There will it seems be little in the way of speaking out in defence of Winston Rea by mainstream unionism; that would be deemed ‘unpopular’ and risk upsetting the orthodox consensus amongst the largely nationalist dominated peace process industry, namely that loyalists must all be demonised and dehumanised, whilst the IRA are to be legitimised.
Whilst Martin McGuiness in death was lauded as a peacemaker, with most of the mainstream media salivating over him and sanitising his IRA past, in death Winston Rea- who also played a key role in making peace- is afforded no such courtesy, but rather, less than 24 hours after his death, is still being used as a political football by nationalist/republican legacy activists.
That Winston was hauled through the courts, no doubt exacerbating his many health conditions, as part of the legacy witch hunt (in which the IRA have de-facto immunity whilst loyalists and security forces are hounded) is not enough for them. That they managed to have a severely ill pensioner put through such a contrived and malicious legal ‘process’ is not ‘success’ enough, but now even in death they want to attack the man.
They will not get their ‘guilty’ verdict against that innocent man. The charges will be withdrawn. In the end, they didn’t get what they wanted, and perhaps that is what is driving their vindictive outbursts via the media and social media.
I must say I equally find it appalling that many of those who used Winston Rea and loyalists to fight for them during the conflict (and then condemned him, and those like him, when they did the fighting), and latterly used him and his influence to secure peace or, in terms of pro Agreement unionism, to give them cover and ‘street cred’ to sell their deal, have seemingly nothing to say publicly in defence of the man.
They used him in life, yet few from mainstream political unionism will speak up for him in death.
Dr John Kyle is a notable and courageous exception. It would have been easier to stay quiet, and simply permit the media assault on ‘Winkie’ and the Provo legacy propaganda (that is what it is, let’s not sugar coat it) to prevail unhindered, but Dr Kyle mounted a strong defence of his friend, giving a truthful analysis of his contribution to peace in Northern Ireland.
I knew Winkie Rea reasonably well and would call him a friend particularly in recent years, but I obviously did not know him nearly as well as many others who spent much more time with him than I ever did, and who shared life-experiences throughout his more than 70 years. In the fullness of time, I am sure those who are much better placed than I, his close and lifelong friends and family, who obviously knew the man much better, will pay their fulsome and detailed tributes.
We didn’t always politically agree; indeed, for a long time Winkie objected strongly to my criticism of the ‘peace process’ and Belfast Agreement- and told me so regularly whenever I ran into him, usually- but not always- at KFC or in the Groomsport Inn. We had some great political arguments. I liked that about him; he wasn’t the type of man who would say one thing to your face, and another behind your back.
A short time ago I spent a long afternoon with him and one of his closest friends discussing politics and the way forward for unionism/loyalism. The content of that conversation was and is private because he asked that it remain so and I shall honour that commitment, but I can safely go so far as saying his insight, experience and passion was invaluable and, as someone who played a key role within loyalism for over fifty years, his views were always worthy of genuine consideration.
Winkie Rea has children, grandchildren, a wide family circle and many close friends and colleagues. Those close family and friends are grieving his loss, as are all who knew him. His passing comes less than 24 hours after he buried his wife. For any family, that is a traumatic period.
In my view, some of the media and social media commentary- particularly from nationalist legacy activists such as Relatives for Justice- is utterly appalling, and says more about them- and their agenda- than it does Winkie Rea. That RFJ, who promote IRA commemorations and host ‘time for truth’ protests alongside convicted IRA terrorists, have the sheer brass neck to pass any comment on Winston Rea simply demonstrates the extent of their supremacist mindset.
Winkie was a man who fought a conflict which he believed needed fighting (urged on it must be said by those who then condemned him and others) but who then, at the right time, supported peace, and helped deliver it via the loyalist ceasefire in 1994 and support for the Belfast Agreement.
I happen to think loyalism was wrong to support the 1998 Agreement, but am convinced that regardless of the correctness or otherwise of that proposition, it is beyond dispute that people like Winkie Rea took the position they did for the right reasons and out of a genuine desire to spare my generation the horrors of violent conflict.
Winston opposed criminality or other actions which undermined the reputation and integrity of loyalism, and- in his alleged role within loyalism as a former Red Hand Commando prisoner- he used his influence to try and steer loyalism, but particularly that organisation with which he identified as an ex-prisoner, down a path of civilianisation.
Winkie Rea should be remembered as a decent man, who believed he had no choice but to become involved in a violent conflict not of his making, but one in which he nevertheless played a key role in ending.
On a personal level, as I have said, I didn’t agree with his support for the Belfast Agreement. I think it was a mistake, but not for one moment do I doubt the sincerity and genuineness behind his convictions that it was the right thing to do at that time for the sake of peace.
It is easy, perhaps, for those like me to analyse the Agreement through the prism of constitutional law and how it has worked out twenty-five years later, whilst those there at the time were analyising it through a much different prism: namely ending thirty years of violent conflict.
Perhaps, as Winkie would have no doubt argued, the more technical points of constitutional law are easier analysed in the relative sanctuary of peace and a political process, than they were in the maelstrom of securing what was by necessity an imperfect peace.
Farewell to a true loyalist, a peacemaker, a family man and a friend. That is how he should be remembered, and when all the malicious media contributions fade from memory, it is Winston Rea’s contribution to building a better place for us all which will be the lasting one.