‘We’re being hunted like dogs while Provos get their letters of comfort’

‘We’re being hunted like dogs while Provos get their letters of comfort’
A legal tug-of-war over taped conversations with a former Red Hand Commando leader and an impending UVF ‘supergrass’ trial are stoking anger among hardline loyalists, writes Brian Rowan
Belfast Telegraph
03 March 2015

On October 13, 1994, William ‘Plum’ Smith sat at the loyalist top table as the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) declared its ceasefire. It was a response to the IRA cessation announced at the end of August that year.

And by December, Billy Hutchinson headed a loyalist delegation that began exploratory talks with Government officials. Smith and David Ervine were also part of that delegation. And these were the first big steps out of conflict.

But, quoted elsewhere in this newspaper today, both Smith and Hutchinson have said that, if loyalists had known then what they know now, then the ceasefire may not have been called. In their internal discussions, they may not have “got it over the line”.

It is a further indication of growing anger, of a bad mood within the loyalist community, as police investigations continue to take the present back into the past. For loyalists, it means the wars are not really over.

One of those investigations is focused on Winston “Winkie” Rea, one of three loyalist leaders I met on the Shankill Road late on October 12, 1994. Back then, I was accompanied by my colleague Ivan Little and this meeting – and a statement we were given – set the scene for the ceasefire announcement that would come the following morning.

“Winston Rea played a massive role in the peace process and was involved with others in bringing about ceasefires and decommissioning,” PUP leader Billy Hutchinson told this newspaper. “The Boston [College tapes] case just shows the system will do anything to get loyalists in the dock.”

That Boston case is an attempt by police to get access to tapes Rea recorded for an oral history project. It has become a headline tug-of-war in the courts.

And those recent events are a long way removed from the euphoria and the excitement of the ceasefire announcements of 1994.

“I sat in those smoke-filled rooms leading up to the ceasefires with all shades of loyalist paramilitaries and we raised our heads above the parapet as we moved towards bringing to an end decades of conflict,” William Smith said. “It was a dangerous time and, as we talked, bodies were still piling up outside the doors.

“Many of us took risks, even amongst our own constituencies to secure that elusive peace that so many had failed to deliver previously.

“It was tough, it was dangerous, but the goal of an end to the violence for the sake of future generations was a target we believed people deserved.

“Now, 20 years on, I look back and reflect on a peace and future that is held hostage to the past.”

The Boston tapes may add little to what we already know about Winston Rea. A Google search will reveal him as the former leader of the UVF-associated Red Hand Commando.

He is the son-in-law of the late Gusty Spence, was very public in the political negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement and was pictured at the loyalist news conference when the UVF and Red Hand organisations confirmed arms had been decommissioned.

So Rea is one of those loyalists who reads from the chapters of war into the developing peace. That means he was part of an organisation linked to the killings of that pre-ceasefire and pre-peace period.

But will he have discussed the specifics of that on his Boston tapes? Several sources with knowledge of his contribution to the oral history project are adamant that he has not. But the loyalist mood and anger is not just about the investigation focused on Winston Rea.

There is the dark cloud of the ‘supergrass’, or assisting offender, case involving Gary Haggarty, who, like Rea, once had loyalist stripes and a leadership role. He has been in rooms with those who were the key decision-makers, with those who gave the loyalist orders and directions.

Thousands of pages of evidence have been compiled and Haggarty, who was a Special Branch agent, faces a record 212 charges. That list includes five murders, 31 conspiracies to murder and six attempted murders. And this case reads beyond Haggarty. It is about who he might name and implicate that is of most concern to the loyalist leadership.

“It will have a destabilising impact on society, not just one organisation,” Billy Hutchinson said. “It opens the door for others to do this whether republican, loyalist or other. UK legislation that allows this with people like Haggarty is wrong and should be done away with.”

So where could this case lead? Into a detailed examination of a wide range of incidents and activities spanning some 16 years before and after the ceasefires and political agreements.

An investigation of killings, arms importation, UVF membership, swearing-in ceremonies, feuding, ‘punishment’ attacks and assaults, extortion, terrorist funds and directing terrorism.

And that examination will look much wider than Haggarty. It will look at the loyalist leadership and it will look at the Special Branch.

Haggarty was a close associate of Mark Haddock, another significant UVF figure and Special Branch agent, who was investigated by the Police Ombudsman as part of Operation Ballast. And such investigations always stretch out into wider frames.

William Smith may argue that the present is being rewound into the past. But there is no agreed process to remove such investigations.

The Historical Enquiries Team has been replaced by a new Legacy Investigations Branch. And the recent Stormont House talks produced a paper agreement on a structure for addressing the past.

It will have a Historical Investigations Unit, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, an Implementation and Reconciliation Group and archive and acknowledgement elements.

The developing peace process has not got to the point of amnesty, of drawing any lines on pre-1998 investigations, inquiries and inquests. And so the past remains an open wound and also open to investigative scrutiny.

Long after the 1994 ceasefires, loyalists and republicans were still importing weapons, still targeting, still killing and kept their organisational structures intact. But loyalists believe they are being treated differently than republicans.

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

But he points to the so-called “comfort letters” given to republican suspects on the run, “letters to keep them out of jail” while loyalists are “hunted down like dogs,” he says.

And this is the mood within the loyalist community, a mindset which has prompted this questioning of how the peace process has developed. It has made loyalists who were central to the events of 1994 think back to that period and their decision-making.

“I also doubt very much that if we had known that 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.

But today’s reality is that the peace has not moved away from the past.

There is still no process that brings all the sides to the table. And there are still many unanswered questions.

And that means, until there is something better, some different approach or new way, that police will continue to investigate.