The Loyalist view

'I learnt Irish speaking through the wire fence'
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The Independent Online

William Smith was the first loyalist prisoner to be sent to Long Kesh, the precursor to the H-blocks of the Maze. As an 18-year-old member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, he had been sentenced to 10 years for shooting a Catholic.

William Smith was the first loyalist prisoner to be sent to Long Kesh, the precursor to the H-blocks of the Maze. As an 18-year-old member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, he had been sentenced to 10 years for shooting a Catholic.

"Long Kesh was a dreadful experience for anyone who was there, but in a way I think it saved my life," he said.

"It was in prison that I began to try to understand politics, to see where we were heading as a people and to find another way away from the constant rounds of killing each other. If I had stayed out in the streets I have little doubt I would have ended up dead, either killed by the Army or republicans."

Mr Smith is chairman of the Progressive Unionist Party, whose two members in the Northern Ireland Assembly, David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson, are among the most vocal supporters of the peace process. He is involved in a number of cross-community projects.

"We had been moved to Long Kesh from closed prisons and everything was different and strange. Our leader was Gusty Spence, who had military experience, and he organised us in a military fashion.

"There were drills, and later, weapons training. But there was also a lot of encouragement for education. For working-class Protestant kids like us it was a great opportunity to take in new ideas. I began to realise that I did not have that much that was different from my working-class Catholic counterpart. I began to realise that the party we had been following, the Ulster Unionist Party, was led by people who had little understanding of the working classes and we were blindly following them purely on religious grounds."

Mr Smith learnt to speak Irish from a republican inmate. "We would sit on either side of the wire fence, and he taught me the language. I became quite good at it," he said. "I've almost forgotten it now because there is little opportunity to practise it outside."

The political discussions and classes led to the birth of the PUP, with Mr Smith and fellow inmates Mr Irvine and Mr Hutchinson as leading figures.

"If you look at South Africa, Latin America, India, wherever there have been struggles for human rights, angry young men have ended up in prison and developed their politics there," said Mr Smith.

He recalls that relations between loyalist prisoners and most prison officers, many of them brought in from the mainland, was generally good. "But we used to have periodic raids by search squads," he said. "They would come in and for no apparent reason smash up things, destroy your property. That was just part and parcel of prison life.

"When the republicans went on hunger strike and the dirty protest, they were fighting for the same rights as we were. But we could not be seen to be supporting them, because the Protestant community outside would not understand it. But we all benefited at the end."

Mr Smith discovered on his release that although he had changed, the community outside had remained as violent as ever, on sectarian lines. He said: "It was the height of the bombing campaign, there was terrible violence. I realised that I was not on the same wavelength with my own people any longer. I started trying to carry out some cross-community initiatives, and to a certain extent this was tolerated by the loyalists because I had fought, I had served my time and had nothing to prove.

"But it is ironic that it is only now, with peace, that some of us can begin to practise what we learnt all those years ago in jail as violent men."

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