Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Digging up the past is undermining our future

Loyalists believe selective inquiries into the Troubles pose a threat to peace. A fairer way of examining the past must be found to keep everybody onboard. Brian Rowan reports

In October 1994, William 'Plum' Smith had a seat at the loyalist top table. It was the morning of the Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefire announcement - an occasion still remembered for the words of Gusty Spence.

As he read that statement from the UVF, Red Hand Commando and UDA, one sentence stood out from the rest: "In all sincerity, we offer to the loved-ones of all innocent victims over the past 25 years abject and true remorse."

Spence continued: "No words of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during the conflict. Let us firmly resolve to respect our differing views of freedom, culture and aspiration and never again permit our political circumstances to degenerate into bloody warfare."

That statement and those words are now more than 16 years old and, alongside the IRA's 'complete cessation of military operations', created an opportunity for dialogue and negotiation. But, in 2011, 'Plum' Smith argues we are "killing the peace".

In Ulster's war, Smith joined the Red Hand Commando. He has been to prison, chaired that ceasefire news conference back in 1994 and now works for an ex-prisoners' project based in the Shankill area of Belfast.

His fear for the peace has nothing to do with the threat posed by the dissident republican factions, but the examinations, explorations and investigations of the past - including the work of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

Smith says loyalists feel "they are being discriminated against by those who seek justice, revenge or political capital".

"Loyalists feel quite correct in asking why are there not calls for an inquiry into Scappaticci, collusion with the British and the killing and torture of many Catholics," he said.

"Or, equally, why are there no calls for an inquiry into Denis Donaldson and his collusion with the British."

Freddie Scappaticci was part of the IRA's internal security department but, in a hidden war, that was only part of his story. He was also working for the Army - as the agent codenamed 'Stakeknife'.

In that double-play, he interrogated suspected informers - men and women put to death. And in that mess of the dirty war, there was a situation in which agents were questioned and tortured by another agent.

Those court martials often ended in execution. And Smith is asking why there is not the same focus on these activities; the same demands for investigation; the same endeavour and effort when it comes to the search for truth.

He will tell you that the peace is not perfect; that, since the ceasefires of 1994, "people have lost their lives and still are".

"However, the majority of people have moved on," he argued. "The world has moved on and life has moved on.

"While recognising the hurt of all victims' relatives, the future cannot be held hostage to the past. The encyclopedia of inquiries and pursuit by the HET is killing the peace."

Smith is not arguing for investigations on the republican side because there are investigations on the loyalist side.

He believes there should be no public inquiries, no more arrests and charges for activities that date back into the different wars - and no more investigations by the HET.

And this is what he means in that comment that "the future cannot be held hostage to the past".

But he has been around the war and the peace of this place long enough to know that the past is not going to simply or quietly melt away; there will always be questions.

And that there is a piece of work still to be done that is about how those questions are best asked and best answered.

What process will achieve the most information and explanation - not just from loyalists and republicans, but the many other players in the war? This is the challenge - the unfinished business.

A few days ago, Smith and other loyalists, including Jackie McDonald and 'Winkie' Rea, sat in the same room as Chief Constable Matt Baggott and republicans Gerry Kelly, Danny Morrison, Tom Hartley and Laurence McKeown.

Alan McBride, who lost his wife and father-in-law in the IRA Shankill bomb, was also there and young people from the WAVE Trauma Centre performed a drama - one of the young people telling her story of the Holy Cross School protest.

In this setting, there was a discussion about the past; about what happened and why it happened. It was not a cosy conversation. At times it was uncomfortable. So, Smith is not saying to people that they should just forget the past; he knows that's not possible. His argument is that there are other ways of doing this; other ways without the police, the courts and prison; other ways that won't threaten the peace, but will make it better.

He works in projects with people from the republican community. He is one of the defenders of the peace. He believes in the ceasefires and in politics. So, he is not saying what he is saying in any threatening way, but more to highlight a mood, a perception.

'Plum' Smith is saying to the decision-makers: find a better - a fairer - way of dealing with the past.

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