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Billy Hutchinson: 'It was totally counterproductive and portrayed loyalism as backward and nasty in the eyes of the world'

In his autobiography, Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson writes about what happened during the Holy Cross dispute.

Billy Hutchinson

BILLY HUTCHINSON IS the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, and a Belfast City councillor. He took part in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Hutchinson is also a former paramilitary leader who was involved in the sectarian murders of two half-brothers in 1974, for which he was sentenced to life and served 15 years in prison. 

He has now written an autobiography, My Life in Loyalism, where he looks at his life and how he came to making the choices he did. In this extract, he writes about what he experienced during the Holy Cross dispute, where in 2001 Protestant loyalists began picketing the Catholic Holy Cross school in Ardoyne. The schoolgirls had to walk through protesters, as well as police and soldiers, to get to their school each day during this period. The picket ended in 2002, after making national and international news.

Despite the progress that had been made in bringing the UVF/UDA feud to an end, inter-communal problems would rear their head in 2001 and events that would be broadcast across the globe would bring shame upon loyalism in Northern Ireland.

As the school-term came to a close in June 2001, tensions erupted around Holy Cross Girls’ Primary School in North Belfast. The Catholic school was situated in the loyalist Glenbryn estate in the Upper Ardoyne area, the site of many sectarian confrontations going back decades. Protestants in Ardoyne had been complaining for months about sectarian attacks being carried out on their homes; they claimed that they felt unsafe
using local amenities, which were in the mainly Catholic part of Ardoyne. Flags were erected along Ardoyne Road by the guys from both sides of the divide to try and mark out territory.

In the middle of June, I received a phone call to tell me that a couple of men were using a stepladder to climb a lamppost and put up loyalist flags. As they did so, local republicans drove onto the kerb, and one of them got out of the car and kicked over the ladder, causing one of the guys to fall. This started a fight which exacerbated the bad feeling that existed in the area. The situation escalated very quickly, and large crowds gathered.

Pupils and parents from Holy Cross were targeted by local residents, who threw stones and other debris. The following day, several hundred people from the republican side of Ardoyne Road emerged onto the street, which had by now been blocked off by the police. Troops were also deployed as loyalists began to hurl bricks. I arrived in the area, as did Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin. We appealed for calm, but it soon became apparent that despite the fraught and violent atmosphere, the parents of the Holy Cross children were going to march them up to the school no matter what.

Obviously, kids should be able to go to school without coming to any harm, but I had to question the motivations of the parents, who must have known that walking up the Ardoyne Road en masse with guys like Gerry Kelly and Eddie Copeland in the background was going to raise tensions and lead to local Protestants coming to the conclusion that republicans were trying to force a situation whereby they could portray themselves as the victims. Analogies were made with the struggles of African Americans in Little Rock, Arkansas, and loyalists were depicted by the media as white supremacists. By the time the kids were back at school in September, the world’s media had fixed its gaze on Ardoyne, expecting something dramatic to happen.

On Wednesday, 5 September 2001, things came to a head for me with the Holy Cross saga. While I had been depressed by many of the actions of the protesting so-called loyalists over previous weeks, I was absolutely sickened when a blast bomb was thrown by loyalists. It landed at the police lines and missed the kids and their parents, though the explosion was loud and debris was flung all over the road.

When asked for a comment by the Irish Independent, I stated, ‘I was disgusted to be a loyalist this morning when I saw that happen and I won’t change that statement. The people responsible should be ashamed of themselves. The terror on those children’s faces was unbelievable. It totally sickened me to the pit of my stomach.’

I went back up to the PUP office later that day and stated that this was now, in my opinion, a very dangerous situation where kids could end up getting hurt. David Ervine told me that I needed to go back up and help diffuse the situation. It was easy for him to say that, but I told David that there was no way I was going to tolerate that sort of thuggish behaviour, which put the lives of innocent children or police officers at risk.

After a long conversation with David, I decided I would return to Ardoyne to see if I could help calm things down. I had to ensure that I helped the local loyalists formulate a peaceful means of protesting. There is no doubt that they had legitimate grievances about intimidation and violence, but this was totally counterproductive and portrayed loyalism as backward and nasty in the eyes of the world.

I later said, ‘I still stand with this community to protect their rights and I will argue for them as an elected representative. We can’t walk away from this; this thing needs to be finished in a structured way.’

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A lot of the guys up in Glenbryn were from a UDA background, and a lot of them told me to my face that they didn’t want me up there. Some even went as far as to threaten me, but I was an MLA for the area and a councillor for the Oldpark, and I felt that I had a mandate to be there. While the people who lived there wanted me to help them, I wasn’t going to let any residual bad feeling from the UDA force me out of doing what I had been elected to do.

I had a feeling that people in the area were going to be offered something, and eventually the NIO suggested a bend in the road! This was totally ridiculous. A bend in the road might have stopped people from seeing each other, but it wouldn’t allay fears of physical attack. The reality was that here we were, seven years on from the ceasefires, and it looked as though new peace walls needed to be built to prevent people murdering each other.

Jane Kennedy, the direct rule security minister, suggested building a gate that would be closed at night-time, but this was just paying lip service to the idea of sectarian division rather than dealing with the violent realities on the interface at Ardoyne. I had a meeting with Jane during which I explained to her in no uncertain terms that her idea was rubbish. Like many other civil servants from England, she just didn’t understand the complexities of the situation in Belfast.

Things took a slightly surreal turn when I was approached by David Ervine with a message from Gerry Adams. Adams thought that a good resolution to the Holy Cross issue would be for Gerry Kelly and me to embrace for the cameras. It was absolute nonsense, and not in my nature to be part of such a choreographed stunt. What would it have achieved other than to make us both look stupid. Adams again demonstrated to me that he was totally detached from reality. I told David in no uncertain terms that I would certainly not be hugging Gerry Kelly at any time. I’ve little doubt that the feeling was mutual.

My Life in Loyalism, published by Merrion Press, is out now.

About the author:

Billy Hutchinson

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