Preacher who is willing to gamble on UVF peace
When not ministering to the LGBT community, Chris Hudson is trying to persuade the UVF to go out of business. Henry McDonald meets the Presbyterian clergyman
The Out to Lunch festival which runs in Belfast for the rest of this month is probably the best value and most accessible arts event staged in the province. It offers a wide range of comedy, music and theatre which people can attend in their lunch-hour - with a sandwich included in the admission charge - or in the evening.
Liberal Presbyterian minister Chris Hudson's mission is to reach out to two radically different groups in Northern Irish society: the hardmen behind the masks in the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered community.
On the night he revealed details of his latest secret discussions with the UVF, the former Catholic trade unionist was preparing for his annual Christmas carol service for gay and bisexual Christians.
Inside the freezing vestry of All Souls' Church near Belfast's Queen's University, Hudson gave details of his ongoing talks with the UVF aimed at dissolving the group as an illegal paramilitary army.
As a gay choir practised singing O Holy Night in the church beyond, Hudson explained why he has re-engaged with the UVF - even though the organisation broke its promise to disarm and dissolve by murdering Bobby Moffett last May.
"I think I am taking these people seriously this time. Back when I first met the late David Ervine in 1993, I had to make a judgment call that these people were serious about peace.
"Today, intellectually and morally, I am certain they know there is no justification in going back to violence."
He even revealed that, through a third party, he has heard back from the republican dissidents. The anti-ceasefire republicans, Hudson claims, have relayed a message that they have no interest opening up a second front against loyalists. Their main targets remain the Army and police.
This, Hudson believes, will, for the time being, ensure the loyalists are not dragged back into conflict.
The peace campaigner compared the situation between republican and loyalist strongholds in Belfast: "If you go up the Falls Road, you will hear people taking about the Provisional IRA in the past tense. If you cross the peace line and go on to the Shankill Road, people there are still talking about the UVF in the present tense. That is a major dilemma for them."
Hudson said he had been approached by the UVF shortly after he appeared on television denouncing the Moffett murder.
"I said on local TV that, if the UVF did not start the business of going out of business, they might as well start dancing on David Ervine's grave.
"I know that hurt them; that it was me saying that. At least they did not dislike me for saying it, but it wounded them because I was a person that they had trusted during the peace process."
The clergyman said that the UVF has now told him they want to move from "militarisation to civilianisation".
"I genuinely believe they need help and that means the great and the good engaging with them because they have been left isolated."
For some - including a number of close acquaintances - Hudson has taken a gamble which may not pay off. Many within working-class loyalist communities are sceptical that the UVF will go out of existence.
They point to the recent poster-hate campaign against the victims' activist Raymond McCord, who has fought a long battle to bring his son's killers to justice.
But the Dublin-born minister insists that this dialogue will yield results, just as it did in the build-up to the loyalist ceasefires of 1994. "They (the UVF) said there was no conspiracy, no wanting to rule or dominate their communities; they admitted they were just sloppy in the way they were doing things.
"My view would be that it is unrealistic, as an organisation, that they go completely out of existence. The best way to deal with them is to allow the UVF to become an old ex-comrades association in the same way the Old IRA was in the Republic before the Troubles - that they are not a military body that bears arms, but simply meets, commemorates and works within their communities."
Loyalism remains virtually disconnected to local political power in Northern Ireland. The UVF no longer has any political representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly following the resignation of the sole Progressive Unionist Party representative at Stormont.
Dawn Purvis stood down as PUP leader following the Moffett killing, which came about as a result of a personal dispute between the murdered man and senior UVF figures on the Shankill Road.
But the former peace train campaigner believes it would be a mistake to isolate the loyalists. Hudson said he has spoken to senior civil servants in both the Northern Ireland Office and the Irish government with a view to them re-opening talks with the UVF. For Hudson, rejoining this dialogue is far riskier than his ongoing work with the LGBT community in Northern Ireland, which church traditionalists might object to. He became the first minister from a branch of Presbyterianism to march in the annual Belfast Gay Pride parade and, by doing so, risked the ire of some of his more conservative congregation.
But re-engaging with the UVF in the year that some of its members brought the guns out again to lethal effect is a much riskier venture. Yet having played a key part in pushing the UVF towards its original ceasefire back in 1994, Hudson said he remained confident this current process will end in it ceasing to operate as a paramilitary force.