At the moment there seems to be a resurgence in the fortunes of the Progressive Unionist Party–a Party that to some degree has fallen on hard times in recent years. There are many reasons for this–too many to recount here–but suffice to say that the party has sunk to its knees in this past number of years. Now with a new found will and a huge amount of application and dedication from many individuals their future certainly looks a lot brighter than previously. Should they climb to former lofty heights many people will deserve the plaudits undoubtedly bestowed upon them. But consideration should be given to those from a generation ago who took the bull by the horns–and an unprecedented gamble–not to mention flak from both friends and foes–to establish the Volunteer Political Party–the forerunner to the modern PUP.
One of those forward thinking pioneers was Ken Gibson. Ken was an East Belfast man–born and bred in the Willowfield area. From an early age it was apparent that Ken had staunch Unionist/Loyalist tendencies. For a period through the sixties he was aligned to Ian Paisley through the Free Presbyterian Church but at the onset of the conflict in 1969 Ken seen through the bluster of the agitator and left his fold. In the early seventies, in response to the republican onslaught against the Protestant community a revamped UVF was emerging. Ken Gibson was in the front ranks of this movement. Through the very early years of the Troubles Ken led from the front and was soon rewarded with a place on the UVF Brigade Staff. In early 1973 not long after internment was introduced for those who were only trying to defend their country Ken made that trip to Long Kesh as Loyalist Detainee. While there he was a great source of all things pertaining to loyalism and was a wonderful role model in particular to the younger prisoners who, of course were in abundance. I was also noticeable during this period that Ken was one of the early thinkers within the ranks. It wouldnt have been unusual to see him huddled over a table in the study hut or gathered around a bed space with Gusty, Billy Davidson, Geordie Orr and others. Much of the forward thinking from this time emanated from these men–on the inside–and their compatriots on the outside. Much of what they spoke about then is now is evident in the pages of the recent book–” Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity-The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism” by Tony Novosel. The thinking within the UVF ranks then was years ahead of anything else being offered at that time–from any quarter–but was disregarded because of the source. Had the same thinking been emanating from mainstream unionism much of it would have been implemented then–much earlier then the Good Friday Agreement of 1998–and with it the possibility of many lives being saved. It was in these early days of the coflict that the UVF recognised the need to steer a political path rather than one of armed defiance. Upon his release in December 1973 Ken was one of those officers tasked with attempting to move the organisation in a political direction. The next year the Volunteer Political Party was formed with Ken playing a leading role as Chairman and with Hughie Smyth as a close compatriot. In June 1974 Ken publicly stated that the VPP endorsed the idea of the establishment of an all party talks forum, a stance that was welcomed by the then British government. The VPP campaign also focused on the abysmal social housing in the Shankill area and other relevant working class issues. Ironically because of this stance the party was attacked by a number of Unionist politicians. Martin Smyth and John Taylor of the UUP were most vocal in their condemnation by declaring that the working class approach by Gibson and the VPP was akin to communism. Gibson at this time also publicly disavowed the Ulster Nationalist ideas being propogated by people like Glenn Barr and Kennedy Lindsay who were reprentatives of the Vanguard party.
In October of the same year Ken Gibson stood for the VPP in the West belfast constituency for the General Election but he only managed to finish in fourth place with a total of 2,690 votes–well behind the DUP candidate Johnny McQuade and even further behind the winner of the seat, Gerry Fitt. In the wake of this the VPP was dissolved and Hughie Smyth was elected to the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention as an Independent Unionist.
No matter that the initial setting up of a political arm was doomed to failure–Ken Gibson, and others like him had the bravery and the foresight to attempt something in the face of many barriers and difficulties. But it was through the pioneering efforts of him and others that would eventually pave the way for the reformation of the party under the title of the Progressive Unionist Party in 1979. Ken Gibson should be commended for that.
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