- I wished to share this story of one young man I knew growing up. He had been sucked into the world of loyalist paramilitaries but managed to break free from their grip. I am sure there are dozens of similar stories on both sides but this is the only one I know of.
Billy was born in the early 80's and raised in a loyalist housing estate. His childhood was very normal compared to most other families in the area. His father worked when work was available and his mother was a stay at home parent to raise him and his siblings.
Living on the outskirts of Belfast, the conflict never really affected him. Bombs and shootings were very seldom. The closet they got to the conflict was travelling into Belfast on the bus, where they would see British soldiers patrolling the streets and at times, the left over rubble from previous bombings. The other medium to expose his childhood to the troubles was his parents watching the news on the television.
Every year he looked forward to the big night of lighting the bonfire. He and his friends collected for this celebration: a celebration that was always followed with a huge Orange parade in Belfast for the 12th July.
As time passed and Billy grew older, he started to be exposed to masked gunmen at the bonfire. Before the bonfire would be lit, a group of armed paramilitary members would appear with machine guns. The gathered crowds would chant “U -U - UFF”. Billy felt the rush of excitement to this. The community getting behind these defenders of loyalism. Some of his mates commented that someday it would be cracker if they could do it.
As Billy grew even older, he realised that these masked men were actually neighbours and friends of family. Local people who he had always known. Surely it could not be bad to be involved if these people are in it?
The 12th of July meant getting up at around 7am to get ready for the day and to see the local bands arriving at the Orange hall. He and his mates had a personal favourite band that they followed. It was a UDA band and one that always had a colour party in full combats.
Most of the band were in the UDA and many had been to prison. Hard men many of them.
Even though Billy was only 14 he was still able to buy a carry-out from the “offies” down the road. 6 WKD and 10 Mayfair and they were each set for a day of parading.
Billy felt great, part of the crowd when walking along side the band, singing along to Orange wings, singing about taking the war to the IRA and defending his community.
Every time the band was out on local parades, he was there with it. That 12th July he bought his first UDA postcards of the murals, his first UDA music tape. He proudly displayed his new postcards on his bedroom wall. One was of a UFF man with an RPG with the words “UFF rocket team on tour”.
It was at this age that Billy started helping the paramilitaries put up flags around the estate. He was running about with members of the youth wing and now going for a pint down at the bar with them. Soon this led to him joining the local band. As he turned 17 and the 1990's set themselves aside for the new millennium, a very brutal loyalist feud broke out.
There was sheer taunting of UVF bands during parades. Sometimes fights broke out between rival members. The UVF bands would stop near them and play tunes such as “we hate the Hairbears”. The Hairbears was the nickname given to the UDA and had stuck. The UVF were named the “Blacknecks”.
The feud had started up the Shankill and Johnny Adair was the catalyst. Murders started happening. All for what? Billy wondered, lying in his bed questioning what the following day’s news would reveal. Loyalist turned on Loyalist. The community was very tense. Streets were empty at night. Local bars started to block off easy entrances into the premises. Over time the feud went away and a level of normality returned to the estate.
Billy was turning 18 soon and decided along with a few other mates that it was time to join up. He approached a local commander and stated that he and a few others wanted to join. He was told no problems. A week or so later he was told to be at a certain place at a certain time. He and his mates stood waiting in the freezing cold wind. A car pulled up and they recognised the driver. Right lads, get in the car. The driver asked them one last time ‘are you sure you want to join? Once you are in there is no going back.’ They all said yes.
Soon they arrived at location and were all taking inside. When called into the room they saw a group of masked men with guns. A table was laid out with a flag over it and a bible and guns also placed. They were then sworn into the organisation. Back to the bar for some pints Billy said to the group.
All were now part of the “boys and had a feeling of excitement over what it would be like. Even though loyalists had been on ceasefire since 1994 and they had all been 14 years old at the signing of the GFA. They felt and were told that the threat from the IRA was as real now as ever. Months passed by and Billy was now part of a beating team. Dishing out justice to local hoods. Most of the time it was just beating people who owed a few quid or had talked the wrong way to a local member. Though someday they wondered if they would turn their guns on the IRA. In 2001 the UDA murdered a few Catholics for no other reason than being easy targets. Many celebrated this. Tension was high from the trouble at Ardoyne over Catholic schoolgirls being walked through loyalist areas. From known IRA men walking through their areas just to taunt them, or so Billy was told. Whitecity was constantly under attack from local Republicans. Billy felt his membership was justified over the current political situations.
Once again time passed and the political landscape changed. The UDA, after more feuds, started to move towards decommissioning its weapons. Now that Billy was in his mid 20's and with a young family he had wanted to get away from the paramilitaries for some time. He was sick of paying dues each month. He was sick of watching the top boys driving around in fancy cars and having regular holidays. He was tired of watching the community that he wanted to defend being destroyed by these so called protectors. He had realised that the biggest threat was not the IRA or Irish Republicans but the local criminals who hold the community in a grip of fear. Dare not attend parades and a £50 fine is given accompanied sometimes with a dig in the face. Billy felt trapped. If he left the area then his family would be harassed to get him back.
Upon approaching his early 30's he was now watching a new generation of 15 years old lads being sucked into the same world of paramilitaries. Via the music and bands that get young lads brainwashed into a paramilitary mindset. Another generation throwing their life away. Billy wished he had listened to his elders when they told him he was making a huge mistake. Openly speaking about his feelings to the 3 others who joined with him, they all felt the same. They all regretted it. They had been ceasefire soldiers. More importantly, they had all been young naïve lads who were led into a paramilitary life by grown men. Were they groomed via years of local murals showing masked gunmen? The paramilitary music played to them? The hatred of anything Irish and being told that the IRA want to take their country? At 28 years old Billy had just gained his first qualifications and had gotten his first job. He became best friends with a man whom he later found out was a Catholic from West Belfast. Billy felt ashamed that it had taken him 28 years to become friends with somebody who he had shared so much in common with but the little fact of religion had kept them apart.
Billy knew that despite his mistakes, his personal saviour would come in the open and free life that he would provide his kids with. Billy is now attending University and lives in England.