Belfast Telegraph

When the UVF and the IRA sat down for talks

Secret talks between Martin McGuinness and the UVF nearly 40 years ago could have spared thousands of lives, says Roy Garland

A series of dramatic and unique encounters took place in 1974 when the Ulster Volunteer Force engaged face-to-face with both wings of the IRA. This had never happened before, or since. Most meetings took place in the Irish Republic, which added to the sense of drama.

The meetings remained a closely guarded secret for almost 40 years. We know about them because Gusty Spence asked senior loyalist Billy Mitchell to prepare a written record while both men were in Long Kesh.

The impetus towards peace goes back long before the Troubles, when some began to question the nature of local politics.

They had lived with real poverty, but knew that the people on the nearby Falls lived in the same conditions. A residue of resentment remained and some felt that the unionist establishment had abused them.

One senior UVF man told me that, at first, he kept his radical thinking under wraps to avoid being damned, as his father had been, as a 'Red-flagger'.

After the Troubles began, some UVF people were asking 'Why?' But they continued in their 'defensive' role, which, I was told, meant defending their communities, rather than Northern Ireland.

Spence forwarded notes from prison reflecting his new thinking. Mitchell said some of these were taken on board, others discarded.

It was too soon for many, but Long Kesh became a hive of radical questioning.

A number of UVF men gained top-level academic qualifications, illustrating that something was rotten in a system that had failed so many for so long.

The UVF's 'new thinking' was greeted with consternation among certain politicians, evangelicals and British Intelligence.

Thinking loyalism threatened vested interests more so than militant loyalism, so they were demonised as communists.

It was against this background that the UVF leadership decided by a majority to engage directly with republicans. They wanted to discuss a 'general ceasefire and the setting-up of a Council of Ulster to debate the Ulster crisis'. A minority opposed this, but agreed to keep confidence.

Mitchell and a second man, Jim Hanna, arrived in Co Cavan at a place guarded by armed Provisional IRA men, some carrying sub-machine guns.

Martin McGuinness, at 23, was the youngest republican present.

He could not get over the incredible courage shown by "working-class people like ourselves".

Reflecting on the incongruity of it all, he said: "Here you had a group representing the UVF in the middle of Co Cavan talking with republicans."

A series of frank exchanges followed on the Troubles and Irish unity, which the UVF made clear it could not accept.

They also discussed a federal Ireland, 'equal responsibility in government', sectarianism and the possibility of everyone working together for the common good. In many respects, they were ahead of their time.

David O'Connell said the IRA remained committed to Irish unity, but accepted that some agreement might be possible between Desmond Boal's federal Ireland and the IRA's Eire Nua proposals.

This idea was followed up three years later with further discussions led by Desmond Boal for loyalists and Sean McBride for republicans. Ruairi O Bradaigh told me that these talks were scuppered after being leaked to the media in Dublin.

The UVF frankly admitted its sense of duty to 'strike back' in retaliation for IRA violence. In a follow-up, the UVF suggested that if the IRA 'wished to combat British imperialism', they should attack British forces - not ordinary Ulster people, in or out of uniform.

The UVF explained that republicans had no large businesses and so ordinary pubs and shops had become targets, but it would reconsider this. O'Connell and Brian Keenan also agreed to reconsider IRA targeting and, for a time, this had an effect.

Billy Mitchell claimed the talks could have led to better understanding and permanent ceasefire, "but the super-Prods would not wear it". Some super-Prods were inside the UVF, but they received sustenance from super-Prods on the outside. The project was brought to a speedy end.

The UVF also engaged with the Official IRA after being impressed by the Officials' 1972 ceasefire and Tomas Mac Giolla's rejection of all attempts to bomb Protestants into an Irish Republic.

A close friendship developed between Mitchell and Official IRA man Harry McKeown. After McKeown saw a Protestant friend killed by loyalists he intended to retaliate with guns, but then came to his senses. He told me, shortly before dying of asbestosis, that he had tried to set up discussions with the UDA.

When this failed, he approached the UVF and became firm friends with Mitchell. They often chatted and sang together at a republican club in the lower Falls.

Mitchell was even sheltered by McKeown for a time in a house in the upper Falls.

Both sides became involved in rescuing those who strayed into the other's territory.

Some Officials were disappointed that loyalists had not moved closer to their overtly socialist position, but Mitchell said he feared Marxist republicanism more than the Provisional IRA. Yet the talks clearly had an impact on all who were involved.

It has been a rocky road for the UVF. There has been much to regret, as was expressed in their 'abject and true remorse' ceasefire statement in 1994.

Loyalists supported many genuine moves towards peace - even when the unionist parties remained hesitant, or even opposed them.

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