Belfast Telegraph

Coleraine councillor says paramilitaries keep drugs out of town

Coleraine PUP councillor Russell Watton
Coleraine PUP councillor Russell Watton
The Coleraine bomb in 1973

By Suzanne Breen, political editor

A PUP councillor in Coleraine is to be reported to the Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards after making controversial comments about the UVF.

SDLP MLA John Dallat said he wanted the remarks by Russell Watton, who topped the poll in the council elections earlier this month, investigated.

He accused Mr Watton of being "shamefully ambivalent" about his paramilitary past and more recent UVF activities.

But the PUP councillor last night defended his comments that Coleraine would be awash with drugs were it not for loyalist paramilitaries.

"John Dallat can report me to whoever he wants," he said.

"What I said was a fact, and I've said it to the police many times.

"There are over 400 heroin addicts in Ballymena but 26 miles up the road in Coleraine there are none.

"The paramilitaries have kept heroin out of this town."

Mr Watton told the Belfast Telegraph he had no regrets about his paramilitary past but he admitted the UVF was responsible for atrocities which couldn't be justified.

The controversy began yesterday with an interview the PUP councillor gave to the Coleraine Chronicle.

Mr Dallat said: "I found it astonishing that someone so recently elected seems ambivalent about his own past and about current UVF activity.

"Russell Watton says he doesn't regret his previous involvement - well, he should. He should be going to the mothers of UVF victims and seek repentance.

"It is shameful that a member of council in this day and age comes out with this outrageous tripe.

"The history of the UVF in Coleraine should be a matter of deep regret to all elected representatives. Catholics have been killed, blinded and driven out of their homes."

Mr Watton served a 13-year prison sentence for UVF activities. He was jailed for the 1975 bombing of the Salmon Leap restaurant in Coleraine.

A device was set on the counter with customers and staff given five minutes to evacuate the building.

He was also convicted of a gun attack on a pub and other offences.

He told the Belfast Telegraph he was glad nobody was killed in any of the attacks and while they were "unjustifiable", he did not regret his UVF involvement.

He said too many former paramilitaries either denied their past or claimed they were sorry when they weren't in order to look good.

He wanted to be "frank and forthright".

Mr Watton said he had initially joined the UDR but was "disillusioned" that it wasn't "doing enough to challenge republicanism".

He said: "I joined the UVF after an IRA car bomb in Railway Street in Coleraine.

"I was just 300 yards away and saw the devastation caused. Six pensioners were killed and I knew two of them.

"I wanted revenge. I was already a trained soldier so they didn't need to teach me much.

"I knew how to use a gun.

"I worked for the Inland Revenue and hadn't broken a law in my life until I joined the UVF.

"I never had as much as a parking ticket."

Mr Watton said he joined the UVF like "hundreds of other young men" in the early 1970s.

"We weren't born criminals, any more than those who joined the IRA in republican areas were. We were just young people growing up in extraordinary times - times which were incredibly bitter and sectarian," he said.

"Morality was thrown out the window. I knew what I was doing was immoral and illegal, but I still felt it was the right thing to do given the IRA onslaught at the time.

"I made a conscience decision to join the UVF and I can't blame anybody else for it.

"But there were politicians, I believe, who did radicalise loyalist youth.

"I remember being present at a speech the Rev Ian Paisley gave in Coleraine Town Hall.

"He said that all those weak-kneed and lily-livered should leave the room. He didn't want anybody staying who wasn't prepared to fight and die for Ulster.

"Dozens of young men joined paramilitary groups because of Paisley's words that night."

Asked how he now viewed his UVF involvement, the PUP councillor said: "Nobody was killed due to my activities and I am glad of that, although it was down to pure good fortune.

"We were just motivated by retaliation, we didn't really think too much about the victims.

"I would certainly not now vouch for everything I did or the UVF did. Atrocities were committed and people did things they'd never normally dream of doing.

"Some of the attacks were sectarian. We were living in very bitter and sectarian times. But I also believe that the actions of loyalist paramilitaries, combined with those of the security forces, did result in the military defeat of the IRA."

Mr Watton was released from prison in 1989. He said that former PUP leader, the late David Ervine, was instrumental in convincing him that politics was the way forward.

"I certainly don't want young men in Coleraine doing what I did," he said.

"I always do everything possible to stop them joining paramilitary organisations. I encourage them to get involved in a band or something else instead."

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