William "Plum" Smith

Anthony McIntyre reflects on the life of William Plum Smith who died in June.

In my younger days I would have welcomed the death of people like Plum Smith. Harsh and intolerant times bred attitudes to match. When in June this year the time had come for him to shuffle off this mortal coil, I felt nothing but a sense of regret. Plenty of water had passed under the bridges that had been built in the intervening years. On those bridges many stood above the waters that they had earlier added turbulence to. 

A former member of the Red Hand Commando Plum Smith was a senior loyalist figure, at one time chairing the PUP. He was one of the public faces of the Combined Loyalist Military Command that announced the loyalist ceasefire in 1994. I would meet him at a University of North London conference a year later. During a session he passed me a note saying that nationalists would be "getting fuck all." We both sat and laughed and later went on the drink.

It was great craic but when we arrived back in Belfast he explained that it was too much of a risk for  David Ervine and the others in their company to be seen being friendly with we republicans at Belfast International Airport, even though he explained it in the most friendly manner. This was not England where they could get away with such things, he explained.  It took me back a bit but I was quick to appreciate that looking over their shoulders at their grass roots was something loyalists felt more compelled to do than their republican counterparts. There was a greater unease within the loyalist camp. Billy Hutchinson could talk comfortably at venues in the heart of West Belfast where he would lay out the loyalist position, whereas republicans could not risk venturing into the Shankill for something similar.

On another occasion myself and Tommy Gorman shared a panel with Plum and a former UDA prisoner at a discussion in the Wellington Park Hotel where we addressed an audience of American students. He told me after it that while he could laugh at my fulminations against Catholic clergy  there was no way somebody from his community could get away with saying it in public. After it, along with the republican driver - a former IRA prisoner - we had with us, we dropped both men at a pub in the Shankill. Needless to say we didn't join them for a drink. 

When he died in June former PUP leader Brian Ervine, brother of the late David, had this to say:

Plum was in the forefront of negotiating and bringing loyalist paramilitaries into the peace process and politicising the UVF and Red Hand Commando. He was a very intelligent fellow, he educated himself in Long Kesh. He also took Irish lessons there as well, he called the Irish language his own language. I'm just very, very sorry, I found him a very decent human being, and I found him a very forward thinking human being and he will be a loss, certainly to the Progressive Unionist Party and the loyalist community. He was a clear thinker, he was left of centre politically, he had a heart for ordinary people, for working class people, he tried to provide a voice, a voice which had been neglected.
He was also happy enough to stretch over the fence and do business with traditional enemies."

Which, give or take a bit, is pretty much how I found him: someone who identified with the working class and trade unionism and who was equipped with an intuitive mistrust of the political establishment, holding a particular disdain for big house unionism. He lost his post-prison job in Belfast Shipyard for leading a campaign against privatisation. While in London in 1995 Chris McGimpsey was winding him up about disliking the RUC even more than republicans. His hostility seemed not to abate once they were renamed as the PSNI. He was a target of their vindictive raid on the history archive at Boston College. He was consistent and non-discriminatory in his view:

One of his last public appearances was as defence witness for republican Gerry McGeough, charged with attempted murder. Smith gave evidence that the British government had reneged on a promise of amnesty for those involved in Troubles-related violence before 1998.

It was this type of nuance that helped puncture the myth that loyalists were all irremediably bigoted right wing Neanderthals, suggesting instead that a greater appreciation of complexity was required to understand them.

Plum had served a ten year sentence in the 1970s for the attempted killing of a 18 year old Catholic a week after Bloody Friday. He was reported to be the first loyalist prisoner to arrive in Long Kesh. 

Two years before his death he spoke of the impact a meeting with the mother of his victim had upon his thinking:

She was a lovely woman. She could have mentioned the shooting, but she didn't. I was humbled by her magnanimity, her forgiveness. Down the years her words made me even more determined to leave the past behind. She showed more courage than me, or any of us.

He expressed "regret that anything happened here, which is why I fought for the peace process."

On his release from prison in 1977 he threw much of his energy into assisting loyalist prisoners. Much later he authored a book narrating life in the loyalist cages of Long Kesh, Inside Man: Loyalists Of Long Kesh - The Untold Story.

Inside Man

He walked a different road when it came to addressing the North's violent past, holding out little hope for the success of truth recovery. He instinctively recognised the vested interest which would prevent the emergence of truth. His opposition was not merely to the idea of retribution. He seriously doubted the value of revelation. “I disagree with building up the hopes of people regarding any truth-recovery process. I think it’s wrong and misleading.”

A firm believer that the telling of loyalist stories is long overdue, his passing has made it even more challenging for the emergence for a fuller loyalist historiography.   

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

9 comments to ''William "Plum" Smith"

  1. Another sad little article. In a number of different ways too. Not many of your 'geriatric generation' left at this stage Mackers. I fail to see how loyalists are ever going to bridge gaps when they refuse to mix with RCs at home. Gusty Spence also learned Irish in the cages. Plum Calling Irish 'his-language' but not wanting anything to do with Irish people in Ireland... Jesus wept. Typically unionists/loyalists are OK-ish abroad. But never at home. It won't matter how safe and secure the wee six-counties and the union actually are. It did not surprise me either that you were ditched at the airport on arrival back, nor that they had zero shame in doing so. No doubt the working class trade unionist 'ethic' in H + W was never intended to be extended to non-sectarian employment practices either. I refuse to be surprised or sucked in with their 'we would like to be friends but you're only a fenian after all' rubbish. Maybe his story will be published now and we can all get a good read of it and judge for ourselves.
    Email his story to the Garda commissioner, it's all the rage these days.

  2. Larry,

    It was more to do with the factionalism within Loyalism than whether Plum enjoyed the craic with Anthony. Remember, the Loyalist are/were not as cohesive an organisation as the Provisionals and petty grudges and attempted coups were mounted for sometimes trivial reasons, or just plain empire building. The Loyalists in West Belfast were especially a law unto themselves. This comes from their origins as street defense gangs. They changed little from this mentality over the years, the whole 'We must defend our area' at all costs attitude is still there. If Plum was seen to be cosying up to a Provo he could have easily found himself with a 9mm in his head. Talking over the water is seen as no-man's-land and is ignored for the large part.

    "Typically unionists/loyalists are OK-ish abroad. But never at home."

    And vice versa with Republicans/Nationalists.

    " I fail to see how loyalists are ever going to bridge gaps when they refuse to mix with RCs at home"

    I know at least 3 UVF members married to Catholics, I assume they must have mixed at some point? The same with Provo's married to Prods?

  3. Steve R

    Interesting insight there. I wonder what RC areas the ex loyalists married to RCs are living in then?? Or are they all 'over the water' too. I take your point, anyone mixing would need probably even today to be meeting on neutral ground I expect. As for coups, no doubt SB/Mi5 assisted/instigated knowing what we know now. Or 'think' we know now.

  4. Larry,

    They are not 'ex', and they are living in a staunchly loyalist part of Belfast, but not in the West!

    Coups....also came down to personality clashes, divvying up rackets, and don't even mention the Wombles!

    I was at a funeral of a loyalist about 4 ish years ago, one half of the church was UVF and the other UDA. You could have heard a pin drop. They utterly despise each other, or at least did then.

    Raises a question, during the 90's why did the provo's wipe out the IPLO? Or was it the INLA?

  5. Steve R

    I expect the RC females in question were more into drugs and a good time than their own communities or religion. No loss.

    As for why the Provos wiped out the IPLO, good question. Probably a few reasons played into the mix. Not least was the timing. The timing was right because there was no Steenson, or O'Reilly or the likes of them left to take out Gerry Adams in revenge. THAT would have been THE primary consideration for the likes of Storey and the rest.

    After the INLA-IPLO split in the late 80s more or less all the leading lights were gone from what had been the INLA / IRSP. During the supergrass era in the early 80's that outfit had some serious individuals amongst its ranks and leadership. Knowing what we do now about the Provo leadership and the infiltration right across its 'board of directors' I think there were a number of factors behind the wipe-out of the IPLO.

    Firstly, what was left of them were into drugs and in cahoots on that front with elements of the loyalists. They were basically trash. No one was sorry to see them go, so as I said already the timing was perfect. Secondly that had the impact of leaving the Provos as the only 'player' in the nationalist communities. This in turn facilitated their move swiftly into the 'pish-process' and careerism proper. Thirdly there was now no effective or viable alternative outside of their own ranks and control, should enough people have wanted to resist their trajectory. They didn't want anyone doing to them what they had done to the OIRA. So it was effectively an in-house operation from there on in. For the same reason (possibly) the likes of Dominic McGlinchey had been removed from the picture. When the time came people like McKevitt was sorted out, hung out to dry. His wife and sister of Bobby Sands being locked out of her Dundalk sho[p was a clear signal to Southern authorities 'this is the guy yer looking for'. A few other individuals who may have had charisma enough to gather a few people around them and cause problems from the former Provo ranks were also executed. Joe O'Connor springs to mind.

    Of course we now know that SF and the IRA leadership had no master plan other than self aggrandisement, and that they are all working for or 'to' (Mackers - distinction for your benefit) a British intelligence game plan. So it makes you wonder who was actually doing the directing of operations. It also makes me wonder when all those INLA Vols were being taken out was it because they were inferior to the Provos operationally, (Loughgall would contradict that notion) or was it simply because they weren't working for or 'to' any one else's agenda long-term...?

    Just my own thoughts on the way it panned out. I care little at this stage. I am away to the swings here in a sunny Donegal with my 10 month old son. His laughter is not revenge in my ears, it is pure delight in his own innocent joy and it merely adds to a sincere happiness in my own heart that I personally played ZERO part in the SF Belfast Mafias Judas 'pish-process'. I feel cleansed and untarnished as a result. THAT IS ENOUGH. I hope the wonderful land of Oz is treating you well. Remember to get yer leprechaun hat on and drink loads of green beer in March, you can be unashamerdly Irish 'down there'. lol

  6. Beano Niblock says

    I knew Plum Smith from around 1971 although not well. After he was arrested in July 1972 and I sentenced in early February 1973 we again became acquainted in Cage 11 of Long Kesh Camp. I was 18 and Plum a year older. He was my new bunk mate after my transferring from the ODC Cage-15. I was a voracious reader then and was routinely going through the Sven Hassel books-a staple amongst the earlynprisoners. When Plum seen them he said - "What are you reading that shite for"? He fetched me 2 of his own books-Venceremos and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I read them through time and Plum quizzed me on them. Although still young he was very clued in-always questioning and debating/arguing. He was close to Gusty and learned plenty from him. In the short time we spent together in 11 he was in his element during the History lessons or the frequent debates we had. Politically he was astute-something which came to the fore in later years. Even at the age he was he had a huge interest in working class issues. He was also critical of Big House unionism who he recognised early on were actually misrepresenting those who elected them. He became a fiery Harland and Wolff shop steward and is remembered for his many battles with management. I believe Plum's legacy is that he was a forthright person who was also very principled. Not everyone agreed with his way of doing things and he had many disagreements over various issues but he always had the best interests of working class loyalism at the top of his list.

  7. Beano Niblock says

    ...I know quite a few ex prisoners now married to Catholics. One of my closest friends and also a former lifer is married to a girl from the New Lodge. She isn't trash and for the record doesn't do drugs either.

    On another note-your reading of the reasons behind Provies and IPLO feud is fascinating.

  8. Larry,

    Enjoy them when they are that young, when they get older they become pains in the rear!! and I always have a few sociables on StP's, need something to get over this stinking heat too! Melt ye here at the minute.

    Like Beano, one of the guys wife's who's an RC is clean living, maybe a touch on the quiet side but that's no bad thing were wives are concerned! lol They other two I only know to say hello to.

  9. Had a single brief encounter with this man and was shocked at his rudeness, He walked into private offices without bothering to knock the doors, and intimidated workers, demanding instant attention ahead of other customers. He showed contempt for office workers going about their normal business. This being inside a mere secondary school, I presume he felt superior to those teachers and secretaries who were after all only civil servants


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