A loyalist paramilitary group has formally submitted an application to be legalised – in what could be the first of a series of requests to allow former terrorist groups to operate openly.
Members of the Red Hand Commando (RHC) travelled from Belfast to the Home Office in London last Wednesday to submit a formal application to be removed from the list of proscribed terrorist organisations which are outlawed in the UK.
In a statement to the News Letter yesterday and an interview with this newspaper, members of the group echoed the words of former UVF leader Gusty Spence, “offering true and abject remorse to all the innocent victims of the conflict”.
The application has been made under Section 4 of the Terrorism Act (2000) which allows for members of a banned group to contact the government to request deproscription without themselves facing the threat of being charged with membership.
The initiative is being supported by the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), the umbrella organisation set up by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell to steer paramilitaries away from criminality, and the LCC’s chairman, David Campbell, said that Mr Powell supported the application to the Home Secretary. Mr Campbell argued that in retaining the paramilitary name, rather than disbanding, it would be harder for dissidents to seek to revive it at a future point.
In an interview yesterday in east Belfast, some members of the group indicated that if the application is rejected by Home Secretary Amber Rudd then they are likely to challenge it in the High Court via a judicial review.
Former RHC prisoner Jim Wilson said that the group was aware that it had “hurt people in the past” but said: “We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.” When asked if they could provide an assurance to victims of the group that, if legalised, they would not use that platform to glorify Troubles atrocities, Mr Wilson said that such glorification would “absolutely not” happen.
He said: “This organisation is not about glorifying murder, bombings, shootings – it happened in a conflict that we got engaged in as young lads and it’s not something that people want to run about and gloat about and to have it pushed into people’s faces.
“That’s not what deprosciption is about – it’s about allowing us to move to the next phase which is out of conflict, away from what happened in this society and all those people that were hurt by our organisation, Gusty Spence couldn’t have said it any better – it is true and abject remorse. But we were brought up in a society where there was violence and young lads from our Protestant community engaged in it and that’s it – the organisation couldn’t be any clearer; it’s sorry for the people that had to be hurt in this conflict.”
Members of the group – several of whom declined to be identified – told the News Letter yesterday that they saw the application to be proscribed as “momentous” and a chance for them to openly work to support loyalist communities in areas such as education and mental health.
They declined to give estimates of the group’s current membership but that it is predominantly based in the east of Northern Ireland. One member used the phrase “old comrades’ association’ to describe what they see the group becoming if it is legalised.
All of those present were adamant that they do not want to go into politics but would lobby “for a better society”.
One of the veteran members said that the application, to which the Home Secretary must respond within 90 days, was “a sincere and genuine effort – there’s no money involved in it”.
The RHC, one of the smaller loyalist paramilitary groups which has long been aligned with the larger UVF, was established early in the Troubles in 1972 and has been outlawed since the following year.
Many of those murdered by the group were Catholic civilians – or Protestants who it mistook for Catholics – with the last murder being one of its own members in 2003.
But the group says that it has not been involved in any terrorist or criminal activity for more than a decade.
In its statement, the group still implicitly defended its role during the Troubles and presented itself as having played a role in securing Northern Ireland’s place within the Union, saying that its members had played a role in “helping to secure the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom”.
It said that “the transformation process isn’t an easy one” and praised named loyalists including the late Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine and Winston ‘Winkie’ Churchill Rea. Last year police charged the 65-year-old Rea with two murders – dating back to 1989 and 1990 – and membership of the RHC.
Mr Campbell said: “It’s important that people retain the ‘title deeds’ to organisations because if they folded up completely tomorrow then the next day you would have others with a malign intent taking them up again; you’ve seen it on the republican side.”
Yesterday a veteran RHC member who spoke to this newspaper derided “Facebook warriors” and their “glorification of something that might or might not have happened”.
He said: “If we were legal we could go round schools and tell them ‘don’t do what I did – people lost their homes, lost their families, lost their children, could never get a job again’; tell them the hard truth; the reality of life.”
Another individual referred to educating young people who may see paramilitarism as glamorous about “all the mental problems” associated with former paramilitaries.
One member of the group said: “The membership is unified and the organisation is able to speak with one voice.”
When asked whether the group would seek to restart recruiting if it was successful in being deproscribed it, Mr Wilson said: “No.”
He went on to say: “It is not about standing out and putting a badge on your breast – I don’t think we’d maybe even in certain circumstances use the badge or whatever because we do know, and we’re not silly people, that we have hurt people in the past.
“It’s not about that; it’s about the deproscription of the organisation because it has engaged in all things that are positive in its community...there’s things in our community that we accept it’s not productive for us to do because at the end of the day we’ve been involved in a conflict. Once we’re deproscribed it’s more about us being able to utilise the name and be able to work under that banner for positive means. If it’s offensive or it’s offending people, in certain circumstances we would not be using that.”
A member of the group said: “If we’re working to a day when there are no paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t make sense to recruit paramilitaries.”
Mr Wilson said that they now recruit young people to “our Somme societies or the REACH project”, but “not recruiting in the way that recruiting used to be which is taking the oath, which hasn’t happened in this organisation in 10 years”.
When asked how they would feel about the Provisional IRA being legalised, Mr Wilson said that the IRA officially no longer exists but that it has been implicated in murders as recently as 2015.
When asked what would happen if their bid failed, Mr Wilson said: “We’ve done this only because we think it’s the right thing to do; we’ll continue to do it because it’s the right thing to do. But you must remember that there’s other people out there who are looking at this to see if it’s possible for loyalism to get their place in the sun.”