I did not know Plum Smith well, having met him on only a few brief occasions, but I was saddened all the same when I heard he was gravely unwell and I am sad now that he has passed on. I had the pleasure of meeting his son the last time I was in Belfast; my thoughts are with him and the rest of Plum’s family at this time. Plum was the first loyalist I ever got in touch with, over three years ago now, when I was seeking advice regarding a screenplay that I was planning to write, about a young loyalist caught up in the Troubles of the early Seventies. I never completed that project, but it led directly to me starting up Balaclava Street.
Smith was a founder member of the Red Hand Commando and one of the organisation’s leading lights during its early days. During the violent summer of 1970 when Orange parades came under IRA attack in both Whiterock and in the east of the city, he was one of a group of young men and teenagers who met in response to form what would become the Red Hand. The small, secretive, and tight-knit group later linked up with Shankill Defence Association leader John McKeague who became its figurehead, and forged a close alliance with the UVF. In July 1972 Smith was arrested with two other Red Hand volunteers for the attempted murder of a Catholic man outside Unity Flats, for which he served five years in Crumlin Road Gaol and the compounds of Long Kesh.
Those who were close to Plum and who knew him far better than I did will no doubt share their memories and thoughts of him over the next few days – his work with the Ex-Prisoners Interpretive Centre, his love of all things Native American, time as a shop steward with the TGWU, and of course his years in Long Kesh and accompanying politicisation – but I would like to direct people towards his prison memoir Inside Man: Loyalists of Long Kesh – The Untold Story, published in 2014, which I believe is one of the best accounts of the conflict from a loyalist perspective. His political awakening in jail led to his involvement with the PUP, in which he served as party chairman, while later he played an important part in bringing the conflict to an end as one of its delegates to the Good Friday talks. All those who enjoy the relative peace which now endures in Northern Ireland have reason to be grateful to Plum Smith and others like him who worked towards bringing the Troubles to an end.
It’s known that Plum was working on a follow-up to Inside Man, dealing with the ceasefire and peace process years. It is to be lamented that this work will not now see the light of day; as it stands, those wishing to find out more about loyalism and particularly the prison experience could do far worse than to click the link below and purchase a copy of the book, and read the first-hand experiences of a man who was a part of Northern Ireland’s war, and who played a significant role in its peace.