- 29 Mar 01
. . . she was reet petite! That's not true, actually. Instead, the maverick motorbike-riding DUP councillor and former Lord Mayor of Belfast talks about loyalist paramilitary violence, the assassination of prison officers, the indifference of London, his hostility to Mary Robinson, his scorn for the Official Unionist Party - and his own willingness to take up arms in the cause of keeping the six counties out of a united Ireland. Interview: JOE JACKSON. Pix: CATHAL DAWSON
Sammy Wilson is a maverick among the ranks of the DUP. Certainly, one can't easily imagine fellow members of the Democratic Unionist Party, such as Dr. Ian Paisley or Peter Robinson donning a leather jacket and tearing up the roads on a Harley Davidson, which is one of Wilson's great joys.
However, if you take away the leather jacket and a few layers of skin you may find that Sammy Wilson is also, in many ways, as rigidly conservative a unionist as his mentor, Dr. Ian Paisley.
Born in a working class, "staunchly loyalist" area of East Belfast nearly 40 years ago, Sammy Wilson claims that his politicisation came about when, at the age of 12, he attended a rally at the local courthouse and "cheered Ian Paisley who was sent to jail after he'd marched to the General Assembly and there'd been a riot." At that point, in the mid 1960s, he says, Paisley "captured the imaginations of many local young people."
By the age of 15, Wilson was studying politics in Methody Grammar School in East Belfast - soon he would study the same subject, as well as economics, at Queen's University. At Queen's he joined the Democratic Unionists Student Organisation and later taught Economics at Grosevnor High School, before quitting the job after being elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. In 1981 he was elected to the Belfast City Council and five years later became Belfast's first DUP Lord Mayor.
Press reports at the time of his appointment suggested that he would bring "bigotry" to the office, a fear that was substantiated for some when, during his installation speech he said, "There are two great cancers that have to be attacked; Sinn Fein's presence in local government and the Anglo-Irish Agreement." More recently it was Sammy Wilson who proposed that President Mary Robinosn be banned from Belfast City Hall, because she shook hands with Gerry Adams - a motion that was passed by Belfast City Council.
Nowadays, Sammy Wilson lives in the same area of East Belfast where he was born and raised. This interview took place in his home.
JOE JACKSON: It's claimed that you have as little time for the English as you do for Sinn Fein.
SAMMY WILSON: People, on our side, who grew up over the past 20 years, have had to endure one set of betrayals after another, by English politicians. They see Northern Ireland as an issue that is outside their immediate area of concern. Now and then, for expediency, they'll make some gesture as a result of international pressure or because of pressure from nationalists but nothing more. But then, right at the beginning of the troubles you had the attitude of a Secretary of State who spoke about 'an acceptable level of violence'. I bet it wouldn't have been acceptable in his own constituency. That kind of thing confirms the view that British politicians have no time for us and that we're just an appendage to the United Kingdom, about which they don't care at all.
You also believed, from a very early age, that the Official Unionist Party failed working class people like yourself.
That's still true. Look at the recent Maastricht vote in the House of Commons. In return for some shadowy deal, the Official Unionists were prepared to oppose a Social Charter which protects maternity rights, pensioners rights and so on. That was equally the case when I was growing up. Many people seem to think that all unionists are born with a silver spoon in their mouths. I certainly wasn't. I was brought up in a Belfast slum and my parents weren't even able to afford to rent a house of their own till I was 8 or 9. So, I'm definitely not part of the 'Unionist Ascendancy', the power that was in government for 50 years and was disdainful of all working class people. Indeed, that unionist establishment probably still despise me, see me as an intruder because I'm not part of the unionist power structures which were based on wealth, privilege and aristocracy and so on.
What you've just described, if transferred to West Belfast, could easily be the upbringing Gerry Adams had.
The difference is that working class people on the unionist side did not feel they had to rise up, ruin their own areas and destroy jobs and homes etc. I can't understand how people who talk of the deprivation of their community can then engage in activities that cause greater deprivation. What is it that drives international investment away? The bombing campaign, the breakdown of law and order, the terrorist campaign?
So you don't accept Sinn Fein's description of their party as Socialist?
I see them as fascists. They like to wear the cloak of socialism because it's trendy on the international stage. But their record on the rights of ordinary people proves to me that they are nothing but fascists.
When you were originally elected to Belfast City Council you recommended that Sinn Fein be excluded from the business of the council. In that, you yourself were hardly showing much respect for the choice of those 'ordinary people' who elected Sinn Fein
When you look at Sinn Fein and see the positions they have adopted you realise they are really there to abuse the democratic process. I don't know as much about the existing council but in the previous crowd, a fair number of them have already been involved in terrorist activity and served sentences for terrorist activities. The British Government does not recognise these people as legitimate politicians and no government Minister will come and address Belfast City Council because Sinn Fein members are present. So I don't see why the standard which applies within the government should not apply within the council chamber.
But they are democratically elected public representatives, so aren't you also effectively insulting the people who choose to elect them?
I can't understand the people who elect them, for two reasons. I can't understand how they would elect people who, as I said earlier, claim to represent their interests as far as jobs and housing is concerned, yet support the blowing-up of factories and the devastation of houses etc. Equally, I can't understand those who can go into the ballot box and give support to those whose only difference with the SDLP is that they support the IRA - in other words support the campaign of sectarian genocide against the Protestant population.
Have you ever really tried to understand - as in talked in-depth - with people who do vote for Sinn Fein and asked them why they do so?
I have, but none of them face this central issue head-on. They always say they support Sinn Fein because they do constituency work and are more working class, whatever. They always ignore the link between Sinn Fein and the IRA.
Do you automatically assume that all those who vote for Sinn Fein support the IRA's campaign of violence?
Yes. And I believe a large section of the Catholic community supports Sinn Fein, though obviously not all. Some take a brave stand against all that, even in cases where they are then putting themselves in personal danger.
You once described the South as being 'priest-ridden' with 'republican sympathisers' prevalent within the Catholic church. Is that still your point-of-view?
As to it being 'priest-ridden' just look at the laws that pertain in relation to issues like divorce. That certainly hasn't changed over the years. Similarly, many people here in the North find the wrangling engaged in, even over something as simple as making contraceptives available, mystifying and off-putting. The torturous way in which that has been done, and the level of opposition confirms the view that the Church still holds dominant sway in the South. Likewise in relation to the suggestion that the Pope is about to reaffirm the Church's opposition to contraceptives, even in the age of AIDS. It's issues like that which make me realise that if this is the kind of State people want to live in, let them. I've always refused to say that the Irish republic should be different, but I will say, categorically, that I don't want to be part of such a State. Particularly, in terms of something like divorce.
Have you a personal reason for saying that?
I'm divorced. I got married and it didn't work out. Now, I would not want to live in a country where my ex-wife and I were denied the right to another chance. I didn't walk out of the marriage lightly, in fact I didn't walk out at all - my wife kicked me out! She didn't like the kind of lifestyle I led, particularly in terms of politics. But who would want to live anywhere where forever she was condemned and I was condemned to live inside a marriage that had died. This is a central issue to me. And I don't think any politician, or any religious leader has the right to say 'you've got to stick with that, son'.
Would Ian Paisley not have told you 'you've got to stick with that, son' because of his own belief in a particularly rigid moral ethos?
Through it all I found him to be very understanding and at that time I was working very closely with him because I was involved in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I've never discussed his religious view of this but, as a person, he understood the situation and was very supportive. I doubt very much if, even given his religious beliefs, he would have wished to impose that on me, by law.
You also were romantically involved with his daughter.
I was, yeah. But that was many years afterwards.
What is your response to the fact that the legislation in the South, on homosexuality, is now more liberal than it is in the UK?
I'm not aware what the new legislation is but I still believe that if you take the broad spectrum of legislation in the republic it strikes me as much less liberal and much more church-orientated than we have here.
Part of the new legislation on homosexuality in the South is that the age of consent has been lowered to 17. Do you think the age of consent should be similarly lowered in the UK and the North and that these laws should be made more liberal?
No. It's too young. And young people have to be protected from these influences.
So can we take it that you yourself and the DUP would definitely not support homosexuals in the North if they started a campaign to bring about more liberal laws.
And if divorce became freely available in the Republic, making it even more liberal would that make you more comfortable in terms of any political-religious links?
It wouldn't. My objection to a united Ireland or closer contact between the two parts of the island is not based on differences in social legislation. But I do believe that if divorce, for example, was introduced it would make a lot of people in the republic happier, people who are tied inside unhappy marriages. That is a change people in the republic will decide for, or against, but it's not something I see as a huge issue in relation to my opposition to a united Ireland.
So when unionists claim that these aspects of social legislation are stumbling blocks to closer ties, is that merely an excuse to mask a core intransigence?
Unionists never say such things are 'stumbling blocks'. They say that such things show the Church-oriented nature of the Irish state. But if we were to use the words 'stumbling blocks' that would imply we want to be a part of a united Ireland. We don't want to be, in any shape or form.
On the question of 'republican sympathisers' within the Catholic Church you, at one point, attacked unionists who attended at the installation of Cardinal Daly. Why?
Because I felt that the association between the Roman Catholic
Church - especially people like Cardinal O' Fiach and Father Des Wilson - and the IRA, had been one that was often open support for the IRA.
Define 'open support' in that context.
I don't know every priest but I do know that the views of many of the leaders of the Catholic Church have been supportive in relation to the IRA. And never, ever is there any condemnation of the IRA from the leaders of the Church. And my view was that unionists ought not to have been associating themselves with Cardinal Daly, in that sense. He had already recommended that the IRA be involved in talks while speaking out against 'the futility of terrorism' which to me was pure hypocrisy.
You say 'never, ever is there any condemnation of the IRA from the leaders of the Church' yet such condemnations do often come from people such as Cathal Daly and Denis Faul.
Usually those condemnations are of a qualified nature and what really rankles Protestants is the fact that the Catholic Church - unlike many Protestant churches - does have the ultimate sanction of excommunicating the people who go against Christ's teachings and it doesn't exercise that option when it should. I would have imagined that to go out and murder people would be a clear case of going against Church teachings, yet we find members of the IRA and their supporters being given communion in Roman Catholic churches on a regular basis. That kind of ambivalence, or moral hypocrisy in the Church, when it comes to something like excommunication and so on, breeds suspicion in Protestant minds.
Do you believe that you may be a target for the IRA?
Yes. The fact that the police advise me to take protective measures and so on, would also indicate that the police think that as well. But, nevertheless, you've got to lead your life in a normal way and hope for the best. I'm fortunate in that I live here by myself and am single, so I don't have to worry about a wife and children. But anybody who has a wife or child running around the house, and is in my position, clearly has to be careful in terms of their family being a target for the IRA.
At one point you suggested that the Northern Ireland office had secret plans to include Sinn Fein in talks. You stated that unionists would never accept this, even if Sinn Fein were to repudiate IRA violence.
That's still my core position. We've had 20 years of people being maimed, killed, with their homes destroyed and everything else, as a result of the activities of these people. You don't easily dispense with all of that. And there is very, very deep bitterness towards the IRA and their political masters, among unionists. Significantly, in a poll which was carried out recently, 58% of people who described themselves as unionists, said that even if Sinn Fein broke its link with the IRA, unionists should not talk to them. Eighty-eight percent said unionists should not talk to them in the present situation. I think that fairly sums up the view, and the bitterness that there is within the unionist community, towards Sinn Fein.
What's your response to the suggestion that unionists 'need' the IRA to justify their intransigence in relation to relinquishing power?
We need the IRA like we need a hole-in-the-head. And comments like that usually come from the mouths of politicians who drop in here and drop back out within 24 hours and have little knowledge of the situation, or little interest, apart from the chance to grab a headline or two.The Secretary of State for Defence, recently dropped in here for twelve hours and his parting words were that '99% of the people here are never effected by the troubles anyway'. People who make that kind of comment are just disdainful to us.
Nonetheless, unionists are widely perceived as being intransigent when it comes to relinquishing power in Northern Ireland.
I get tired of hearing the word 'intransigence' used in relation to unionists. The people who have given most over the last 20 years have been the unionist community. The nationalist community hasn't budged an inch from what it believes or wants.
The unionist community, obviously have more to give in that they have held power for more than 50 years. So what, exactly do you believe unionists relinquished?
Unionists started off in 1972, with a government based on the Westminster model, whereby the majority of people who were elected, from a particular group, formed a government. Since then we have accepted a different electoral system than they have in the rest of the United Kingdom - proportional representation - which is supposed to give more fair representation to all of the community. That was
accepted by unionists, who therefore accepted that there there should not be majority rule, which had been the case.
The IRA would argue that everything that was reluctantly acceded by unionists was given because of the bomb and the bullet and that if there hadn't been the IRA campaign of violence unionists wouldn't have moved an inch?
The bomb has been the thing which has held back some accommodation. People on the unionist side have been more cautious in terms of what they are prepared to consider, because they would be seen to be giving it under such pressure. And also because there is a suspicion that there is no concession that could be made that would be acceptable to the people who are carrying out the bombing. So, rather than those changes coming as a result of the bomb and bullet, that very campaign of violence had probably held up progress. Though it well may be the people outside Northern Ireland who have acceded to the Irish Government through, say, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and who haven't been at the sharp end of the terrorist campaign, probably acceded as a result of the bomb. I do believe that is true of the British Government.
What's your response to Norman Tebbitt's claims that the Dublin government won't yield on articles 2 and 3 until there are bombs in Dublin?
Maybe he's looking at things from his own experience as part of the British Government. He knows that, as I say, the British Government responded to bombs and maybe he thinks that it requires loyalist bombs to make the Irish Government respond. I think it's more a comment on the kind of provocation British politicians respond to rather than any comment aimed at loyalists.
Nonetheless it could still be seen as an incitement to murder.
I don't think Norman Tebbit was encouraging loyalists to do this, and I listened to his original interview with Kevin McNamara. Certainly I didn't take that from what he said. But I remember sitting here, thinking 'isn't that typical? That's what those boys respond to and they expect everyone else in the world to respond the same way'. To me it was more a reflection of the weakness of British politicians rather than encouragement to anyone else to do it. But I don't believe that the Irish Government would respond that way.
You once claimed you see the 'enemy' as a coalition of the Republic of Ireland, the British Government, the SDLP and the 'articulate gunmen of Sinn Fein'.
That's still my view, because all four of them, in their own way, are working towards the ending of the union. The IRA has always made it clear what their objective is, the SDLP have made their objective clear, the Roman Catholic Church has made it's view on what the future of the island should be clear and the British Government has now said that it will not stand in the way. In fact the present Secretary of State will go down in history, notoriously, as saying he would be quite happy to facilitate that process. This he said in his interview with Der Spiegal, or whatever that German magazine was. So, all of them, using different methods, are working towards the same objective. In that sense they are the enemy of unionism.
So do you agree with the loyalist paramilitaries, that even if the IRA violence ends that will not be enough to make them cease their campaign of violence - that the whole 'pan-nationalist' structure must be dismantled first?
Politically it would not mean anything if the IRA violence ended. But where I would differ from the loyalist paramilitaries is that I believe that if people wish to legitimately work for taking Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, through the political process, there isn't anything I can do about it. The implication in the statement you just read is that they may have to continue shooting people. I don't believe that's right. My view has always been that if people wish to hold the aspiration towards a united Ireland they are perfectly entitled to believe in it and work for it, yet I will work my damnedest to convince people the other way.
So if the IRA did lay down their arms, would you call on loyalist paramilitaries to do the same thing?
I've always believed that the majority of loyalist violence has been reactive and I would hope that if there was a cessation of violence by the IRA that the loyalists would not try to upset the stability of Northern Ireland by continuing their activities. In fact, if there was any chance of the IRA stopping their campaign of violence I would be at the forefront of saying to loyalists: 'now, this must come to an end, this must stop'.
You claim that loyalist paramilitary violence is 'reactive' yet most of the killings over the past two years have been by loyalists - including four murders over the same number of nights, last week.
That's right, And whilst I don't think anyone can condone it, nevertheless the people on the ground have been warning the police, the army and the Northern Ireland Office for a long time that this was going to happen. What we're seeing is unionists beginning to put on the macho role that they believe has achieved so much for nationalists. The sad thing is that the successes that the IRA have had, as a result of their campaign of violence over the past 25 years, has taught some people in the loyalist community that you'll never achieve anything by negotiating or being constitutional - you'll achieve it by killing people. That's what's happening right now.
And when you say 'I don't think anyone can condone it' are you also condemning loyalist paramilitary violence unequivocally?
Yes. I can't see what you achieve by killing innocent people. And the people who have been killed most recently have been not just Catholics but also a Protestant prison officer. I wouldn't try, in any way, to condone that. But the Government was warned this would happen and took no action.
What is your response, specifically, to the loyalist threat to kill prison wardens?
I can't understand why people do that. What do they hope to achieve? I accept that there is a lot of frustration in prisons at present, but prison wardens are not the ones who make the policies, these are passed down by the Northern Ireland Office. And I would trace a lot of this back to people in the Northern Ireland Office who, against all the evidence, have been refusing to give, for example, segregation to prisoners. As a result, some prisoners have lost their lives. But it's not the policy makers who bear the brunt of paramilitary attacks, it's the prison officers who are in the firing.
Do you similarly condemn attacks on members, or the families of members of, the SDLP and Sinn Fein?
The SDLP attacks, again, have been a result of their political involvement. As far as Sinn Fein are concerned I must say that Sinn Fein have brought all this upon themselves. They have supported the campaign of violence for 25 years and, as I said earlier, some of them have been actively involved in that campaign of violence, so I never make any comment on what happens to members of Sinn Fein.
Does that mean you don't condemn attacks on members of the SDLP or Sinn Fein?
We have condemned attacks on the SDLP and in Belfast City Council I have said that such attacks are wrong. But I make no comment on the fate that is suffered by Sinn Fein members because, for far too long, they have brought about the atmosphere in which this violence has been allowed to thrive.
So how would you respond if your silence is read as support for the attacks on Sinn Fein?
I really don't care how Sinn Fein interpret my silence on the attacks on the families and on their members. They themselves have got to look at the holocaust they have brought about in the community.
When I asked that question I wasn't thinking of how Sinn Fein will interpret your silence on this matter, rather how readers of Hot Press in general will interpret it.
Let your readers make up their own minds.
Gerry Adams recently argued that those who ask him to repudiate IRA violence should ask 'Ian Paisley to repudiate loyalist violence, Peter Robinson to repudiate and condemn his own actions at Clontibret'. Do you see any logic in that?
There is a big difference between Gerry Adams} relationship, and responsibility for republican activity and Peter Robinson's and Ian Paisley's responsibility and connection with loyalist paramilitaries.
What, precisely, is the difference?
Gerry Adams has never made any secret of the fact that he not only supports the IRA but that his party is involved with the IRA.
Adams, and many others, might equally argue that there is no separation between Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and loyalist paramilitary activities.
That may well be argued but the reality is totally different. Many loyalist paramilitaries would probably describe Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson as wimps because of their involvement in the political process.
Yet there are claims that Ian Paisley had links with loyalist paramilitary groups, going back as far as 1966. Were you approached to join such organisations, at the time?
My first awareness of paramilitaries was in 1969, after my parents moved to Bangor and I stayed in Belfast, on the Newtownards Rd. At that point the local chapel was used as a sniper vantage point. In one afternoon five people were shot dead a few streets down from where my aunty lived. So from then on, there was the fear that you weren't safe in your own house. It was at that stage paramilitaries were set up to defend the community because the police and the army didn't want to do the job, or were unable to. So, everybody, because you lived in an area that was under threat, was involved, even if it was only on the periphery. But I never felt officially pressurised to join any paramilitary group.
It also was in 1969, after a Catholic was shot dead in Malvern St, that the person arrested allegedly said 'I'm sorry I ever heard of Ian Paisley and decided to follow him'. So how come your support for Paisley didn't lead you in a similar direction?
That was a guy called McLaen. But whether or not Ian Paisley was responsible for his involvement is another question. I believe that if you involve yourself in something, you take the blame for it and don't pass it on to someone else.
Yet there is the perception that you yourself do have links with paramilitary groups.
A lot of newspapers put that story around and newspapers can write what they want and there's very little you can do about it. If you've got the money you can sue, if you don't have the money they can say anything they want. But I will admit that on many occasions I would have found myself having sympathy with many things that paramilitaries have approached me about. For example, the question of loyalist prisoners. To a certain extent there is some common ground there and you would have contact with people who are involved in paramilitaries that way. But part of the reason for this is that these people, or their parents, are my constituents and I see it as my duty to act on their behalf. But as far as 'links' between myself and paramilitaries in other ways, they're just not there.
There also have been claims made recently that Ulster Resistance, formed by Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson organised with the UDA and the UVF, the dispersal of weapons such as the grenades that were thrown at republicans in the Milltown cemetery.
This allegation has been made before but no evidence was ever produced to this effect. Nobody from Ulster Resistance was ever charged. Though, I will say, that many people who I know were involved, from Ulster Resistance, were involved in it because they honestly believed a doomsday situation was coming and had to take steps to defend their own community.
As in getting arms from South Africa?
You can't defend your own community unless you have the wherewithal to defend it. And if they felt that was needed they may well have done that, or not. I hadn't any direct involvement in Ulster Resistance. The DUP did give political coverage to the organisation, at its inception, then the people who were involved decided to go their own way.
But the implication in many of these allegations is that Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, in effect, armed the people who threw the grenades at republicans in Milltown cemetery.
That link has been suggested without any evidence and there are many establishment politicians, both on the unionist side and within the British government who will do their best to blacken and reduce the credibility of those unionists they cannot bend to their will. That kind of black propaganda campaign is something the British government has been engaged in for many years.
At one point, you wanted a Lord Mayor of Belfast to boycott a meeting of the Belfast Institute of Directors because Charles Haughey was to be part of the proceedings. Why was that?
A very strong view held by people in Northern Ireland is the
belief that, behind the public denunciations of the IRA, there is a great deal of sympathy, among Dublin politicians, for the IRA. Let's face it, the IRA are the cutting edge of Dublin's claim to Northern Ireland. That's obvious from the ambivalence Dublin politicians have shown towards IRA terrorism and the refusal to initiate effective extradition laws, and even the refusal to remove the claim to our territory, which the IRA uses as justification for what they are doing.
How do you see the current Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds?
The same kind of belligerent republicanism comes through in many of Reynold's comments.
So would you prefer to be dealing with someone like John Bruton, whom Albert Reynolds once described as a 'crypto-unionist'?
I have no desire to deal with any Southern politicians because I regard the Irish Republic as a separate country. Many people said that when Dick Spring got elected and had some position of influence things would get better. For most people here in Northern Ireland, Dick Spring has turned out to be no different than some of the hardliners in Fianna Fail. In fact, in terms of the promises he made before he was elected he's failed everybody in this respect, revealing the same rigid attitudes as there have been from his predecessors.
At the beginning of this interview you referred to the 'shadowy deal' Jim Molyneaux allegedly did with John Major in order to get support for the Maastricht vote. Do you really believe a deal was done?
Yes. But I also said, at the beginning of this interview, that the British Government treats Northern Ireland as a place where they can exercise expediency whenever that suits them. It's expedient at the moment to woo unionists and it will be expedient, very soon, to woo the Irish Government and they'll change their tune
What kind of deal do you think was done?
Whatever the deal, I don't think unionists came out of it particularly well. Mr. Molyneaux has got his Select Committee, no doubt about that. Given how closely he is wedded to Westminster he probably thinks of that as a terrific gain, but I'm not so sure if a Select Committee will actually mean anything at the end of the day. It'll probably give unionists around 2 seats out of 20 so that hardly gives them very much power as far as the workings of the Westminster machine is concerned. He also probably got the promise that there will be 'greater sympathy' for the unionist case. But unless I had it written in black and white, and in triplicate, I wouldn't believe anything I was offered by British politicians.
Ian Paisley once said 'if the crown and parliament decreed to put Ulster into a United Ireland we would be disloyal to her majesty if we did not resist such as surrender to our enemies.' Does that sum up your position now?
Yes. I will not be forced into any such arrangement.
Would you fight in those circumstances, be prepared to kill or die for Ulster?
I certainly would not allow terrorists to dictate the future that would be for me, my family and my community. So yes, I would be prepared to resist any kind of armed attempt to take away the liberty which I have to determine my own way in the