This article, written by BRIAN ROWAN, fist appeared on EAMONN MALLIE’S website on November 20th.
It was one of those jump out lines, found on the Official PUP twitter account; a couple of sentences that tell the story of a continuing struggle for hearts and minds inside a section of the loyalist community.
It read: “Restructured, Prepared and Ready for ‘Unarmed Resistance’. Let’s do it for the people.”
I asked what it meant, and this was the response: “Simple – politics is the way forward …we all need to travel that road.”
The PUP is aligned with the UVF and, recently, the leaders of both Billy Hutchinson and John Graham sat in the same workshop at a conference that discussed progress in a conflict transformation project specific to this section of the loyalist community.
More than five years have passed since the leadership of the UVF set a target of “civilianisation” as a public statement that its ‘war’ was over.
It took two more years to achieve decommissioning; a move that meant weapons firstly placed “beyond reach” were then put “beyond use”.
This was meant to include all arms under the control of the UVF leadership, but that statement was then seriously undermined.
It was undermined by the murder of Bobby Moffett in 2010 – a public execution on the Shankill Road linked to a row between the former Red Hand Commando prisoner and senior figures in the UVF.
No organisation – including the IRA – decommissioned all its weapons, but to use guns in a day light assassination to settle scores linked to loyalist infighting brought a particular focus onto the UVF.
That organisation has not been able to escape that attention ever since.
Its members were linked to an organised attack on the Short Strand in east Belfast last year and to bombs placed at houses in the Falls area in the west of the city.
All of this raised questions about the commitment of elements within the organisation to the “civilianisation” project.
So much so indeed that in recent days, the Police Federation called again for the group to be “re-specified” – a political term meaning a ceasefire is not recognised.
This is the backdrop to that recent conference attended by Hutchinson and Graham and other significant loyalist figures, a conference to review progress.
Long after the wars, there are still concerns about recruitment and the involvement of elements within the organisation in continuing criminality, including drugs.
According to loyalists, Graham held a recent meeting with leaders in east Belfast; a part of the UVF that has been dragging its heels on that march towards a different road.
Hutchinson knows that at some point, if this unarmed, civilianisation, conflict transformation project is to have credibility, then those who want to travel that route will have to distance themselves from those who don’t.
“I agree totally, but it is how it is done is the key,” he tweeted in response to a comment I made last weekend on the need to isolate those who are using and damaging loyalism.
This will be the test of the seriousness of loyalist leaders such as Hutchinson and Graham.
There is a dark cloud hanging over the organisation; the possibility of another so-called ‘supergrass trial’; one with the potential to target and damage the leadership of the UVF, reach into the rooms where orders were given and actions decided.
It is an issue of real concern.
Supergrass trials, whatever their new title, are a ghost of a failed past, and there are those who believe that this is slowing down the possibility of further progress, the moment of genuine civilianisation after decades of conflict.
That said, Hutchinson argues that the vast majority of those who were part of that conflict now want to leave those battlefields behind.
There is evidence of a re-energised political/community approach.
Billy Hutchinson facing the media
Hutchinson is emerging again as the political face of loyalism.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott addressed the recent PUP conference.
The Party has a new website, a new twitter account, being used to pump information out into its community.
People are being encouraged to register to vote.
Much of this is happening behind the scenes, this re-engagement in the peace and political processes, including a recent private meeting with Sinn Fein on the huge questions of the past and reconciliation.
Hutchinson said in a recent television interview with me that we need to deal with the past, but not in a way that “nails people to the wall”.
He has asked his party to prepare a paper as a contribution to the debate, and this too is important given the loyalist involvement in our different wars.
A big part of the PUP’s recent conference focused on marching, and the party needs to be careful that it is not defined on this one contentious, cul-de-sac issue.
It needs to offer young people something more than a drum and a band.
Education and jobs are the real challenges.
If this conflict transformation project is to work, then Hutchinson and Graham and others need help.
The UVF needs to go away, not be seen or heard; do what it said it was going to do more than five years ago, and leave the politics of the peace process to the PUP.