Shankill drives a road to peace across old battlefields

One year on from the loyalist ceasefire, a terrorist turned politician explains why the truce is set to last
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Ireland Correspondent

Twenty years ago Billy Hutchinson, as a young Shankill Road loyalist, believed the best way to deal with republicanism was through violence. He was part of an Ulster Volunteer Force gang which shot dead two men on the Falls Road, an action which put him behind bars for 15 years.

Today his view of how to deal with republicans has changed dramatically. "One of the things that would worry me is if people try to screw Sinn Fein," he says now. "I don't think anybody should be trying to do that, I don't think there's anything in it for anybody to screw them."

In place of the old belligerence and indeed the ferocity for which the loyalist paramilitary groups were known, there is now, according to Mr Hutchinson, a new political way of looking at things.

"We need to convince Sinn Fein that there is a democratic process and that they can have a role in it as a democratic party. I think we should assist them in every way to come into it fully," he says.

Mr Hutchinson, an intense man now aged 39, is a leading member of the Progressive Unionist Party, which he describes as political confidants of the illegal UVF. The PUP and the Ulster Democratic Party, which speaks for the illegal Ulster Defence Association, have made a considerable impact since the loyalist ceasefire, surprising and heartening many that such moderate messages should come from such an unexpected quarter.

The past year has seen many contacts with government, with Mr Hutchinson leading PUP delegations on 15 occasions to meet senior civil servants and ministers.

One of the main points in these discussions has been the decommissioning of paramilitary weaponry, the issue on which the Government and Sinn Fein have been deadlocked for many months. The loyalist view, as set out by Billy Hutchinson, is actually not far from that of the republicans.

"For me it's whether the guns are being used or not being used that is the most important thing," he says. "If people can guarantee that they're not going to be used then I wouldn't be very concerned. If the Sinn Fein position is that it should never happen then I think there's something wrong with that, but I don't think decommissioning should be a pre-condition for talks.

"In our discussions with the Government we talked about the ways in which weapons could be decommissioned. For example, there could be some sort of agreement that people transporting guns would not be arrested.

"We talked about whether people would drive them to police stations, or dig up caches then leave them at a certain place and inform the police. We talked about whether the people that handed them over might be forensically connected to the guns. Those were the sort of things that were thrown up for discussion, but no answers were ever given."

Mr Hutchinson believes it has been a good year for his movement, though he is disappointed that all-party talks have not been convened, that prisoners have not been released and that more trust has not been built up.

He is, however, convinced that the leaders of loyalist paramilitarism have no intention of going back to war: "One thing I'm confident of is that the loyalists are united and 100 per cent behind the peace. Now I wouldn't say there is not an appetite for war among some individuals - it would be wrong to say everybody's on board for peace.

"But those people will abide by what the leadership say. The analysis we gave over a year ago was the correct one, that there was no sell-out. The acid test will come when we actually move into all-party talks and we start talking about settlements. I think that's when people will start to get jittery, whenever the questions start coming up about organisations being disbanded and so on. But that's way down the road."

In the meantime, he is involved not just in a peace process but in a learning process. During the past year, he and his colleagues have met dozens of people from all over the world, ranging from American senators to South African academics.

He says: "We're still learning how to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and see it from their point of view, whether they're the British government or Sinn Fein.

"I've been particularly surprised how the mainstream Unionist politicians have reacted to us - they treat us as non-people, they don't understand where we, or indeed the republicans, are coming from.

"When David Trimble was elected [as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party], my first reaction was shock-horror, but in fact, like us, he's meeting a wide range of people and up to now he hasn't put a foot wrong."

And so to the key question: how strong is the peace? "It's as strong as the republicans and loyalists want it to be. I believe there is a feeling within the republican and loyalist leaderships that they don't want to put their people through any more of the trauma of the last 25 years.

"The worrying thing for me is that both are ready for war and for peace. At the moment we're all in peace mode but we shouldn't be under any illusions - people can go back to war whenever they want, they've got the capabilities.

"I want to make sure that they don't. We're still waiting for the peace process and the political process to merge together, and for real talks to start. Once that happens then I think we're on our way.

"But we need to sit down and thrash out an agreement with all the parties and with those who represent the people who carried out the violence for the last 25 years. That's the only time that the peace will be signed, sealed and delivered."