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25 years on, leading Republican and Loyalist agree North is still waiting for 'peace dividend'

The Journal spoke to two men who were on opposite sides of the conflict – Republican Danny Morrison and Loyalist Billy Hutchinson.

SIDES IN CIVIL war conflicts are often best measured in metres – the sliding door moment of being born into a family on one street meant you were destined to be opposed to your neighbours a few metres away across the brick work and tarmac.

Danny Morrison and Billy Hutchinson are perfect examples of that – both west Belfast men but both diametrically opposite in their beliefs on who has legitimacy to decide the future of Northern Ireland.

At the height of the Troubles, Morrison and Hutchinson were on opposite sides of a divided Northern Ireland.

This week The Journal spoke to them about their recollections of the period and the moment they found themselves at the centre of the peace deal that ended the chaos.

Morrison was a leading Sinn Fein activist in the decades leading up to the IRA ceasefires of the 1990s – Hutchinson a UVF member and unionist leader. 

Despite their differing positions, the interviews tell a similar story of expectation for a better Northern Ireland as the Good Friday Agreement was signed. 25 years on, both say that the promised ‘peace dividend’ has not arrived for many of the people in their communities. 

Morrison, 70, was born into a staunchly west Belfast Republican family. In the early years of the Troubles, in 1972, he was interned in Long Kesh along with other nationalists and republican activists, some of whom were IRA members.

He is best known for his publicity work with Sinn Féin, editing Republican newspapers and coining the phrase and strategy known as ‘the armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other’. 

Morrison and Hutchinson

Morrison served time in prison and was a key activist for fellow IRA prisoners. He was jailed in the 1990s for a plot to murder a fellow activist but that conviction was quashed in 2008 on appeal.

He is now an author and well-known commentator on Northern Ireland and the Troubles. He was in prison when the IRA prisoners decided to bring an end to their fighting and pursue the strategy of political activism to achieve their goal of a united Ireland. 

Billy Hutchinson, 68, comes from the Loyalist area of Belfast’s Shankill Road and as a young man joined the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – a unionist paramilitary group.

billy hutchinson Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) at his office in Belfast City Hall, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. PA PA

Hutchinson participated in rioting and other more deadly activities as a UVF member. In October 1974 Hutchinson and another activist were driving in a car in a Republican area near the Falls Road.

At this stage he was a member of Loyalist group Young Citizens Volunteers movement which was an off-shoot of the UVF. He was driving the car while his colleague, Thomas Winstone was passenger. Two Catholic men, Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan, who were en route to work, were shot dead by Winstone.

Hutchinson and Winstone were arrested and later pleaded guilty to the murders. 

He was imprisoned in Long Kesh, also known as the Maze, where he came under the influence of Gusty Spence, a well known and charismatic Loyalist leader.

Hutchinson would assume the leadership of UVF prisoners but it was his friendship with Spence that would ultimately lead him towards participation in the talks for the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. 

He has gone on to be a well-known voice of loyalism and leader of the Progressive Unionist Party. He served as an MLA in Stormont and now serves as a city councillor in Belfast.

The experienced activists both speak of their time on the frontline in their respective fights.

northern-ireland-secretary-of-state-mo-mowlem-l-goes-on-a-west-belfast-walkabout-april-16-with-political-opposites-sinn-fein-president-gerry-adams-r-and-billy-hutchinson-2ndr-from-the-progressi Mo Mowlam (L), Northern Ireland education Minister Tony Worthington, Billy Huchinson and Gerry Adams in April 1998. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

But the reality is that the places these men were born and brought up in West Belfast are just hundreds of metres apart – at some level the facts of their lives could be serendipitously different had they the fate to be been born on a different street. 

In our discussions both men are direct in their language and pragmatic about their world view – they are close in age and their experiences and viewpoints only differ in what they believe will be the future for this island.

Morrison still speaks with the fire of a man who fundamentally believes that he was on the right side and recalls the traumatic moment when he was in prison when it was decided that the IRA would pursue peace. 

“I welcomed the ceasefire when it was declared. I was in a cell with Pat Sheahan, who had been the longest man on hunger strike when it ended in October 1981. He was doing two  huge sentences and is now an MLA for west Belfast.

“But I just went back to my cell and cried, both with relief and also with the fact that so many people had lost their lives on all sides. If there had been a Good Friday Agreement in 1969, not one person would have lost their lives in a conflict.”

Morrison was the chair of Sinn Féin inside the H Blocks of the Maze Prison and he believes that the pragmatic view of the republican prisoners was decisive. 

“It was clear to me that majority of prisoners were mature and recognised real politic. And the vast majority of the prisoners supported the work of Adams and McGuinness. But there was also huge suspicions of British Intent.”

It was this, he said, was causing reticence among IRA combatants who feared that the peace process was designed to bring about the end of the IRA but not create a peace that they could get behind. He believes that was the reason for the split and the rise in dissident activity. 

While Morrison said that the various ceasefire declarations by the IRA were a sign that they were chasing peace – Hutchinson said the Loyalist peace efforts started in the 1980s.

But the Loyalist activist said, that when he was released from custody in the 1990s, it was clear at that point that there was a desire to move on from armed intervention.

Courage

His memory of the time is of the people, the combatants in Loyalism, who decided to move towards the peace process. He said that there was great courage for them to stand against the people who would not have embraced peace.

“Whenever leadership of the UVF, or the Red Hand and other people thought about ceasefires and peace I think of the massive risks those people took.

“They made the right decisions. They’ll never be recorded in history because they won’t be named but if it wasn’t for those people, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. 

“Those people were actually courageous enough to say, ‘you know what, we need to stop this, we need the peace process’.

“That took a huge degree of leadership while being under tremendous pressure,” he added. 

Morrison echoes that sentiment on the other side too and praised Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness for taking huge risks to manage the suspicions of IRA members.

belfast-uk-12th-aug-2021-12082021-belfast-gerry-adams-and-seamus-carabine-at-scribes-at-the-rock-part-of-feile-an-phobail-credit-bonzoalamy-live-news A file picture of Danny Morrison. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Whatever the way the parties arrived in the talks, both men supported the Good Friday Agreement. 

Hutchinson was directly involved in the negotiations and he looks back at the time with pride in how the communities came together. 

In both interviews the men strongly criticise their opposing side and the Dublin and London Governments. Hutchinson does not spare it either for those in Unionism, like the Democratic Unionist Party, who he said have failed to act.  

Morrison is particularly strong against the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael record while Hutchinson said that his community are suffering from the aftermath of Brexit. 

But the issue now, looking back over the past 25 years, is that both men believe that their respective communities have not benefited from the promised economic peace dividend that would support a prosperous Northern Ireland.   

Hutchinson said that this is felt badly in Loyalist areas.

“I think we live in a better place now than we did before the last twenty five years. We don’t have bombs going off – although there is occasionally an attack on a police officer. 

“But there hasn’t been the economic reward and a lot of people feel that we have lost the opportunity of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

“So from our point of view I think we live in a divided society, so therefore, we need to control it. But we are where we are and most people who live in communities don’t see the peace benefits,” he added.

Morrison also criticised the British Government for their Brexit campaign, saying that the UK officials had claimed they would match the missing European funding that had helped to rebuild Northern Irish infrastructure.

He believes the impact of Brexit is having a profound impact on the people of the North. 

“All this money was lost, communities are being starved of funding. The British Government during the Brexit campaign promised that they would match all of these missing funds that would go if they left the EU and they didn’t – even the farmers are up in arms about losing European funding.”

the-two-sinn-fein-leaders-banned-from-britain-after-the-greater-london-council-invited-them-to-london-gerry-adams-l-is-vice-president-and-danny-morrison-is-the-organisations-publicity-director Then Sinn Fein publicity director Danny Morrison, right, with Gerry Adams, during The Troubles. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Future

Both men said that they had varying concerns for Northern Ireland’s future – not because of the possible threats to peace but because people had not been able to realise their potential. 

Morrison believes that the “big ideological battle” will be in the republic as a United Ireland comes closer. 

“You have ministers in Dublin talking about making the 26 counties Ireland – they use the phrases of Ireland and Northern Ireland – it is so insulting,” he said. 

Morrison sounds a positive tone and adds: “But I am quite patient. Because the state that I live in now, is not the state that I grew up in.”

For Hutchinson the benefits and hopes for the future are much less definite but he believes that the maintenance of the peace outweighs all the other issues in Northern Ireland.

“I can bring you to see the way we live. It hasn’t been regenerative. People have moved on, they have been shifted all over the country.

“They’re living in places with no jobs and they’re stuck there and they’re unemployed.

“All those issues can be sorted out, they should be easy to do, the main one that we need to keep on top of is that we never go back to conflict.” 

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