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'Plum' Smith, gunman to peacemaker, dies aged 62

Ex-Red Hand Commando terrorist hosted news conference at which loyalist ceasefire announced

By Ivan Little

Published 09/06/2016

William ‘Plum’ Smith makes a point at the meeting where the loyalist
ceasefire was announced in 1994
William ‘Plum’ Smith makes a point at the meeting where the loyalist ceasefire was announced in 1994
Smith posing with imitation rifle while behind bars
Smith and ex-IRA man Seanna Walsh meet on the Lanark Way peaceline in Belfast last year
William 'Plum' Smith (centre) at the funeral of the former loyalist leader Gusty Spence
Former UVF leader and Loyalist icon Gusty Spence along with William Smith, Gary McMichael, David Irvine and David Adams announces the loyalist ceasefire in 1994

The former Red Hand Commando gunman who chaired the news conference at which loyalist paramilitaries announced their ceasefire nearly 22 years ago has died aged 62.

William 'Plum' Smith was hailed as a key figure in the drive to woo loyalists away from violence, and was also praised for the part he played in negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement.

Smith in recent years revealed how a chance meeting with the mother of a man he had tried to murder had a lasting impact on him.

He was arrested immediately after he and another terrorist shot and wounded a Catholic in a drive-by attack a week after Bloody Friday in July 1972. Smith's 18-year-old victim was hit 14 times but miraculously survived.

It was many years later in the 1990s that Smith came face-to-face with the man's mother, though he did not immediately know who she was.

He had been speaking at a meeting at which he was explaining why he was backing peace instead of war. Afterwards, a woman shook his hand and thanked him for his commitment to non-violence. It was another week before he was told who she was.

In an interview two years ago, Smith told me: "She was a lovely woman. She could have mentioned the shooting, but she didn't. I was humbled by her magnanimity, her forgiveness. Down the years her words made me even more determined to leave the past behind. She showed more courage than me, or any of us."

Smith also told me there was no strategy in the murder bid. "Loyalists believed if you were a Catholic, you were an IRA supporter," he said.

The former terrorist was jailed for 10 years and was the first loyalist prisoner to arrive in Long Kesh RAF base near Lisburn. Along with ex-UVF men Gusty Spence and David Ervine, he went on to renounce violence while admitting he did not see anything wrong with what he was doing at the time he did it.

"I thought I was fighting for Ulster," Smith said. "We were living in a warzone. They were killing us and we were killing them back. If I had been living in another country, I would never have seen the inside of a jail. I regret that anything happened here, which is why I fought for the peace process."

He earned his place in history on October 13, 1994, when he acted as the host of a news conference at Fernhill House in which Spence read the ceasefire statement.

The night before another journalist and I were invited by loyalists to go to offices on Woodvale Road to meet representatives to discuss what was going to happen the following day - "an unprecedented Press announcement", Spence called it.

Smith was there, and I arranged to meet him in the same offices 20 months ago to discuss his book Inside Man: Loyalists Of Long Kesh - The Untold Story, which lifted the lid on life behind bars during the 1970s.

The former terrorist, who never shed his nickname from The Beano comic character Little Plum, told me remarkable tales of how loyalists and republicans who would have happily killed each other on the outside agreed a no-conflict policy inside.

"They formed a camp council," he said. "They discussed problems related to us all, like visits, food and conditions, and eventually the council was recognised and the no-conflict policy was rubber-stamped, so no matter what happened outside, it didn't come inside."

Smith smiled as he remembered how he was taught Irish by republican prisoners, who also instructed him on how to make poitin for festive celebrations that only happened after Spence gave the go-ahead.

He also rejected the oft-repeated assertions that while studious republican prisoners were building up their knowledge, loyalists were building up their muscles or going on almost interminable marches.

He told me that he was planning a second book giving the inside track on the talks that paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was among the politicians who paid tribute.

He tweeted: "I valued his commitment and contribution to peace."

Progressive Unionist politician Dr John Kyle, who like Smith was once chairman of the party, added: "He pushed the peace process forward as an important negotiator who helped bring the conflict to an end, but it all took a physical and an emotional toll on him."

Even so, Smith had a quirky sense of humour, and revelled in the story of how republicans cheered him and gave him and eight of his fellow loyalists a heroes' welcome as they arrived in Long Kesh for the first time.

"They thought we were IRA internees," he said.

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