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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Sampling of articles by Billy Mitchell
the Scenes at the World Cup
Is Class Politics
- Unionist Despondency
Class War is Over!
Faith & Politics
Can The Course of
Labour Afford to Wait?
A Question of Identity
Bastards and Traitors!