Senior loyalists: We couldn’t have sold ’94 ceasefire if we knew what we know now

Senior loyalists: We couldn’t have sold ’94 ceasefire if we knew what we know now
By Brian Rowan
BelfastTelegraph.co.uk
03 March 2015

Senior loyalists have revealed that they would not have been able to deliver a ceasefire in 1994 had they known conflict-related investigations would still be continuing today.

Key figures from that period have been speaking to the Belfast Telegraph as police continue their efforts to get access to Boston College interviews with former Red Hand Commando leader Winston ‘Winkie’ Rea.

And loyalists have also warned that the ‘supergrass’ case involving Gary Haggarty, a one-time UVF leader and Special Branch agent, could have “a destabilising impact on society”. Haggarty faces more than 200 charges and loyalists fear his information will lead to the arrests of the most senior paramilitary leaders.

“For a start, we did the right thing in ’94,” PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said.

“But in hindsight, and on reflection, had we known that republicans were going to be given (OTR) letters to keep them out of jail and loyalists were going to be hunted down like dogs, I certainly would have been opposing it (the ceasefire),” he added.

William ‘Plum’ Smith, a former Red Hand Commando prisoner and close associate of ‘Winkie’ Rea, chaired the 1994 news conference at which the ceasefire of the Combined Loyalist Military Command was announced.

“The pursuit of the Boston tapes made by Winston Rea and the resurrection of the supergrass system, albeit under a different name of assisting offender, causes collateral damage to any meaningful or constructive method of dealing with the past,” Smith said.

And with historical investigations continuing, he argued the present was being rewound into the past. He said: “I also doubt very much that if we had known the ‘rewinders’ would seek out the peacemakers as scapegoats all these years later that we could have got it (the ceasefire) over the line,” Smith said.

The legal battle to prevent police hearing Rea’s tapes is continuing.

Smith recently tweeted: “It’s off to the Supreme Court now to appeal decision in Winston Rea tapes case and then the European Court if necessary.”

It was in this newspaper more than three years ago that Rea revealed he had recorded an interview for the Boston College oral history project.

Now, police want the tapes as part of an investigation examining offences of “the utmost gravity” – an investigation that spans a period of more than 20 years.

That investigation covers murder, membership of a proscribed organisation and directing terrorism. But loyalists believe republicans are being treated differently.

“From my point of view we understood that by calling the ceasefires, everyone would have been treated equally and we would have moved forward,” Mr Hutchinson told this newspaper.

But he points to the controversial on-the-runs scheme in which more than 200 republicans received so-called comfort letters allowing them to return home in the period following the Good Friday Agreement.

But the Rea investigation and the Haggarty case mean a detailed examination of the loyalist leadership both before and after the ceasefire continues.

“Twenty years on (from the ceasefire announcement) I look back and reflect on a peace and future that is held hostage to the past,” Smith said.

Recent proposals in the Stormont House talks include a structure for addressing the past that will involve a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) and an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR).

The three issues

1. Gary Haggarty

He is currently at the heart of a huge supergrass trial which could take down some of the UVF’s most senior and feared figures.

Gary Haggarty – nicknamed Mr Gadget – is the man whose evidence could topple the leadership of the terror group.

The UVF has been blamed for at least 30 killings since the loyalist ceasefire two decades ago.

Haggarty was reportedly the group’s south-east Antrim commander. He agreed to turn supergrass while on remand in 2010, charged with the 1997 murder of John Harbinson in the Mount Vernon estate. Mr Harbinson was chained to railings and beaten to death with iron bars.

Under the Serious and Organised Crime Act 2005, offenders can be offered a deal involving a reduced sentence for their crimes in return for a full confession and an agreement to provide evidence against others.

During police interviews, Haggarty gave 30,000 pages of information to detectives.

One of the men Haggarty has named in his evidence is former Special Branch agent Mark Haddock. In return for giving evidence against his former peers, Haggarty is expected to be sentenced – if convicted – to as little as three years.

2. On the Runs

The so-called on the run letters (OTR) scheme started in 2000 and saw more than 200 of the letters of comfort issued by the Government to IRA suspects linked to almost 300 murders.

They told people they were not wanted at that time but did not rule out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs earlier this year that the scheme for fugitive IRA members “was absolutely critical” to the peace process and at certain points “became fundamental to it”.

The plan was drawn up following pressure from Sinn Fein to allow the fugitives, who, had they been in prison before 1998, would have been released under the Good Friday Agreement, to return to Northern Ireland.

An investigation was launched by MPs when the prosecution of John Downey, (inset), was halted after he received one of the on the runs letters in error.

3. Winston Rea and the Boston tapes

LAST week police won the right to listen to taped interviews by loyalist Winston ‘Winkie’ Rea which had been given as part of Boston College’s Belfast Project.

However, the tapes remain secret, for now, to allow for a possible appeal.

Rea is among a group of loyalist and republican former paramilitaries who were interviewed as part of the project.

The accounts were given on the understanding their content would not be made public until after their deaths. During judicial review proceedings last week the court was told an investigation has been launched into serious crimes stretching from the 1970s to the late 1990s.

The alleged offences include murder, directing terrorism, membership of a proscribed organisation and robbery.

An international request for the tapes said police have information Rea was a member of the Red Hand Commando whose interviews would assist investigations into those crimes.