For students of the Troubles, November 2020 provided two excellent books: Anatomy of a Killing, by Ian Cobain, and Billy Hutchinson’s memoirs; My Life in Loyalism (written with Dr Gareth Mulvenna). This piece is about violent loyalism in general, and My Life in Loyalism in particular.
Both books are excellent. Hutchinson’s memoirs are fascinating, and frustrating. Fascinating because of the vividness of the writing and the opportunity to look closer at a world that isn’t often looked at closely. For all of my criticisms of the content of the book, it is a vitally important history. One of the best books of the Troubles, in my opinion, is Killing Rage, the memoirs of the IRA man Eamon Collins. Collins was afforded latitude to write with honesty, having been tried and wrongly acquitted of the murders that he was involved with. Hutchinson was found guilty of murder and could have similarly written about them with candour – he didn’t. So it is frustrating because of what he says without expanding, and for what he doesn’t say. And sometimes, what he does say is offensive, evasive and self-serving.
Some Of My Thoughts On Loyalism
I am hostile to loyalism – it is important to say that I am not an objective observer. Whilst I was born on the Falls Road, I left for Scotland whilst still in primary school, and rarely thought about “home” except when news reports came on. I first encountered loyalism, and Billy Hutchinson, as an 18 year old, when he appeared on Peter Taylor’s excellent TV series “Loyalists.” I was watching with my mother as Hutchinson described how he had “no regrets” about murdering two men a matter of metres from where many of my family lived. My mother remembered the murders, and was very upset. Billy Hutchinson, in today’s parlance, radicalised me against loyalism. I could not believe the audacity of this man, attacking my community, presuming he had the right to life and death over my father, uncles, brothers and cousins, and, if I was old enough, me. In the years to come, I was to understand that near neighbours of mine visited upon Hutchinson’s community exactly the type of murderous terror he inflicted on ours.
I believe that loyalism is founded on Protestant superiority and unsustainable, grandiose, vainglorious beliefs. These beliefs required actualisation and performance: Stormont; B-Specials; a Protestant dominated RUC; Orange parades; privileged access to some jobs in some sectors; Gerrymandering; and some privilege in housing allocation all worked to give an impression of superiority. Hutchinson, accurately, talks of the lie that these impressions gave, quoting his father as saying “we might have gotten a slum quicker, but it was still a slum”. In truth, for the most part, the working class PUL community did not greatly benefit in any meaningful, economically significant way from the manner in which Northern Ireland was administered from 1922 – 1972. A mythology developed, believed by the PUL and the CNR community, that one was much better off than the other. The PUL community took comfort in their supposed privilege, and the CNR community simmered with resentment at the slights they believed were visited upon them.
I believe that these slights were, for the most part, part of the loyalist project: the performance of Protestant superiority, needed to fuel loyalist domination.
The prison psychiatrist James Gilligan famously quoted:
I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this ‘loss of face’ – no matter how severe the punishment, even if it includes death. (Anatomy Of A Killing, p29)
By 1972, the RUC had been (temporarily) disarmed, Stormont had been prorogued, and direct rule from London had begun to redress discrimination that favoured Protestants. Protestants found themselves arrested, jailed, even beaten and tortured by “their” police force, and by the British army they had been indoctrinated to revere. And whilst the Orange Order still marched, they had some of their parades banned, and on other occasions, marched through streets strewn with the rubble of republican bombs and past the wreckage of the often Protestant dominated commercial heart of towns and cities in Northern Ireland. And another march was machine-gunned by an IRA man, in a blatantly sectarian attack.
An IRA man once said that “killing an RUC officer, or a British soldier, was an attack on the delusion of colonial” superiority. Killing them removed notions of superiority and destroyed the myth of their invincibility.”
The IRA, in 1972, displayed no fear of the state, killing scores of soldiers and police officers, and no regard for loyalist paramilitaries, bombing Protestant pubs and murdering dozens of Protestant civilians in blatant sectarian attacks. In fact republicans almost seem to be daring the loyalists to come at them with their much prophesied backlash.
Loyalism had, in four short years, seen virtually every foundation that it required to function attacked, damaged, or destroyed. I believe that the most accurate way to analyse the actions of loyalist paramilitaries is not through the lens of counter-revolutionary warfare, but with an understanding of the humiliation that was experienced by a community for whom domination of The Other was a fundamental necessity.
My Thoughts On Billy Hutchinson
Hutchinson’s habit of sticking to clichés is as saccharine and irritating as reading any booked penned by Gerry Adams. He wearily talks of “fighting the IRA” – “bringing the war to the IRA” and so on, and on, and on and on. The UVF rarely fought the IRA. Hutchinson knows this, and in fact, in an insight into 1970s loyalist paramilitary activity, details how, following the killing of Jim Hanna, Hutchinson approached the UVF brigade staff demanding to know who was responsible. Told that it was the IRA, Hutchinson said they had a list of six IRA targets and were going to “hit them … right away.” His UVF commander’s “face went white” at the suggestion. Why? Weren’t the UVF waging “war” on the IRA, as Hutchinson so frequently claimed? Why would a senior UVF officer pale at the prospect of hitting actual IRA targets. Hutchinson doesn’t say, so we are left to ponder. But it does make Hutchinson’s claims, made elsewhere in the book, about strategy, tactics and analysis seem preposterous.
Allow me to digress – I watched Hutchinson’s 1997 interview with Peter Taylor, when he says he “has no regrets” in the murder of two Catholic civilians, with my psychotherapist father-in-law. My father-in-law empathised with Hutchinson, saying that he was a man in extreme and acute pain, uttering words about himself (having no regrets) he knew not to be true. My analysis of Hutchinson is not as kind. I think he’s a coward and a hypocrite. He attempts to blacken the name of the two men he murdered, by saying that his organisation, the YCV, had “intelligence” that they were active republicans. He says he doesn’t know if the intelligence was accurate.
Hutchinson deprived a family of two members. He did not see fit to acknowledge that they were, at best, victims of an organisation with a completely unreliable intelligence gathering system, or, more accurately, simply either shot at random, or killed for dubious reasons. One of the brothers had been shot and injured already, by a shot fired at random across the peace-line. Contemporary newspaper reports of the time note that the brothers worked at a building site in Bangor. I wonder if someone on that site objected to two Falls Road “Taigs” being about the place? A contemporaneous TV news report, by Jeremy Paxman, noted that the modus operandi of the double murder committed by Hutchinson and his friends was identical to others that took place in that area at that time. The victims were postmen, or bakery workers. Did Hutchinson’s friends have information on them, as well? Hutchinson has already said he had intelligence on IRA targets, targets that made the UVF brigade staff fearful of touching, so why were he and his men shooting labourers, bakers and postmen (none of whom received IRA funerals)? Again, he doesn’t say.
Hutchinson discusses his relationship with west Belfast Catholic Jimmy McKenna, who worked with Hutchinson and his men in targeting various men alleged to be connected to the Provos. It appears nobody within the UVF stopped to think that their campaign of harassing, torturing and murdering members of the nationalist community might dissuade more persons from that community coming to them with information on IRA targets. Nevertheless, McKenna’s story is fascinating.
Billy Hutchinson, Lenny Murphy, And Johnny Adair
Hutchinson discusses his relationship with “Shankill Butcher” Lenny Murphy, providing a glimpse into a spectral, almost mythic personality of the Troubles, and offers this summation:
Lenny [Murphy] seemed consumed by the need to be recognised. He appeared to have a steely determination to make a name for himself, and the kudos he began to receive within loyalist circles apparently wasn't enough to satisfy his burning desire to become infamous.
This insightful analysis of Murphy sprung to mind later in the book, when Hutchinson discusses Johnny Adair, a man he obviously loathes. What Hutchinson doesn’t do in his memoirs, but perhaps should consider, is why loyalism sustained, promoted, and propelled these two men, Murphy and Adair, to prominence? What is it about loyalism that attracted Murphy and Adair and, more importantly, why did loyalism do nothing to curtail the deeply anti-social activities of these men, activities that arguably devastated the Shankill in a manner that the IRA never could.
Bakers, Builders, Gardeners And Unrepentant Murderers
20 years after Hutchinson and other Shankill loyalists murdered two Falls Road working men, some other Shankill loyalists murdered another Falls Road working man, Sean Monaghan, a 20 year old landscape gardener whose Protestant partner was left to raise their twin girls alone. The loyalists who murdered Sean Monaghan, in barbaric circumstances, were part of Adair’s UFF. One of these men, David Burrows, on trial for the murder, turned to Sean Monaghan’s mother, and shouted “I shot your fucking son – four in the back of the head … I killed him, I’m proud of it.”
What, ultimately, is the difference between Burrows taunting his victim’s mother and Hutchinson saying he had no regrets about murdering two brothers?
When all is said and done, what Burrows and Hutchinson did was identical. They drove from the Shankill onto the Falls, committed murder, and did it unapologetically, and with no remorse.
Abject And True Remorse Versus Banal Justification
Loyalists, in stark contrast to most republicans (particularly those who remain loyal to Sinn Fein), are capable of disarming honesty when they talk about their often brutal paramilitary activities and the beliefs, which some of them have since renounced, that led them to violence. The UVF’s Billy Giles gave perhaps the most affecting testimony of a combatant in the same TV series that Hutchinson said he had “no regrets” – Billy Giles’ regrets tormented him until his death by suicide. Hutchinson has said “I justify everything that I did in the Troubles, and I have to do that to stay sane.” One of the issues that I have with Hutchinson is that the justification for his murders might well have driven, and continue to drive, the families of Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan to even greater hurt and grief. Their cousin wrote a very moving piece about them in the Belfast Telegraph, that humanised them, and gave them an identity they deserve. History, at this moment in time, records them as the two completely undeserving victims of a man who would go on to become an acclaimed politician.
Despite my criticisms of what Hutchinson chose to divulge in his book, I am grateful that he told some of his story. My Life in Loyalism is essential reading for any student of the Troubles, or indeed of political violence. In some ways, it is a natural companion piece to Gareth Mulvenna’s Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries, which is simply one of the best and most important book to about the troubles to emerge in recent years.
As ever, I hope that my writing encourages discussion and debate, and welcome criticism and commentary.
⏩ Brandon Sullivan is a middle aged, middle management, centre-left Belfast man. Would prefer people focused on the actual bad guys.