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Rev Chris Hudson: 'Not all loyalists are criminals... I will keep working with them as they are part of Northern Ireland's transformation'

A pioneering and respected clergyman, Rev Chris Hudson has played a key role in the peace process and in the gay rights movement, writes Lindy McDowell

If the remarkable changes which Irish society has witnessed within a generation were to be transcribed into human form, the result would be someone very much like Rev Chris Hudson MBE. The highly respected minister of All Souls Unitarian Church on Belfast's Elmwood Avenue was among those who travelled to his native Dublin on Friday to cast a Yes vote in the referendum to repeal the country's Eighth Amendment which banned abortion.

On this side of the border Mr Hudson has also been prominent in the campaign for LGBT rights. Awarded the MBE for services to the peace movement, he was a key player in bringing about the loyalist paramilitary ceasefires. But the former trade unionist's family background is avowedly republican. His father was a founding member of Fianna Fáil and a close associate of Eamon de Valera. A street in Dublin is named after an IRA volunteer uncle who died in the Civil War. Here he talks about seismic societal change, carrying a banner with Jeremy Corbyn, inviting Simon Coveney to his church to get "a thick ear" and how he believes DUP leader Arlene Foster is not a homophobe.

Q. You have campaigned for years for changes to the Eighth Amendment and for marriage equality in the Republic. Do you see the day when there will be similar liberalisation of the law in Northern Ireland?

A. I have absolutely no doubt that same-sex marriage legislation is not very far away. And I believe that changes to the law here on abortion is also moving in that direction. I have absolutely no doubt that if there was a referendum on gay marriage it would be carried. But we don't need to have a referendum. All we need to have is a vote in the Assembly and at the moment the numbers are very much in favour. I would say from the bottom of my heart to the DUP not to introduce a Petition of Concern. At the moment they don't have the numbers but they only need another two. Thousands of people who vote for the DUP feel hurt by their position. It hurts them that the major unionist party does not see them as befitting citizens of the United Kingdom. The DUP are going to have to challenge themselves. They have opposed just about every change that would be helpful to the LGBT community but on a personal level I believe that Arlene Foster is not a homophobe. It's hard for her but I would hope she'd have the courage to take leadership on this issue. She's a woman whose family suffered at the hands of the IRA but Arlene must recognise the suffering gay Christians go through. My experience of the unionist community is they are far more liberal than they're given credit for.

Q. Your wife, the art historian, Isabella Evangelisti, has campaigned with you on the abortion issue. When did you meet?

A. Ironically it was back in 1983 during that referendum campaign. We met at a Repeal the Eighth meeting in Dun Laoghaire.

Q. You were born in Dun Laoghaire but where did your family come from originally?

A. My mother Mary's parents came from McClure Street off the Ormeau Road in Belfast. My grandmother had married a man called Barnes who worked in the tram station in Sandy Row. It was a mixed faith marriage and they were threatened by loyalists so in 1921 they moved to Co Meath. My father's family were very much hardline republican. My granda had been jailed by both the British and the Free State, by Michael Collins. That was the tradition I grew up in. My father Brian had joined na Fianna Eireann in his early teens. There's a street in Dun Laoghaire named Hudson Street. It's called after my uncle Joe who was in the IRA and was killed by the Free State army in the Irish Civil War.

Q. You had a fairly middle-class upbringing?

A. Yes, that's true. My father came from humble stock but worked his way up in the building industry. I have three brothers, Brian, Maurice and Fintan, and one sister, Muriel. We went to a private school. Myself and my brothers went to the Presentation Brothers College where I played rugby. I grew up thinking rugby was the national sport of Ireland.

Q. Your father was a founding member of Fianna Fáil and a close friend of Eamon de Valera. Did you ever meet de Valera?

A. My dad may not have believed that Jesus walked on water but he certainly believed that de Valera walked on water. When we were small I remember we were allowed to stay up late one night to meet the great man. I think he was Taoiseach at the time. We were overawed. To us this was the equivalent of Charles de Gaulle or Churchill walking through the hall door. He was an iconic figure to our family. We were reared to believe that he was the heart of Ireland.

Q. But you left the Catholic Church and changed your politics. How did your parents react to that?

A. I was about 17 at the time and working as a ladies' hairdresser - I had a lot of different jobs when I was young. I remember informing my parents that I was no longer a Catholic. They were trying to get me to go to mass. My father was more upset when I told him I no longer supported Fianna Fail, I supported the Labour Party. That to him was more devastating. The Fianna Fáil party was his greatest love. The rest of my family always stayed with Fianna Fáil. At least they pretended to my dad they did.

Q. You were a leading trade unionist in Ireland for years, with the Communication Workers' Union and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). You played a key role in the Anti Apartheid movement and the Divorce Action Group. You were also involved with Oxfam?

A. When I was working as a full-time union official I was approached by Sally Anne Kinahan, who was the head of Oxfam in Ireland and she asked me to come on the board. I was a trustee for Oxfam for 10 years. I was also chair of the ICTU Third World committee. I had a huge interest in the developing world. I travelled to Brazil and during the war in 1986 I travelled to El Salvador to support the trade unionists who were being murdered in El Salvador. I went on a trade union march there with Jeremy Corbyn. He and I carried a banner through the centre of El Salvador.

Q. What did you make of Jeremy Corbyn?

A. The only thing we disagreed on massively was Ireland. On a personal level we got on very well. I told him I thought his view on Ireland was naive because he didn't understand the complexities of Irish identity. To me he just took a quintessential anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist view on every situation in the world.

He supported Troops Out, he supported a united Ireland. That was a common opinion in large parts of the British Labour Party. They refused to recognise that the majority of people of Northern Ireland did not ally themselves to a single Irish identity.

They certainly did not see themselves as part of the neo-colonial landscape. They saw themselves as Ulster folk. I notice when Jeremy spoke at Queen's the other day he seems to have changed his opinion to some extent and I welcome that. I think on the Irish question he was informed pretty badly. Growing up that's the view I would have held about Northern Ireland - that Britain should get out and that unionist people would see the error of their ways and recognise that they were just Irishmen and women. I soon learnt that was a load of nonsense.

The man who changed my mind was Conor Cruise O'Brien. I was swayed by his intellect, the moral integrity of his argument and the concise way he showed that the simplistic view of Irish nationalism and those who supported it was actually dangerous because we were misjudging the sense of identity of the other people we shared this island with.

Q. What's your opinion of the current Taoiseach?

A. I know some people feel Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney seem to be playing a bit of a green card at the behest of the European Union but I think that might be just political brinkmanship. I suppose they feel they have a position they have to defend. When it comes to resolving the issues over Brexit I think we'll have to apply the logic of the Good Friday Agreement and apply some constructive ambiguity. I haven't met Mr Varadkar. But I met Simon Coveney recently and I invited him up to my church. I told him some of my congregation might give him a thick ear. He laughed. But he said he would come.

Q. You were awarded an MBE by the Queen for your work with the Peace Train movement. But your most crucial role in the peace process was in bringing loyalist paramilitaries to the table. The late David Ervine said, "Chris set the mood music in which we were able to operate." Do you still believe they are serious about peace?

A. As you probably know I continue to work with the loyalist paramilitary groups. They regard me as what they call their critical friend. I know people still have difficulty with loyalists as to why they're still around after 30 years. But I firmly believe some of these people can be a serious part of the transformation of Northern Ireland and can play an essential role, particularly in the communities they come from. The ones that I work with are sincerely committed to that role and they do make modest contributions even like the one recently, the flag protocol in east Belfast. I know that's not going to satisfy people like Alliance but from where I'm sitting, and to people I'm sitting around the table with, that is quite good progress. When I sat down with people like David Ervine in the early '90s, I had to make a judgement call - were these people serious? To a greater extent they delivered a ceasefire. To a greater extent... Somebody was saying recently that of the prisoners that were released, less than 5% reoffended. So they were not psychopaths, they were not common criminals. In many cases they were men and women who got caught up in the conflict.

If you were a young loyalist you believed that your community in Ireland was under fierce attack from irredentist republicanism and the fear was that the British were going to make a declaration to withdraw and you were going to have to defend your community. Horrific acts were carried out, horrendous acts were inflicted by them, particularly upon innocent Catholics but also on members of their own communities. I will remain working with these people because I'm trying to see the long haul, the endgame and these people being part of the transformation. Some of them will never escape their criminal behaviour and we have to separate them from those who want to do the right thing. We cannot brand all loyalists as criminals. I'm not naive. I'm not a fool. I was a hard-nosed trade unionist. When I meet with these people I tell them how it is and I speak my mind to them. And they respect that.

Q. Where were you in 1994 when the loyalist ceasefire you worked so hard to bring about was announced?

A. I was in Pakistan with Oxfam. I was sitting in my hotel room when Gusty Spence came on BBC World News declaring the ceasefire. Pakistan is a dry country because it's an Islamic state so I toasted it with a can of Coke. I'd met Gusty two weeks before and he gave me the date and the time when the ceasefire would be announced. I explained I'd be in Pakistan. Gusty said, "If you like, we'll delay it until you come back." And I said; "No, you f****** won't."

Q. You have received a number of major awards from the gay community for your work in campaigning for LGBT rights, most recently a major award in Poland. How did your work with the gay community come about?

A. I was approached by some gay people who told me they wanted to organise a quiet, very secretive carol service one Christmas. They explained that there were many gay people who were still nervous about gathering in public. I saw that in Belfast there was a serious need for Christian ministry to the LGBT community, to show gay and trans people that they were loved by the church. I went on Pride and I purposely wore my collar. Last year there were five clergy with me. Within my denomination we ordained two openly gay young men.

Q. You have also spoken out against the boycott of Israel. Why do you oppose it?

A. To be pro-Israeli doesn't mean you are anti-Palestinian and I am not. I actually think that the Palestinian people have been badly served by people who take up their cause in the West. I honestly believe that calling for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel is crazy and counterproductive. It's distracting from real dialogue on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

People who support the BDS will not come out and say they support the right of the Jewish State to exist. Israel has the right to see itself as secure. The turning on and off of violence by Hamas is not going to work. It is destructive, it's cruel and it's causing massive loss of life. Some people might cynically say that's the Hamas agenda. It's a little bit hard for Jews to be lectured by Europeans considering that Europe stood by in general and saw six million Jews butchered. Anti-Semitism grew out of our Christian experience.

Q. You're a busy man, Chris. So what do you do when you get a bit of free time?

A. Isabella and I love to travel. We have a wee house in Crete which we go to regularly - we love the Greek people. And we love reading, theatre, cinema, food... Isabella is from an Italian background and she's a brilliant cook. So I love food... maybe too much food.

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