Billy Hutchinson elected leader of the PUP
Billy Hutchinson entered community work in 1990 as the director of the Springfield Inter-community Development Project, a cross community forum which brought together republican and loyalist communities to explore ways to address social issues using community relations, community development and conflict resolution.
Billy was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1998 representing North Belfast. He is also a former member of the Belfast City Council, representing the Oldpark electoral area for two Council terms.
He has now returned to the community as the coordinator of the Mount Vernon Community Development Forum and has received accolades for his work in a range of community capacity building programmes and working with excluded communities.
He has also worked in a number of Countries examining the role of armed groups both nationally and internationally the most recent being Iraq.
Billy stood for the leadership of the Progressive Unionist Party on the 15th October 2011 and was duly appointed leader.
Billy is a Social Science graduate and holds a post graduate diploma in Town Planning. He served a four year term as a lay member of the Department of Education and Training Inspectorate and had responsibility with his colleagues for inspections of all education sectors in Northern Ireland.
1. Billy, congratulations on your appointment as the new leader of the PUP. The popularity of the PUP is probably at an all-time low, with that in mind, could I ask you why you have accepted the position.
The popularity of the party has always been low if we use electoral success as the measurement. In accepting the leadership I based my decision on the need to converge the political and the peace processes. What I mean by this is that we need to move the UVF/RHC to the next level, which is integration into society. This will call for combatants to be politicised, I see this as part of my role and believe that the PUP has a role to play. I will measure the success of the party on the influence we use to change conditions in this society. There will be no excuse for not delivering the time is now to move forward. The only question remaining about moving forward is the question of pace which will be dictated by external factors beyond our authority.
2. What are the immediate challenges for you and the Party?
The immediate challenge for me is to mobilise the party activists, to identify the problems that exist internally and solve them. I have started this process and I have received positive feedback.
The party needs to get out into communities and begin to get noticed by people. The activists need to claim the work they are doing and they also need to make themselves accessible to the public. The party in terms of the officers have a major task in getting the structures right. For instance I have asked for people to be appointed with portfolio. I want the portfolios to mirror the Assembly, in doing this we will have people speaking on the issues that need to be addressed. I believe this is the starting point and everything flows from this as long as we manage the other issues. We cannot be a one person party I want people recognised for being PUP spokespersons I think I have made a good start by appointing Belfast City Councillor Dr John Kyle a local GP in East Belfast as the Health Spokesman.
3. What do you need to do to build up the popularity of the Party again?
I suppose I make the assumption that we can make ourselves relevant and grab the opportunities that arise. It is about spelling out what we can do and how that will bring about change. I know that people do not want hear political rhetoric so our message needs to be clear and sharp. We need to make ourselves appealing to the most vulnerable in our society and convince the combatants and others to register to vote to make the political process work for them and their families. My starting point will be the combatants but we need to spread this to others. I am setting up a Think-Tank from people outside the party who will give advice on how to tackle popularity. The Think-tank will be drawn from the media, academia, churches and the Voluntary sector and their role will be to critically challenge my leadership and offer analysis.
4. In a recent article Fionnula OConnor asked ‘what’s left for the PUP leader to talk about?’ – how would you answer her?
Well first of all let me state that Fionnula is someone that I respect. I understand her opinion and in fact have kept the article to read again in six months to see if I have made progress. I believe as leader of the PUP I have many things to say my experience in my work and in my political experience when I was elected to both the City Council and the Assembly is invaluable to what I think needs to be discussed. For instance, Austerity cuts, levels of poverty- this is not a catholic thing- Rights not privileges, Education, Health, Environment, Planning, Benefits, Employment, Regeneration, The State of the Union, Shared Society, Physical infrastructure, Arts & Culture, Justice, Bill of Rights and Good Relations. This is not an exhaustive list, the party has plenty to say supported by policies. We also have opinions on Westminster and World issues. The Party will grow the members will expand their political capacity and capability under my style of leadership.
On a personal note those who know me know I am opinionated, blunt and honest. I am not the same person that was on people’s Television screens a number of years ago, I have change the public can decide if it is for the better.
5. Do you believe that Dawn Purvis’s appointment was a mistake?
I do not believe Dawn’s appointment was a mistake. I do think that Dawn lacked the other half of a double act that the late David Ervine and I enjoyed. If she had managed to find that person then the problems she believed she had may have been dealt with differently. Dawn left the Party and now it is my role to lead the PUP I am lucky as I have inherited good committed party officers who are an asset to me and the party in general. A new leadership with different ideas with the same policies that have been formulated by the party membership of course will have views of how the party works operationally and strategically will most likely be the case. When a new person with the authority arrives in any organisation they will want to make changes, that is what I will do and hopefully for the better.
6. Billy, you were an essential member of the Good Friday Agreement negotiating team – has the contributions Loyalists made to Peace been rewarding and reflected in the political institutions now in place?
The answer to the question is no! The PUP broke the ground for others to walk on. We also took a decision in the party to put country before party others did not make the same decision. When you examine the levels of deprivation in working class areas irrespective of religion or political affiliation there has been no change. The PUP were championing these very issues in an attempt to make the quality of life better for those people living in deprivation. The PUP secured the peace with its overt Leadership through David Ervine and others. Unfortunately we were not taken seriously as a relevant party due to the size of our political mandate. It didn’t stop the other Unionist parties from stealing our clothes, by this I mean using our arguments to move them forward. The political institutions that are in place were developed and agreed by the all the parties elected which included the PUP. We developed the institutions on the basis of tackling the socio-economic problems, governance, transitional justice, the issue of a shared future and equality. None of the aforementioned issues have been dealt with properly if you take into account public opinion.
7. Finally Billy, A lot of people, from both sides of the community, may view your appointment as a PUP shift towards ‘former times’ – is this so, and if not, how can you allay their fears?
It will be a challenge for me to convince people that we are moving forward that our message is progressive thinking some of the changes I make will hopefully begin to convince people. The Think Tank I referred to earlier will be paramount to this as the members will be representatives of Civic Society. My language and the issues that party representatives take forward will be the clue to the direction in which we are moving. We also need the media to deal with us on the issues we are highlighting and not the past of our messengers. We find that the media adapt a derogatory position to our spokespersons irrespective of the message. We need to deal with the media and find out how we change their attitude otherwise the negativity will remain a festering sore.
Attitudes need to change in this Society and that will take generations the question is do people want fairness and social justice.