1 The Conflict’s Fifth Business:
A brief biography of Billy Mitchell Kate Fearon February 2, 2002 “Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organised according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”1 1 Thomas Overskou, Den Danske Skkeueplads, from Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, Penguin, 1970
THE CONFLICT’S FIFTH BUSINESS: A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF BILLY MITCHELL
2. Sinning and being Saved – life as a young Belfast Baptist
3. Politicising Protestantism: marches, rallies and the UVF
4. Prisoner’s Dilemma
5. Internal Debate – a maze of religion and politics
6. Change on the inside; change on the outside
7. Politics proper, and community development – back on the outside
8. Personal and Practical Peace building: restorative justice and the conflict transformation project
10. Select bibliography
THE CONFLICT’S FIFTH BUSINESS: A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF BILLY MITCHELL
This report would not have been possible without the full co-operation of Billy Mitchell, and his generosity of faith, time, and patience in commenting on seemingly endless drafts and many rescheduled meetings. Mary McKee had the original vision for capturing on paper something of the life of Billy Mitchell, was supported by the Management Committee of the LINC Resource Centre in a successful approach to the Community Relations Council for funding, whose financial support I also acknowledge. Amanda Verlaque edited the report as astutely and effectively as ever, and Alison Gray transcribed the interviews with great speed and accuracy. My gratitude goes to them also. I’d also like to thank my colleague John Fraser for introducing me to the writing of Robertson Davies.
THE CONFLICT’S FIFTH BUSINESS: A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF BILLY MITCHELL
4 1. Introduction
Everyone who lives in an environment where political conflict has spilled over into sustained violence has a story to tell, be it how they adapted and lived fairly normalised lives throughout, protected by class, money, or geography; or how they adapted and got involved physically and politically in both armed and unarmed aspects of the conflict. Billy Mitchell belongs in the latter category. Born in 1940 to working class parents in a small place called Ballyduff, which then nestled on the edge of North Belfast, he grew up in the years during and after World War II, experiencing and enjoying adolescence like many of his pre-Troubles contemporaries. As Billy’s story unfolds, however, we encounter a young man who found himself at the core of the Unionist resistance to challenges laid by Nationalists from the late 1960s onwards. More importantly perhaps, he became involved in the paramilitary activity for his community. He would carry out acts of terrorism in the name of Loyalism; be imprisoned for his actions, finding that 14 years’ incarceration would give him plenty of time to reflect on the whys and wherefores of his actions and the individuals and organisations that had helped to shape him. Billy Mitchell possesses that rare gift of self-analysis and it is this aspect of his personality that would play a key part in his future – from questioning the basics of his spiritual and political beliefs to developing an ethos and approach to life that would benefit himself, his community and NI society in general. He is now Programme Co-ordinator for the LINC Resource Centre, based in North Belfast, and has truly come full circle – from serving time as a member of the UVF, and using this experience in rebuilding his community, reaching across to the Nationalist and Republican community through his work in his Church, and the political party the Progressive Unionist Party, and through bringing concepts of restorative justice and community peace building to reality. What this piece of research seeks to do is outline the story of that journey. From life in a small Northern Irish city in the 1940s, under a majoritarian Unionist government, time in prison in support of the union, though not necessarily its Unionist government, and release into a barely recognisable social, political and personal landscape. The research details some of the influences that were to direct Billy Mitchell’s post prison life – debating the essentials of Unionism, Christianity, and community development. On the outside he developed these three strands, contributing to politics by work through the Progressive Unionist Party, to Christian social action via the Church of the Nazarene and to intra and inter community development by creating firstly Local Initiatives for Needy Communities (LINC) and later, involvement in InterComm – a cross community peace building venture. In turn these catalysed into learning theories of conflict mediation, resolution and transformation and application of these in the form of restorative justice and larger peace building programmes in North and West Belfast, Monkstown and Carrickfergus. It will be some time before the full history of the conflict can be written, and it is questionable as to whether a comprehensive and cohesive study is possible in one book. However they are presented, the major studies will be sure to focus primarily on the principal protagonists of our political stage – the media stars elected or appointed, past and present. And they deserve their respective recognitions, and the various interpretations of their roles that have been and will be written. But it should not be forgotten that they were never alone on the stage, that there were other characters who supported their work, and provided important links between their work and what was happened in other social spheres, spheres far removed from the glittering theatres of Washington, Dublin or London. Billy Mitchell is one such person, and there are others of his ilk from both unionist and nationalist communities, some of whom are mentioned briefly in this study. This brief biography cannot cover the complexity of all the detail of and influences of in Billy Mitchell’s life thus far, and it was never intended that it should. The conflict is not yet far enough behind us to impart all the detail: Mena Mitchell, for example, has much more to say, and other mundane considerations have limited the scope of this study, but it is hoped that other authors will be able to use the foundation I have written here. What this study seeks to do is to make a small contribution to the canon of literature on the conflict in Northern Ireland, to demonstrate that conflict resolution, or transformation, as Billy Mitchell sees it, cannot happen wholly at the level of political leadership, but must take place at grassroots level, and should be linked to and be relevant to people living on the ground, people who are closer to and recognise those involved in ‘Fifth Business’ roles more readily than those who have their names in lights in the show’s billing.
THE CONFLICT’S FIFTH BUSINESS: A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF BILLY MITCHELL
2. Sinning and being Saved – life as a young Belfast Baptist.
But back to Ballyduff. Billy’s stay there was brief, as his father died when he was two and his mother moved in with her parents in the Hightown Road in Glengormley. To avoid embarrassment when talking to his peers Billy described his house as a wooden bungalow, but it was basically an old wooden hut. He remembers, “You had a kitchen with an old range-type stove, a living room, and two bedrooms and a wee scullery. There was one gas light. The toilet was outside. There was coal when we could afford it, but the stove would burn nearly anything – old shoes, wood that the boys found around the fields, anything, really.” In the two bedrooms and the living room lived his grandparents, mother, brother and himself. His grandfather, who had cancer, died in 1950 and his grandmother died three years later. Billy’s father had worked for Campbell’s in Mossley Mill, at what the trade then called a rover. Billy has no real memory of him, as he died of appendicitis – what would be a non-life threatening condition today – when Billy was two. There was no choice then but for this mother to go to the mills also, working as a stitcher in various factories in Belfast. She reared the children on what pittance she received plus her widow’s pension and whatever National Assistance she was due. She never married again. But poverty did not embitter. Schooldays at Glengormley Public Elementary were happy times and Billy was good at essays, or writing compositions, as they were known then, as well as geography and history. And while he was not so strong at maths and technical drawing that didn’t matter, if the teachers wanted anything done for the school they went to Billy and a few others to write stories. There was no reason to have an especial interest in writing, but it was there. From a political viewpoint, however, school was not a formative influence. It was the mid-1940s, and five year old Billy went to school in the middle of a solid Unionist constituency, smack bang in the middle of Glengormley. But there was no talk about anything Unionist or Nationalist at primary school. In the nineteen forties the question did not arise, there were no Troubles, there was simply a Unionist majority government, ruling from the mighty sandstone Stormont building in East Belfast. Politics would not enter Billy’s frame of reference until the late 1960s, when Ian Paisley came on the scene. It wasn’t that there was no family involvement in traditional Unionist culture. His father had been in the Orange Order. And like many other men of his generation, his grandfather had fought in the First World War, as a member of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles. He had also been a member of the old, original, UVF. Tales of heroism and nationalism didn’t abound when there were mouths to feed. A few stories would have come through on the radio – there were no TVs; the Queen wasn’t yet crowned. The radio was an old wet and dry cell wireless. One big dry cell battery, and two wet batteries, that you had to get charged with acid and ‘stuff’ at the garage. Stories round the fire were about the war, the Carter’s Strike, the Outdoor Relief Riots of the 1930s and local folk and political history. Some of these were about the United Irish Rising of 1798, led by liberal Presbyterians. South East Antrim had been a hotbed of Presbyterianism and rebellious activity and one of the leading United Irishmen, James Hope, was buried in Mallusk graveyard, not far from the Mitchell’s old Hightown Road home. Apart from that, there wasn’t a great deal of politics talked about in the house. With a mother who was a Sunday School teacher in the local Baptist church, most of the talk in the house did revolve around religion but never in the controversial sense of Protestant versus Catholic. It was more about the work of missionaries and the meaning of the bible and the catechism. It was thus a fairly strict religious upbringing, but with freedom to question. There was no doubt that Billy knew what was right and wrong according to the faith, but, as he approached his teens other things came into play. While the spirit might have been willing, the flesh was weak. Girls began to get in the way of his mother’s well-rehearsed religious teachings. The girls that he fancied preferred the cinema and dances to the Christian Endeavour and Prayer Meetings. At a time when virtually everything that we nowadays would recognise as fun or frippery was considered a sin, girls were indeed the cause worth, if not dying for, at least rebelling seriously for. Going to the pub, going to the pictures, seeing women who wore earrings, or who wore lipstick. Things that are now taken for granted, even in evangelical churches, all were sinful for Baptists. The main tenet of the Baptist faith is that you must be born again, that everyone is a sinner so therefore everyone needs a saving relationship with Christ. Unlike Catholics, the Baptists didn’t believe in infant baptism: you were baptised upon professing the faith. Local congregations were fairly independent, as befitted the origins of Protestantism in the radical reformation. Each congregation elected its own pastor and its own deacons: autonomous, with the potential to be radical. Many of the early Anabaptists promoted the principles of popular sovereignty, republicanism and civil equality; and many were put to death because of their radicalism. Three of the core principles of the early Baptists were (1) Freedom before God in Faith, (2) Freedom of religion in the face of the State and (3) Freedom of personal conscience in the face of the Church. For Mitchell, “if the slogan ‘Civil and religious liberty’ means anything to me it is within the framework of these three Baptist principles.” Baptists predate the Protestant Reformation and have developed largely outside of the framework of the ‘Magisterial Reformation.’ Consequently both the Catholic Church and the Protestant State Churches persecuted them as heretics. Their belief that baptism should be by total immersion as opposed to sprinkling provided their persecutors with a novel method of execution: they were immersed in water until they either recanted or drowned. Death by drowning created many Baptist martyrs. In historical terms, members of the Mitchell family saw themselves as being part of a tradition that stretched back to the Anabaptists of Germany and, later, the radical English Baptists. They were outside the camp, as it were, in terms of being ‘dissenters’, but that suited Billy. He remembers that “the evangelical bit was fairly strict and it would have been in terms of you don’t smoke, drink, curse, you don’t go with bad women, if there is such a thing as a bad woman!” Travelling missions would come around, which would mean a visiting preacher, a pastor from Tandragee or Ballymena who would take a mission for a week. Missions would usually start on a Sunday night, with two meetings, and then go on nightly until the following Saturday night or Sunday. The focus would have been on the faithful in the church, but they would have been told to bring along a couple of new people to the mission. Missions were also a catalyst for being ‘saved’ in the Baptist faith. The first time it happened, Billy was about eight. In hindsight it’s easy to see how an eight year old would find it seductive. There were the biblical stories, and there was the emotional appeal of being saved. “Basically,” he remembers, “I think there was a lot of emotional pressure. It’s playing on your mind, which still happens today, with what we call the Billy Graham-type thing, the high-powered emotional appeal.” Even today Billy says that he has serious theological problems with what is known as the ‘invitation system’ popularised by Billy Graham and other American evangelists. “A living faith needs a strong solid foundation and religion based on emotional responses does not provide that solid base.” Mitchell says that his emotional responses to the gospel produced a weak emotional faith and led to a cycle of backsliding, restoration and more backsliding. It was a fickle kind of religion. It was a bit like the Catholic concept of confession. They could go to confession and get sorted out every week or every month. Baptists didn’t have this formal structure of ‘mini-saves’, so it was a matter of getting saved, backsliding, and then coming back again, making, in effect, a confession. Only instead of going to a priest you just got down on your knees at the bedside. The concept of being ‘saved’ is difficult for all those – Catholic or Protestant – who are not likely to ever experience it. Those who are ‘saved’ present us with images from older times, of direct divine visitation, of immediate ‘god-gratification’. And those that experience it, or call themselves ‘saved’, appear to do so in different ways, and with different degrees of intensity. Billy Mitchell believes that he did have a personal communication with Christ. The chief feeling he remembers, though, is one of relief, “of getting back on the right road again, with my sins forgiven. That sort of relief.” Before the days of dance halls and ‘bad’ women, play was mainly in the fields in front of the Cave Hill where the laundry dams that provided the water that supplied Whitewell Laundry were to be found. The old Whitewell laundry dam – above where the police station is now in Glengormley – was the best for swimming and fishing. “The rivers that fed the dams had trout that you tickled below the belly to catch them”, recalls Billy. “If they were big enough, I’d bring them home for tea. Normally they weren’t big enough, and my ma ended up throwing them out. ” If the fish were too small to be eaten, it didn’t really make a difference to the overall diet. There wasn’t much meat anyway. Mainly there was porridge and potatoes. There was never any roast beef and the closest thing to red meat was the inexplicably named vegetable roll, bought at the local butchers. But then there were apples, and dried eggs, especially just after the war. Boxes and boxes of dried eggs from the ration books. You could also get dried milk or condensed milk in the rations, but most of the Mitchell milk came from a local farm. And time was marching on. When he was just past 14, Billy left school and went to work in The Belfast Telegraph as a copy boy. “The journalist writes the story, the sub-editor edits it, shouts ‘Copy!’ and gives it to the copy boy, who puts it into a wee cup, inserts it into a tube that sends it up to the typesetters’ room. You were supposed to graduate up the line but I never stuck at it.” The Telegraph job came about because ‘someone knew someone’. Billy thinks the schoolmaster thought because he was good at composition he’d like it. But it was slow and boring. There was a lot of waiting around and the pay wasn’t all that great. “My first wage was twenty-one shillings a week (£1.05 today. You could make more in those days doing semi-skilled work or labouring – there were plenty of jobs. Even a messenger boy, on the old messenger bikes could make more money. Journalism was going to be a long slow process and a young man needed money for the dance halls or the pictures and to impress women. Billy stuck the Telegraph job for a year, and then went on to work as a shipping dispatch clerk. After that he was a lorry driver. If you were a young man with no dependants you could easily work somewhere for a couple of years, save some money and take a few months off because you were always going to find more work. The early days were hard, but the economic constraints relaxed a little as he got older. And since he had first started school, huge social changes had begun to take place. The Mitchells started out on the Hightown Road in Glengormley. At that stage there was no such thing as a housing estate for the young Billy. The first two housing estates that he heard of were Farmley Estate and the Harmin Estate, both on the Hightown Rd. These houses were, amazingly, made of brick and had toilets. No one knew what a TV aerial was when they first appeared. There weren’t massive differences though, between the children in the brick houses and the children in the wooden houses – they all played together, and there was no snobbery that Billy was aware of. “They might have been better off but they weren’t better, I never remember anyone looking down on us because we weren’t as well off as them.” The rebellious streak in him of course meant that he took an a la carte approach to the Baptist Church and to evangelicalism in general, valuing the independence of thought it offered, and applying it to devising ways of going to the movies and other places of ‘worldly’ entertainment. A series of Biblical epics in the 1950s like The Ten Commandments, The Robe and Quo Vadis provided whatever justification the young Mitchell required to go to the cinema. The closest cinema was the Capital, which was most recently Stewarts and is now Tescos on the Antrim Road in Belfast. Further on down the Antrim Road, on the corner of the New Lodge Road was the Lyceum. While the New Lodge would today be an area into which young Protestant men would not go, in the mid to late 50s, it wasn’t regarded as Catholic territory. Billy can’t remember any community or sectarian tensions. The only tension he can remember was between Teddy Boy gangs. “It was never usually violent, just eyeing each other up, being general rivals. If there were fights the main gangs would have been between areas. In Belfast itself, the Markets would have had a gang as would Woodvale, the Shankill and Tigers Bay. Very often they were mixed; it wouldn’t have been Protestant and Catholic gangs, just gangs. Glengormley had their mob and it was mixed in terms of religion.” If there was going to be a row, chances were it would take place in or around the Plaza Dance Hall on Chichester St. Nowadays it’s a car park and shopping centre called the Victoria Plaza, although the actual original site is opposite it. Home now to government offices: rates, the register of births, deaths and marriages or some such bureaucracy. Government offices seem to have taken over a lot of former dance houses – Sammy Houston’s Jazz Club on Great Victoria St. also now houses a multitude of civil servants. The old Co-op on York St. was in the same building complex, and outlived, the massive Orpheus dancehall. The government currently holds a lease on the property, which was home to the Northern Ireland Forum, and at the moment, the Civic Forum. The young Billy Mitchell and his peers were spoilt for choice: Maxims in Fountain St, where Waterstones is now, Betty Staffs in Ann St. and the Fiesta at the back of the Plaza. Similarly, the Dance Studio in Donegall St., the Floral Hall in Bellevue and the Club Orchid in King St; and of course there was the Maritime Club where the young Van Morrison introduced the Blues to Belfast. The dance halls regularly hosted Show Bands, and if there were rows, they would have happened in the dance halls. Rows were started for no more reason than there were teenage boys about. Someone would ask a girl to dance, knowing full well that who ever she had come with would come over and say that she was his girl. Bang! A scrap would start, and that would be that. And so life went on. A life that revolved around music, dances and girls together with the inner tension of resolving the conflict between the calls of religion and the desires of the flesh.
3. Politicising Protestantism: Marches, Rallies and the UVF In the mid-1960s .
Billy joined a flute band, the Dunanney Flute. Dunanney was a townland on what is known as the Old Irish Highway on the upper edge of Rathcoole in Newtownabbey. Billy was now in his early 20s, and he joined the band for a bit of crack. And it was there that he experienced his first taste of politics. He remembers that he ‘ sort of got caught up in the Paisley stuff’ when Paisley was holding his mass rallies and some of the boys in the band urged Billy to go to his first rally in the Ulster Hall. “I hadn’t heard of Paisley and said ‘Sorry, who’s Paisley?’ They told me to come on down and ‘you’ll hear him for yourself’. I suppose it was the rhetoric, the ‘no popery’. He talked in our language. We sort of drifted into going to more of his rallies, saying, ‘Och, we’ll go to the next one’.” From there, the band went on marches, and then attended the mammoth rallies and marches that were organised in the late 1960s. The Ulster Hall was the staple venue for these, but there were other rallies in towns like Dundonald and Ballymena. Some focused on religion – about the so-called sell out to Rome, others were more political- about the so-called sell out of Ulster, and how the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, must go. It was in encountering this fusion of evangelicalism – or fundamentalism – and Unionism that Billy became interested in politics. Before this, the only politics he might have been interested in was Labour and Trade Unionist stuff, but Ian Paisley had made an impression. Just before the Troubles broke out, Billy felt that everyone had sold out, when, in hindsight, he knows that all O’Neill was trying to do was to modernise society. “But it was just the way it was put over, and I was gullible enough to believe it”. His time with the band increased as did the number of marches the band attended. Indeed the number of parades he attended without the band also increased. After two years, however, Billy tired of the band and left. It was an Orange Lodge band and the Orange Order was supposed to be a religious order, but he found that there wasn’t much religion in it, at least not the evangelical religion he was brought up with in the Baptist church. His Lodge chaplain (who was not a clergyman in the religious sense) usually met in the pub with the lodge members before going to the meeting where they read the Bible. His Baptist upbringing reacted against this – alcohol and the Bible just didn’t mix. This was just too hypocritical, even for the young sinner, and, with that guilty conscience still there, he left the band. “If the Orange Order was purely a cultural movement, I could accept it. But I can’t accept the quasi-religious thing.” While Billy’s views on the religious nature of the Orange Order have not changed, his views on alcohol have. “I have come to a position where I believe in temperance rather than in the total abstinence position held by most evangelicals.” It was a time of many mass rallies, and the spin-off organisations that coagulated at their fringe. At that stage a plethora of other organisations, principally aimed at protecting Protestants, providing patronage, or promoting Protestantism itself, had come to the fore. He may have left the band, but the contacts he made there and with other bands put Billy in prime position to link up with recently formed organisations like the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, Ulster Protestant Action (UPA), or the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee. Even at that stage there was a penchant for different organisations, and tension between them within Loyalism. Billy’s first ‘direct action’ in the conflict really came in response to a Civil Rights Movement, and specifically, the civil rights marches. He was lorry driving at the time, and parked his lorry near to the bridge at Antrim Town joining in the first of the Loyalist endeavours to block the Civil Rights march from Belfast to Derry. A group of Loyalists with a couple of Lambeg Drums blocked the “head of the town” at the bridge to prevent the marchers entering the town. The message coming from Unionist leaders was that the whole Civil Rights Movement was an IRA conspiracy. He regrets that he accepted this analysis without question: “we were told this was an IRA conspiracy and we accepted that at face value without sitting down and analysing it for ourselves. One man, one vote – we didn’t have that either. If your name wasn’t on the rent book you didn’t have a local government vote whether you were a Protestant or a Catholic.” Billy never understood how he was supposed to have been “better off” than his Catholic neighbours. “I lived in a shack for the first 12 or 13 years of my life, my ma drew water from a well ten minutes walk away. There was a gypsy family used to come every year to a spot about a quarter of a mile from our house and I remember thinking there’s no difference here. Their kids washed in a basin, and crapped in a bucket the way I did! But we never sat down and analysed it. Who were these people we were protesting against? What had they done to me? Perhaps I would have talked this over with some Nationalists at the time if they had used different language instead of Civil Rights for Catholics. Sometimes I feel that it was sectarianised. If the issue of Civil Rights had been more universal, there might have been a chance for some common cause. But it came across as a Catholic thing, and obviously some Unionists made sure that it came across not only as a Catholic thing but also as an IRA plot. In reality, I know now, the IRA at that time was very small. But when the call came to go out and block roads, I was more than happy to. The marchers came right up to the block in Antrim. There was a bit of a stand off, but it was just banter really. The police bussed them past us after a while.” This was but the beginning. When the Troubles broke out properly in August 1969, Billy was actually in Derry with his band, in Waterloo Place, as some of the first stones were thrown. As the conflict intensified he got involved in local defence committees and vigilante-type movements. From these ventures he was asked to join TARA. TARA was a secret Protestant organisation. Originally it was put to him that it was backed by the Orange Order, though he doesn’t believe it actually was. It was supposed to be for a doomsday situation, to defend Protestants against an Irish Army invasion. At one stage Jack Lynch the Irish Taoiseach said he’d send the Irish army up to the border. Though a stupid thing to say in any context, it was believed by an anxious Protestant population. When the Irish Army violated the border, TARA would be there to defend the Protestant People of Ulster, or so its leadership said. Billy recalls that, William McGrath, a key player in TARA, and later disgraced and jailed in the Kincora paedophile scandal, “always talked about when the Irish Army came up, when the armoured cars came up the motorway, we’ll be there to stop them.” In Mitchell’s view TARA was effectively a talking shop. Its members were organised into platoons of 12 persons under a sergeant. “But, looking back, it was McGrath’s organisation, McGrath playing soldiers.” The rhetoric about the Irish on the motorway was rehearsed every time TARA met. So Mitchell left when a group broke away to form the UVF, or rather to join the UVF that had been reconstituted in 1965. One night a group of them all just got up and walked out. Others who were involved in TARA went to the UDA. In contrast to TARA, Mitchell sees the origin of the present-day Ulster Volunteer Force very firmly in the tradition of the old UVF, formed in 1912. He takes a twentieth century perspective, rather than seeking solace in centuries of suffering and seigedom: “When people talk to me about tradition and stuff like that they have a habit of going back to 1690, and beyond. If I am talking about Loyalism I go back to the Ulster Covenant and the UVF of 1912. Once you start going back into the mists of time you’d be at it all day. My Loyalism is based on the principles of the 1912 Covenant and these are about civil and religious liberty, equal citizenship, and the material well being of the people. It is not about hating Taigs; it is not about sectarianism. There are clear principles and if we are going to be faithful to 1912 we have got to stick to those principles.” It would appear to be a measure of the general naïveté and lack of political awareness amongst Mitchell’s peers at the time that he was able to reconcile the essential sectarianism of an organisation like the modern UVF with the principles of the older, yet still paramilitary, organisation. Yet it should be remembered that it was a time when ordinary Catholics still attended 11th night bonfires, and the conflict was not yet the conflagration that it would soon become. As the UVF developed there was always a tension between those in the organisation like Gusty Spence who did not advocate the view that every Catholic was ‘fair game’. Mitchell remembers that throughout the course of the conflict various voices were raised within the UVF and Red Hand Commando (RHC) circles against purely sectarian killings. Sometimes concerns were reflected in official UVF statements, like when in 1972 the UVF claimed that “sectarianism plays no part in our policy”. At other times views came in the form of personal statements and arguments of individual officers and volunteers. An article in the Orange Cross magazine (a publication closely associated with Gusty Spence) in July 1975 roundly condemned sectarian killings, stating that “To those people perpetrating these heinous crimes we appeal to you to stop now. The Loyalist people do not want it and they do not condone or support the men carrying it out…. It is not a crime to be a Roman Catholic.” While ambiguous and seemingly irreconcilable, it seems to be fairly normal that, for Billy Mitchell, “Even when I was in the bands and following Paisley I wasn’t into hating Taigs. I grew up with Catholics and I went out with Catholics and there was no problem. Nobody ever told me that you couldn’t bring a Catholic home. If she’s good looking she’s good looking, if she’s a good dancer she’s a good dancer. The only real difference is that the Catholic morality was a wee bit stronger at times, having to face the priest on a regular basis! The other thing about going with Catholic girls was that they could dance on a Sunday night and traditionally we didn’t, and I remember having a conflict, ‘Can I go to this? Should I go to this?’, but depending on how good-looking she was I’d go anyway.” Thinking about this particular issue in greater depth, Mitchell asked some of his old friends from the era, who confirmed a niggling feeling in his head that he was remembering events and attitudes differently from what they had actually been. While it is true to say that he was not brought up to hate Catholics, and that he did support the kind of statements that Spence made, old friends have pointed out to him that his attitude towards both Catholics and ecumenical Protestants began to change after he joined the band and began attending the rallies. “My friends have said that the more I went to the Paisley rallies and band parades the less I socialized with my old friends. They say that they noticed changes in my attitudes and that I was two different people depending on whose company I was in. One Catholic friend said that I seemed to be embarrassed in the company when she and her boyfriend joined it. Yet they had been two of my closest friends from about 1959. They reminded me that from about 1966 on I drifted further and further away from the old company of friends and was nearly always with the band members and other Loyalists. They did not think that I hated them but felt that I became embarrassed by them. I know that I deeply hurt them by distancing myself from them and the rest of the group. I tried to maintain two sets of friendships but by the outbreak of the troubles the friendship with the older ‘mixed’ company had gone and at best I was coldly polite. My friends from that time have recently also reminded me that I wasn’t so polite with other Catholics who did regard me as a bigot.” “Whether the term ‘hated taigs’ is right or wrong is immaterial; my attitudes changed and I severed my friendships with a group of good friends, hurting them in the process. They were obviously more hurt than other Catholics who regarded me as a bigot and believed that I did hate them. It is true; I did not regard every Catholic as fair game because I knew Catholics who were not fair game. While I may have drifted away from those Catholics that I socialised with in the late fifties and early sixties, I never regarded them as fair game. They were good, honest decent people who had been part of my teenage experience – and that was a good and wholesome experience. There were also numerous other Catholics whom I knew through family connections and work acquaintances and whom I could never have considered fair game. But the less I socialised in mixed company, worked in mixed company and maintained friendships in mixed company the fewer Catholics I knew as individuals and the less I knew Catholics as individuals. When the communities polarised in the early seventies and I moved about solely in Loyalist circles, Catholics became ‘them’ as opposed to ‘us’. Their individuality and personhood became lost in ‘the other’. They were the enemy community, not individuals, and the enemy became fair game. “When you dehumanise a person, he or she is no longer an individual they are ‘one of them’. It may be hard to hate a person or to kill a person, but it is not so hard to hate ‘an enemy’ or to shoot at a ‘legitimate target’. Paramilitary language tends to dehumanise the ‘other’. People become ‘an enemy agent’, ‘a rebel bastard’, ‘a tout for the provos’, ‘an informer’, or simply an ‘enemy of the state’. When you bracket all Catholics as ‘the enemy’ and then dehumanise that enemy it is easy to regard them as fair game. But there would always be a tension between these previous friendships, the Catholics whom I knew in my heart not to be the enemy, and those that circumstances made easy to conceive of as being the enemy.” So the days of any kind of dalliance with Catholics, never mind dancing with Catholic girls were soon over. Mitchell was in the Glengormley UVF. They in turn would soon be linking up with units from the Shankill and East Belfast, amongst others. New contacts were made. Billy would not have known so many people from East Belfast until the UVF delegates met and formed brigade staff. Many had military connections: “The UVF seemed to attract people who were either ex-service, or had maybe fathers in the Army or brothers in the police. It was more of a tight knit thing and it was by invitation. There were no application forms.” And command structures could be hereditary – command positions were regularly passed onto sons. The priority for the nascent UVF was to get the wherewithal to defend Ulster, not just talk about it, as was the case with TARA. The word was that getting a gun was no problem. Everyone knew someone who could get you a gun. However, when you followed it up there was a lot more drink talking than available guns. But there were some around – a farmer had a shotgun, or a hunting rifle or someone knew where there were some old UVF Lee Martini or Lee Enfield rifles. Other weapons had been hidden since the First World War. Or there were people who had been in the Army who would have had some weapons. The new organisation simply picked up “bits and pieces”. In the early days people were given a receipt for whatever was requisitioned from them: “When the war is over you’ll get it back.” Sometimes people would hand them over, sometimes they were stolen. When all the leads had been exhausted, the UVF got more ambitious, with, for example, a raid on a military barracks in Lurgan, and another on the forensic science laboratories in Belfast. In later years arms were procured overseas – Canada, Europe, Middle East and South Africa. The problem then was to get ammunition for the newly procured weapons and the materials to manufacture bombs, which were rapidly becoming part of the equation. Most of the explosives were home made, from fertiliser or weed killer, which in those days made a powerful explosive. With no Internet to provide quick access to the technicalities of bomb making, Loyalists and republicans alike relied on their own resources. For example anyone who worked in a quarry was a prime resource. They knew how the face of the quarry was drilled and the drill holes filled with polythene tubes containing a mixture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel oil along with explosives. When compacted, ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer mixed with diesel oil will explode provided it is set off with a booster charge of commercial explosives. Certain brands of common weed killer also exploded when compacted. Anyone who worked with fertiliser knew that it was highly combustible when compacted. And it could take many forms. The logic was simple, and deadly – if you wrap nails around it and it explodes, you’ve managed to create a form of hand grenade. All paramilitary groups were developing weapons technology. It was a technology that would claim many lives over the thirty years to come. The next stage for Loyalist paramilitaries was to manufacture machine guns. Because of the heavy industry that they were involved in, that was not as implausible as it sounds. “Loyalists were building aircraft; they were building all sorts of high precision equipment. So building a gun did not pose that great a problem. I mean if you can manufacture one type of high precision tool you can manufacture another.” The UVF went beyond the talking shop that Mitchell viewed TARA as being. It became engaged in both gun and bomb attacks and while at first these were in retaliation for Republican attacks; it soon evolved towards Loyalist retaliation first, developing a much more sectarian nature. With hindsight Mitchell acknowledges that in the general Loyalist mindset there was no distinction between being a member of the IRA and a member of the Nationalist community. “It was all the one to them. It was simple: If you are against the State you were the enemy and the IRA was simply the cutting edge of the enemy.” But the ambiguity remains: members of the UVF were engaged militarily against the IRA and indeed the Catholic community in general but, many drew a distinction in their personal relationships, even to the point of protecting Catholic friends from other UVF personnel. In some ways they were almost like McGrath’s TARA, playing soldiers, but this was not just playing. The grim reality was that the guns were real, the bombs were real and the casualties were real. Both the UVF and the UDA had an elaborate command structure: captains and majors and colonels emulating the command structure of the British Army. But there was very little knowledge of how to manage or strategise for a guerrilla war. Mitchell recalls that “the ones who encouraged the formation of Loyalist paramilitaries didn’t officer it. They just said ‘we need to defend Ulster’ but they left it in the hands of lorry drivers, labourers and brickies.” The lorry drivers, labourers and brickies might have had plenty of training opportunities, but there was no linkage with a coherent military or political strategy. All that was under consideration was, ‘if they shoot one of us, we’ll shoot one of them’, so maybe we’ll just shoot one of them first. Why not up the ante?’ Mitchell moved up the inflated command structure quickly. He was given command of the East Antrim Battalion and was later promoted to Brigade Staff, a position he held until his arrest in 1976. For the greater part of that time he was a full-time paramilitary, often “on-the-run”. He had got married in 1971 and, by the time of his arrest and subsequent trial, he had been married for five years and been on the run for three of those. Billy had met Mena during an election campaign for a close friend, the late Margaret Miskimmon. Her stepmother was involved with the Shankill Defence Association. They were sitting at the same table, writing out the election envelopes, and it went from there. Though she was politically involved, she did not know the full extent of Billy’s activities. Mitchell says that it was just better that they didn’t know. “I never actually told her anything, but once our house began to get raided – about four or five times in total – by the RUC and the Army, she did have a fair idea.” Raids on Loyalist homes never reached the same frequency as those on nationalist homes, but they did happen on a fairly regular basis, Mitchell says. Loyalists also would have been followed by Special Branch: “You could spot them a mile away when some of the Special Branch or the CID were following you. Certainly I would have been stopped at road checks and things. But probably there wasn’t the over-saturation that Nationalist areas got. When they made a raid they made a raid. I was never there when they happened – usually around 6 or 6.30 in the morning. I usually got tipped off, so I just stayed out, or had a kip and then got up around 5 o’clock and went out. All they found was Mena and the babies. Sometimes they lifted the wee ones out of their cots – they searched everything fairly meticulously. I never kept gear in the house, that was a thing I never did. At that stage I was living in Carrickfergus and I didn’t feel the need to have anything in the house. It was different maybe in Belfast if you lived in a vulnerable area, that you might have felt the need for some personal protection. But I never felt the need to have anything for protection and if it wasn’t for protection there is no point in keeping it in the house.” The Ulster Workers Council Strike of 1974 was a seminal event for Northern Ireland, and for Billy Mitchell. He was in the UVF in East Antrim and Monkstown. Far from being a spontaneous Protestant mass protest, Loyalist paramilitaries played a crucial role in keeping the strike afloat. On the morning the strike started his unit went out with chain saws and firstly blocked the Monkstown Road: “Monkstown was actually sealed off, every road into it had trees chain-sawed down across it. There was one road in and one road out.” Across that road was a JCB, whose arm could be raised or lowered. The UVF set it at a certain height. They knew their car would go through it but the police chasing them in a Land Rover couldn’t. The UVF and the UDA closed down petrol stations – people had to have a docket to get petrol, and then to get in and out of blockaded neighbourhoods. Even prison officers and police officers had to have dockets to get in and out. There was some support for the strike amongst ordinary Unionists, but it was, initially at least, halfhearted. It would not have taken off without paramilitary muscle, but as the power strikes continued camaraderie built up locally. The paramilitaries were not resented in Loyalist areas, so Billy and his company did have local endorsement. And after the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, made a speech, in which he branded the Unionist community as ‘spongers’, support for the strike consolidated. Ordinary people were outraged at Wilson’s remarks and that was the turning point. But successful as the strike was for Loyalists in the short term, Mitchell felt that it could have been capitalised on more. It brought the Executive down, but he thought that it could have been used to get prisoners out, to bring the country down. Mitchell felt that the political leaders of unionism had ‘used’ the paramilitaries. “There were no direct instructions issued to paramilitaries”, he recalls, “but the muscle they provided, certainly during the strike, helped bolster Unionist political positions, and at the end of the stoppage we were relegated backstage once again”. It was then he believes that many Loyalists began to lose faith in mainstream political leaders. There were meetings between Unionist leaders and Loyalist paramilitaries. Mitchell, for example, met Paisley and other political leaders at the Headquarters of Ulster Vanguard, a militant political party led jointly by Bill Craig, a former Government Minister and Ernest Baird, a young businessman. Mitchell says that while he wasn’t intimately involved in these meetings there were formal representatives from the various political and paramilitary groupings, and paramilitaries “would have went (sic) up there to get briefings or to give reports.” After the strike the relationship was not as structured, though some interpersonal contact continued outside of the main political leaders. In the long term, the UWC Strike did catalyse some serious thinking in Loyalist paramilitary circles. Following its success the UVF announced the establishment of the Volunteer Political Party (VPP). The UVF circulated its membership explaining why it was forming the VPP and invited its members to put forward their views as to what policies it should formulate and adopt. An article in the UVF magazine, Combat, said that the UVF wanted the VPP to embrace all shades of opinion within the organisation and asked all interested members to submit their proposals to the political executive of the organisation. However, the development of the VPP was too much too soon for the bulk of the UVF and RHC. The majority of the volunteers felt that their task was to engage in the armed response to Republican violence and that politics was best left to the politicians. Not even the sight of Ken Gibson, a key VPP figurehead, in full UVF uniform standing on the steps of Stormont side by side with the leaders of Unionism persuaded them that it was the UVF’s role to engage in politics. As Roy Garland has pointed out in his book Gusty Spence “The decision [to form the VPP] was not universally popular and Spence felt that its possible failure would only strengthen the hands of the more military oriented volunteers.” That failure came quickly. Firstly, when the United Ulster Unionist Council, made up of representatives of the main Unionist parties and which had co-ordinated the Strike, rejected an application from the VPP for affiliation. Secondly, when Ken Gibson stood as a VPP candidate in the 1974 Westminster election where he polled only 2690 votes. But there were still those who were convinced that politics was ultimately more productive, even in the early seventies. A strong source of influence came from a Methodist Minister, Reverend John Stewart, who was a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Rev. Stewart, a former missionary, was Minister of Woodvale Methodist Church. Billy sees now that John Stewart was trying to inculcate some sense of social responsibility in the UVF members he spoke to, and that his long term aim was to wean them off their new found militarism. A group of them, including Billy, would meet informally at Stewart’s manse every once in a while. He appealed to them on two levels – as a Christian and as a socialist in the Labour Party tradition. They appreciated that he never preached at them. Instead, what he offered was an alternative perspective to what the rest of the unionist leaders were providing, to offer food for thought around working class politics and sectarianism. “He would have sent for us or we would go up to see him”, Mitchell remembers. “It was really bouncing ideas off each other but I think John’s core aim was to try and make us see that the raw sectarianism and violence wasn’t much good; that there were other ways to be a patriot. There was a small group of us and some of those people are still active now within the PUP and even within the UVF, who would have been influenced by John.” The effect of these informal internal talks was that it “opened our eyes to look around us and not to be constantly looking at ourselves, and not to be taking analyses from Paisley and Craig and Boal, people like that, yet we still did. But it did get us thinking that there were other issues at stake other than the constitution, other than Protestant versus Catholic. That’s where we opened up dialogue but it was along working class issues.”
This dialogue had also happened in the context of prior discussions between some members of the UVF and some members of the Official IRA. Mitchell recalls: “In early 1974 I was one of a number of senior UVF members who were asked by Brigade Staff to engage in dialogue with both the Official and Provisional Wings of the Republican movement. The talks did not come to anything. It was much too soon for the majority of our people. It was to take a further twenty years of violence before the time was ripe.” A journalist had introduced Billy and others to a member of the Official Republican Movement and this led to a series of informal meetings between members of both organisations – not formal meetings between two organisations, but between individuals within the two organisations. He says there were “some of us who had been involved in the trade union movement who felt that we could do business with the Officials. For instance, some of us agreed with their opposition to the proposed ring road, now known as the Westlink, (the internal city motorway that cuts off North and West Belfast from the rest of the city) rising bus fares and other social and economic issues. But that was much more from personal interests, us as individuals. There was no actual discussion between us as paramilitaries, nor was there any collaboration or working together. However, the knowledge that there was some common ground on social issues contributed to this sense that maybe some of the working class Republicans were OK. But that view would not have been shared widely within the UVF as an organisation and those of us who did engage in dialogue had no mandate from the membership to do so” Through the contact with the Official Republican Movement in Belfast a group of UVF members travelled to Dublin to meet Cathal Goulding, then Chief of Staff of the OIRA and Thomas McGiolla, President of Official Sinn Fein. Sean Garland, former Adjutant of the OIRA was also there along with some others. “The Belfast meetings had obviously been reported to the Dublin leadership, and we were invited down”, says Mitchell. It was his first trip south of the border. He remembers that “they were just exploratory talks, nothing really came of it other than the fact that some of us who were involved, particularly myself, began to realise that we were looking at other people and were hearing their story, and it stayed with us. It didn’t have any significant changes within the UVF, I mean it didn’t stop the violence, and in many ways we were too far ahead of our time. The volunteers just wouldn’t have been ready for it. The problem was if you try to lead too far from the front the people are that far behind you that you are not really leading at all, you’re out on your own.” They also met with senior members of the Provisional IRA. At their first meeting, they met with the then PIRA Adjutant David O’Connell and Brian Keenan, now the IRA liaison with the International Commission on Decommissioning. It was an overnight trip, and they talked politics. They discussed the Eire Nua [New Ireland] proposals that had been put together by Sinn Fein as well as with the Unionist Desmond Boal’s proposals for an amalgamated Ireland. The Eire Nua idea was to devolve power to the four provinces, each with its own regional parliament and a central parliament in Dublin. Boal’s formula was that the six northern counties and the 26 southern counties would each have a regional parliament, together with a central parliament, with Athlone mooted as the location. This idea did not have much currency within mainstream Unionist thinking, but he raised it with the PIRA anyway. As Mitchell remembers “All we wanted to do was explore Republican thinking. Part of it was that we just wanted to know the enemy. Nothing concrete came of it.” There were several more meetings with senior members of the Provisional IRA. On one of those occasions a very young Martin McGuinness also attended. They were at a place at the side of Lough Sheelin in County Cavan, near Virginia. McGuinness didn’t make much impression on Mitchell – “others might have said he was a cheeky wee git. But the main talks were with people like O’Connell and Twomey.” There were also some more meetings with members of the Official Republican Movement in Belfast, but even these local meetings died out after the murder of Billy McMillan, the Belfast Officer Commanding of the Officials. When news of the meetings leaked out there was anger among the UVF ranks. It was difficult enough trying to develop the VPP but when the leak came that they had met the Provos, that set back any hope of immediate progress on the political front for a while. “When this leaked there was hell to pay”, recalls Mitchell. “We were instructed to stop the meetings and not to go down that road again. It was too much too soon.” This was something he was to hear a lot over the coming years. Even when the 1994 ceasefires were called “the intercommunity work that Billy Hutchinson and myself were doing was still seen by many Loyalists as being too much too soon.” And they were up against other forces too – TARA was still around, and people like William McGrath were quick to misrepresent and oppose any proposed political component for the UVF. Appealing to innate Unionist conservatism, he raised the spectre of ‘Reds under the bed’: that Unionism must be defended against Socialism as well as Republicanism – especially if it was coming from inside unionism. Mitchell says that “For those of us within the organisation who were thinking in a progressive or radical way we were being demonised and a lot of the men couldn’t take it.” No more than a dozen men were involved in this ‘progressive’ mini-movement, out of hundreds who were in the UVF (which was never, like the UDA, a mass membership organisation.) Mitchell agrees that there was no reception for the new (relatively unformulated) ideas: “The atmosphere wasn’t right for what we were doing and yet it had to be done. The group of UVF members who had engaged in dialogue with Rev John Stewart continued to have a political input and kept that radical thinking alive until people like David Ervine and Gusty Spence got out of prison.” Meanwhile the UVF’s campaign of violence continued unabated and Billy’s role in the organisation on the outside ended when he was arrested and imprisoned in March 1976. . .
Billy was arrested in March 1976 and one year later was sentenced to 25 years for murder. His daughter was four and he had a one-year-old son. His wife Mena would effectively be a single parent. “Of course that was tearing away at me, but at the same time outwardly I was putting on the brave face and we had to do that. You had to take it philosophically otherwise you would have gone under.” Prison life was structured not just by the prison authorities, but by the UVF. The external paramilitary command structure applied – there was a Camp Commanding Officer with overall responsibility for all UVF and Red Hand Commando prisoners. Each individual compound had its own Officer Commanding, who was assisted by Staff Officers and NCOs responsible for areas like education, welfare and work duties. Everything was run on a military basis that was designed psychologically to make the men feel that they remained part of the UVF and not mere prison inmates. As Mitchell remembers “You weren’t sitting by yourself crying in your tea, or crying in your beer if you had it! There was drill, PT, education; the whole thing was structured so that you didn’t vegetate.” Physical Training was thought to be crucial. Virtually everyone bought into that, and then into the drill that came afterwards, which was intended to instil a sense of discipline and pride. Paramilitary uniform inspections were carried out on a regular basis, as in the regular army that they emulated. Everyone’s first task was to smuggle in the UVF uniform: a black leather jacket, a black polo neck, black trousers, black forage cap, the UVF badge and the belt. The uniform, the drilling and the parades had a crucial role to play in maintaining a sense of purpose, of belonging and a sense of pride and discipline. They were not about ‘playing soldiers’. In this way a ‘compound culture’ developed, taking a collectively supportive view of the political prisoners, as opposed to the ‘cellblock culture’, a more individualistic attitude that persists in ‘ordinary’ prison life. Mena Mitchell smuggled in Billy’s uniform: “I can remember Mena wearing my uniform in the visits below her skirt. She’d take the trousers off and I’d put them on, then she’d let the skirt fall down. So she’d come in with trousers and went out with a skirt. A couple of times we were caught. She would roll the leather coat up and hand it to me and sometimes the screw said “hold on, give it back”. Some of the screws turned a blind eye and didn’t bother saying anything. You had to be on parade in full uniform and the only way you could get the full uniform was to smuggle it in.” The prison authorities always insisted on calling the prison the Maze but the prisoners always called it Long Kesh. At one stage letters using this name were stopped. All the Loyalist accommodation huts were named after World War One battles where the 36th Ulster Division had fought: Passchaendale, Somme, Theivpal, and Messines. Billy was billeted in Compound 21, in a hut named St. Quinton (nothing to do with the American prison San Quentin). But if a letter was addressed W. Mitchell St. Quinton, C 21, Long Kesh it would come back from the censor, “unauthorised address”. While opportunities were taken to wind up the screws, the relationship with prison authorities was relatively benign. In the cages they left the prisoners alone. The prison officers, many seconded from Scotland, manned the perimeter of the compound, and only entered the compound on official business and usually by agreement with the Compound OC. The prisoners had their own electricians, caterers, plumbers, welfare officers and education officers. Anyone who had a trade or a skill was given a job in the compound. Mitchell opted for “Special Category” status when he went in. This meant that he didn’t have to do prison work, and could wear civilian clothes. Other key benefits were a weekly parcel and extra letters. Special Category status was revoked for prisoners who were convicted for activities after March 1976 and this was the issue that started the dirty protest and eventually caused the 1980-81 Hunger Strikes by the Republican prisoners. Though Gusty Spence had argued for Special Category early on, it was always more of a political issue for Republicans. In the mid-1970s mainstream Unionists would have demonised a high-profile Loyalist campaign for political status. “We would have been accused of backing the enemy against the government and what little support we did have within Unionism would have evaporate altogether,” says Mitchell. Spence successfully achieved political status through smart, but lower level lobbying. Meanwhile, life in prison went on. Cleanliness was essential. Mitchell says that prisoners were called about half-seven, and then “you done your ablutions, had breakfast, cleaned your huts out. Every hut had to be cleaned out, every cubicle. You cleaned your cubicle out and then the centre of the hut would have been cleaned up and tidied. Once a week you had bung night, where the whole compound was bunged out and scrubbed down. On a Monday morning you would have had a muster parade where you actually went on parade in full uniform for inspection and then the UVF duty officers would have inspected the huts. That was to make sure there was a high standard of hygiene and cleanliness, because that built morale and a healthy environment. There were even bed packs! The army insisted that you made bed packs; it meant that you just weren’t lying in a bed that had never been made. The bed had to be made down every morning and remade in the early evening. “Then once every so often you would have a kit inspection. Again psychologically it was to make sure everything was clean and ordered. The menu would be negotiated with the prison cook and the prison governor. At one stage Mitchell was part of the delegation – a representative from each compound and the authorities. The compound representatives, in the form of a Mess Committee, argued for better quality food and a more varied menu. They also argued for dry rations. There was nothing worse than getting a big drum of stewed tea. So they asked for dry tea so that could make their own tea when they actually wanted a cup. They also asked for, and got, vegetables for making soup, and the ingredients for the staple Ulster fry. They had hot plates in the compound made out of heaters that were meant to heat the huts but were taken down and turned into toasters, yet when the screws came in they would have put them back up again. “But after a while they gave up. Other times you would have negotiated with the cookhouse for eggs and stuff. Gusty [Spence] would have got these big plastic buckets and made up pancake mixes and made them in these toasters. He would have done a lot of things like that and then after a while we got frying pans and deep-fat fryers for making chips in. But it was all done, negotiated for, by the Mess Committee.” For the first year Billy was used as a writer for drafting simple requests for better prison conditions and for documenting aspects of compound life. Later he moved into the education and welfare side of the compound structure. A self-supporting welfare system was established because it was felt that prisoners and families who required welfare services would be vulnerable to manipulation and control by the Prison Authorities. If a request was deeply personal prisoners could go themselves, Mitchell says, “we didn’t pry”. He adds: “Most of the welfare requests were about contacting the family. Usually the welfare officer could do things like that by telephone and as the UVF’s Welfare Officer I would meet with the Prison welfare officer and say that such and such wants you to contact her sister. Or ‘so and so’s mother is not well. Could you give us an update?’ “If it was something personal then Mitchell would let the official Welfare officer know that the individual prisoner wanted to see them, and would make the necessary arrangements to meet. Negotiations on education matters centred on the type of books and courses they wanted. Republicans operated similar support systems. For the prisoners this was a way of both hitting back at the system and surviving it. They knew what prison could do. As Mitchell says, “In the normal prison system you are an individual, the individual has to deal with the system himself, and the system can keep the individual down. In a system of privileges where everything is a privilege then the system can work on you. The authorities can control the conduct by holding back privileges or by granting privileges, so what we were saying was ‘okay we are individuals but we also belong to society and our compound is a micro-society and we have the structures in this that we would have outside’. We took it that we would produce the environment where we could control ourselves.” Whereas on the outside there had been a few meetings with the Provisionals, inside there was more regular contact. Inside, at first, the prison authorities would play the Republicans off against the Loyalists. Both sets of prisoners sought similar conditions, but initially they sent in separate requests. Later a Camp Council was set up which had joint representation from Republican and Loyalist compounds. Even though the different camp commanding officers (UVF,UDA, PIRA, OIRA etc) did not go out to see the governor together, meeting with the governor as individuals representing their own organisations, they would have discussed issues with the governor which they had already discussed with each other through one of the various lines of communication that had been set up within the camp. The divide and conquer tactic no longer worked for the prison authorities. This Camp Council (different from the Mess Committee) had been established early on. Initially, communication between the compounds was by smuggled letter or, a conversation in the line to meet the prison doctor. After a fire in the prison, in 1974, things became more difficult – Republicans had their own doctor – and the only other place to mix and meet was the hospital, at the visiting area or the library. But on occasions the prison authorities facilitated meetings of the Camp Council. They wanted an easy time too. Sometimes even individual screws would help smuggle letters between compounds. A favoured method was to cut open a tennis ball, put the letter in, seal it up again, and throw it to the next compound. Going on visits was another way of exchanging information; however, it was more difficult to get to the Provisionals directly. The football field ran between the two fences that separated the Loyalist and the Republican sectors of the prison so a system had to be worked out. Republicans played Gaelic on the pitch, a 15 a side game. Loyalists, who played soccer, an 11 a side game, wanted parity of player numbers. They negotiated with the prison authorities to have the same number of players out on the pitch as the Republicans had. “We even threatened to play Gaelic ourselves if that was the only way to get the extra men out on the pitch,” says Mitchell. “Eventually we were allowed the extra ‘players’ as reserves. I was one of the extra ‘players’ and it was my job to have dialogue through the compound wire with Republicans. It was usually Gerry Kelly (now an Assembly Member for North Belfast) and Hugh Feeny that I talked to. The football pitch ran up to the wire of their compound. I would just have shouted over, or to any of them walking round their compound ‘would you send Feeny out?’” So Feeny and Mitchell would discuss prison issues and exchange information about how best the different organisations could achieve better conditions. He remembers that on one occasion Feeny called him up. “He said: ‘Billy we are not taking our education, there was some confrontation with our education officer, so they banned us from having jotters and exercise books. If I got my sister to leave up books in your name will you get it up to us?’ Afterwards a whole pile of exercise books was left up for me. I tried to get them out of the compound – I wrapped them up in the football kit and went out to the football field and threw them over. The screw in the watchtower saw us okay but by that stage it was too late for him to do anything about it.” There was also some discussion about the situation outside the prison and about wider political issues.
Internal Debate – A Maze of Religion and Politics
The more important discussions took place in their own compound. The days were structured – the morning started off with reveille, ablutions, and breakfast followed by work duties, education in the study hut, handicrafts for the compound co-operative workshop and physical training in the yard or inside in the gym (formerly a compound canteen). There was a great deal of flexibility during the day. But life centred round education, handicrafts and physical training. The internal dialogue and debating was usually linked to the educational programme. The huts were locked at 9pm and from then to “lights out” at midnight the time was spent on handicrafts, reading, study or watching television. This was when a lot of internal debating was done – on politics, on history, or the constitution. External educators and tutors were brought in and Mitchell took up English Literature – all that was needed was enough people to get a class started in virtually any subject. He studied Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Synge. Mitchell found that it was all too easy to get immersed in books, but Gusty Spence insisted on a reality check – there was only so much of the Romantic poets that was good for the prisoner. So there were also political philosophies – Marxism, Socialism, Liberalism, and Conservatism. And biographies: these were amongst the most popular books amongst the circle of prisoners who came under the political influence of Gusty Spence . Most books were allowed in by the prison authorities, but some had to get different covers, usually romance covers, put on. A book on guerrilla warfare, The War of the Flea, was banned, as were Che Guevara’s books, or books about his life. One governor hated Tolstoy for some unknown reason, and for his reign War and Peace was sent in under a different cover. They had to be aware that the discussions inside on these books were not sometimes grounded in reality. Mitchell remembers that it was easy to buy into some ideas, but then “if you looked at what was happening outside you realised that it would be counter productive if you were to go outside start pushing new ideas too strongly. I feel if you are going to read something there has to be an outcome; you can’t read for reading’s sake. There’s no point in reading if you’re not going to learn, and there is no point learning if you don’t use the learning. But you have to strike a balance when sharing your learning with others who have not yet shared the same journey”. Loyalists had very little tradition of being in prison before the Troubles broke out. They made leather bags and purses, mostly with flower motifs, roses in the main. (Loyalists did leatherwork or glasswork; Republicans worked with wood and made string pictures). Also popular were leather wall plaques – the bear catching the salmon scene was popular, as were football teams: Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Glasses carried more political insignia: the UVF badge, the Ulster flag and the Union Jack. Mostly the Red Hand and the UVF badge. And belts; almost everyone appeared to want belts. The compound co-op required each member to do a certain number of hours per week for the co-operative. The goods were sent out and sold to raise funds for the Compound. After that, they could work for themselves, taking personal orders for purses, handbags and clutch bags. Leather came from suppliers in England and Scotland. The relationship with Republicans continued. It was kept mainly to the conditions in the prison. It never really got to deep or heavy political debate. Basically the Republicans and the Loyalists were getting to know each other. More extensive discussions took place between the Official Republicans and the Loyalists. Not on the constitutional question, but on social issues and issues relating to prison conditions. At one stage they did a joint presentation on prison reform in the Probation Board’s welfare office. Each group ‘fielded’ their welfare officer plus two others. The Officer Commanding nominated the two others. A meeting with the Probation Officer responsible for prison welfare matters resulted in a Charter of Rights for prisoners being drafted and published. Initially these discussions were between the Official Republicans and the UVF, but later the UDA also joined the debates. However, the majority of the real political discussion in prison was amongst the UVF themselves. Mitchell says they had to go through that phase and Gusty Spence was instrumental in framing these discussions. He prompted discussion of ideas, and set tasks. He might get a prisoner to read a book on Republicanism, and ask him to defend it. Other questions were raised: Should there be an all-Ireland football team? Why did the Protestant working class not back the Civil Rights Movement? Roy Garland records Spence’s own views of these seminars: “It wasn’t only the seminars about the violence, but seminars about our origins, about the working class. About our lack of opportunity, our disadvantage, about the education we received and how it lacked. It was only too obvious that in coming from a working class area – unless you had exceptional parents or unless you were an exceptional person with exceptional ability – you weren’t going anywhere. That’s what Long Kesh was all about. It was about investigating our backgrounds, our attitudes to life and everything else. The way people have been manipulated or told that they were ‘the people’.” There were a number of TV series that Gusty got the men to debate. One was on the suffragette movement. Another was based on AJ Cronin’s The Stars Look Down and yet another was based on Jim Allen’s Days of Hope. The latter was about soldiers going back to Britain after the First World War. They thought they’d come back as heroes, but they came back purely to poverty. A lot of them joined the Black and Tans and came over to Ireland. When the Boat Comes In was another series that provoked much discussion and debate. The discussion on this was about ‘a land fit for heroes’, about poverty, and other social issues. “These discussions often led to us analysing the Protestant working class situation”. Prisoners began to realise that working class Loyalists weren’t much different from working class Nationalists. What was generally felt, as summed up by Billy Hutchinson, was that “Prods got a slum quicker than a Catholic”. Mitchell remembers thinking that “one man one vote was the same for them. The property classes had two votes. There were probably more property classes on the Protestant side but for the ordinary punter on the street, unless your name was on the rent book, you didn’t have a vote.” Not everyone wanted to get involved in the political debates. A lot of people wanted to concentrate on handicrafts or on sport and just get their time in and go. But the core group – David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson, Plum Smith, Eddie Kinner, Tom Winstone, Billy Mitchell and of course Gusty Spence would later form the nucleus of the PUP negotiating team. In the debates different players would adopt different positions, and play Devil’s Advocate with each other. For some in the compound, particularly those from rural areas, there was some difficulty as the Unionism they had grown up with, and were serving a prison sentence for, was effectively challenged and redefined. Debate on the First World War was particularly tense, especially when Gusty Spence gave Remembrance Day speeches that challenged the myth that World War One had been a great and glorious war in defence of small nations. The courage and sacrifice of the 36th Ulster Division, and indeed the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions, was acknowledged and honoured, but the question of why there were Ulster men fighting in France and Belgium was also raised. The writing of the war poets – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as Vera Brittan’s journal, Testament of Youth, had a big influence on Mitchell. The discussions, says Mitchell, were wide ranging. “It transformed a lot of thinking, yet it took the cease-fires for it to come out.” The thinking did not travel too far down the ranks, and Mitchell does not think that the senior management of the UVF knew about the sort of radical thinking that was going on. He recalls that some discussions were quite radical, certainly for Protestants in those days: “We questioned if a Unionist had to be a Protestant? We even sought to define what Protestantism really was. What is Unionism all about? Can a Loyalist embrace class politics? A whole rake of issues were raised and discussed.” There was also room for personal reflection. In Mitchell’s words: “Obviously you were asking yourself a lot of questions, like ‘what the heck am I doing here? I’ve a wife and two kids outside.’ Gusty was getting us to focus in on what Loyalism and Unionism was about, what the different ‘isms’ were about, but also deep inside I was saying ‘What the flip am I doing here? What is this Protestantism about?’ For a while I was very anti-evangelicalism. I was probably anti-Christian; I was seriously examining socialism and anarchism.” Billy began to read the works of the anarchists like Emma Goldman and for a while corresponded with some anarchists. He also looked at the ideas of such diverse writers as John Paul Sartre, Franz Fannon, Victor Frankl, Albert Camus and Ayn Rand but ultimately didn’t find it satisfying. “I was trying to find some sort of meaning to life outside of religion,” he says. Gusty Spence would say to him: “Billy there is a God, I just don’t believe in all this Christian crap. You keep reading the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount, that’s what it is all about, you’ve two coats, give one to your brother, if somebody asks you to go a mile go two. That’s the sort of Christianity I believe in”. One night Spence recommended to Mitchell that he watch a programme on a German theologian he had never heard of – Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They watched it together, and something about it struck a chord with Mitchell. Bonhoeffer was a neo-orthodox Christian. Neither a liberal nor an evangelical, he had his own views on a lot of things and he seemed, according to Mitchell, “to be going down the road of ‘religionless’ Christianity. To me this was Christianity that was based on Christ’s teaching and following the gospels, guided by principles, not controlled by laws. He also seemed to be saying that the Christian should live out his or her faith in the public square rather than in the church cloisters.” He began to read anything he could get by Bonhoeffer. It got him back to thinking about Christianity again. When he was growing up the Christianity he learned was a hard taskmaster. There was always a conflict between the spirit and the flesh, what you should do and what you wanted to do. And what you wanted to do usually was go out and do the things you weren’t supposed to do. There was never any real spiritual strength or moral consistency with it. When he looked around at those who were ‘good living’, there never seemed to be any social outcomes from their ‘good’ behaviour. There are some obvious personal benefits from being ‘good living’. If you don’t smoke you improve your chances of not getting cancer. If you don’t gamble you have more money. But Billy didn’t see evangelicalism having any real impact in terms of social action. Neo-orthodox theologians like Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth seemed to be saying something different to Mitchell – there could be social outcomes from Christian behaviour, there was potential to make a positive social impact. For him it was almost like political activism, that you could make a contribution by being a Christian. Here was a practical brand of Christianity – not pie in the sky stuff about when you die. The neo-orthodox theologians argued that faith in Christ wasn’t simply about personal salvation, it was also about social redemption. The Christian had a duty to transform society. Billy also found this in the writings of the more orthodox evangelical, John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement as well as in the writings of the radical Anabaptists. He found it too in the writings of Christian Socialists like F D Maurice and R H Tawney and in the actions of people like George Lansbury and Keir Hardy, also Christian Socialists. Traditional Christianity taught that suffering on earth could be tolerated because a place in heaven would be gained and the focus was all about getting people ‘saved’ for the joys of heaven in the life hereafter. Christian Socialists interpreted the same source material in a very different way. They did not deny the need for personal salvation but they also insisted that Christianity should meet the needs of the whole person, the physical and the material as well as the spiritual, the temporal needs as well as the eternal needs. Mitchell understood it as follows: “When Jesus healed the leper, he didn’t say, “When you get to heaven you’ll be healed”. He did it on the spot. When he fed the hungry he did it on the spot. When he raised the dead he did it on the spot. The point is that His action, whether one accepts the miracle stories as allegories or actual fact had an immediate impact. The Christian Socialist view was that the people described in the Bible followed Christ because of the impact on their lives, not because of the impact that was going to happen after they were dead.” It was this pragmatism that appealed to Mitchell: “The holy huddle thing, where people were judgmental really got up my nose. Christian Socialists and some of the other radical Christians on the other hand were saying ‘hold on a minute…’ and doing something about social welfare, not just spiritual welfare. In South Africa for instance racism was rife, but Desmond Tutu was doing something about it, likewise Archbishop Romero in Latin America. He was a priest who identified with the poor and disempowered, and he was shot dead by pro-state forces while celebrating mass because of his stand for social justice. And earlier, in Germany, Bonhoeffer felt that opposition to Hitler wasn’t simply about condemning the bad boy but doing something practical about it. He helped to form the Confessing Church that broke away from the Lutheran church, which had more or less sold out to Nazism. “Bonhoeffer is still a real hero for me. A lot of the German theologians went to America when the war broke out and stayed there. Bonhoeffer went too, but he came back and made a declaration of opposition to Hitler and Nazism, and said that the German Christian should follow Christ, not Hitler. These were the things that influenced me – I saw that there was another form of Christianity that meant something to me.” In prison there were very few other Christian Socialists. The Christian in prison tended to be the traditional ‘saved’ evangelical. And evangelicals on the outside targeted those on the inside. As Mitchell says “People would send you in all sorts of stuff. A lot of it was, I hate to say it, wishy-washy stuff. A lot of it was all this pie in the sky stuff. The Pentecostals, the Charismatics, a lot of the fringe groups would be sending you stuff in. Very often I binned it.” For Mitchell, the common theme in all the fringe groups and even mainstream Churches was that the religion was based on an emotional response (guilt) to life and death. He favoured the more radical approach that he was now reading about. As he says “Christianity is an issue of faith for me. That does not mean that it is not rational or that it is anti-intellectual. I can’t sit down and prove it, it’s a matter of faith but I still don’t believe in the emotional stuff. You’ve got to have firm foundations so there is faith there and at times that can be rocked but it is not about emotion, it’s not about feeling sorry for yourself or if you are feeling down you need a good dose of religion or you need a pastor to comfort you, in fact if I have got a problem I would rather talk to some of the people who went through jail with me who know my experience.” It was not that the new outlook on religion was without challenge. The issue of pacifism, for instance, was one that Mitchell says he never got a proper handle on. Was pacifism possible? Was it realistic? Can you always turn the other cheek? He remembers wrestling with the subject: “What did ‘turn the other cheek’ mean? That you had to be a doormat? That you couldn’t resist evil by force? I mean if I wanted to live safely in my society, do I have to ask the policeman and the soldier to defend me just with their bodies and not to meet force with force? This still is beyond me. I have never really got to grips with this. I can believe in non-violence and non-violent action, influenced more by Martin Luther King Junior – I still have a book of King’s sermons and speeches. But non-violent resistance I think only works in certain situations. It worked for Ghandi because I don’t think the British had the ruthlessness just to keep on killing Indians and it worked for Martin Luther King but it didn’t work in Uganda. I don’t think it would work in Iraq. I do think there are a lot of situations where you need to resist force with force.” These theological texts led Mitchell back to the Bible and to an informed critical perspective. He says that the take he has on the events described there would make the evangelical’s hair stand on end. His prison literature tutor Charlotte Russell once suggested that he read the Bible as literature, reading the poetry as poetry, narrative as narrative, and history as history, instead of as a didactic text. He took this advice and it opened up a whole new approach to Bible reading. He saw it now as a mini-library of books, a group of stories that didn’t come as a set of rules, a set of dos and don’ts. Rather it appeared to him now as a series of stories about people of faith trying to make a difference. It helped him to develop a social and political analysis of the Gospels. He knew that the others weren’t into Christianity, so there was no big declaration about his new found faith. Those who were in the core political group were the first he told. David Ervine’s brother Brian was a Christian, and he sent Billy in some books that encouraged him to study theology. When he was released from prison in 1990 he joined the Church of Nazarene, a Wesleyan-type church that held to John Wesley’s belief that social redemption was as much a part of the gospel message as personal redemption. The Nazarenes encouraged their people to get involved in practical work and social action throughout the world. They established Compassionate Ministry Centres and took the view that if you were going to share the gospel you also had to show the social relevance of Christianity – combat poverty, teach vocational skills, community development, agricultural and medical programmes and provide educational opportunities for disadvantaged people. Like a lot of other things about resolving conflict, the decision to be a Christian was not simply an event, it was a process. The initial decision came three years into his prison sentence, and the reading and self-reflection continued for many years. In 1982, he left the UVF, giving up his Special Category status, moving to the H-Blocks, out of the structure and discipline of the compound. With hindsight, he thinks he should have stayed, though there were some advantages – as a lifer he got his own cell, even though he was locked up in it a lot more than in the compound. And there were implications for Mena Mitchell – technically she should no longer be eligible for the transport the UVF organised for the spouses and relatives of prisoners, or for the welfare payments that the UVF provided. Even though he was moving out of the UVF wings, the organisation continued to give Mena a lift to visit him. His closest friends didn’t question his decision, but the UVF leadership, he recalls, were initially “not too happy.” But in the end they accepted it. Then he was moved to a new prison at Maghaberry. The authorities wanted Maghaberry to run smoothly. Initially they decided they would move a lot of people who were near the end of their sentences – or who they perceived were probably near the end of their sentences – whether they were political prisoners or not, they would be brought down from the Maze to Maghaberry. Those prisoners who were politically motivated, but were now officially ‘unaligned’, as was Mitchell, were already living in mixed wings. It was thought that they would be prime candidates for making the new prison run smoothly. Hence the move. And with the move there were new problems getting transport for Mena. The UVF didn’t do a run to Maghaberry at that time, so the church that Mena had been attending stepped in to help out. It was in the mixed Maghaberry that he met people like Tommy McKearney who now forms part of the Irish Republican Writers Group, and who is now joint-editor with Mitchell of the cross-community magazine The Other View. The conversations with Republicans in Maghaberry were not dissimilar to those in the Maze. The constitutional question wasn’t the only topic, and the effect of the interaction at Maghaberry was to lay the foundation of a relationship that would be developed later when they were both released. Mitchell was released in 1990, having served 14 years. Mena Mitchell had been a Sunday School teacher and had discovered the Nazarene Church while her husband was in prison, and the church had supported him when he was inside. And it was in that church that he involved himself on the outside. Billy Mitchell had changed in the 14 years he was in jail, and the world outside had changed too.
Change on the inside, Change on the outside .
Politically, it was a world beyond recognition. When Mitchell went into prison, in 1976, the Troubles had just come through an exceptionally violent period. The year opened with the Kingsmill massacre, and went on to witness the killing of the Maguire children during an army chase of Republicans, the catalyst for the establishment of the Peace People, with thousands of people out on the streets calling for an end to the killings. The Fair Employment Act, making it an offence to discriminate in employment on religious or political grounds, became law. With this law, the state implicitly recognized that discrimination remained rife in both the public and private sectors, though this fact was, and remains fiercely contested by many unionist politicians. In 1977, an attempt was made to emulate the successful 1974 General Strike, shortly after Margaret Thatcher as opposition leader visited Belfast and Derry. Again Ian Paisley and Ernest Baird overtly supported the strike action, yet it did not enflame the popular imagination the same way the earlier strike had done. There were demonstrations and roadblocks, and Larne port closed, but many factories stayed open and the strike fizzled out. The killings continued. The 1978 La Mon House Hotel bomb in Co. Down, where 12 people died, is acutely remembered by the Unionist population. In the same year, the House of Commons voted to give Northern Ireland five additional Members of Parliament, opening up competition for seats, and new electoral battlegrounds were drawn. Perhaps surprisingly, it was also the year that Belfast City Council elected its first non-Unionist Mayor – David Cook of the Alliance Party. The Mountbatten family murders and the Narrow Water Castle bomb that killed 18 soldiers, all on the one day, form indelible memories of 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. It was the first year that Northern Ireland was eligible to elect three Members of the European Parliament, and John Hume, Ian Paisley and John Taylor were returned. The Shankill Butchers, the infamous murder gang that abducted, tortured and killed (mostly Catholics) at random were finally jailed. Linked to the UVF, their activities were of such a grotesque nature that they were condemned even by the UVF also. Random killings and riots were still a virtually daily feature, even though the annual death toll had dropped from its grim height in the early 1970s. In 1980, the two political leaders most unlikely to engage in dialogue over Northern Ireland did just that: Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey began talks on the future of Northern Ireland. And the United States Democratic Party began to take an interest. Senator Ted Kennedy proposed a policy calling for ‘an end to the division of the Irish people’ and a solution to the conflict based on consent.2 A hunger strike started by Republican prisoners in the Maze prison was called off, but in 1981 a new hunger strike was called over the decision to rescind political status and to make prisoners wear prison clothes and do prison work. American Republicans, in the form of President Reagan (who had struck up a special relationship with Margaret Thatcher) adopted a starkly different stance than the Democrats. As the hunger strike started by Bobby Sands in March was propelled along its inevitable and fatal course, Reagan said that the United States would not intervene, even though he was ‘deeply concerned at the tragic situation.’ Before they died, three hunger strikers would be elected to serve in Parliament – one in the North and two in the South. Bobby Sands was elected to Fermanagh South Tyrone, and when he died the seat was successfully contested by Sinn Fein’s Owen Carron. A Labour-Fine Gael coalition resulted from the new electoral landscape in the Republic of Ireland. The hunger strike dominated the year, from March, until it ended in October with 10 men dead and political status restored. This strike was to have long term political ramifications, with Republicans pursuing the ‘armalite and the ballot box’ strategy. After the hunger strikes political support for Republican politicians surged, and has been sustained and increased ever since. The British establishment began to acknowledge that Northern Ireland was more than a security problem. This was a political problem that had to be addressed politically. During the 1980s many groups began to reflect on ideas for political resolution of the conflict. Jim Prior, as Secretary of State suggested rolling devolution – that power devolved to Northern Ireland would be proportionate to the 2 Political Directory 1980 degree of agreement, and ability to share power. The Devolution Bill was amended to ensure that both the House of Commons and the House of Lords must be satisfied that powers devolved would be assured of cross community support before they were transferred. Assembly elections were held in anticipation of such powers. The SDLP contested the elections, but boycotted their seats, and thus the Assembly became effectively a Unionist talking shop. And there was a lot of hot air. Even amongst the Unionist representatives, they couldn’t agree on the detail of a format for devolution, though they did vote against the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, and for the return of capital punishment for terrorist murders. The DUP found itself on the same side as the Catholic bishops when the government announced it would bring laws on practising homosexuality in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK, following a challenge [brought by a Unionist] to the European Court of Human Rights. Though Thatcher was focused on the Falklands War, the IRA made sure her attention returned closer to home by killing eight soldiers in a bomb in London, and bombed the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, killing five people in total. At the Christopher Black supergrass trial 38 Republicans were convicted, but later that year 38 Republicans escaped from the Maze prison. Another group, the New Ireland Forum, launched by Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald and made up of representatives of the four main ‘constitutional’ nationalist parties (Labour, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the SDLP) met for the first time to discuss new political thinking, and published its report in 1984. That was also the year that Mary Travers, the daughter of a prominent judge, was shot dead. Ronald Reagan visited Ireland and Charlie Haughey again lobbied for greater US intervention, but Reagan resisted, saying that any solution must come from the Northern Irish people themselves. The capture of the Marita Ann ship containing seven tonnes of arms destined for Republicans underscored the military aspect of the conflict, but it was a year for political proposals. The New Ireland Forum report offered a unitary 32 county option, as well as federal and joint authority arrangements, and a provision to discuss other views. However, both Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey controversially rejected it. The Ulster Unionist Party proposed that Northern Ireland should have a regional council with strictly administrative powers. The DUP suggested that devolution should involve a majority (i.e. Unionist) cabinet government, along with a Bill of Rights and a Committee system that would give the minority (i.e. Nationalists) a strong role. The Kilbrandon Report, published by the British Irish Association, suggested that a five-person executive, which would include an Irish government Minister, should run Northern Ireland. But the major political initiative was to come the following year. Thatcher and FitzGerald introduced the Anglo-Irish Agreement to a literal storm of protest that was to continue for years. Unionist MPs resigned their seats, creating by-elections on the issue of the AIA; there was a massive Unionist protest in Belfast City Centre, and the Anglo-Irish Secretariat, based at Maryfield, just outside Belfast was also to be subject to constant protest. The AIA was disliked by more than Unionists: both Gerry Adams, who said it ‘copper fastened partition’ was against it, as was Mary Robinson, now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who resigned from the Irish Labour Party on the issue. Earlier in the year, though, after Gerry Adams had been refused a visa to visit the US, John Hume met with the IRA for the first time. The meeting ended relatively quickly, as the Republicans wanted to video part of the meeting, which Hume refused. Portadown became a flashpoint on the marching issue, with Nationalists protesting when the police allowed a march down the Catholic Obins St. The next year the Orangemen accepted a compromise route down the Garvaghy Road, but the overall political focus was on the aftermath of the AIA. A Unionist Day of Action was planned for March 3rd. There was a DUP takeover of the switchboard at Stormont and a short work stoppage at Ballylumford power station. Rioting at night followed, as well as a Loyalist hunger strike, which ended after a visit by Ian Paisley. More sinister developments came soon after. Peter Robinson was arrested at Clontibret, Co. Monaghan with a crowd of some 500 Loyalists. A new organisation ‘Ulster Resistance’ was formed ‘to take direct action as and when required’ to defeat the AIA. On other fronts allegations of a State ‘shoot to kill’ policy began to be investigated, and Richard Needham, the Secretary of State, introduced Sunday opening of pubs. But there was no escaping the AIA protests, and another demonstration took place in November 1986, a year after its publication. In 1987 it was the turn of the Ulster Defence Association to offer a political proposal, with their Common Sense document, authored in part by UDA deputy leader John McMichael. They suggested a constitutional conference with a devolved assembly and a coalition government based on party strengths. And the US began to get more overtly involved. President Reagan authorised the first $50 million grant for the International Funds for Ireland. But the year saw more violence – the SAS shot eight Republicans in Loughgall and the IRA killed 11 in the Enniskillen Remembrance Day Bomb. The year ended with the murder of John McMichael. The following year saw the murder of three IRA volunteers in Gibraltar in less than legitimate circumstances. At their funerals Loyalist Michael Stone opened fire with grenades killing another three people, and later two army corporals were beaten to death in West Belfast by a crowd incensed by the events of the previous week. Later in the year another eight soldiers were killed at Ballygawley. The two Mc Gimpsey brothers, Chris and Michael began to challenge the AIA from a legal perspective in the Republic of Ireland. They argued that Article 1 of the AIA was in conflict with Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. The case would eventually be rejected some two years later – Articles 2 and 3 would be found to be a claim of legal right over the ‘national territory’, whereas Article 1 of the AIA ‘merely expressed a political judgement about likely future events’3 but the case kept unionist resentment of the AIA firmly in the spotlight. In a sign of things to come announcements were made about privatisation of both the Harland and Wolf shipyard and Northern Ireland Electricity. But the most important political event of the year – which would have massive consequence over the course of events to come – was the Hume-Adams talks, entered into by John Hume in the absence of endorsement from his party. As a sign of support for a political process, Northern Ireland was allocated £535m from the European Community structural funds. The Unionists, however, were sticking to their position of no constitutional talks without the suspension of the AIA. Hume and Adams ended their talks, and Hume went on to meet Peter Brooke, a new Secretary of State about possible political talks. Brooke met Hume again, and then met the Unionists, telling them that he would consider in principle alternatives to the AIA. They met him and agreed a gap in the Anglo Irish Intergovernmental Conference meeting could be a mechanism to enable talks to begin without technically suspending the AIA.
Political Directory 68-93 p220 1994 4 Political Directory 68-98.
While all these political machinations went on outside prison life, one event on the outside impacted heavily on Mitchell’s attitude about violence. He remembers: “It wasn’t a big thing, in Northern Ireland terms, no-one but the family will probably remember. It was at a time when I was wrestling with the whole issue of violence and non-violence and the possibility of pacifism. A young Catholic schoolteacher called Mary Travers, the daughter of a judge, was murdered by republicans during an assassination attempt on her father. The judge survived but his daughter died of her wounds. She had been shot in the back as she lay on the ground. When the news of her death came through – it is probably no different from hundreds of other killings – for some reason that one struck a chord with me. Probably I imagined my own daughter lying in a driveway and somebody shooting her in the back. I felt a real revulsion against violence at that time and the feeling has never left me. I don’t know why, it was one of the things that hit me the hardest. “I can even remember sitting in my cell, in H 4. It was a turning point in terms of violence. It didn’t push me over into absolute pacifism but it certainly had a massive impact when I thought of the futility and uselessness of it all. I was thinking that it was just a young girl lying on the ground and it could have been my daughter.” Mitchell’s daughter was four years old when he was convicted. When he got out of prison she was nearly 18, and, like his son, a complete stranger to him. Going into a home with two teenagers and his wife, all of whom were used to not having him around, was almost as traumatic as going into prison. “But, like in prison, you just got on with it. It was just a strange situation but in prison I had been used to getting over things. You had been used to all sorts of protests, prison restrictions at certain times, so you got used to knock backs. Probably I was hardened and didn’t notice it. But there were conflicts obviously within the house. It meant probably having to make choices between me and my kids at times because Mena was both mummy and daddy to them and then all of a sudden she was paying attention to some other clown who just appeared on the scene.” Mitchell didn’t feel he had the right to interfere. “Maybe it was a cop out too. Maybe I didn’t want to. But my idea was I don’t have the right. In many ways I felt a stranger in my own house – the same house that I’d left all those years ago.” While Mitchell had been inside Mena had been managing on state benefits, and up until the last few years in prison, on UVF welfare benefit. She raised the children and just before Billy got out she took a part-time job looking after a mentally disabled child at play school. Her social life revolved round her activities as an artist and until they both got involved in the LINC Resource Centre she had exhibitions two or three times a year.
POLITICS PROPER AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT – BACK ON THE OUTSIDE
When he left prison, Mitchell found himself returning on a regular basis. He became a visitor for those inmates whose families weren’t able to get there, for whatever reason, or who didn’t have any family to visit. He also helped prisoners make submissions to the Review Board. Increasingly though, and still influenced by the Christian socialist theologians, Mitchell felt that there had to be ‘something else’. When he was in prison he developed the idea of a creative activity centre where people who had been in prison and those who had engaged in creative activity, things like arts and crafts, could develop their skills further. He talked over the idea with John Paton, a Scottish member of the Church of the Nazarene, who was then pastor of the Carrickfergus Church. Paton felt the Church would back Mitchell’s idea, because he believed that the Church ought to be a catalyst for social change as well as for personal change. Starting in the vestry in the church in Carrickfergus, the Mitchell’s started an after schools club. Billy ran the football and all sports-related activities and Mena ran the arts and crafts. Billy kept up the prison visits, travelling twice a week to Maghaberry. They began to notice the gaps in post-prison welfare provision, especially for those people who had been through the prison system and were no longer involved in the paramilitaries, and no longer receiving the pay of the paramilitary welfare groups. People like Mitchell himself. But employment was hard to come by. As an ex-prisoner at the time (as now) very few firms would hire him straight out of jail. If former prisoners wanted any economic future that didn’t involve being on the dole full time, they had to create it for themselves. When one of the men in a similar position to himself said to Mitchell one day about the possibility of the ex-prisoners making Braille translations for the blind, he was quick to support the idea. They were given a couple of manual Braille typewriters, got some funding and set off manually creating the Braille sheets. Soon, with funding from the Upper Shankill ‘Belfast Action Team’ they purchased a computer, a laser printer, a Braille printer and software. With the support of a former UVF prisoner, Eddie Kinner, they developed a computerised Braille and Large Print transcription service based in the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO) Computer Suite on the Lower Shankill Road. There wasn’t a big demand but there was enough. And there were auxiliary benefits. If someone was learning to word process, once they got a bit competent, they’d start to teach others. This grew into a computer training suite in the Argyll Centre, also on the Shankill. The Church of the Nazarene supported the venture with additional computers funded by a Trust Fund set up by one of its Scottish members and the Probation Service provided core funding for a full-time Braille transcription worker. A small computer training suite was developed and the number of placements from the Probation Board and other agencies increased. Mena Mitchell added her art programmes to the range of activities offered at the centre, realising at last the idea first conceived by Billy Mitchell while in prison. They moved the centre to York St. in early 1994 and began to specialise in vocational training, taking people in on what was then the Action for Community Employment (ACE) schemes. The Church of the Nazarene secured funding to employ Mitchell and another worker on a full-time basis, while Mena continued to work as a full-time volunteer. LINC drew its students mainly from ex-prisoners, those who were on their working out schemes, at the very end of their sentences, and young people referred to them from the Probation Board. Before all life-sentence prisoners were finally released they would be transferred to the Crumlin Road jail. Before they got that transfer, they had to have a work placement outside – this was their ‘working out’ scheme. For several months they could go out to work during the day, and come back at night to prison. By the time they had moved to York St Mena Mitchell had developed art therapy programmes, a craft workshop and an Art Gallery. One of the first things that happened in the new building was an art exhibition organised by Mena using pictures by ‘artists in prison’. This had come about from their attendance at an Artists Association of Ireland seminar at the Ulster Museum, at which Quintin Oliver, then Director of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action was speaking on “The Art of Lobbying – lobbying in the Arts”. He remembers that “both Billy and Mena were intrigued by the issues and concepts – and took me up on one of my throwaway lines about ‘making your own ulck’ by doo-r stepping me at NICVA for advice about an art exhibition by/for ex-prisoners – from which developed a long term relationship between me and them, and the LINC. Billy certainly took charge of his own destiny, without being backward about coming forward.” As the gallery developed so did a framing business. The business required administration, accounting and management staff. This provided employment for local people, particularly young people. At one stage the centre had 25 people who were either former prisoners or on the working out scheme, the ACE, Job Training Programme (JTP) or Youth Training Programme (YTP). Around 70% of those on placements went from training into employment. People came in at whatever level they wanted – be that sweeping the floor, making coffee, or shadowing the accountant. They were also, at this stage, getting referrals from the local further education college, Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education. And everyone had a story. One woman came in to do a year-long Access course and stayed on, first as a volunteer for a year and then as an employee for four years. Her husband was a prison officer. Another was a former IRA prisoner, employed as a Braille worker who worked alongside the widow of a Loyalist who had been shot by the IRA. The two developed a good personal relationship as well as making a powerful contribution to the transcription service. The daughter of a former UVF commander came in on the Job Training Programme and left to do a social work course at university. A youth who had been addicted to prescription drugs from the ages of seven to 13 was referred from BIFHE. He ended up as an IT manager within five years. A young woman who carried out her community service with LINC was encouraged to take up physical training and is now a qualified physical training instructor. So there were individual and social success stories, but Mitchell had still stayed outside of formal politics. Developing what became known as the LINC centre (Local Initiatives for Needy Communities) was the main focus, along with the prison visiting. He’d had some informal talks with Eddie Kinner, whom he had met in prison and with whom he now met fairly regularly. One day Kinner broached the subject and asked if Mitchell was interested in politics. Billy replied that he was interested in the social end of politics. Eddie explained then that there were moves to develop the PUP. Those behind these moves were the members of the core political discussion group inside prison – Gusty Spence, Davy Ervine, Billy Hutchinson, Eddie Kinner and Tom Winstone. Kinner felt that the UVF would be open to political discussion and some sort of analysis about a ceasefire – if the Provos were to call one. Even though he had left the UVF, Mitchell was still viewed as having a contribution to make in the postprison context. He agreed to be part of the discussions being organised: “all I felt I would be doing then would be trying to politicise an organisation and provide, or help others to provide, some sort of analysis that would lead to a reduction in violence.” The Progressive Unionist Party had been established just prior to Mitchell’s incarceration. Its origins were in the short-lived Volunteer Political Party. Following the defeat of Ken Gibson in the 1974 General Election the UVF decided to disband the VPP. It did not, however, completely disengage from politics. Gibson and others remained as political advisors to Brigade Staff and, until his death, the Rev. John Stewart continued to converse with senior UVF members in West Belfast. A former Northern Ireland Labour Party member also participated in these discussions, and, along with Hugh Smyth, formed the PUP.5 Under the leadership of Hugh Smyth the PUP began to encourage the UVF to re-engage in political debate and helped keep that debate alive until prisoners like David Ervine and Gusty Spence were released and returned to their communities in the late 1980s. Mitchell’s analysis is that “As politicised prisoners were released from Long Kesh back into the community many of them began to engage in dialogue with Hugh Smyth and others who had continued to provide political analysis to the UVF and RHC. Thus began a slow process of politicisation and the development proper of the PUP.” It was not until November 1994, though, after the Loyalist and Republican ceasefires, that the PUP opened its first office on the Shankill Road. The office was to be used as a central base for the Party and as an advice centre for the general public. Starting off with a small group of members in West and East Belfast, the PUP now has branches over most of Northern Ireland, as well as a Women’s Commission and a youth wing – Progressive Youth. The debates in prison had not been specifically about the Progressive Unionist Party per se. They were more about analysing Unionism and reflecting on being in prison. Many of those debates were too much, too soon for UVF members, but now there was an opportunity to present those discussions as 5 The UVF and Political Activism – B Mitchell an idea whose time had come. Mitchell decided to join the PUP after these discussions with Kinner and other former prisoners, well after he had set up the LINC Centre, which continued to be his main focus. Outside of Billy’s immediate experience, many advances and regressions had been ongoing in the early 1990s. In November 1990 Mary Robinson was elected the first woman President of Ireland and Margaret Thatcher was deposed as the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain. Almost immediately, Belfast City Council rejected a proposal to invite Mary Robinson to the City Hall, known sarcastically as the Dome of Delight by non-unionists. This was local government at its usual worst. At a higher level Peter Brooke, the Northern Ireland Secretary was still trying for talks, and early in 1991 he set an Easter deadline for new talks. The DUP, UUP, APNI and SDLP agreed on a talks formula, but Sinn Fein were not consulted. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that SF should be at the new talks, but they never actually took off. Instead a pattern of bilateralism was established. Instead of meeting in round table format, directly confronting the issues, parties met with the Secretary of State on separate occasions. The ‘talks season’ lasted from May 7th until July 9th. The Combined Loyalist Military Command, which had ostensibly observed a ceasefire throughout, declared that they would resume armed conflict at midnight on July 4th. This political interaction, such as it was, was underscored by violence. Three mortars had been launched at 10 Downing St. early in the year and the spring and summer saw SF councillors and election workers, and UDP election workers shot dead in a spiral of tit for tat murders. Bombs were also a dominant feature. The IRA bombed Musgrave Park hospital, and Crumlin Road prison with a total death poll of four. Questions were also being asked publicly about the state of British justice. The Maguire Seven convictions were quashed, and a Channel 4 Dispatches programme alleged collusion between Loyalists, the RUC and the UDR. A BBC Panorama documentary blamed Unionists for the talks breaking up so early. There were two important visits to the island. Tom Foley, then Speaker of the House of Representatives in the US Senate came, but refused to meet with SF until it renounced violence. John Major visited Dublin, the first British Prime Minster to do so for ten years. He met with Taoiseach Charles Haughey, and they agreed to have biannual meetings. Initiative ’92 was launched by a group of active citizens in order to allow for greater public participation in the political discourse of Northern Ireland. The political discourse was severely curtailed by violence at the beginning of 1992. There were bombings in Belfast and London; eight people died in the Teebane massacre and a further five died in an attack on the Sean Graham’s bookies shop on the Lower Ormeau Road. A new formula had been agreed for talks, but Peter Brooke found it impossible to launch this in the circumstances. Later, Sinn Fein published ‘Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland’ and the four ‘constitutional’ parties met in round table format. However, with a general election scheduled for April 9th, and bombings in Belfast City Centre, Donegall Pass, and Lurgan, not a great deal of progress was made. Shortly before the Westminster election, Bill Clinton told the American Irish Presidential forum that, as President, he’d reverse the ban on Gerry Adams’ visa to the US, back the McBride Principles and appoint an undefined ‘peace envoy’ to Northern Ireland. The aristocratic Patrick Mayhew replaced Peter Brooke as Secretary of State, and the Anglo Irish Intergovernmental Conference (part of the hated AIA machinery) suspended its meetings for three months to allow political talks to restart. At the end of April talks began again at Stormont, again with the four perceived ‘constitutional’ parties, and again using the three Strand approach. Deadlock quickly developed over Strand 1, but the delegates moved to London to discuss Strand 2 before adjourning for the summer. Over the summer there were more car bombs in Belfast, and the UDA was made a proscribed organisation. When Strand 2 talks reconvened in the autumn, the DUP walked out, and only the UUP travelled to Dublin Castle to discuss Strand 2 further. The UUP later also withdrew from talks. The Anglo Irish Intergovernmental Conference reviewed the talks procedures and proposed moving back to bilaterals, from the larger conference-style nature of the most recent talks. Patrick Mayhew stated at the end of the year that the government had no favoured outcome from the discussions, but Gerry Adams said that the exclusion of Sinn Fein was undemocratic and demanded a UN and EC role in peace building. Bombings continued throughout autumn 1992 and 1993: in Bangor [twice], South Belfast (the forensic science laboratories) and Coleraine. A bomb in Warrington, England resulted in the deaths of two children and three explosions in London, including the Bishopsgate bomb caused £350m of damage; in Belfast city centre, Portadown, Magherafelt, Bournemouth, Strabane, and at Frizell’s Chip Shop on the Shankill Road, which killed ten people, including one of the bombers. A spate of shootings towards the end of the year meant October 1993 had the worst casualty rate of any one month since 1976. In the midst of all this violence Dick Spring, the Irish Taniste and Patrick Mayhew met and continued to communicate through a series of speeches. John Hume met Gerry Adams for ‘extensive discussions’ and Mayhew proposed new talks, albeit without prior consultation with the Southern government. President Robinson met the Queen in an official visit at Buckingham Palace, and then paid an unofficial visit to Northern Ireland where she met community groups, and leaders, amongst them, Gerry Adams. The Hume Adams talks continued after receiving full support from the rest of the SDLP, and they presented a still unpublished document to the Irish government. The Irish government, led now by Albert Reynolds stated that Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution could be changed in the context of an overall settlement. Dick Spring argued that London and Dublin should lay out a framework settlement and then use a referendum to get direct public endorsement. The public began to articulate their exasperation through peace rallies organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and by contributing to the Opsahl Commission hearings. Finally, just before Christmas 1993, the Downing St. Declaration was published. In 1994, Gerry Adams finally got a ‘limited duration’ visa to visit the US, granted by President Clinton, and Sinn Fein was allowed back on the airways after a British broadcasting ban was lifted. The UUP and DUP were still refusing to speak to even the SDLP until the Hume Adams talks were over, but on August 31, the IRA declared an unprecedented ‘complete cessation of military operations.’ Military operations from both sets of paramilitaries continued right up to this declaration, with random shootings being most dominant during the year. The IRA ceasefire was closely followed by an announcement by the European Union that it was increasing its contribution to the International Fund for Ireland by one third to £47m. An announcement by the CLMC on October 13th stated that they were on a universal cessation of all Loyalist operational hostilities. There were a further number of important announcements. The EU agreed a £230m aid programme; John Major, at an investment conference from which SF were excluded, announced £73m worth of investment in NI, and Bill Clinton announced the appointment of George Mitchell as Special Economic Advisor to Northern Ireland. Just before Christmas 1994 John Bruton again took over the Irish premiership from Bertie Ahern and it was Bruton and Major who published the Frameworks for the Future document in February 1995. According to these proposals, any settlement would be discussed in a three stranded context, examining relationships in an internal Northern Ireland (Strand 1), a North South (Strand 2) and an East West (London-Dublin, Strand 3) light. Shortly thereafter Patrick Mayhew delivered a speech in Washington detailing what has become known as Washington 3, effectively placing decommissioning of paramilitary arms as a precondition for entering political negotiations. From being an issue which was in the relative background, the issue of decommissioning – and in particular Republican decommissioning – has blighted the negotiations and the Agreement implementation ever since. However, attitudes to associates of paramilitaries had changed somewhat in the US, and both SF and the UDP and PUP attended the St. Patrick’s Day reception in the White House. Back at home parades were rapidly becoming a big issue, with both re-routing and rioting in the spring prefiguring things to come. On return from Washington, political leaders engaged in bilateral meetings – Clinton spoke to Major, Bertie Ahern met the UDP and PUP; the SDLP met the UDP, and the UUP and the SDLP formed a joint delegation to meet with John Major. Even though Alastair McDonnell became the first Nationalist to be elected to the position of Deputy Mayor of Belfast City council in 1995, simmering sectarianism spilt over into the streets during the summer marching season, with the first big Drumcree stand-off and its spread to other areas. In the autumn President Clinton became the first serving US President to visit Northern Ireland, while his special economic envoy, George Mitchell was heading up a commission to explore how the decommissioning issue could be managed in the context of all-party talks.
The Mitchell Commission reported in January 1996, suggesting that decommissioning of weapons could happen in parallel with talks, but that it should not be a precondition. The report was effectively rejected by John Major, but the fallout from its publication was soon to be overshadowed by the Canary Wharf bomb, causing two deaths, £85m of damage, and marking the end to the IRA ceasefire. Despite much pessimism, people took to the streets in support of all party talks; John Hume and Gerry Adams met the IRA Army Council in Dublin, and Bruton and Major set June 10 as the start date for a new talks process. They consulted on the form of elections and came up with a formula that would effectively allow for participation by the PUP and UDP, though the newly formed Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and the Labour Coalition also made the system work to their advantage. Ten parties were duly elected in May, though Sinn Fein were still excluded because of the ceasefire situation. Parades again produced rioting, and the North Review was established to report on how the situation could be managed. The summer was very violent, and even though the talks resumed in September, bombings, shootings and riots again underpinned the remainder of the year. The talks dragged on into 1997, which saw more bomb scares and hoaxes in Northern Ireland, mainly by the Continuity IRA, and also in England, spectacularly stopping the Grand National at Aintree. There were calls by the DUP and UKUP to have both the PUP and UDP expelled from talks proceedings, but these did not succeed. With elections on May 1st, not a great deal of progress was made in talks, and they were suspended from March 5th until June 3rd to allow for the election campaigns. Early in the year though, parading caused significant disturbance. A new Parades Commission, arising out of the North Review on parades, had been established, but too late to take decisions for 1997. Thus the new Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, was forced to reverse a decision not to allow the Orangemen down the Garvaghy Rd, and five days of extensive rioting in Nationalist areas ensued. Following this the Orange Order re-routed marches in Armagh and Derry, and cancelled the parade for the Lower Ormeau Road. In the midst of this civil unrest it seemed impossible that political progress could be made. But the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair had stated in June that the reconvening date for talks would be September 15th, and the IRA announced that their ceasefire would be restored on July 20th. Political parties had again been meeting bilaterally to discuss how decommissioning should be handled. Mo Mowlam met with Ray Burke, the Republic’s Foreign Minister who agreed to establish an international body to oversee decommissioning, and Mowlam invited Sinn Fein to enter the Multi Party Talks in September for the first time. When the time came for the Talks to start, the DUP and the UKUP decided not to return. After a small day-long delay, the UUP entered, flanked by the UDP and PUP. As the participants adapted to the new dynamic, the Chair of the proceedings, George Mitchell, and the two governments were keen to move things forward. The governments published a Heads of Agreement document in January 1998 that proposed that an Assembly be established in Northern Ireland, a new British Irish Agreement would replace the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and a new North South Ministerial Council with concomitant implementation bodies and changes to Articles 2 and 3. This was published to some acrimony amongst the participants, but this was nothing compared to a vicious spiral of tit for tat murders that had been ongoing over the Christmas and New Year period. When the Talks moved to London they were mainly concerned with the temporary expulsion of the UDP who admitted UDA involvement in the killings. When the Talks moved to Dublin in February they mainly discussed the temporary expulsion of Sinn Fein. In March the majority of the participants focused on visiting and lobbying in Washington, and it was nothing short of miraculous that an Agreement was finally reached in April. Following a heated referendum campaign the Agreement was endorsed by over 70% of the Northern Irish population in May and then the political parties were straight into Assembly elections in June. The implementation of the Agreement has proved divisive at both a political leadership level and on the ground. Levels of sectarianism are more widely reported and interface violence has increased from 1998. Decommissioning has been a real obstacle to progress, with Unionists insisting that physical acts of decommissioning begin before they will commit long term to being in government with Sinn Fein. Conversely, Sinn Fein maintain that the Agreement does not require decommissioning, but rather calls on all participants to use their influence to bring decommissioning about. This has led to the suspension of the Assembly several times before eventual progress was made in summer 2000 with the appointment of International Arms Inspectors; proposals following more Talks at Weston Park in summer 2001 and actual IRA [though not, at the time of writing UVF or UDA] decommissioning under the auspices of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning in autumn 2001.
Personal and Practical Peace Building: Restorative Justice and the Conflict Transformation project.
As Billy became more politicised with the work in the PUP, LINC began to develop as well. As the centre began to gain a reputation for its ex-prisoner and skill building work, it progressed into more overtly community development work. Now they were building the capacity of whole communities, as well as the capacity of individuals within them. They met with local community leaders in North Belfast, Newtownabbey and East Antrim, and added programmes for training and supporting community groups to LINC’s workplan. Through interaction with a number of community groups they identified a gap: mediation. People were working in one of the most segregated constituencies in Northern Ireland and they did not have the skills to mediate within their own community, let alone with the Nationalist community. Billy saw mediation as a necessary and integral part of community development, particularly community development in the context of a perpetually fragile political peace process. And mediation was essentially about peace building. Mitchell and his colleagues provided a link between local communities and ex-prisoners who wanted to contribute positively to those communities and to the peace process at large. Community relations were very much a part of the community development process. Just before the ceasefires, in autumn 1994, Billy Hutchinson, who had been working with the Republican Tommy Gorman, also felt that ex-prisoners had a role to play in trying to change society, to put something back. That something could be social and community transformation. It was then that Mitchell and LINC began to offer a new analysis. The reality check was always there – they knew that not everyone would be into it; some would just want the vocational training to enable them to move on. But others did begin to furrow a new path that was linked to their past experiences in prison, and, for Mitchell, had the practical outcome that his work as a Christian Socialist demanded.
It was around this time that the Shankill Think Tank was established. Eddie Kinner had been talking to Billy Mitchell in greater depth about the political situation, and the potential role of former prisoners in rebuilding communities. The Shankill Think Tank helped facilitate lots of debate within the Loyalist constituency in the run-up to the Republican, and later, Loyalist ceasefires. The skills building, the community development work, the mediation, and the informal political discussions: all these strands were beginning to merge. Then Billy Hutchinson added another. He said to Mitchell “if you are going to do this sort of work you need to meet the other side. If the ceasefires come about there is no point in there being an absence of violence and nothing else.” It was he who raised the notion of meeting with Liam Maskey. The Maskey name, synonymous with Alex Maskey, now an Assembly Member for West Belfast was at that time a scary prospect. But Hutchinson gave Liam Maskey a ‘clean bill of health.’ “In fact,” says Mitchell, “the strange thing is that the vast majority of the family aren’t involved in anything. Billy said a couple of things that surprised me, that Liam is very anti-violence and stuff like that. So I said to a Catholic fellah I knew, ‘if you find Liam Maskey tell him I wouldn’t mind meeting with him.’ And so we met. Liam came down to York St. where we discussed how best we could develop a programme that might lay the basis for inter-community dialogue and partnership. That contact developed into establishing a formal cross-community linkage – InterComm. InterComm began as a collaboration between the LINC Resource Centre and Newington-Cavehill Community Services Association and is now an independent organisation with its own constitution and management committee, which still includes Billy Mitchell and Liam Maskey. There was a focus on extending the relationship between the two men to building an interorganisational relationship, with the eventual aim of an inter-community relationship. From that grew a focus on the mediation aspect of their respective working areas. They were helped in this respect by Mediation Network, a locally based organisation established by Brendan McAllister and Joe Campbell. That came through contact with the Springfield Inter-Community Development Project (SICDP). Billy Hutchinson, the then Director, invited LINC and InterComm to participate in a mediation-training programme with Mediation Network. Mitchell attended the programme along with his research assistant, Karen Lysaght, and Liam Maskey. After that LINC was invited to bring people together for an 18-month training programme called the ‘Five Areas Mediation Project’. Five people from five conflict zones in Northern Ireland – North Belfast, Derry, Portadown, South Belfast, and West Belfast. That programme formalised the work they had been developing themselves in response to community requests. Each of the five groups had to develop a practical outcome. For the practical outcome to their programme, the Mitchells chose to set up a small mediation centre in Carrickfergus in 1997. It was through this programme that the participants were introduced to a number of international theorists and practitioners in peace-building. More importantly, however, was the fact that for the first time they were meeting people in Northern Ireland that they would never normally meet, given the political context and their political backgrounds. Mitchell met people from the Lower Ormeau Road, the Garvaghy Road and Derry’s bogside, and through interaction with them was able to develop an understanding that ordinarily as a Loyalist just would not happen. All this was happening in the time of intense political activity previously outlined. The ceasefires were in place, and political negotiations were widely expected. The work on the ground became even more relevant, focused as it were on peace-building. It was here that some of the theorists’ work helped explain situations that they found themselves in. The work of John Paul Lederach, from the Eastern Mennonite University in the United States, held particular appeal. Lederach’s theories had real application and Lederach was able to put names to elements of the work that they were developing. They would tell Lederach what they were doing – what level of dialogue they were at in their own community, and he could say that, in a process, that was stage 1 or 2. Or, at this stage in Nicaragua or Guatemala this was what was done to move the process on. Lederach helped analyse the potential of the ‘core group’ of informal debaters and talkers. The group worked out from personal change. Core ‘members’ brought friends along, increasing the number of people who were taking part in the discussions. Lederach showed that they were undergoing personal change, then they brought that back to their local community, then a wider constituency, and then to Northern Ireland society in general. Mitchell says, “We never thought of a structure like that, you just had to get to know each other first and then you bring yours along and I bring mine along. Lederach worked out a chart for us then he talked about time frames. When you are talking with someone, building a relationship, in a short time you will either become friends or you won’t. So you work things through and it develops a long-term friendship. But then you bring your constituency in, that takes a wee bit longer, that could maybe take about a year. Say it takes two people three months, then it takes a year for our friends to get to know each other, a few more years for the wider community and then a lot more for general society. But he was looking at the long-term – you are starting off as two people but you are looking at generational change.” At one stage during the “Five Areas Mediation Programme” a threat was issued by the INLA against Loyalist community workers. A mediation process was initiated involving Quintin Oliver, Brendan Mackin, Liam Maskey and representatives from the INLA and IRSP. At one stage of the process the Five Areas group were meeting in Corrymeela with John Paul Lederach. Liam Maskey was in the room, but the mediation was taking place with Mackin and Oliver who kept in touch with Maskey by mobile ‘phone. It turned into a ‘live mediation’, with Maskey passing on information from Oliver and Mackin. Lederach used the information to explain the dynamic of what was happening, and making suggestions as to what should, or might, happen next. “The important thing for us was the way in which Lederach used a live mediation that had real meaning for us as a teaching tool”, remembers Mitchell. A former hunger striker, Pat McGeown, was also an influence in terms of the relationship that Liam Maskey and Billy Mitchell were developing. McGeown, a Sinn Fein councillor before he died, was one of the people who encouraged the Mitchell-Maskey axis. As Billy remembers: “Pat was one of the ones who kept saying to me and Liam ‘just keep pushing the boat out. People will follow you but don’t go too far in front of them.’” When McGeown died, Alex Maskey was similarly encouraging of the crosscommunity enterprise. It was important to have the support of Alex Maskey and Pat McGeown, because it enabled Mitchell to see what would be realistically possible in terms of cross community activity or interaction from the republican perspective, and it strengthened their hand when trying to persuade hard-liners on the ground. Occasionally it was very much a fusion of community development work with a constitutional political edge. Just after the Loyalist ceasefire, Billy had been meeting with ex-prisoners in Monkstown, just north of Belfast. Gradually they began to analyse what was happening in their community – that the deprivation, just as acute as in Nationalist communities, was hurting their community badly, and that continued hostilities would continue to have that severe side-effect. Mitchell helped with an application to the Newtownabbey District Partnership, and they received funding for a development worker and a community resource centre.. This project has gone a long way to help embed the peace process within that Loyalist constituency and has led a number of former paramilitaries to engage in the democratic process. The group were also successful in securing funding to develop waste ground in the Monkstown Estate as a soccer pitch and recreational area The process was gradual: Billy was working with nationalists, some of whom had a republican background, and he remembers that: “I never went to anyone and said ‘Can I do this?’ or ‘Do you approve of this? I just did what I believed was the right thing to do and let people know what I was doing. I remember in the early days people within the PUP used to query why I was meeting republicans when the party hadn’t sanctioned such meetings. There was always some confusion about what was political (in the party sense) and what was personal. I’d point out that as a community activist I believed that I had to do this and that my work as a community activist should not be confused with my work as a political activist. Gradually people accepted that my way of doing community development involved working with nationalists and republicans. However, up until the multi-party talks my contacts with republicans were simply on the basis of my community work.” When the Multi-Party Talks began in June 1996, Mitchell was a member of the PUP Confidence Building Committee at Castle Buildings. This gave him a better insight into what was happening politically. Involvement in the Talks enabled him to get “a better hand on the political end of things.” It is very difficult to definitively measure social change and generational shift. There are only markers that you can point to – a community worker here, a cross-community partnership that exists now that would not have done so five years ago. Just because political leaders were ostensibly talking to each other in the Multi Party Talks didn’t mean that automatically people would talk to each other on the ground. Mitchell believes that the process he helped developed was important because he was able to offer a link between representative politics and the more participative politics that happened at grassroots level: “We’ve always said there were two processes, the political process and the community process. The work on the ground was pulling people together but we didn’t understand that then. People always talk about bottom up, top down, which is best? We felt that two of the activists, the likes of Liam [Maskey] and Billy [Hutchinson] before he became a politician, and myself, that our job was to work with our constituencies and then work with the people at Stormont.” Lederach and others gave them names for what they were doing. He said that there weren’t just two processes, there were three. The process that the political elite was involved in, a grassroots process and the process that Mitchell was involved in, a linking process. The problem for Mitchell and Maskey was that they had to keep looking two ways – their process was, in many ways the most vulnerable. They could easily get squashed. However, the relationships remained intact over the course of the political talks, through the Good Friday Agreement referendum campaign and into its implementation. Even when the military strategy works against peace, for example during a pipe-bombing campaign, Mitchell says: “As people on the ground we are still able to interact and friendships have been forged that won’t fade easily.” After the Good Friday Agreement, Billy began to think about community development in the wake of a conflict, turning his attention to the Loyalist community. He was attracted by the idea of compensation for crimes committed, not in the sense of a legal and financial suit, but in terms of regret expressed and recompense agreed with the victim. He had picked up the idea through his biblical studies. “The Old Testament way of doing things is ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ We typically see an ‘eye for an eye’ style of justice as uncivilised – as unregulated and medieval.” Mitchell’s studies suggested that the ‘eye for an eye’ approach was actually a limiting device on human anger and revenge. Prior to its introduction, if for example someone was robbed or raped, the next of kin could go out and kill the perpetrator. There was no limit on the avengement. Then the Jewish law changed to an ‘eye for an eye’, which according to Mitchell meant that, “If you poked my eye out the worst I could do was poke yours out, but I didn’t have to do it. What the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth law did was to limit what could be done. It’s not a literal thing, it’s the principle and this was about realistic compensation.” Billy’s reflections then moved on a stage where justice wasn’t seen as breaking the laws of the land or the state laws, it was seen as breaking a relationship. The whole thesis of the Jewish law was not so THE CONFLICT’S FIFTH BUSINESS: A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF BILLY MITCHELL 66 much about punishing people but about restoring broken relationships. Mitchell was thinking about these concepts when, through Mediation Network, they heard about the more contemporary system of restorative justice. Here again was something Mitchell was considering in the context of how to apply a New Testament principle when “Howard Zehr came along and put a name to it.” And strangely enough, another community worker, Tom Winstone, (another former UVF prisoner) was doing the same thing. He had been tasked by NIACRO to research the social reasons behind punishment beatings and was assisted in his research by Karen Lysaght, who worked for LINC. Winstone and Lysaght found that while punishment beatings and shootings were often carried out at the request of communities, they were not addressing the problem of socially harmful activities. There needed to be some way of dealing with young people, but in a way that was accountable to the community, and the community had to accept that the young people were also victims of the system. The original research project didn’t call what it was sketching out ‘restorative justice’. It wanted to provide for something that didn’t just punish, but offered young people a way back into their community by helping them to give something back to their community and to help them to be reintegrated back into that community6. Then Debbie Watters, who had worked on a restorative justice project in the United States for four years shared her ideas. She was able to identify processes and procedures for a successful programme and she had a name for it – Restorative Justice. While Tom Winstone and Debbie Watters set about establishing the project on the ground, Mitchell began to reflect on the principles behind it, and see if they could be adapted to peace-building. Again, slowly, the building blocks were being put in place. The contacts that Mitchell and other community workers had built were used to facilitate the kind of programme that Tom Winstone and Debbie Watters would be implementing. Mediation Network organised a study trip to the United States on restorative justice for Billy and Mena Mitchell in May 1997. Part of that trip was spent learning about the work of the Church of the Nazarene activities in Washington, D.C. The Church there had a big community centre where the religious services were also held. At their offices they dealt with social justice issues, including housing. It was as close to the writings of the liberation theologians as Mitchell had seen.
In the United States restorative justice was about individuals who were breaking the law but Mitchell felt it could be applied to peace building. Put simply, he felt that “If what can work between you and me as individuals could work between two communities using the principles of Restorative Justice, it could be applied to develop a new concept of conflict transformation.” And so Mitchell began to develop the essential philosophy of restorative justice – healing and mediating relationships – to see how it might have further application within the context of conflict transformation and peace building. But first the new concept and project had to be defended. Challenging the misperceptions surrounding restorative justice took time, and patience. The community embraced the ideas pretty quickly – it was directly benefiting them, but the media battle continues. And Mitchell continued to develop and broaden the concept as a tool for conflict transformation. And that is where the work is at today. Whatever the community problem is in terms of conflict, Mitchell and his colleagues will analyse it in terms of restorative justice, with a view to transforming both the nature of the conflict and the nature of the relationships between those in conflict. He is clear however about the boundaries between the work of LINC and the work of Alternatives. One uses the principles of restorative justice as a tool for addressing petty crime and socially harmful activities while the other uses those same principles as a tool for addressing the wider issues of conflict between communities and political constituencies. Mitchell is quick to stress that “LINC cannot take any credit for the work of Alternatives. That is a standalone project that has pioneered community restorative justice within Loyalist communities and which has a very specific remit. Their expertise lies in youth intervention, victim-offender mediation, addressing issues around petty crime and anti-social behaviour and providing alternatives to ‘punishment beatings’ and ‘expulsions’ against offenders. Our expertise would be in the peace-building end – political and community dialogue, mediation, peace education, crisis intervention.” Effectively Mitchell has taken the core conceptual principles of restorative justice and mediation and is developing ways of applying them to interpersonal, political and social relationships. Be it housing or health, anyone who works in the community sector or with people in communities should have the skills to create and cultivate positive relationships, and to intervene constructively when relationships break “It’s really preparing one person to meet another. We get referrals on issues like employment and housing as well as politics and interface issues. So there’s the tenant-landlord relationship, or the employer-employee relationship. We’re interested in creating just relationships through the application of the philosophy and practice of restorative justice.” In the context of a deeply divided society emerging from physical conflict, Mitchell felt that the concept could be used for inter-community work, and specifically, peace building. He has written recently: “Peace building is not the same as conflict resolution. […] Peace building within the Northern Ireland context is about conflict transformation, not conflict resolution. It is about transforming both the nature of the conflict (from violence to politics) and the nature of the relationship between the parties in conflict. Basically it is about developing non-violent responses to conflict. Peace building is a process in which we seek to move from violent responses to conflict to non-violent responses. ”7 And it is important, he feels, that former combatants contribute to this transformation – “The process started for many volunteers when they personally acknowledged that violent responses to conflict were simply leading us further and further into an unending cycle of violence and counter-violence. Peace building for the genuine Loyalist is not about achieving a result for Loyalism through non-violent means. Nor is it merely about resolving conflict through the politics of non-violence. It is not even about achieving agreement through non-violent means. It is about seeking a commitment to developing creative alternatives to violence through dialogue with the enemy. It is crucial therefore that both current and former participants in the conflict are regarded as a key resource in the peace building process. They are not mere recipients of imposed solutions but an essential part of the transforming, healing and restorative process. They must, however, be sincere in their desire for both non-violence and the democratic process.”8 Billy also used a Christian Socialist framework to develop these ideas, interpreting the Biblical concept of justice as reaching far beyond the imposition of penal sanction. He says: “[Peace building] is not an optional extra but an integral part of our Christian service. Peace building is not a technique; it is a 7 Mitchell B, Unfinished paper 8 Mitchell B Unfinished paper process through which we seek to move from violent responses to conflict through non-violent activism to a position of peace and reconciliation. Activism is about doing things that impact upon others. But it must first of all have an impact upon our own lives. If we are going to be serious about peace building we must live it out in our daily lives. […] To act justly is to pursue equity and fairness. This is something that each of us must do for ourselves. No matter what people around us do, we are to act justly in all our dealings with our fellow citizens.”9 “Peace building demands personal involvement. It is not a process for others. It is a process for us – for me as an individual. It is the process that I am committed to and that has become a part of my way of life. Sustainable peace will only come to Northern Ireland when all of us who live in it become personally active as peace builders.”Mitchell Billy Doing Justice: A Biblical Model for Peace Building 10 Mitchell Billy Unfinished paper.
Billy Mitchell’s life story encompasses the two main choices usually available to us all. One, to accept uncritically and be swept along and seduced by the forces of history, politics and circumstance, or, two, to resist those same forces, and to challenge and attempt not only to stem their flow, but to divert them, to channel them for the good of one’s community. In experiencing the former, and then choosing the latter, Mitchell demonstrates that change is possible, both on personal and social fronts. In particular, it suggests that if personal change is possible, so is social change, and in fact that social change happens because individuals undergo personal change. Furthermore, much social change can be accounted for by the deliberations and determination of individuals, individuals who are not necessarily political leaders with high voter name recognition. En route he constantly engaged a wide and sometimes controversial range of people in dialogue. And the methodologies he developed, most of which are still considered unorthodox by the establishment agencies that deal with community development policies and the administration of justice, have been supported by other people in the community, voluntary and academic sectors who were prepared to, like him, take risks for peace. Mitchell’s life has happened in parallel with the political conflict in Northern Ireland, and much of what he has gone through reflects the political process itself: the ambiguity and contradictions of a religiously driven civil guerrilla war; the hypocrisy of political leaders in their attitude to the use of force, and dialogue with paramilitary organisations; the time in prison, reflecting on both religion and politics; the engagement on an informal and personal level with the ‘other armies’ and then with the ‘other communities’, even though he was, most times, ahead of his organisation and his community, with the concomitant risks in so being. All these areas have been underscored by Mitchell’s need to continually talk to those both on his own side and on the other side, to understand what they were feeling and thinking, not necessarily to agree with them, but to understand and then think about how to move forward, taking advice from people within and without his community and country.
To return to the matter of Fifth Business. If we take the passing of the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement as the denouement, the recognition of what it would take to transform the conflict from something characterised by violence and non-engagement, to something defined by democratic ideals and inter-communal dialogue, it would not have been passed without the active involvement of people like Billy Mitchell, people who took on the role of Fifth Business. Not the stars, but those nonetheless who make a stellar contribution. For the most part Mitchell’s journey has been about challenging his personal circumstances, undergoing personal change and working to shift the communities in which he lives and works, and cares about deeply. As he says, peace building takes a personal commitment. There is no doubt but that he has given that commitment, many times over.
Select Bibliography :
Books Boulton, David The UVF 1966-73 Taylor, Peter Loyalists Bloomsbury 2000 Garland, Roy Gusty Spence Blackstaff Press 2001 Elliot, S and Flackes W Northern Ireland a Political Directory 1968-1999 Blackstaff Press Belfast 1999 Pamphlets, Reports and Magazines Cullen, Theresa LINC Activity Report January – March 2001, Belfast May 2001 Garland, Roy Seeking a Political Accommodation The UVF: Negotiating History Shankill Community Publications 1997 Gormally, Brian and Alternatives Northern Ireland Alternatives explanatory and publicity material Belfast 2000 Hall, Michael Ulster’s Protestant Working Class – a community explanation Island Pamphlets 9, August 1994 Hall, Michael Restoring Relationships – a community explanation of anti social behaviour, punishment beatings and restorative justice Island Pamphlets 29, September 2000 Mitchell, Billy The Privileged Prod and the Travelling Tinker  Mitchell, Billy Culture and Identity, A Loyalist Perspective  Mitchell, Billy A Question of Identity  Mitchell, Billy Long Kesh – A spiritual experience?  Mitchell, Billy Maintaining Beliefs without Bigotry  Mitchell, Billy Doing Justice – a Biblical Model for Peace building 1999 Mitchell, Billy The 1969-1994 Conflict 1997 Mitchell, Billy The Political Development of the PUP 1996 Mitchell, Billy Restorative Justice 2000 Mitchell, Billy Peace building  The Other View Issue 4 Spring 2001, LINC, Belfast