

For myself, nowadays a writer and commentator, I still try in my own small way to influence things for the better in Northern Ireland. It is for others to judge whether or not I am having any success in that.

None of us has managed to come through the last 10 years completely unscathed.

Each, to some degree or another, has had to deal with threats, intimidation and violence - and little of it has emanated from any republican quarter.

In this respect, and disgracefully, Gusty Spence has suffered most.

During one of the many loyalist feuds, he and his late wife were driven from their home on the Shankill Road in Belfast.

Forced from the area he loved and where he was born and raised, Gusty now lives a well-deserved much quieter life in a small coastal town.

As things have developed during the years since 1994, I’ve often thought of something else Gusty once said to me.

We all basked a little in the warm glow of public approval that followed the ceasefire announcement, but Gusty was more cautious.

Knowing the nature of Northern Ireland society only too well and conscious of the rearguard action that many elements within unionism would mount, he once whispered quietly to me: “We’re working class heroes now, I wonder how long it will be before we’re enemies of the people.” He got that one right as well.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News