Paramilitary memoirs and their contribution to modern Loyalism

By Rory Allen

Memoirs and autobiographies have enormous potential to contribute to the wider understanding of the ‘Troubles’. In capturing the narratives of those who were involved in or lived through the Northern Ireland conflict, we gain an insight into the real, lived experience of Ulster’s contested past. While Irish nationalists and republicans have long been confident and skilled in communicating and creating a political and cultural identity, it is fair to say that unionists and loyalists have been less so. In his 2013 examination of political memoir, Stephen Hopkins attributes this to a general loyalist preference of crafting and art as a means of self-expression, and the loyalist narrative not holding the same “capital of public interest.”[1] However, two seminal texts have been published since 2013. William ‘Plum’ Smith’s Inside Man (2014) and Billy Hutchinson’s My Life in Loyalism (2020) offer new and invaluable insights into the paramilitary violence of the 1970s, as well as both men’s transition from paramilitary to politician. In a recent Writing the ‘Troubles’ article, Hopkins argued that memoir can act as a catalyst for dialogue between diverse protagonists of the conflict. The following seeks to build on the work of Hopkins, by demonstrating a growing belief among loyalists that the more confidently they share their stories, the greater their contribution to the wider understanding of their community.

Since the turn of the century, biographies such as those of Gusty Spence and David Ervine have charted the progression of both from Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) prisoners to progressive and influential political figures.[2] Following this trend, Smith published Inside Man in 2014, shortly before his death, and it acts as an account of his experience as a Red Hand Commando (RHC) prisoner following his arrest for the 1972 attempted murder of a Catholic. The text gives an invaluable insight into the military system that UVF Commander Gusty Spence implemented in Long Kesh prison and Smith’s political career in the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). Its publication through a small, independent publishing house specialising in educational textbooks and local history suggests a relatively limited anticipated readership. Whether this reflects a presumed general apathy in understanding loyalism by the wider public is conjecture, but again it reflects Smith’s keenness to publish and share his experiences as his health declined.

Hutchinson’s memoir was co-authored with historian Gareth Mulvenna, and it charts his life story from his early involvement in inter-communal street violence as a teenager, his 1974 arrest for murder as a UVF volunteer, his prison experience and his later career as a PUP member and eventual Party Leader. Throughout his career, Mulvenna has demonstrated that his Catholic upbringing has not affected his ability to engage with former loyalist paramilitaries and his previous work has demonstrated his great skill in chronicling the loyalist community and paramilitary organisations.[3] While it may be surprising to some that Hutchinson requested the support of a Catholic author and a Republic of Ireland-based publishing house, it is clear that Hutchinson had no sectarian agenda in publishing his memoir. In short, both memoirs honestly and candidly chart the transition of both men as volunteers in the RHC and UVF, to politically driven and progressive loyalists at the heart of the PUP.

Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the formal conclusion of the conflict, scholars have noted a tangible sense of alienation and abandonment among Northern Protestants. Andrew Finlay for example has examined the growing sense of defeatism as unionists adapt to the post-conflict era, in which some see their identity and culture being eroded.[4] This self-perceived marginalisation of loyalists has manifested in several episodes of unrest, demonstrating their frustration as traditional unionist parties have stagnated and largely failed their communities. Most recently, the scenes of rioting and violence in April 2021 demonstrate the palpable anger among the loyalist community. Memoir therefore offers an opportunity for the wider public to gain otherwise unavailable insights into the issues faced by past and present loyalists in uncertain times. Therefore, these texts offer a possible solution to this marginalisation, which sits at the core of Smith and Hutchinson’s motivations for publishing their memoirs.

Critically, the memoirs of Smith and Hutchinson argue that there is a responsibility on loyalists to communicate their narratives more openly than they have in the past. Inside Man strikes the reader as Smith’s effort to communicate a loyalist perspective and a “contribution to peoples’ understanding of how the bomb and bullet was replaced by dialogue and negotiation.”[5] From the outset, Smith voices concerns about the loyalist perspective of the ‘Troubles’ becoming “lost beneath a sea of green”, however, the onus is largely on loyalists themselves.[6] For example, Smith was highly vocal in opposing unionist predictions that the Maze prison complex would become a republican shrine, should it be maintained as a Conflict Transformation Centre.[7] For Smith, this would only occur if unionists allowed it to and it was their responsibility to be involved in the Centre to prevent such an eventuality occurring.[8]

Hutchinson also argues that loyalists will benefit from communicating their stories, subsequently contributing to the wider knowledge of the ‘Troubles’. In the final words of his memoir, Hutchinson states that “loyalists must be confident in telling their stories so that revisionists can never be allowed to rewrite the past.”[9] This rhetoric is not new for Hutchinson who, in a 2011 essay written for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, warned that “History is being re-written.”[10] While Smith’s concerns are with loyalist narratives being overwhelmed by the sheer multiplicity of republican ones, Hutchinson’s speak more to a revisionism and active intent to skew the loyalist experience. For the PUP leader, there is clearly an impression that previous depictions or understandings of loyalism are lacking, with his memoir demonstrating that the loyalist paramilitary perspective “is more complex and nuanced than the way journalists and propagandists have tried to portray it.”[11] Hutchinson’s comments on a revisionist interpretation of loyalism represent a bleak prediction that if others do not follow in his example by sharing their stories, then their narrative will be obscured in the future.

In contrast, the ‘autobiographies’ of infamous loyalist paramilitary figures Michael Stone, Johnny Adair and ‘John Black’, published using either pseudonyms or ghost-writers are different pieces entirely and were met with largely negative reception.[12] Seemingly written in an effort to glamourise their involvement in violence and to shock the reader, Hopkins concluded that these memoirs were largely written to serve financial or parochial interests.[13] There are, of course, other loyalist memoirs that offer insights into niche and previously overlooked elements of the loyalist narrative. These include David Hamilton’s A Cause Worth Living For (1997) which chronicles Hamilton’s Christian conversion as a catalyst for his stepping away from paramilitary violence, and Frank Portinari’s Left Right Loyalist (2016), which covers the mainland activities of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). I would argue that Inside Man and My Life in Loyalism offer the most useful accounts in these difficult, uncertain and stormy times for unionism. Smith and Hutchinson’s memoirs demonstrate their willingness to accept responsibility for their actions and to encourage dialogue and cooperation. In standing over their own stories and urging their fellow loyalists to tell their stories and contribute to a greater understanding of their identity, Smith and Hutchinson have made invaluable additions to the literature of loyalism. This is perhaps the greatest contribution these memoirs offer, as a call to other loyalists to share their experiences.

(Image: Rory Allen)

Rory Allen is a first-year PhD History researcher at Northumbria University and recipient of the Research Development Fund (RDF) studentship. His current doctoral work seeks to highlight and demonstrate distinction, diversity and conflict within the unionist community of Northern Ireland. His PhD builds on his MA dissertation, which was titled ‘“One and the Same”: The Orange Order and Ulster Loyalist Paramilitaries’. In May 2021, he contributed a paper titled ‘“Buried Beneath a Sea of Green”: Ulster Loyalism on the Margins since 1998’ at the University of Liverpool’s ‘At The Margins’ conference.


[1] Stephen Hopkins, The Politics of Memoir and the Northern Ireland Conflict (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), pp. 63-64.

[2] See Roy Garland, Gusty Spence (London: Blackstaff Press, 2001) and Henry Sinnerton, David Ervine: Uncharted Waters (London: Brandon, 2003).

[3] Gareth Mulvenna, ‘Being Catholic was never an issue when speaking to former loyalist paramilitaries, The Irish Times, 28 January 2021, available at https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/being-catholic-was-never-an-issue-when-speaking-to-former-loyalist-paramilitaries-1.4451453, accessed 9 February 2021. See Gareth Mulvenna, Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016) and Thomas Paul Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna (eds.), The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[4] See Andrew Finlay, ‘Defeatism and northern protestant ‘identity’’, Global Review of Ethnopolitics, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2001), pp. 3-20.

[5] William ‘Plum’ Smith, Inside Man: Loyalists of Long Kesh – The Untold Story (Newtownards: Colourpoint Books, 2014), p. 17.

[6] Ibid, p. 3.

[7] Brian Rowan, ‘Maze can only become IRA shrine if Loyalists allow it: Smith’, Belfast Telegraph, 17 September 2012, available at https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/maze-can-only-become-ira-shrine-if-loyalists-allow-it-smith-28864072.html, accessed 12 March 2021. The Maze is another name given to Long Kesh.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Billy Hutchinson, My Life in Loyalism (Newbridge: Merrion Press, 2020), p. 285.

[10] Billy Hutchinson, Transcendental Art: A Troubles Archive Essay (Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 2011), p. 7, available at http://www.troublesarchive.com/resources/Transcendental_Art.pdf, accessed 12 March 2021.

[11] Hutchinson, My Life in Loyalism, p. xi.

[12] Hopkins, The Politics of Memoir. Chapter Four, ‘Loyalist Paramilitarism and the Politics of Memoir-Writing’ is invaluable in its coverage of paramilitary memoir.

[13] Ibid, p. 77.

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