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Because loyalists have a past doesn't mean they shouldn't have a future

It's wrong to assume that all community schemes run by former paramilitaries are unworthy of public funding. Henry McDonald picks out two shining examples

Published 13/10/2016

Working-class projects run by loyalists can benefit the local community
Working-class projects run by loyalists can benefit the local community

Ever since the 1994 ceasefires, funding loyalist working-class community projects has always been a controversial issue. This is because, embedded within these communities since the early-1970s, has been the presence of Ulster loyalist paramilitary organisations, with their reputation not only for sectarian brutality, but also the criminal exploitation of the very people they purport to defend.

Unlike mainstream republicans (ie Sinn Fein), loyalists have not managed to win a place in the political sun during the peace process. Neither the political wing of the Ulster Defence Association or the Ulster Volunteer Force is currently represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly - albeit both organisations do have councillors either directly linked, or with past associations, to them.

Instead, first the Northern Ireland Office and latterly the Democratic Unionist Party side of the power-sharing Executive at Stormont have sought to becalm and award working-class loyalism by supporting a range of community-based organisations and projects.

This has led to accusations that the DUP is funding UDA and UVF-led initiatives. Given loyalist paramilitary groups' reputation for lining their own pockets at the expense of the people they dominated around them ("their only loyalty was crime," goes the old saw), politicians - particularly nationalist ones - have raised objections to public money being channeled into community projects under their supposed control.

There are a number of objections you can raise, however, to this stereotypical demonisation of all loyalists currently involved in the community and voluntary sector.

The first of these is that few nationalist representatives raised any objections in the 1990s and early-2000s, when large swathes of cash from the European peace-building funds were used to support republican-controlled projects - not only in Northern Ireland, but in the Irish Republic.

Few raised a row over the use of massive EU largesse to fund ex-IRA prisoners' centres in places like Co Donegal, where few former inmates came from, which were in turn used as Sinn Fein advice centres solely for the purpose of advancing that party's political/electoral programme.

In fairness, in most instances, republican activists - many of them ex-prisoners - got and still do get involved in community projects out of altruistic reasons. A large proportion are in it because they genuinely want to help improve the lives of those around them in the areas where they grew up.

And, in many cases, the same can be said of some grassroots, working-class loyalists, who are trying to regenerate their areas.

Arguably, the most admirable (as well as the most challenging) project I came across in the post-ceasefire years was the Mobile Phone Network programme in north Belfast.

Here were former IRA, UDA and UVF paramilitaries involved on a 24/7 basis, using mobile phones to contact each other when sectarian rioting and disorder flared up in the north of the city; each side turning up to calm down (mainly younger) working-class loyalists and republicans engaged in strife along the many ethno-religious faultlines of that most dangerous part of Northern Ireland.

Yes, this was a programme that involved men, some of whom had served life sentences for murder, but who yet were putting something back into society by giving up their time and even putting themselves in physical peril dousing down sectarian tensions.

As for the loyalists specifically, the example of ex-UDA prisoners and others helping to curb racism and promote integration on a working-class housing estate in Lisburn is also worth mentioning here.

The Welcome Project on the Old Warren Estate, where, during the Anglo-Irish Agreement protests, both Catholic and RUC families were burned out, or driven out, has won awards for helping to combat racism and xenophobia.

Former UDA prisoners, like Adrian Bird, have led from the front in helping to make Polish and other eastern European immigrants feel welcome in the area. In addition, they have engaged in a series of initiatives to educate younger loyalists living in the estate about the need for integration, while winning them away from far-Right, xenophobic, racist organisations.

It has plenty of benign results, so much so that the Office of the First and deputy First Ministers maintain funding for the Welcome Project, which has also sent younger loyalists on educational trips to other former conflict zones around the world, such as Bosnia, where they have been able, for example, to put their own conflict into some kind of perspective.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to the Lisburn example is the fact that former INLA prisoners and republican socialist activists, alongside ex-Official IRA members, have come to Old Warren to study the way this local integration/anti-racism strategy has worked.

So, are we to say that, just because community groups like this one include former UDA inmates of the Maze that is enough to question or even deny their right to public funding?

No one is suggesting there should be a funding free-for-all for every working-class community project across Northern Ireland - regardless as to how many ex-paramilitaries are engaged with it.

The first test of a group's fitness for funding should be a thorough PSNI assessment if anyone connected to it is currently involved in crime, or gains from the proceeds of crime.

There is also more than a grain of truth in the notion that there are far too many community workers and not enough real workers in Northern Ireland to sustain our economy in the longer term. Yet, there are former paramilitaries on both sides who are doing good work in their communities and do not extort, rob, or deal drugs, in these areas.

Moreover, these ex-combatants do deserve a second chance if they demonstrate they are truly genuine about helping those they live among in these harsh, austere times.

"Just because you have a past doesn't mean you can't have a future," the Nobel peace prize winner and former First Minister, David Trimble, remarked famously after the Belfast Agreement. He was referring to his one-time political enemies in Sinn Fein, who had gradually come in from the cold after the long, bloody, futile years of the Provisional IRA's armed campaign.

He could have been equally talking about the more disparate, politically unorganised Ulster loyalists, who in the interests of society as a whole, need to be nudged further and further away from criminality and illegality into something more positive for their own people.

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