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The Billy Boy
A defining personality of the seismic changes in Northern Ireland, Billy Hutchinson is a paramilitary turned politician, a convicted UVF murderer who spent 16 years in the Maze and who will now represent the PUP in the new Assembly. But if Hutchinson has abandoned violence, it hasn’t altogether abandoned him. As he reveals in this interview with niall stanage, there have been three attempts on his life by the INLA in the last 18 months. Pics: Michael Taylor.
Niall Stanage, 05 Aug 1998
The offices of the fringe loyalist Progressive Unionist Party are situated on Belfast’s Shankill Road. Next door to a butcher’s. No sniggering at the back, please. Any jokes might, after all, be too close to the bone.
Posters on issues like domestic violence and abortion (the PUP is pro-choice) adorn the walls, providing evidence of the socialist ethos which marks the party out from others within unionism. In contrast, a tatty Union Jack lies folded up in the doorway like a disgarded relic of a bygone war. Perhaps it is.
I am here to meet Billy Hutchinson, who, with his party leader, David Ervine, will represent the PUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Hutchinson was born in Belfast 42 years ago. He joined the UVF in the early seventies, and in 1974 was convicted of the murder of two Catholic men on the Falls Road. He subsequently served a sixteen year sentence in the Maze prison. He was UVF commanding officer within the jail, where he also completed a degree in Social Science. (This did not prevent UUP leader David Trimble from once haughtily describing him as “an uneducated man.”).
Since his release in 1990, Hutchinson has been a key figure in the PUP. In addition to his Assembly position, representing North Belfast, he serves as a local councillor. He is married with one son.
In the Republic, Hutchinson is well known for his guest appearances on Eamon Dunphy’s Last Word radio show. He is as much of a football fan as the host, with Linfield, Glasgow Rangers and Leeds United all vying for his affections. He says of Dunphy, “I remember him playing. I keep him going that the skill in his whole body wouldn’t match up to the skill Johnny Giles had in his wee toe.”
Hutchinson also enthuses about his love for American blues. A fan of Robert Johnson, he lists ‘Crossroads’ as one of his all-time favourite songs. The week before we met he had attended B.B. King’s gig in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. I am sharply reminded of Hutchinson’s past when he remarks, “he was better the last time I saw him in ‘89. I was out on parole then.”
If Northern Ireland is to achieve lasting peace, paramilitaries will have to become politicians, and terrorists transform themselves into talkers. In that sense, Billy Hutchinson has led the way. As he will reveal here, his life has been endangered many times in the process.
NIALL STANAGE: Growing up, when was the first time you would have been aware of yourself as British and Protestant, and also been aware that other people wouldn’t have thought of themselves in the same way?
BILLY HUTCHINSON:Well, whenever I was growing up in Belfast there would have been a very strong Unionist tradition where I lived. I lived here on the Shankill. There was always a sense of Britishness, particularly during the summer months when the bunting was put out, and the flags, and there was talk about history, beginning with The Battle of the Somme, and going right back to 1688, The Siege of Derry and The Battle of the Boyne.
I think the first time that I realised that people were different from me was when my father took me down to Cupar Street, which is where the peace line is today. When I crossed that street to go to a Catholic house, as soon as I hit the hall there was a crucifix, and then there would have been photos of the Pope and things like that. Things that I had never seen before. And that made me . . . I don’t know if worried or scared would be the right words to use, but I realised that there was something different.
And would there have been particular things you would have seen later which would have made you more militant, to the point of getting involved in paramilitary activity?
Well, I think I have to be very careful when I talk about these things, because it can sound like you’re trying to apportion blame for someone else instead of taking responsibility yourself.
Anything I have done in my life, I take responsibility for.
But one of the incidents which would have had most impact on me was the bombing of the Balmoral Furniture showrooms here on the Shankill. Whenever I went there, I would have seen the bodies being taken out and dust all over the place. That had a big impact.
Later still, you were imprisoned for killing two half-brothers on the Falls Road. Can you remember the sequence of events surrounding that?
In terms of what actually happened on that morning? Well, what I would say to you is that I was arrested and charged with that and I have never gone into details. And I have never gone into the arguments of whether I was set-up or whatever. I have accepted that . . . you know, I pleaded guilty and was put down, but I have never talked about it. And I don’t think I should be discussing things which might lead to the conviction of other people.
So are you saying you didn’t do it?
I’m saying that I refuse to talk about it. I spent sixteen years in prison for it, and I have accepted that.
Have you ever made contact with the family of the people who died?
For any particular reason?
Well, I don’t see any reason to get in touch with families. You know, we all have to get on with our lives. I believe that what I am doing now is making a constructive contribution to society. I’m not sure that talking to the parents of those two guys would change their opinion of me. Or change my opinion of what actually happened on that day. I think the CLMC [Combined Loyalist Military Command, who, unlike the leadership of the IRA, expressed “abject and true remorse” when declaring their ceasefire] have said it all. I think we should leave it.
OK, but staying with that period in your life, it must put a big emotional strain on people to be incarcerated for as long as you were. Sixteen years is a long time . . .
Well, yeah, it does put strain on people. Everybody deals with it differently. I mean, I got up at seven every morning and was out by half-seven to run fifteen miles around the compounds. At lunchtime, I went to the gym and then went out and maybe ran another five miles. And then I studied, and I also had to run the camp as well, in terms of negotiating with governors and showing prisoners around who were coming in. So we had a regime where people could keep themselves mentally and physically occupied. If you didn’t do that it would have been soul destroying. But there were nineteen people in our compound who got degrees. Nineteen people in prison getting degrees isn’t bad, is it? Just from the UVF, like.
You were also in the Maze during the hunger strike. Despite being at the opposite extreme politically, could you respect the principle that those men died for, or the courage they showed in doing so?
Well, they were hunger striking to get what I had.[i.e. special category status]. I was in Long Kesh, they were in the H-Blocks, so therefore it didn’t affect me. I didn’t have to hunger-strike. But I would like to think that if I was exactly in their position as a loyalist, I would have hunger-striked to death. But I can’t say that because I wasn’t tested.
Moving on from your time in prison, one of the reasons that the PUP is in existence, as far as I understand it, is that the mainstream unionist parties have no socialist policies. When did you first clearly see the need for a different type of loyalism?
About 1972. [laughs].
What happened particularly?
I think we always knew that. We weren’t any better off than people on the Falls. We lived in two-up, two-downs. I know a man and woman who worked voluntarily in this office. Four years ago they got a house with a bathroom and hot running water for the first time. They lived on the Shankill. And this is the Protestant Ascendency? Some ascendency . . . But the difficulty has always been trying to get people to support people like us. The Unionist community have always resisted voting for people who come from violent backgrounds. There were accusations that I was uneducated, that I was a communist, that I was a socialist revolutionary. All these things were levelled at me.
Did you find that hurtful?
No. It doesn’t worry me. It’s pure ignorance. It was just a ploy to make people think they had to vote for doctors and lawyers. I wouldn’t let the likes of McCartney [Robert McCartney, leader of the UK Unionist Party, previously one of Northern Ireland’s highest-paid barristers] put me down. They think they are the only educated people around here.
How would you describe Ian Paisley’s contribution to politics in Northern Ireland over the past thirty years?
If you actually think about it, he is a man who came about in the ’60s, and he has had the same old arguments for as long as I can remember. I think the first time I heard him I was about ten years old, and what I can recollect him saying at that stage was exactly what he said at Drumcree. Exactly the same things. I remember that it was about the road to Rome, about the Catholics trying to take over the country, the unionist government is going to sell you out. At that time it was Terence O’Neill. Now it’s David Trimble.
I would like to think that he has made some positive contributions, but unfortunately I can’t think of what they are. He has created a siege mentality in the minds of working-class loyalists, and he has them on their knees. It’s not the Provos that has them on their knees. It’s him. Because he has never given them any courage to say ‘we are proud, and here’s the reasons why we are proud’. He hasn’t done that. He has been totally negative. Unionists have believed for the past thirty-odd years that there is no point in doing things because we are sold out anyway.
So what made you decide that violence was no longer the way forward?
We looked at the global context. In the 60s, it was student riots that people were into to achieve civil rights. In the seventies, you had international terrorism, including the IRA. Then in the eighties we found that people had started to move towards negotiations. The biggest impact on us was looking at the Rhodesian talks. The British Government said that they would never talk to terrorists. And we woke up one morning hearing about freedom fighters. It was shown that the British Government were prepared to talk to people who had been involved in violence.
So therefore was the move to abandon violence simply a strategic decision that your aims would be better served that way? Did you ever come to any moral decision that violence was wrong?
It’s very difficult to talk about morals, I think, because everybody’s morals are different. I think it is very easy to take the moral high ground on a lot of issues, whether it’s violence or whether it’s abortion. But at the end of the day who’s the victim of that? I think we need to be careful. We take decisions in terms of what we think is the right way forward for all of the people. If people want to put a moral interpretation on it they can. We also believed that, in terms of the next hundred years, we could continue to kill each other and never find agreement. What we needed to do was find an accomodation that would bring about a transformation in the conflict, because we believe that there is no resolution to this confllict. Loyalism and republicanism are diametrically opposed. But what we wanted to do was to ensure that no more young loyalists would go to the jails or to the graveyards.
You also worked on the Springfield Cross-Community Project with Tommie Gorman, a convicted IRA bomber. Did you find much opposition within your community to your involvement with someone like that?
Well, I didn’t find much oppostion in doing that kind of work. But I found quite a lot of opposition whenever the republican ceasefire collapsed in terms of me saying that I was prepared to sit down with Sinn Fein. Visuals of me and Gerry Adams or Mitchel McLaughlin or Martin McGuinness can drive some people up the wall. They see somebody together and they automatically assume that they are all ‘buddy-buddy’. They don’t necessarily understand that there are negotiations or arguments going on. But I think that people have come to realise now that they have to start trusting people.
Do you trust Gerry Adams?
I trust very few people. But what I would say is that I believe people are interested in finding an accomodation. And we go on that basis until it is proved otherwise.
Kevin McQuillan, a former member of the INLA, has been quoted as saying “If things go wrong, Hutchinson will get it in the ear – no doubt about it – and it won’t be from a republican.” Do you think you are in physical danger from extreme elements within the loyalist community?
I’ve been threatened by everybody. [laughs]. To be perfectly honest, I think that anything’s a possibility. I mean, if you look at Irish history, Michael Collins was killed by his own. But I believe I have a good enough relationship with the UVF that nothing will happen to me. Obviously the LVF have always been a threat. But I would dismiss the threat from them, because I don’t think any of them would have the guts to do it. So therefore I don’t really worry about it. [This interview took place just prior to the LVF’s statement of 8th August reiterating that its armed campaign was over]. But I have avoided three attempts on my life by the INLA in the last eighteen months. Only one has been leaked to the media. The other two haven’t. So I’m happy enough that I have got away with it on three occasions. I hope I’m not a cat with nine lives, because I’d only have six left. [laughs].
When was the most recent time they tried to kill you?
Just before the Agreement this year.
Were you shot at?
No, they tried to put a bomb under my car, and it was detected before it actually . . . The police told me that someone had tampered with the car. They came back to me again and told me to get rid of my car, so I’ve had ten new cars since April. They told me that it was an INLA unit who had done it and they had an indication of who they were. Two nights later, they picked four people up in a car about fifty yards from where I live. None of them had any bombs or weapons, but they were all questioned and then let go.
I live around the Shankill now, but I used to live [elsewhere], and after Canary Wharf the police came and took me out of the house because there were threats from the Provos. So I’ve had to move house three times in the last four years. I’ve changed my car twelve times in the last three years, ten in the last three months.
Doesn’t your Eileen wife ever try to persuade you to stop all this?
I think she knows that we can’t turn back now. We’ve gone too far. You just have to keep going.
How do you feel about being an Assembly member for the same
area as Gerry Kelly [SF member for North Belfast, alleged to have once been chief-of-staff of the IRA]?
I think it’s quite good that there is that broad spectrum, you know? There’s myself and Kelly at the two extremes, and there’s the DUP and the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP around the middle somewhere. So I don’t have a problem with it. Kelly and I know each other in terms of. . . we know what we have to do. He’s a republican and I’m a loyalist. In other circumstances we would probably kill each other. But what we will be trying to do now is kill each other with words in the Asssembly. Mind you, if any of the people he represents come up to me wanting something to be taken up, they can certainly do so.
Do you think that the PUP and Sinn Fein have a certain amount in common in terms of the social agenda, both representing disadvantaged areas?
Yeah, there’s no doubt about that. And we share the same experiences in a sense: violence, the years in jail, perpetrating the violence as well. All that stuff. Same socio-economic conditions. But there are differences even within those, like education and abortion. They’d be against abortion. We’re for it. We’d be for integrated education. They’d be opposed to it. They are religious in the sense that they will jump to the Catholic Church’s tune. We won’t jump to the Church’s tune. So all those things will define us, as well as the opposition between Britishness and Irishness.
Are there any members of Sinn Fein who you like on a personal basis?
Well, I have contact with Sinn Fein on a regular basis at the City Hall. And also Belfast City Council for Oldpark area. I would work quite closely with them there.
But you would never have a chat with them about football, say?
Well, I mean, I suppose if we were sitting in a committee meeting, and someone said something about Celtic or Rangers, I would say something back to them.
Is it true your son goes to an integrated school?
He does. He goes to Hazelwood.
Was that a conscious decision to try and make his formative experiences different from your own?
Well, I think the reason that both Eileen and me decided to do that was because he was growing up in a certain area, and he needed to know and hear things from the other side. Intregrated education gave him that opportunity. We felt that. Naively I suppose, in many ways. But, unfortunately, Christopher has suffered. And what he suffers from is that I’m his father. People run scared. He would have Catholic friends at school, but it stops when the bell goes. Which is unfortunate. But I understand it. I mean, Christopher has come to me and said such-and-such from the New Lodge [a nationalist area of Belfast] wants to come to the house. And I say to him, make sure he tells his parents who I am. Because if his parents were driving up, and saw me coming to the door, they might get a bit of a shock.
You told me earlier you would have liked to have done voluntary work, or worked in the Third World. Do you regret that extraordinary political circumstances prevented you from doing that, or that your past has the sort of effects you have just talked about on your son?
Well, I wouldn’t regret it. I have this philosophy in life that there’s no point regretting anything. It’s like crying over spilt milk. You have to make the best of what you’ve got and I do that. I would have liked to have gone to a conventional university, whether it would have been here or elsewhere. But that wasn’t to be. I went to the university of life and ended up in Long Kesh. But that’s it. I don’t regret it, but that’s what I would liked to have done.
If loyalism and republicanism are diametrically opposed, as you believe, how do you see the situation panning out?
I think that it’s about transforming the conflict from one of armed struggle to one of political struggle. I think that if we reach an agreement that whatever we achieve is achieved by political means and political debate then that is the way forward. I think Sinn Fein have bought into that whole notion. And we have bought into it.
And if I came back here when your son is the age you are now, would you be confident that Northern Ireland would still be part of the United Kingdom?
Oh yes. There’s a whole lot of reasons for that. I don’t think there is a great desire on the part of the Irish administration to have a United Ireland. There may be this romantic notion that they would like a United Ireland. But the hard facts are that they can’t pay for it. It’s like ‘Wrap the Green Flag around me, but not just yet.”