Loyalism needs prayerful encouragement to develop
This week's loyalist statement, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, has been met with a variety of responses, including suspicion and cynicism. Progressive loyalism also deserves encouragement and prayerful support, say Rev Steve Stockman and Fr Martin Magill
THE opening event of the 4 Corners Festival this year saw the church hall in St Michael's, just off the Shankill Road, packed to overflowing on a February night.
There, we heard stories about how loyalism had not only been a resilient advocate of peace and the Good Friday Agreement but also that loyalist leaders were intellectually shaping such peace for at least 20 years before the ceasefires.
The idea that loyalist leaders were Neanderthals was put to rest as we heard the argument that their 'Common Sense' document of 1987 was almost a template for the Good Friday Agreement itself.
William McQuiston and Martin Snodden took us into some history that many of us did not know. They were centrally involved: McQuiston served more than12 years in prison and was a prison spokesperson for the UDA-linked Ulster Democratic Party; Snoddon served 15 years in prison for UVF activity; both are now part of peace-building initiatives.
It was an evening for loyalism to air a voice that was both articulate and progressive - a voice from which we hear far too little in the media or public sphere.
Journalist Brian Rowan, former Presbyterian Moderator Rev Dr Ken Newell and Professor Monica McWilliams all spoke in glowing terms about the intellect, integrity and forward-thinking of figures such as David Ervine, William 'Plum' Smith and Ray Smallwood.
Dr Newell and PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, in one of a variety of contributions from the floor, each asked why loyalism had not grown or developed since those hopeful days of the mid-1990s.
The loyalist statement is clearly the result of intense efforts by all three loyalist organisations to create a better future and I wish them every success
- Stephen Travers
David Ervine's funeral - he died in January 2007, aged 53 - was mentioned many times.
The early death of such a visionary leader had dealt a blow to progressive loyalism.
Dr Newell, in a spiritual way, and Mr Hamilton, in policing terms, asked for contemporary loyalism to have the courage to sort the wheat from the chaff, the criminals from the progressive leaders.
On Monday this week, perhaps we heard loyalism's answer to that evening's challenge.
The joint 'Loyalist Declaration of Transformation' issued by the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando and read by Alan Harper, the former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, is clear that criminality has no place in today's loyalism.
"We reject and repudiate as unacceptable and contrary to loyalist principles any criminal action claimed to have been undertaken in our name or attributed to any individual claiming membership of one of our organisations," it says.
The statement was released with potent poignancy on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
This is a time to look back and forward, particularly in the light of our current political impasse.
It would be very welcome indeed if the ambition and spirit of Monday's statement is taken up across our political landscape.
When they say: "It is time to recommit to the creation of a Northern Ireland that enables all to realise their potential and aspirations" - preach it.
"For too long we have been berated for our past and not able to imagine a better future" - amen.
"Any community left behind in that ambition represents a failure not only for the peace process but for Northern Ireland as a whole" - communal wisdom indeed.
It should not be a surprise that the loyalist statement has been met with suspicion, cynicism and, in some quarters, immediately dismissed.
There is little doubt that we are judged on our deeds and not on our well-crafted words. The proof will be in the pudding.
Another speaker at this year's 4 Corner's Festival was Stephen Travers. He was one of the members of the Miami Showband who was shot in a loyalist ambush in July 1975 that left three of the band dead.
"My first encounter with the UVF and others in 1975 resulted in the Miami Showband massacre and my attempted murder," he said on Monday.
"However, the statement today is clearly the result of intense efforts by all three loyalist organisations to create a better future and I wish them every success."
Shouldn't we all? Along with Stephen Travers, we are prayerfully willing to read the words of the Loyalist Declaration of Transformation and watch with the hope of seeing loyalism develop; pray with us.
- The Rev Steve Stockman and Fr Martin Magill are founders and organisers of the 4 Corners Festival.