Wednesday, November 23, 2005

DUP talks with Loyalist Commission will show British terrorists’ role in peace process

Ciaran Barnes:

“A huge shift in Democratic Unionist Party thinking” was one of the phrases used yesterday to describe the party’s decision to sanction talks with the Loyalist Commission.

For years, the party vowed never to get involved with the commission because it includes Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force members.

The DUP insisted in public that paramilitaries should be locked up and not talked to.

However, the party has been actively enaging with loyalist paramilitaries for the past 30 years, mostly behind closed doors.

Yesterday’s statement was just confirmation of the fact for many nationalists.

During the Ulster Workers’ Council strike in 1974, DUP leader Ian Paisley surrounded himself with UDA men, including the organisation’s leader Andy Tyrie, to bring industry in the North to a halt.

In the 1960s, Mr Paisley worked with UVF man Noel Docherty to set up the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee, which later developed a UVF-linked subsection called the Ulster Protestant Volunteers. Members of that subgrouping were involved in scores of sectarian murders during the early part of the Troubles.

There is no suggestion that Mr Paisley himself was ever involved in paramilitarism.

In the 1980s, the DUP leadership began to flirt openly with paramilitaries again. Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson attended an Ulster Resistance rally in Belfast’s Ulster Hall.

Ulster Resistance was set up in response to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The group was heavily involved in shipping arms into the North for use by loyalist paramilitaries.

The group’s 70 assault rifles, 30 Browning pistols, 165 fragmentation grenades, 10,000 rounds of ammunition and four RPG7 rocket launchers have been used in more than 20 murders.

The DUP’s relationship with loyalist paramilitaries was again exposed in 1996 when then Mid-Ulster MP Willie McCrea shared a stage at a loyalist rally with the Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright.

Five years later, Belfast DUP mayor Sammy Wilson laid a wreath during a loyalist remembrance ceremony on the city’s Shankill Road.

The last six months have also thrown up further examples of DUP members’ relationships with loyalist paramilitaries.

In September, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson admitted in court that he had been in telephone contact with former LVF chief Mark Fulton.

It emerged in the same month that the party’s press officer in north Antrim, Gary Blair, was a convicted former UDA man.

A short time later, DUP councillor Ruth Patterson admitted meeting UVF leaders to end a dispute between families in the Donegall Pass area of Belfast.

The DUP decision to give members permission to engage with groups involving loyalist paramilitaries is nothing new, as these examples demonstrate.

What is new is that when meetings do take place, there is now no need for denials from those involved or from party headquarters.

There is no need for spin, tales of chance encounters, or expressions of astonishment that a paramilitary was present during a meeting involving a DUP member.

Working with the Loyalist Commission is undoubtedly the DUP’s best way of understanding the reality that paramilitaries have a crucial role to play in the peace process.

The commission is chaired by the Reverend Mervyn Gibson, a former RUC member turned preacher.

The veteran Orangeman’s background fits the Paisley mould perfectly but his openness and frankness about working with loyalist paramilitaries ensured that the DUP always kept him at arm’s length until now.

Mr Gibson has refused to comment on reports that the DUP had scheduled a meeting with him before Christmas.

He said his organisation was “always open to engage with anyone”.

In recent years, Mr Gibson has brokered an end to a series of loyalist feuds and has repeatedly called on political parties to work on initiatives to help steer paramilitaries away from crime.

The DUP is understood to have identified him as someone the party can trust. This is significant because a lot of republicans would also identify Mr Gibson as a relatively trustworthy figure.

The party’s decision to engage with him could be interpreted as its first step on the road to negotiating with Sinn Féin.

In this respect, yesterday’s announcement does mark a “huge shift” in DUP policy.

However, it is not the case that the party is only now sanctioning talks with loyalist paramilitaries. Its members have been meeting loyalist paramilitaries for years.

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