Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Billy Mitchell: Leading role in the peace process

Death of a UVF man who turned to peace

BY NOEL McADAM

BY NOEL McADAM

POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT





A FORMER UVF man convicted of murder who came to play a leading behind-the-scenes role in the peace process has died.

Billy Mitchell was jailed for life in 1977 for his part in the murders of two UDA members - Hugh McVeigh, who was described as a member of the UDA 'inner council', and his van helper, David Douglas.

But the Carrickfergus man gradually became an evangelical Christian while in prison and was released 11 years early on parole in 1990.

Years later, arguing for a 'Yes' outcome to the Good Friday Agreement referendum, he revealed some of those who had supported his release from prison were campaigning for a 'No' vote.

Mr Mitchell, who is survived by his wife Mena and children Juliane and Cameron, will be buried today at the Church of the Nazarene in Carrickfergus. He was 65.

Born in Glengormley, he was brought up "next to poverty", a friend said today, "in a tin hut he used to pretend was a bungalow".

He had been general secretary of the Progressive Unionist Party and worked with several conflict transformation projects, including the successful East Antrim model.

But even before his trial with 25 others in 1976, Mitchell had shown his interest in politics with a pamphlet, published in January 1974, urging unionists to reach out to nationalists.

The trial was one of the costliest and longest at the time. The bodies of McVeigh and Douglas were not found until five months after they had been shot dead and buried in shallow graves near the Gobbins cliffs at Islandmagee in 1975.

A man who said he had been an officer in the UVF had been spotted going to the Gobbins area to pray, turned himself into the police and became chief witness at the trial in which five altogether were given life sentences.

Mr Mitchell was later involved in a High Court attempt to prevent the Prison Officers Association banning visits and food parcels to inmates.

But at a press conference organised by the Yes campaign in May 1988, he said he worked to persuade former paramilitaries to end violence.

He said he wanted to help build bridges for the future "so that we can have a just, non-sectarian and pluralist society".

His long time friend, former Ulster Unionist Roy Garland, the Irish News columnist, said today: "I really thought a lot of him. He did an awful lot of astounding work behind the scenes.

"He will be badly missed. He was a towering figure in loyalism and reached across the community to all sections."

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