A very senior member of the PUP told me that Billy Hutchinson had been “stitched up” in his interview with the News Letter’s Sam McBride. Another one told me that “Billy was misrepresented because the News Letter just made up the quotes.” A good thing, then, those journalists record and keep their interviews!
Anyway, how do you misrepresent this: “ I have no regrets in terms of my past because I believe that I contributed to preventing a united Ireland…The reason I wouldn’t try to justify my actions is because I wouldn’t expect middle-class unionists to agree with what I did, but what I would say to you is that we’re not in a united Ireland.”
Hutchinson has drawn a very clear link between the UVF’s terrorist campaign and the fact that there isn’t a united Ireland. Forty years after he killed Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan there is still no willingness to accept that what he did was wrong. Indeed, he goes further: “What I’m saying is that I regret every murder, but let’s be clear that it’s very easy for you to say that, but what I will say to you is that I didn’t do anything without intelligence…my view is that the IRA left me with no option.”
Of course he had other options. He didn’t have to join a terrorist organisation. He didn’t have to kill two young men. He didn’t have to take the law into his own hands. He chose to do what he did. He was a terrorist by choice. He was a killer by choice. And let’s not forget that Northern Ireland was awash with security forces in 1974—the RUC, UDR, British forces, and military intelligence. That’s why we don’t have a united Ireland.
The political parties talked on and off for years until they reached the Belfast Agreement. That’s why we don’t have a united Ireland.
The various terrorist groups were so heavily and so successfully infiltrated over the years that it became almost impossible for them to sustain their campaigns. That’s why we don’t have a united Ireland.
Billy Hutchinson insults the sacrifices made by so many members of the security forces when he tries to argue that the UVF—and his own actions—prevented a united Ireland. No Billy, you didn’t. And he also insults the families of the two men he killed when he suggests that he did nothing “without intelligence.”
It’s not just ‘middle-class unionists’ who don’t understand what he did. It’s the hundreds of thousands of ordinary working-class unionists who have never voted for the PUP. It’s the voters in North Belfast who chose not to elect him to the Assembly for a second term.
Unionists tend not to vote in great numbers for parties which have links to the UVF and UDA. They are not comfortable with those parties and those links and they never have been. And no matter how much the PUP insists that working-class unionists have been ‘sold out’ or ‘abandoned’ by mainstream unionism there is very little evidence to suggest that they will vote for the PUP instead.
Will Hutchinson’s comments do any damage to the PUP’s electoral chances? Probably not, but that’s only because an electoral breakthrough was never likely anyway. It’s actually very difficult to know where they stand on socio/economic issues because the general impression of the party is that it is too focused on flags, parades, anti-PSNI rhetoric and ‘poor-us-everyone-is-against-us’. Hutchinson’s claim that “loyalists are treated as white trash’ tells you all you need to know.
There is no point feeding potential supporters a constant diet of how badly they are doing if you don’t give them something positive to believe in and a platform they can vote for. That’s why I have been arguing for years that there needs to be an entirely new political vehicle which has no links to the UVF or any other paramilitary organisation.
That link is preventing the UVF from making progress. Hutchinson admitted that the party only had about 25 candidates for the council elections, with none in places like Fermanagh or Tyrone. Most of those candidates are going to lose because the party is always going to be dragged back to the UVF link. I know that seems bizarre given the nature of the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA: but the fact remains the link is doing huge damage to the PUP.
Working class unionists—of whom there are many who don’t vote—may be tempted to take a risk with a new party which addresses the needs and concerns which matter most to them: like employment, health, education and social conditions. I’m not saying that the PUP doesn’t try to address some of those issues, but I am saying that they tend to be obscured by the parading and protest stuff. And when key figures like Hutchinson and Winston Irvine keep being asked questions about the UVF, it merely confirms the impression that that link is more important than policy.
I don’t know if there are any people who would be interested in creating a new left-of-centre party, but if there isn’t such a party then huge numbers of working class unionists will continue to stay at home rather than vote.
And that’s why I do agree with those who say that working-class unionists have been left behind. The UUP and DUP are right-of-centre conservatives and the TUV is primarily an anti-Agreement party. The PUP has singularly failed to attract working-class unionists in significant numbers—and they will never be able to. There needs to be a vehicle for those non-voters and if they can be mobilised it could mean more pro-Union seats in the Assembly and local councils.
The PUP is a busted flush electorally: a new party is required if we are serious about building a new era, post-conflict society.