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David Adams: War, peace and reflection

After ending his associations with loyalist politics David Adams went on to forge a new career. 25 years after helping secure the Good Friday Agreement he tells Political Correspondent John Manley about his life's journey...

Former UDP representative David Adams
John Manley Political Correspondent

"Nothing angers some people more than someone who doesn't live down to their stereotype," says David Adams.

The 70-year-old former leading member of the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) defies pigeonholing. Reared in a rural, "non-sectarian" household in Co Down where there was deep antipathy for Ian Paisley and the DUP, Adams was a grammar school pupil who went on to become a columnist in Ireland's establishment newspaper before working for an international relief organisation in countries ravaged by war and natural disasters.

He's the former UDA member with an Indian great-grandmother whose erstwhile comrades forced him from his home, killing his pet dog in the process and dragging his family into what he terms a "messy divorce". The one-time councillor no longer regards himself a loyalist and in the 20-odd years since he left politics has researched, written and reflected extensively on his roots and identity. He still considers himself – after slight hesitation – a unionist, albeit one who remains disillusioned by much of mainstream unionist thinking.

Adams joined the UDA in the late 1970s. He declines to elaborate on exactly what it entailed but insists he "wasn't involved, even at arm's length, in killing or hurting anybody".

A young David Adams joined the UDA


He got to know Raymond Smallwood, who in the early 1990s was "reorganising and rejuvenating the UDP". He regards the former prisoner, shot dead by the IRA outside his Lisburn home a matter of weeks before the 1994 ceasefire, as a "mentor".

"Raymond was a very intelligent and articulate – he was committed to pursuing a political path," says Adams.

In the aftermath of the killing there was much speculation about the IRA's motives for taking out someone widely regarded as a 'dove', who was also in regular contact with Clonard priests Gerry Reynolds and Alec Reid.

Read more: Untangling the Mixed Roots of a complex past

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His friend suggests republicans knew that both the UFF and UVF, under the guidance of Smallwoods and Gusty Spence respectively, were close to calling a ceasefire.

"The thinking was that loyalists were about to call a ceasefire before the IRA and that the reason for Raymond's murder was two-fold – to stop the ceasefire but also because Raymond had a high profile and was obviously very articulate and intelligent. It was to take out the thinker within loyalism," says Adams

"The Provos didn't want the loyalists to call ceasefire before them because it would look like they were playing catch up."

He also argues that the killing was designed "to spark a reaction" but that loyalists held the line: "You don't do what people expect."

While there was no significant escalation in violence in the aftermath of the Smallwood's killing, the Combined Loyalist Military Command's ceasefire was nonetheless "put on ice" until the autumn.

In October 1994 Adams joined a panel of others "close to the thinking of the loyalist paramilitaries" at Fernhill House in Belfast to announce to UFF and UVF ceasefires.

It was the beginning of a process that would see the so-called fringe loyalist parties of the UDA-aligned UDP and UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party engage and negotiate with the two governments and other political parties. Gary McMichael, the UDP's leader at the time, and John White were allocated 'top-up' seats on the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue after failing to meet the required electoral threshold.

"The fringe loyalists gave unionism a majority in the talks," says Adams. "We also brought the knowledge of paramilitarism and knew what would be acceptable or not to our own communities."

He says that if the political representatives of the UVF and UDA had joined the DUP in opposing the talks, "then the Good Friday Agreement wouldn't have happened".

"The DUP and Bob McCartney's UK Unionists despised us, as we were giving (David) Trimble cover," he says of the intra-unionist animosity that occasionally turned into public confrontations.

David Adams with Nelson Mandela


Adams acknowledges that while Ian Paisley would've once characterised himself as a loyalist and had relied on paramilitary strength during the Ulster Workers Council strike that brought down Sunningdale, he believes it was an uncomfortable alliance that became increasingly strained.

"Not all DUP members, but obviously some, would've been happy enough to turn a blind eye or quietly encourage or support what loyalist paramilitaries were doing yet at the same time they might pop up on the news attacking what we were doing," he says.

"The DUP was afraid of our party attracting working class unionist support. They didn't like our politics – the politics of peace and reconciliation and all of that sort of stuff. That's where the animosity came from. It seems to me today that they have that electorate pretty much sewn up."

The UDP's electoral failings, coupled with growing opposition to the Good Friday Agreement within the ranks of the UDA, led Adams to sever ties with both.

"I wanted to move on – after the agreement I reckoned that was it," he says.

"Let's call it a divorce and like most divorces it was messy. I still feel guilty because I brought it on my family".

Adams remains a firm supporter of the 1998 accord and is angered by those who "failed to implement the spirit of the agreement".

"We failed the agreement right across the community, some more so than others," he says.

"I've never heard anyone genuinely come out with anything even approaching workable solution to replace it."

He believes the opportunity "to sell the union" was spurned and that the DUP's opposition to the agreement gave it short-term electoral advantage at the expense of a long-term strategy.

"It's like getting into your car, turning on the satnav but ignoring it and then blaming the satnav when you arrive back at where you began," he says. 

After leaving the UDP, Adams pursued a career in the media, writing a column in the Irish Times and making regular contributions to Radio Ulster's Talkback.

His profile prompted interest in the Republic from Goal, an international humanitarian response agency, who he initially worked for as a volunteer before becoming the organisation's media officer, a role he fulfilled for more than a decade, working in Syria, Uganda, South Sudan, Iraq and Sierra Leone during Ebola crisis.

The experience changed him "profoundly" and he developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his work.

Within six months of retiring in 2017, he was diagnosed with bowel cancer and underwent two major operations, after which he developed prostate cancer that's still being treated.

"The two cancers took my mind off all the suffering I'd seen," he says.

Reflecting on where unionism is 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, Adams isn't especially upbeat. He argues that the importance of the constitutional question had largely diminished until 2016's EU referendum "upended the whole thing".

"Up until Brexit, despite the ups and downs, people in both communities still supported the Good Friday Agreement – it was working despite the politicians," he says.

"But by pushing not only for Brexit, but the hardest possible Brexit, the DUP has ran the real risk of creating a situation that they were afraid of that didn't previously exist – namely, that most Catholics, probably a vast majority and many middle class Catholics, as well as middle class Protestants, will ultimately vote for a united Ireland."


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