Twaddell organiser Gerald Solinas: 'We shall not be moved until brethren get down that road'
Rebecca Black talks to one of the main organisers of the loyalist protest camp established at Twaddell Avenue 10 months ago
Q It is 10 months since the Orange Order march was restricted. Why is the Twaddell camp still here?
A The reason for the camp is to channel the frustration and anger felt in this community in a peaceful way. In the last 10 years in north and west Belfast we have radically changed the face of parading, we have all completed our marshalling courses, there are no paramilitary elements going past what people deem contentious areas. We have cleaned up the band scene, there is nobody drunk on parade or with supporters drunk walking past contentious areas. We have taken away the blue bag gang.
We have been allowed to parade up and down the Crumlin Road shop fronts for the last 10 years, then last year, to our total amazement, the Parades Commission decided that due to the threat of dissident republican violence it would be better if the parade wasn't allowed back up.
So in response to that the community came together along with the Church leaders and the loyal orders and said this isn't right. There was a lot of anger within the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community after the flag was taken down from City Hall, we felt this was continued demonisation of our culture by Sinn Fein and the appeasement of Sinn Fein at any cost to our British identity.
This anger resulted in the violence in Woodvale, so we came together to find a way to channel this anger and frustration in a positive way. The idea of the civil rights camp came out of that, so we could peacefully lobby. We wanted the previous Parades Commission to have their tender not renewed and for the completion of the brethren and bandsmen of 2013 July 12 parade entirely by peaceful means. We have been here for 286 days, there has been no arrests, it's been entirely peaceful.
Q The cost of policing the camp is put at £40,000 a day. How can you justify that?
A That cost of policing is down to the dissident threat in Ardoyne. We have had blast bombs thrown over in the direction of the camp, we have had police shot at, frenzied knife attacks, various sectarian attacks and daily and nightly sectarian abuse from the Catholic community in Ardoyne.
This camp is doing no harm, it's entirely peaceful, our parades are entirely peaceful and we will continue lobbying until we see the brethren and bandsmen complete their 2013 Twelfth parade. We do have support – okay there is a wider perception that all this money on policing could be used for other things like hospitals and schools, which I totally agree with. But the cost of policing is due to republicans, not down to the peaceful protest at Twaddell. Also, what price do you put on your culture and human rights?
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Q What will it take for you dismantle the camp and go home?
A Everyone has the right to protest peacefully. As long as it is peaceful I can't see any reason why people would have a problem with it. Sinn Fein and dissident republicans are trying to use our culture as a political football to see who is greener.
There is a massive internal struggle within republicanism, and with their residents' groups Sinn Fein created an animal they couldn't control. Now Sinn Fein don't want anything to do with residents' groups and dissidents have taken them over. Republicans are using us in a cultural war to see who are the defenders of Ireland. Then you have the SDLP trying to be greener than green.
Q Have you made any attempt to reach out to the Ardoyne residents?
A We are the only ones who put any initiative on the table to solve this current impasse.
We had the Twaddell initiative last September which guarenteed 40 weeks of dialogue with the Orange Order and residents. This was a momentous step for the Orange Order to speak with residents, who could be Sinn Fein or ex-murderers. They took that step and the Catholic community turned it down flat. Also, we put in to go up at 9am instead of 5pm so there would be minimum disruption to the community.
To explain, if you partake in a parade within the Orange, your banner has to leave and return before you can parade again. Unfortunately the banner hasn't returned to Ligoniel Orange Hall, so in theory you can't really parade. So that's why we suggested the 9am parade, a quiet morning parade. But that was turned down.
There is dialogue going on at the minute, but I can't talk about that as it is a sensitive issue.
Q Is there any paramilitary involvement in the camp?
A As far as I know, within the Protestant community, there are no paramilitaries any more. They are a thing of the past. They are organisations which are transforming in a peaceful society.
The Orange and community run this camp. There are no paramilitaries within the Shankill area. Both the UVF and UDA, in my view, have transformed themselves to the path of peace, and a path were communities are policed by the PSNI, and that is the only way forward.
Q So if there are no loyalist paramilitary organisations any more, who was behind what happened in Larne a few weeks ago?
A I can only speak for the area I represent. I condemn all violence. All violence is wrong. Paramilitaries should be a thing of the past, we are in a peaceful dispensation now. We need to work on community development, building our communities, creating social, economic, sustainable communities where residents can thrive, transform their lives, get jobs, a good education and put bread on the table for their families. I am not a paramilitary, I am not in that world, but as far as I am concerned there is no recruiting and the independent reports from the Government and Policing Board have said that.
Q Realistically, do you think you are going to win? Loyalists didn't at Drumcree
A I don't think 'win' is the right word for it. I am hopeful that we can get the brethren and bandsmen to complete their Twelfth parade. At the end of the day, they are lawful and dignified parades. Extremist violence shouldn't stop anyone's religious and cultural freedom. There are only three parades that go up the Crumlin Road, they are the Tour of the North, Whiterock – but usually they pull that route – and the Twelfth of July.
Q Were brethren being dignified when they attacked police with ceremonial swords?
A I can't condone any violence, you lose your message when you become violent. There was a lot of frustration within the community, I can't excuse it in any way, shape or description. I think people were frustrated at the continual appeasement of republicans at the cost of our culture and religious expression, but again that doesn't excuse anybody attacking any police officer.
Q How do people put the day in at the camp?
A There are probably 70 cups of tea drunk a night, so after 287 days it must be over 20,000 cups of tea. We have a lot of people who do the shifts manning the camp 24/7. You would have at least three or four people on the camp at any time. There is a TV in there, a few buns, tea/coffee, Pot Noodles, great weather – what more do they want?
Q You had celebrity endorsement?
A Yeah, Russell Brand was on the phone to me. I thought that he would be quite arrogant but he was a nice guy, he was interested in the camp. I told him all about it and he said cool, fair play. We have had support from all over the world, donations from Australia, America, all over the UK. We have had visitors from all over the world who support us.
Q What exactly is it that you do?
A My day job from 9-5 is the Respect Project, it's life coaching for young people and adults who haven't realised their potential. We work on self-defeating conversations and negative self-talk like, 'I'm no good, I'm useless, there are no jobs out there, I'm never going to be anywhere'. Our job is to bring out their potential.
Then at night I work on a voluntary basis with the PSNI to quell any interface violence; I represent the West Belfast Ulster Political Research Group and am also on the executive of the North and West Belfast Parades and Cultural Forum. I came from the community and just feel it's nice to give something back to the community I came from.
Q What was your background?
A I joined the Army in 1991. I wanted to be a Para, jumping out of airplanes and stuff even though my family were all Royal Irish and hated the Paras. I went in and did my entrance test, but I scored too highly to be a Para, so I was offered either REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) or the Signals.
I joined the Royal Signals and signed on for 22 years to be a career soldier, but unfortunately I had to come out in 1997 because of an injury. They offered me to train to become an officer at Sandhurst but unfortunately that was when I hurt my neck – two destroyed discs in my neck – it was a training accident. It just went snap, I had about 130Ibs on my back and I wasn't built like I am now, I was like a wee whippet.
I was mainly in the UK because I was good at sports – I played county cricket in England and rugby – but I spent two weeks in Bosnia as the Brigadier's bodyguard. It wasn't a nice experience. When I came home, one of my best friends who was on that tour took his own life. I never served in Northern Ireland because of my trade. My enemy wasn't the IRA, it was the Russians and the Cold War, I was in telecoms.
Initially I found it quite hard to get work as a former soldier but then I got back into my trade and within a year of that I moved on to project management. I worked there from 1998 to 2002, I was getting paid a lot of money, £149,000, but it bored me because I was more community-minded.
Around 2002 the Holy Cross dispute kicked off and I was dismayed that there wasn't a voice for working-class Protestant interface communities, so along with others I started up a group called Protestant Interface Network. A year-and-a-half later my company decided to pull out of here, with my role specialised they offered me work in London or America. I didn't want to travel so I gave up telecoms and studied conflict studies and community development at Queen's. After that I got a job with the Conflict Transformation Initiative.
Q So, what was the high point?
A It was only three months after starting with the Conflict Transformation Initiative that then Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie took the money off us – she said it wasn't money for guns for the UDA. So I took her to court, I think I am still the only person in Northern Ireland that has taken the Assembly to court and won. It took three years and I lost my job anyway. But we still won the case. John Larkin, who is now the Lord Chief Justice, represented me, Gavin Robinson was the junior barrister and John McBurney was the solicitor. The minister had to pay the whole bill because they found she was in the wrong for taking that decision.
Q What's the story behind the surname Solinas?
A My grandfather was an Italian Paratrooper prisoner of war. He was in Bangor in Wales (at the prisoner of war camp) and my grandmother was a nurse, so that is where they met each other.
The Italian stuff is a bit strange coming from the Shankill, but when I was at school no one gave me stick about my name at all – Gerald Durino Solinas – I got stick because I was born in Germany, so they called me Hitler, which wasn't great.
Q Growing up in the midst of the Troubles and seeing violence on a daily basis, were you never tempted to join a paramilitary organisation?
A No, strangely I never had any thought of it. I think it's because I lived in a quite a nice bit of Woodvale, Twaddell, and it wasn't really in the heart of it. Plus all my family were all soldiers, so the only thing I could think of was getting into big tanks and blowing things up – but immensely legal and not around paramilitaries. I have to be honest, if I hadn't joined the Army at 16, I don't know, you never know what could happen. There was a lot of people who I would never have thought would have joined paramilitaries did, on both sides of the community.
The area where I grew up was known as the murder mile because the murder gangs from both sides used to come in and out and use Twaddell and the Crumlin Road. From a very young age I remember going up to the sweetie shop on Twaddell Avenue and people being murdered on the interface.
I've seen various bomb explosions, you'd see people who were shot. When I was four visiting my grandmother who lived down the Crumlin, we were walking up and saw the Army getting shot at, at Flax Street. We lived in one of the nicest estates in Belfast but every night there were soldiers in the garden, police constantly in the area, bomb scares, roads getting cordoned off. When I joined the Army I noticed I was much more desensitised than the English soldiers when it came to bombs and stuff.
Q Why do you think people joined paramilitary groups?
A I don't know, maybe to think they were doing something to help their community, to defend their communities which were under attack at that time. I think it's a sense of helplessness, a feeling that Government wasn't providing the security for the community so they took it into their own hands.
Q Will the UPRG ever contest elections?
A Not at the minute. You had the UDP years ago, but the UPRG just gives political analysis to the UDA and works on community issue within areas that people would say has a UDA influence. The reason is because we are trying to work within communities and build up the trust, we want to focus on community development.
In the late 1960s you had people from the early UDA who were all involved in community development. Once you build up a good foundation then in the future we may find we could stand for election. But at the minute we don't feel it's the right time to split the unionist vote. Unionist unity is the only way forward. Bickering is counterproductive.