The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Billy Mitchell


 

Anthony McIntyre • 31 July 2006

Long before I first met Billy Mitchell in the late 1990s, I was familiar with him and some of the events that were to shape his life. In 1977 in Crumlin Road Prison for the three week duration of my trial, there was much talk about 'the Carrick men' of which he was a central figure. Around 25 UVF members or associates were on trial for killing a brace of UDA men during one of the periodic internecine feuds that broke out between the two main loyalist bodies. Then, loyalist feuds were always supported by republicans. It was like a form of blood sport in which our role amounted to nothing more than enthusiastic spectators. The thawing in relations between those engaged in armed activity in either community in the 1970s was a long way off.

The Carrick men had a reputation for being a tough bunch. The evidence against them did not appear strong, being for the most part made up of accomplice testimony. In most other courts they would have been in with a fighting chance. But this was Northern Ireland where the rules of Lord Diplock prevailed. The need to clear police books often formed the basis of a conviction. The amount of innocent men who went down for life would in any normal society have given rise to considerable alarm. In Lord Diplock's legal world guilt or innocence was of secondary importance.

Their trial coincided with our own. Two of their number on bail for lesser charges would sometimes be placed in the holding cell in the bowels of Crumlin Road courthouse alongside us for dinner, where we would converse on our chances before the beak and aspects of prison life. One day one of them was there alone and he explained that the other during the course of his evidence from the witness box had fingered him for a loyalist killing. Shortly after that he, like the rest of us, was serving a life sentence. That's how it was in those days.

Billy Mitchell was one of those 'Carrick men' sentenced to life. He had been a key player in the UVF. Before being imprisoned he had met both Official and Provisional IRA leaders for talks, on one occasion sharing a hotel room with one key Provisional. He is also said to have liaised with the IRA's Gerry Kelly while both were held in the cages of Long Kesh. He seemed suitably placed to serve as an interlocutor, having in 1974 composed a pamphlet in which he argued for rapprochement between unionists and nationalists. When in prison around 1978, if memory does not deceive me, along with fellow UVF member Billy Hutchinson, he wrote in similar vein to a local newspaper.

Released in 1990 having served 14 years, Billy threw his immense energy into securing peace. In 1994 along with Liam Maskey he formed the Intercomm group which worked to eliminate interface sectarian tension. His column in the North Belfast News was an attempt to reach out to nationalists without compromising his own belief in the value of the union with Britain. At the time of his death he was said to be working on a position paper at the request of the PUP, of which he was a member, believed to articulate the need to wind up the UVF.

Brought up in Glengormley Billy Mitchell had first hand experience of the ravishing effects of poverty. A friend of his quipped that Billy lived 'in a tin hut he used to pretend was a bungalow.' It armed him with a social conscience. This coupled with a strong religious affirmation, lent to Billy Mitchell's political conviction a hybrid of Christianity and Marxism which resembled the liberation theology of Catholic radicals in Latin America. Although some locked in a Leftist time warp, unable to think outside the formalistic loop, steadfastly refused to acknowledge that any loyalist could be a repository of progressive thinking. Billy was never slow to face down the challenge. In one internet exchange with a Marxist addicted to dogma he, with consummate ease, emerged on top.

Billy Mitchell had few doubts that the union was secure. He was a staunch supporter of the Good Friday Agreement which he felt anchored the type of political perspective that had informed his activity in the UVF. He found the critique mounted by republican critics of Sinn Fein persuasive. He felt it was so straightforward that he professed puzzlement at the failure of other republicans to share it. Always sensitive, if he thought he offended an opponent he was quick to ring up and apologise. I was the recipient of some of those calls but could never see the point. I had many vigorous disagreements with him but never found him offensive.

Billy Mitchell was one of the early contributors to The Blanket where his writings attracted a wide readership. He also edited The Other View with Tommy McKearney, both of whom appeared together on BBC's Hearts and Minds to explain the purpose of the magazine. Then it was news. Today few would bat an eyelid at such a venture because of the success of people like Billy Mitchell in habituating the public to it. Along with Tommy McKearney and two other republicans I sat in a pew near the front of the Church of Nazarene for his funeral service. Other republicans were dispersed throughout the mourners both inside the building and in its grounds. The church is situated at the back of a union jack festooned loyalist estate in Carrick. Years ago I would never have considered setting a foot within miles of the place. Now, it doesn't give rise to a second thought. Billy Mitchell had encouraged enough tolerance to make our presence unremarkable.

At his requiem service a touching double oration was delivered by Liam Maskey and Dawn Purvis. Elsewhere Maskey paid tribute to the man he described as his friend: 'Billy took great risks for peace. He went into republican communities to talk to people despite his history. He also guaranteed my safety when I went into loyalist areas.' It was an experience I had come to share. On one occasion accompanied by another republican, I was brought by Billy into the heart of a loyalist estate near Antrim town in a bid to broker an end to interface violence.

Often I would bump into him in the town as he sauntered through it with his wife Mena. They seemed inseparable. As a family man those who loved him most were hardest hit by his passing. Mena, his son Cameron and daughter Julianne were clearly distraught during his funeral service.

A well read loyalist with a deep interest in a diversity of subjects, Billy Mitchell's contribution to intellectual life was immense. Never an academic, he was nevertheless the intellectual equal of those who have graced the universities. While he had a lot left to give before his untimely death at the age of 65 years, it will come as consolation to those who knew him that his ideas on diversity and tolerance will survive him by many years.



 

A Sampling of articles by Billy Mitchell

Behind the Scenes at the World Cup
Is Class Politics a Possibility?
Sectarianism
Nationalist Euphoria - Unionist Despondency
Class War is Over!
Interface Workers Snubbed
Culture of Hate?
Faith & Politics
Understanding Culture
Can The Course of Labour Afford to Wait?
A Question of Identity
Addressing Organised Crime
Crucified!
Remembrance Day
Bastards and Traitors!


















 

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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


 

 

There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
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Index: Current Articles



3 August 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

A United Ireland or Nothing
Liam O Comain

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 1
Michael Gillespie

High Noon
John Kennedy

Fest or Flop
Dr John Coulter

Irish and Republican Music
Ray McAreavey

Qana Massacre again: Foreign and Domestic Enemies of our Constitution
Mazin Qumsiyeh

Israel Murders UN Observers
Anthony McIntyre

Managing Debate
Mick Hall

4 Horsemen
John Kennedy

The Evil That Men Do
Anthony McIntyre

Chris Petit's Secret History: The Psalm Killer
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Soldier of the Legion of the Rearguard
Liam O Ruairc

Football and the Fifth Commandment
Eamon Sweeney

Don't Let Us Down
Dr John Coulter

Human Rights Forum
Meeting Announcement

Billy Mitchell
Anthony McIntyre


25 July 2006

Religious Rednecks of Doom
Dr John Coulter

Cut-Throat Politics
John Kennedy

A Poem About Our Children
Mary La Rosa

Israeli Blitzkrieg
Anthony McIntyre

When Leaders Serve Foreign Interests, Everyone Loses
Mazin Qumsiyeh

By Their Friends You Shall Know Them
Mick Hall

Mission Impossible
Anthony McIntyre

Lit Crit Well Writ
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Revisiting A Literary Genius
David Adams

'The Film That Shakes A Lot More Than the Barley'
Eamon Sweeney

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Conclusion
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Additional Information
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Letter of Thanks
Michael McKevitt

Pull the Other One
John Kennedy

Ex-Noraid Boss Still Gloomy on Peace Process
Jim Dee

An Honour to Have Been Part of the Blanket Protest
Anthony McIntyre

The Letters page has been updated.

 

 

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