Whilst over in Belfast on my recent research trip I attended Greater Shankill ACT’s “The Fallen and the Brave” exhibition, held on the 5th and 6th September at the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road.
Greater Shankill ACT is part of the ACT Initiative. The ACT (Action for Community Transformation) Initiative describes itself as a “conflict transformation process supporting former UVF/RHC personnel on their journey from conflict to peace”. Various ACT franchises exist throughout Belfast and NI, of which the Greater Shankill branch is unsurprisingly the most active. It is worth pointing out that Greater Shankill ACT receives no public money and that this exhibition was staged at its own expense.
The title of the event was not a new one, having previously been used for a booklet issued in 2006 in remembrance of UVF and Red Hand Commando members killed during the conflict. The theme of the exhibition was along the same lines, save for its focus on the UVF’s 1st Battalion covering west Belfast.
Accepting them on their own terms, and leaving the contentious issue of parades to one side, commemorative events such as this are something the UVF and associated groups do very well – one does not have to respect or even like the UVF to acknowledge that. The organisation looks to British military tradition for its references and such stagings are invariably solemn affairs. Triumphalism and tasteless imagery are generally absent, and overtly political content is kept to a minimum. So it was with “The Fallen and the Brave”.
The event coincided with the annual Brian Robinson parade which is traditionally held on the first Saturday of each September. Indeed as one entered the auditorium the first display one came across, arranged along the left wall, was dedicated to him. For those who are not aware, Brian Robinson was a UVF member killed in a 1989 “shoot to kill” incident of some controversy. On the 2nd September of that year 27yr old Robinson and another UVF member set out on a motorcycle to kill Patrick McKenna, a 40yr old Catholic from Ardoyne. The UVF were convinced (and possibly still are) that McKenna was, if not an IRA volunteer, then at least some sort of republican activist, something his family and representatives of the nationalist community strongly deny (the display did not refer to him as a member of the IRA). He had previously been injured by a UVF Valentine card booby-trap in 1975. McKenna was shot dead on Crumlin Road by Robinson, the pillion passenger, who was in turn gunned down by an undercover Army unit after a short chase and the ramming of the motorcycle. Upon hearing the news of her son’s death, Brian Robinson’s mother Margaret suffered a fatal heart attack. Paddy McKenna, Brian Robinson, and Margaret Robinson are listed as victims 3052, 3053, and 3054 in the 2001 edition of Lost Lives.
Some paramilitary elements were on display, such as the cap and gloves from his coffin, but the majority of mementos focused on Brian Robinson’s life outside of the UVF. Family snapshots, wedding photos, and similar items were chosen in preference to more militaristic content. More prominent however, and by far the most affecting aspect of the exhibition as a whole, was the audio testimony of his widow, Alberta. This 20-minute recording, part of ACT’s ongoing “archiving” oral history project, was played through speakers within the auditorium, and of all the exhibition’s various elements this was by far its most compelling. It was also the most difficult to absorb, as at several points she audibly broke down while speaking of the deaths of her husband and mother-in-law. Many people reading this will immediately say, as one person I discussed the exhibition with did, “imagine how Paddy McKenna’s family felt”. I have no doubt they experienced the same trauma and pain, but suffering and commemoration of loss are not either/or, zero-sum affairs. The day when a UVF man and his victim can be remembered in the same space, if it ever indeed comes, will probably arrive long after the person writing this and those reading it are themselves dead. In the meantime the right of people to remember the dead in a dignified but separate fashion must be respected.
The centrepiece of the expo consisted of an entire wall dedicated to the 31 members of the UVF’s 1st Battalion who died at the hands of their republican enemies, the security forces, rival loyalists, as a result of internal disputes, or while in jail. Each of these individuals was afforded a framed portrait with a brief thumbnail biography underneath. There were also several laptops where one could click on an icon for each of these 31 and listen to an audio account from friends and family. Additionally there were dozens of portraits, sans biography, depicting volunteers who were deemed to have suffered premature deaths as a result of the “unnatural lifestyle” associated with paramilitary involvement (a fair point: anyone who has studied the UVF in depth will have noted the number of significant figures who have died in early middle age). The sheer number of the 1st Battalion “fallen”, and their preponderance when one compares casualty figures from other UVF areas, demonstrates how the Shankill and surrounding area has historically constituted the organisation’s centre of mass, organisationally and numerically.
Particularly revealing though was the presence of the 11 portraits depicting female UVF volunteers from west Belfast. Although I cannot be specific about the identities of these women, it should suffice to say that I am now inclined to believe that they played a more significant role in the organisation than has heretofore been supposed, perhaps even a critical one. This is an area which demands further research. Much is known about the highly visible (and sometimes violent) part played by female UDA members during the conflict, but the activities of UVF women remain obscure.
The more militaristic aspects were not ignored by any means. In the centre of the space a number of display cabinets held replica and deactivated weapons of the type obtained by the UVF throughout the conflict, along with explanatory cards detailing various “procurement” operations over the years. Everything from an original Mauser rifle from the pre-WWI gunrunning days, to the Sterlings “liberated” from UDR bases, and more sophisticated weaponry sourced from Canada in later years were featured. ACT is also involved in researching this area of its paramilitary past and the products of this effort will no doubt be intriguing.
No pictures are available as photography was not permitted inside the exhibition space. The reasons for this are understandable – some of the portrait captions referred explicitly to the structure of the UVF, or the paramilitary rank of the deceased (which held a couple of surprises for myself). The portraits displayed will also have included certain individuals who successfully concealed their UVF membership until death and who consequently have never been identified with the organisation. No doubt the Spectrum Centre will also have been somewhat anxious given the subject matter of the exhibition, although any fears they might have had regarding triumphalism or the glorification of violence and conflict were not realised. The prohibition on pictures extended even to the families of those the exhibition was dedicated to. There were no exceptions.
Overall I was struck by the obviously professional manner in which the exhibition was mounted, despite just four weeks of preparation using only voluntary helpers. Many will be unenthusiastic about its subject matter, but I found the focus on commemoration and the price of conflict, albeit within a paramilitary context, to be well judged. It perhaps indicates a desire to move on, and its view of the Troubles as being history is encouraging, although it will have come too late to satisfy some. That the UVF and RHC now manifest themselves most visibly through post-conflict groups such as ACT is a step in the right direction: the sight of former UVF members putting their organisational skills into a different form of “volunteering” by holding kids play days and road safety initiatives can only be a good thing, and their persistence in the near-total absence of any mainstream recognition or praise for these efforts is commendable. Things can only be improved by other ACT branches following the lead of Greater Shankill and pursuing a city or NI-wide approach to civilianising the UVF/RHC as promised in the 2007 statement of intent.