Inside Man: A Review by Danny Morrison.

INSIDE MAN

By William ‘Plum’ Smith

Reviewed by Danny Morrison

 

Some years ago I was on a panel in the Waterfront Hall along with Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party. We were discussing a play we had just watched, The Chronicles of Long Kesh. Billy and other loyalists in the audience took great exception to the depiction of their prisoners in the play, and objected to prison experience and indeed the conflict generally being monopolised as mainly a dominant republican story (on stage, in literature and in film).

Of course, the required response was for loyalists to take control of their own story and write their own accounts. That process was already underway, for example, in such a work as Reason To Believe by former loyalist lifer, Robert Niblock, a play which was well-received and reviewed.

I was thus glad to hear a few weeks ago that former UVF prisoner William ‘Plum’ Smith had written a book and I went along to the packed launch in Crumlin Road Prison. I have to say, I was very impressed and enjoyed Inside Man, about Plum’s five years in prison for the attempted murder of a Catholic, Joseph Hall, whom he shot in Unity Flats. ‘Enjoyed’ might be misinterpreted as mischievously delighting in the woes and suffering of an opponent. But what I mean is that his is a very honest, human account, and at times a very funny account, of life in prison and his life before that: what made him a loyalist who was prepared to go beyond parading and take up arms against what he perceived to be the enemy (however I disagree with that description).

It is a book that nationalists and republicans should read in order to learn about the loyalist mindset which is too easily dismissed and stereotyped. Obviously, I would take issue with his analysis of what was happening in 1968 and 1969 because I think unionism misread the Civil Rights Movement and was fairly complacent because it had power and could exercise that power. That power had worked for fifty years so why change tack, why reform, why make any concessions? But once we were plunged into violence then every past slight, every insult, every act of past discrimination and every memory of injustice, and the greater sense of alienation, would feed the explosion that was to become the IRA and its long campaign.

Plum Smith was born on the Shankill Road in 1954, so he and I are almost coevals (I was born in Andersonstown in 1953). His father often had to go to Scotland or England when work was slack in the North, as had my own father and neighbours.

Seventeen-year-old Plum was first arrested during a riot in June 1971 and was subsequently sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road Prison. There he was attacked by republicans who outnumbered the loyalists. He was only out seven months when he was rearrested and this time convicted of the attempted murder of Joseph Hall and sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

“The IRA, Nationalists, Republicans or Catholics were killing people in the Protestant Community and I was retaliating in kind. I had neither sense or remorse, nor a sense of loss of freedom or how long I would lose that precious freedom. I had no regrets, nor did I contemplate what the future would hold.”

In August 1972 he was among nine loyalist prisoners placed in a remand cage in Long Kesh which the year before had opened as an internment camp. In the cages around him were up to 500 republicans. He was to return to the Kesh as a sentenced prisoner with political status where the undoubted leader and major influence was Gusty Spence. Initially, loyalists from different groups were all mixed together but later, as factionalism arose, each group (UVF, UDA) demanded its own cages – a development that Plum Smith regrets because he believes it led to even more feuding between the groups.

Earlier in 1972, as a result of an IRA hunger strike, the British government had introduced Special Category Status which was political status or POW status in all but name. It was perhaps the most progressive penal concession made by the British during the conflict and was to lead to ‘relative’ calm in the prisons. (No prison officer had been shot during this time.) It was withdrawn by the British in 1976 with devastating consequences that led to a blanket protest and the hunger strikes and deaths outside and inside the prison – only for the British government, years later, to again concede political status after its disastrous experiment failed.

This memoir is a mine of information about the discussion papers produced and the level of debate which went on inside the loyalist cages. They advocated a Bill of Rights, reform of the RUC, integrated education, cross-border cooperation in non-contentious areas (tourism, regional development, agriculture, etc) and instead of power-sharing, ‘Equal Responsibility’ (which was probably power sharing!). Whether the workshops, the literature, amounted to anything of substance in the end is open to opinion, but he establishes the fact that there was a culture of political engagement and self-examination.

Looking at old photographs and sometimes scratchy silent Super 8 film of these men in prison, what I do find alien (and perhaps it is just me) is the apparent fetishism with military discipline and military display within loyalist cages.

I am not sure of the degree of militarism (marching, parading, saluting, bed and hut inspections) that went on inside the cages of republicans serving prison sentences. What I do know, is that among us internees at the lower end of the camp, the drilling that went on in Cage 2 bored me and the majority of others to tears. We’d rather watch Top of the Pops and M.A.S.H. than practise drill in a freezing Nissan hut. But from Plum’s account the prisoners, apparently willingly, enthusiastically, were up for marching at the crack of dawn and had the best polished shoes in Ireland! (Sorry, the UK!)

He also reminds us of escapes by loyalists – of which I was unaware – the first of which was in 1972 from Crumlin Road Jail.

He epically tells the story of the republican burning of the camp (which was now huge, consisting of 21 cages) from the loyalist perspective and of the incredible degree of cooperation (a non-aggression pact between prisoners) that existed that night. The gas affected every area and the republicans were surrounded and being beaten by overwhelming numbers of riot troops.

“Republicans began moving their injured out of the football fields back into Phase 6, just outside our compound. We used the wire clippers to cut the fences and make entrances into C19. Those who we thought were the most seriously injured we brought into our compound, into the wooden study hut and gave them first aid using the medical supplies we had procured the night before.”

The following day he watched as soldiers beat prisoners: “I have never seen such brutality in all my life.” The republican prisoners were to be given two pieces of bread and milk but the soldiers put the bread and milk in a heap, tramped and spat on them and then made the prisoners run a gauntlet of batons to get their food.”

A loyalist rescue party, incredibly, also took prisoners to safety.

Three years later, after the withdrawal of political status, loyalists were on the blanket protest for a time but came under pressure to call off the protest because of its identification with their enemy – the IRA. I wonder what would have happened to the prisoners had they pooled their opposition to the withdrawal of status? Would the British government have folded earlier than they did? Would the prisoners have found common humanity in common ground? Would it have helped bring down the walls that separated them a little?

There was, of course, the establishment of a Camp Council in the early 1970s made up of all republican and loyalist factions. Whether this had potential to mature into something significant – a lobby, finding consensus, engaging in acts of conciliation – we will never know because it was thwarted by the NIO who were moving towards the strategy of ‘criminalisation’.

I can absolutely identify with Plum’s graphic descriptions of life behind the wire, the raids, the deceptions employed to get ‘one’ over the governor and staff, including the smuggling into the jail of a transmitter! He captures the atmosphere, the personal suffering, the death of a prisoner through medical neglect, his learning of the Irish language, loyalist involvement in further education, the joy of comradeship but also the travails of imprisonment, especially the difficulties for one’s loved ones.

They made long journeys, visited week-after-week, waiting for long hours, often experiencing humiliating searches for a half-hour visit which was often cut short at the whim of a prison officer who alleged that smuggling was taking place (often a bit of tobacco, the historic currency of prisoners). Families lost their breadwinners and the prisoners often ‘lost’ their spouses and their children, especially those prisoners serving lengthy sentences.

Released in 1977 Plum Smith became a shop steward with the ITGWU, remained a determined advocate on behalf of loyalist prisoners and in 1994 chaired the press conference when the loyalist ceasefire was announced. These might have been the golden days for the Progressive Unionist Party when it looked like it was on the verge of making a major and sustained breakthrough but through numerous mishaps, and the tragic death of the talented David Irvine, the party’s support fell, and with it, I suppose, came disillusionment and some internal chaos.

Plum Smith has always been amiable and accessible and prepared to cross the peace line. He has been an honest witness but also a reflective protagonist. After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement he was one of his party spokespersons selling the deal to the public and addressed a meeting at a women’s centre in Belfast. After his contribution an elderly woman got up to speak in favour of the Agreement and swung many doubters in the room.  He writes:

“A few weeks later I met the woman who had organised the meeting and I asked her who the lady was, did she know her? She said to me, “Plum, that man you shot all those years ago was her son.” I was taken aback. She then said that the lady had expressed her joy that I had been so positive about the agreement and supported me in the work I was now doing. What can you say to that? Her face never haunted me, it humbled me. Her dignity and compassion was so elevated. She was someone’s mother and my victim was someone’s son.”

Plum Smith in 1971 went inside as a kid. But he came out a man. A man dedicated to his community, to reconciliation and peace.

 

*Danny Morrison is a former prisoner who was Sinn Féin’s National Director of Publicity, 1979-1990. His prison memoir is titled ‘Then The Walls Came Down’

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4 Responses to Inside Man: A Review by Danny Morrison.

  1. Charlie Freel

    REVIEW OF INSIDE MAN FROM INSIDE MEN.

    Very shortly after the official publication of inside man, a group of 13 ex-UVF/RHC Loyalist Prisoners had arranged to meet up with each other in support of an ill Comrade. It was inevitable that Plum Smiths book would come up for discussion. Although most of us had been aware of and in some cases actually been interviewed by Plum for inside information with regard to his book, we were all shocked by the inaccuracies contained within the book. We were all agreed that our story needs to be told, but we were also agreed that, our story must be told truthfully, warts as well as heroics.
    Plums book gives the false impression that the poor me, why me, sorry I ever heard of God, sorry I ever heard of God, sorry I ever heard of Ulster brand of ideologically born again Loyalism which existed in the intoxicatingly cloudy, pipe smoke contaminated section of compound 21, had also spread to Compounds 18 and 19.
    This is of course totally untrue, Compound 18 under the command of Danny Strutt, concentrated on the military training and discipline that was required to ensure that, released Volunteers would be much better equipped to re-participate in the conflict if they so decided.
    Although further education was not discouraged in Compound 18, a large percentage of compound 18, refused on grounds of Political Status to be re-educated or indoctrinated at the behest of our jailors. The Command staff of compound 18 ,point blank refused Gustys requests to award rank to statement of admission makers who had held rank outside prison. It was the Volunteers of compound 18 who broke out of their Compound in early 1977 and marched in riot formation to face down the British army riot squad, who were threatening to invade compound 21. The first political prisoner (Loyalist or republican) to refuse to accept all parole, on the grounds of political status, was a Red Hand Commando from Compound 18. The first two prisoners to escape from Long Kesh were in fact Red Hand Commandos. Plums mythical, intense political debates with Davy Ervine within Compound 21 never happened, Davy Ervine was an unrepentant sergeant in compound 18, until after plums release. As for Plums mythical Ho Che Min trail of IRA food being pulled over the wire into ALL !!! the Loyalist Compounds during the Loyalist food protest , RUBBISH. The Volunteers of our Compound would have willingly starved rather than make a farce of our protest, by accepting food from the IRA.
    The fraternisation with republicans which Plum alludes to within Compound 19 pre-fire and within Compound 21 after the fire, would never have been tolerated by the Volunteers in pre-fire compound 11, nor the Volunteers of Compound 18 after the fire.
    In short our group of 13 ex-prisoners were all agreed that, Plum should have allowed his book to be reviewed by a group of ex- prisoners prior to publication, then most of the inaccuracies could have been rectified.
    The fact that Plums book has received so much praise from his new found IRA friends and his parasitic media friends, would suggest that his book will be used as another plank in the IRA Trojan horse.
    Charlie Freel

  2. Have no wish to get involved in or contribute to a spat, Charlie, but every memoir that has ever been written has been contested, including my own by members of my family.
    Re Trojan Horse. Not much of a Trojan Horse if it is being flagged up?
    Republicans have bought into peace and they think there can be a far better deal for the people of Ireland, North and South, through cooperation, friendship and reconciliation, and away from Britain. That is the strategy they are pursuing.
    In summary, I think you are wrong in your depiction of ‘IRA friends’ and ‘parasitic media friends’.
    How do you propose to sort out our problems?

    • “Reference Trojan horse”, it was not flagged up by Adams, it was dragged out of him in a moment of flustered desperation as he unsuccessfully struggled to explain the IRA’s devious motives for becoming paid employee’s of the British Government. In short, his IRA balaclava slipped.

      The IRA, has not bought into the peace process, their 35 years of indiscriminate slaughter as they tried to overthrow the clearly expressed democratic wishes of the ordinary decent people of Northern Ireland has failed miserably.
      Their strategy of political subversion via the ballot box has failed miserably, they have finally realised that, although they may be able to fool the gullibly greedy and power mad grand old duke of Yorkers, they will never be able to fool the ordinary decent working class people of Northern Ireland.
      In short, Danny Morrisons master plan of the, ballot box in one hand and the armalite in other, has also failed miserably.
      Hence plan 3, the Trojan horse, “delusionary equality”. Unfortunately for Gerry his dishonest membership of the IRA and the IRA definition of equality has always been perfectly clear to the ordinary decent working class people of Northern Ireland, IE, “What’s yours is ours and what’s ours is our own.”
      Danny Morrison, asks for advice on how to sort out his and the IRAs problem.
      The answer is pretty obvious, if they feel that, they can’t abide by the clearly expressed democratic wishes of the ordinary decent people of Northern, THEN THE BORDER IS ONLY HALF AN HOURS DRIVE AWAY.
      Charlie Freel.
      that

  3. Gareth Mulvenna

    Like many of those interested in loyalism, and particularly the history of the UVF, Young Citizen Volunteers and Red Hand Commando, I eagerly anticipated Plum’s tome. I think Danny’s point – that ‘every memoir that has ever been written has been contested’ – is highly relevant here.

    Over the past year I have been researching, through oral histories, the experiences of those young working-class Protestants who in the early 1970s were involved in the Tartans and eventually armed loyalism. Others bypassed the Tartans completely and formed the nascent grouping which became the Red Hand Commando. A common misconception that I have encountered is that the Tartans were influenced by the saccharine Scottish pop group Bay City Rollers. This is of course untrue – the Rollers had their big breakthrough in 1974-75 and were, even then, regarded as throwaway pop by most young lads. The fanatical adoption of tartan regalia was, I think, due to a variety of other reasons (which I will save for my book!!) but suffice to say some people remain adamant in their recollection that it was Les McKeown’s squad that started the Tartan craze among young loyalists.

    Even when confronted with evidence to the contrary many people remain unwavering and dig their heels firmly in the ground.

    This conundrum and the more serious issues which Plum’s former comrades have voiced about his book can best be summed up by an observation by Gary Robertson, who wrote about the gangs of Dundee in the 1960s and 70s. Trying to make sense of which gang was first to adopt the cycling jerseys which became the uniform of Dundee’s youth gangs, Robertson conceded: ‘Some reckoned the styles were originally inspired by the racing cyclists’ jumpers which were popular among the Mods. Gang jumpers certainly mimicked the look of some cycling teams’ jerseys, with a solid base colour and a contrasting 3-4 inch band going across the middle. One guy suggested someone had innocently drawn them all up for a school project and the gangs simply adopted them. Claims and counter claims were made as to which gang was the first to wear them. That’s definitely one for the guys themselves to sort out over a friendly pint in the pub!’

    Of course, if you get the guys from Dundee’s gangs together in the pub for a friendly pint they’ll still all come up with different reasons, forty years on, as to why the cycling jumper was adopted and why it became so central to their identity.

    People remember things differently to others, even if they were in the same place at the same time. That’s one of the challenges of historical research.
    I think Charlie is quite entitled to put forward his version of events – as a historian I find it fascinating to read his challenges to Plum’s narrative.

    Plum’s book was perhaps not the definitive book which we had hoped for, but perhaps that is because we had hoped for too much in the first place. That is not a criticism of Plum, for it is evident from the title alone that this was a prisoner memoir. I personally would have liked to have heard more about Plum’s early life, his memories of the Protestant working-class community of the Greater Shankill in those pre-Troubles days; the reasons why he felt compelled to take up arms and the early days of meeting like-minded young comrades in 1970. Again, those issues may be superfluous to the prison story but they perhaps would give the uninitiated a better understanding of the personalities of the young men who crowded into Long Kesh and Magilligan in the 1970s.

    It is not my role to dispute what went on in Long Kesh – that’s ‘one for the guys themselves to sort out over a friendly pint in the pub’, but two things strike me.

    First Plum’s book is refreshing in that it will challenge the ignorant republican stereotype that loyalists spent all day in the gym and the rest of the day reading pornography. I was told by a former YCV from Donegall Pass that when he arrived in Long Kesh in 1977 Plum’s comrade and co-accused, Ronnie McCullough, who is mentioned in the book, encouraged the young YCV to read Descartes. This started a new voyage of discovery for the young volunteer. I would certainly count that man and Ronnie McCullough as two of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I have had the pleasure to meet.

    The second thing that struck me was Charlie’s reference to the ‘poor me, why me, sorry I ever heard of God, sorry I ever heard of Ulster brand of ideologically born again Loyalism which existed in the intoxicatingly cloudy, pipe smoke contaminated section of compound 21.’ Plum and many other good men came through Compound 21 and bought into the ‘Spence University’, but many others resented Spence. They are still good, articulate and generous people but their narrative must also be heard.

    What is thankfully emerging – and Plum should be given credit for taking the mantle – is an insight into the lives and experiences of the men of the UVF, YCV and RHC. No matter what form these narratives take it is crucial that they continue to be produced – in order to raise awareness of what has until recently been a relatively anonymous contingent of Northern Ireland’s bloody past.

    It is also essential in challenging Sinn Fein’s narrative that loyalists were merely bloodthirsty stooges of the British intelligence forces. If Gerry Adams could stand up in the Houses of the Oireachtas in 2014 and state that ‘The IRA that emerged in these years [between the 1950s – 1970s] was one built by ordinary people out of sheer necessity because of the conditions in which they found themselves. In nationalist areas of the north, the IRA was from the people, not some abstract idea’, then it should be of little surprise that what is ultimately chronicled in my upcoming book, and the work of Plum and those that follow his example, is a loyalist mirror image of Adams’ statement.