There was a full house in the east Belfast Con Club as a wide range of people packed into the main room to participate in the legacy consultation and panel discussion.
Despite many hoping that the event would prove to be a failure, it turned out to be a fantastic evening providing a platform for the unionist and loyalist community. The very best of our community was showcased as people from all sections of unionism, and those who would not identify as unionists, came together for a respectful, courteous and articulate debate.
The evening began with a short video highlighting some of the atrocities perpetrated against the unionist community by the IRA, and this was an emotional start to the evening. This was followed up by a presentation by Alan Lewis of Families Research Policy Unit (FRPU), Pastor Barry Halliday and William Frazer.
The evening was then handed over to Irish News journalist Allison Morris to chair the main panel discussion. Allison later tweeted her thanks to all those who took the time to speak to her and welcome her to the Con Club.
The room then heard opening contributions from the panel which included Rev Meryvn Gibson, Cllr Jeff Dudgeon, Unionist Voice editor Jamie Bryson and Doug Beattie MLA. All panellists spoke out strongly against the proposed legacy structures for various different reasons.
Cllr Dudgeon had prepared a written speech which he has kindly provided, it can be read HERE
Following this Allison posed a series of questions to the panellists, some of which were difficult and challenging.
In the coming days clips from the event and the full debate will be uploaded to our You Tube page for everyone to have the opportunity to watch the debate.
Questions from the floor were then taken with some emotional contributions from victims, survivors, former members of the security forces and loyalists.
Victims, panellists and the entire audience reacted with shock and revulsion at the revelation that under the legacy proposals Shankill bomber Sean Kelly was viewed as every bit as much a victim as the families of those he murdered. Everyone agreed this was morally reprehensible and untenable.
Shankill loyalist Stephen Andrews made a passionate contribution from a loyalist perspective. After outlining his experience of being shot at in the 1970’s, he went on to address the definition of a victim. Stephen said that he felt loyalists should not be equated with their victims and that it was his opinion that loyalist paramilitaries did not seek the victim mantle.
This view was supported by Rev Mervyn Gibson and George from the Shankill who both said they had yet to come across a loyalist paramilitary that described themselves as a victim on a par with innocent civilians that lost their lives.
Jamie Bryson concurred with this, but highlighted that many of those he termed ‘conflict generation’ loyalists had not had the same type of support that republicans had and as a result continued to suffer greatly from mental health difficulties and a lack of provision to assist them to play a meaningful role within the new political dispensation.
Doug Beattie, as a former solider, spoke out strongly against a statute of limitations and upon Allison Morris asking the floor whether anyone present supported a statute of limitations, no one in the audience raised their hands.
Among other contributions Billy Drummond from Shankill Alternatives spoke out about the poor representation by the elected unionist parties and questioned why they had never organised such an event. This view was echoed by community worker Ian McLaughlin.
There was a long discussion on the proposed oral history archive. Jamie Bryson raised the case of Winston Rea who it has been alleged participated in the Boston Tapes (this has yet to be established by a court of law). Jamie said that whilst he could not speak to Winston’s mind-set and had no knowledge of his motivations, he surmised that he may have taken the view in the context of the pro-peace process environment at the time of the Boston tapes that telling his story, warts and all, was an important historical record. However, Jamie also said that some others may take the view, in a general sense, that it would never be wise to talk about matters for which you have never been convicted but regardless of this there was an important point in that why would any loyalist want to engage in story telling when it could later be used against them in a court of law if the political context changed.
There was broad agreement with this point and all panellists agreed that unionism and loyalism needed to tell their story, but there had to be a safe and secure mechanism to do so. Rev Gibson said he supported community archives.
In a debate that lasted well over 2 hours the aforementioned details are just some points that came out of the evening which included in-depth debates on the proposed bill and the definition of a victim. We hope many people will take the time to watch the full video once it is uploaded.
Unionist Voice Policy Studies would like to thank all of those who attended this night and made the evening so successful. There is a clear energy within the grassroots unionist community with a broad coalition of people coming together, bound by the common thread that we will not allow ourselves to be treated as an underclass or demonised.
Special thanks were extended to journalists Rebecca Black and Yvette Shapiro for attending the event, and to Allison Morris for chairing the evening.