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.
Inside Man, the prison memoir of former Red Hand Commando and Progressive Unionist Party chairman William “Plum” Smith is, foremost, a necessary book. The fact that it is the first, and indeed only, serious-minded first-hand account from a loyalist paramilitary perspective is evidence enough of that. Until now the only available accounts have come in the form of decidedly less credible offerings, tabloidesque cash-ins from the pen of ghostwriters “without whom this book could not have been written”. Johnny Adair’s Mad Dog reads more in the style of true crime, with its focus on vendettas and reliance on a persecution narrative where the protagonist is endlessly threatened by enemies out to get him. None Shall Divide Us gave us a frequently less than reliable version of Michael Stone’s life story, as when playing urban myth as straight fact with its the hoary tale of Stone having to execute a German Shepherd Dog to pass initiation into the UDA (the story usually involves the US Marines or SAS).
With a 200-year history of incarceration, the republican as prisoner is a well-established archetype, a vital component of the movement’s self-image and one which is carefully guarded (Bobby Sands dinnerplates notwithstanding). IRA prisoners were held, and continue to be held, in high favour within the communities from which they came due not just to support for the actions which led to their imprisonment, but because a republican’s deportment within prison was seen as noble in itself. Resistance to authority, education in confinement, and maintenance of The Army’s discipline were the ideals to be upheld. Depressingly, however, the regard held by republicans for their paramilitary prisoners is often accompanied by a tendency to denigrate or outright dismiss the experiences of their loyalist counterparts. For example, the elderly bigot Jude Collins flatly refuses to believe that loyalist prisoners were even capable of attaining qualifications. Indeed if certain individuals are to be believed republicans floated out of Long Kesh in the lotus position, preaching enlightenment in fluent Gaelic, weighed down with degrees and doctorates and ready to perform brain surgery or build particle accelerators. Loyalists meanwhile are alleged to have passed the time heaving weights and gobbling steroids like Dolly Mixture, while reading materials were supposedly restricted to publications of the one-handed variety. This is a foul and pernicious lie, and one which Smith successfully challenges.
This stereotype appears to owe much to, and perhaps has its origins in, the opening scenes of Peter Taylor’s H-Block documentary The Enemy Within (1990), in which the UDA’s John Gregg (not an especially articulate subject, whatever his other qualities) is seen lifting weights in the prison gym, the camera lingering on his huge physique and numerous tattoos, intercut with a piece-to-camera in which semi-nude pin-ups can be seen on the wall behind him. In spite of considerable work by various authors in recent years the caricature has proven remarkably resistant. This is unfortunate but not surprising; people take comfort in stereotypes and are reluctant to abandon them even in the face of credible argument and abundant evidence to the contrary. Loyalists are particularly vulnerable to this type of smear not simply because their stock within the media is so low but due to the paucity of first-hand accounts from those best placed to refute them, namely the ex-prisoners themselves.
This makes Inside Man all the more valuable. Yet the very lack of first-hand accounts from loyalists , particularly in this area, highlights what is both a strength and weakness of the book. Starting from what is effectively a blank page in sum terms, Smith feels obliged to explore a very broad range of topics relating to the prisons issue, from court proceedings, legal matters, internment, political development within Long Kesh, relations with republicans, to escapes, paramilitary discipline and procedure, prison arts, and confrontation with prison staff and the British Army. This provides an excellent overview of the compound system as experience by the UVF/RHC, and the book can be taken as a “prison primer”. On the other hand, it also means that the space given over to each individual topic is somewhat limited: the issue of internment for example is breezed through in just five pages. Accepting that the task of making loyalism’s first credible entry into the field of memoir is a daunting and unenviable one, Smith rises to the challenge admirably.
His childhood is briskly dealt with in the space of a few hundred words and less than a dozen pages later we find ourselves in a jail cell for the first time, quickly establishing that this is strictly prison memoir, not autobiography. Smith restricts his chronology to the years of his own imprisonment, from 1971 to 1977. This is a strength of the book, in that he sticks solely to a time period that can be backed up by personal knowledge, but it means that many important matters – such as the development of the H-Blocks, supergrass trials, the fight for segregation – are outwith the scope of this work. A passage describing Smith’s experiences as a short-term prisoner in Crumlin Road Jail, although brief, successfully depicts it as a forbidding and unsettled place, but does not expand upon Gusty Spence’s claim that he acted as a loyalist “mole” while working on the republican wings as an orderly. Those hoping to find illumination regarding Smith’s paramilitary activities as a founding member of the Red Hand Commando will be disappointed. Very little time is spent on the subject, perhaps for understandable reasons: anyone researching loyalist paramilitaries will have noted the suppressant effect the HET has had on people’s willingness to talk. As it is, Smith reveals his role as a bodyguard for Spence during his brief period at large during the second half of 1972. Although the attempted murder for which he was sentenced along with two others is not described in detail, a chance meeting between Smith and the mother of the man he shot (Imelda Hall, not named here) during the run-up to the referendum on the Belfast Agreement is recounted in the afterword, an encounter which says much about the character of this brave woman and Smith’s own personal development.
In his descriptions of daily life in this unique prison Smith’s recollections are easy to follow and sympathetic. Battles with prison authorities over bad food, access to education (an early attempt by offering bridge classes shows a laughably out of touch jail regime), overcrowding with resultant poor sanitation, and basic healthcare are a constant feature throughout the early and mid-1970s. The pettiness of the Northern Ireland Office is sadly much in evidence. The military-style regime overseen by Gusty Spence has been commented upon at length in various other sources and so it is especially interesting to read how this was first established, something Smith, as one of the very first loyalist prisoners in Long Kesh, is well placed to recall. The prose is plain and functional throughout. It is not necessary for it to be anything else. In an underdeveloped field such as this there is little room for flourish or experimentation. During writing Smith had access to original documents from the paramilitary archive of Gusty Spence and these are well used throughout the text. In particular the full text of a letter from Bo McClelland is included and makes an interesting comparison to the abbreviated version found in Roy Garland’s biography of Spence.
The book is successful in refuting the image of loyalist prisoners as backward and uninterested in self-improvement. As Smith relates, it was in fact loyalists who were the first to take up the opportunity for formal education classes within the prison. That they did so alongside the Official IRA says much for the forebearance of the two opposing groups, and the dogmatic perversity of the Provisional IRA who in fact initially rejected the Open University. A significant number of loyalists gained degrees while in jail, several of whom progressed to Phd level after release. For the truly sceptical Smith provides a group graduation photograph of UVF/RHC prisoners in academic gowns, evidence that even the likes of Jude Collins surely cannot ignore. The author himself gained his Fáinne literally studying “through the wire” under a republican tutor.
Although not found within the book, further testimony to these inclinations can be seen in a “Books Wanted” appeal from UVF/RHC prisoners in Long Kesh placed in Combat magazine in early 1979. Among the texts “urgently require(d)” are works on sociology, criminology and penology, social psychology, and journals and magazines dedicated to education, politics, current affairs among others. Under the heading “Philosophy/Religion”, the prisoners sought “works dealing with Existentialism, particularly by or about Kirkegaarde (sic), Jaspers, Sarte, Heidegger, Barth, Tillich, Bultmann”.Their literary selections, displaying a distinctly Irish bent, include authors such as Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, Lady Gregory, George “AE” Russell, and Matthew Arnold, the father of modern literary criticism. Such tastes hardly speaks to the popular image of shelves groaning with Rodox and nandrolone.
Throughout history prisoners have frequently displayed practical ingenuity when confronted by a particular need, and the UVF/RHC inmates of Long Kesh appear to have been no different. Inter-compound communications were relayed by coded semaphore from atop Nissen huts, while a link with the organisation on the outside was maintained using a juy-rigged (and naturally illicit) radio transmitter secreted in the bottom of a tea boiler. The boilers also found use in stills for concocting poteen, the recipe passed on to Smith by his Irish language tutor. In the most memorable of these tales of improvisation, basketball stanchions and bed legs are fashioned into primitive but deadly shotguns in response to an abortive UDA assassination attempt as ill-feeling from feuding on the outside penetrated the jail. Paramilitary uniforms and other forms of contraband were sneaked in by relatives such as Granny McCrea, who Smiths pays tribute to as the most skilled of all the smugglers.
He also disproves with several examples the commonly-held belief that loyalists either did not mount escape attempts or proved inept jailbreakers, while noting the inherent difficulties arising from the lack of a nearby safe haven that republicans enjoyed in the Republic. In particular the flight of Danny Strutt from Crumlin Road Jail would not seem out of place in a Clint Eastwood movie, with smuggled hacksaws and papier mache heads (complete with wig) to confound the headcount. Strutt was arrested in Larkhall, Scotland over a year later after raiding a coal mine for explosives and stealing over a dozen guns from an Edinburgh rifle range.
A broad range of notables and prison “characters” feature throughout the book, but with so many topics to cover and limited space available one does not get to know them particularly well. The one personality detailed in full is camp CO Gusty Spence. A towering figure within loyalism, the book’s depiction of Spence is strongly positive and paints him as a visionary in his approach to education, conflict resolution, and what we might term “paramilitary human resources”. This is true to a large extent, and the endeavors of the Spence-inspired political cadre which arose particularly from the progressive regime within Compound 21 are well documented (if not always appreciated). However, the numbers of those who fully took to his teachings should not be exaggerated. Not all UVF/RHC prisoners left prison preaching peace and concilliation, and many more were more than happy to return to the ranks following a period of confinement. Not all prisoners shared his lack of enthusiasm for guerilla training. In addition, Smith spends no time on the often bitter disagreements between Spence and the UVF leadership on the outside during the mid-70s, which at one point saw one of his missives returned with the words “FUCK OFF!” added to it by the juvenile then-Brigadier. What cannot be disputed is Spence’s success in imposing a strictly-regimented, military-style discipline, often carried out by NCOs with prior military experience. Smith leaves us in no doubt that this regime was remarkably effective in maintaining cohesion amongst several hundred mostly young men, many imprisoned for violent offences. In addition to serving a practical domestic purpose by ensuring cleanliness and an active daily schedule for men who might otherwise vegitate, Smith intimates that it gave the UVF/RHC prisoners an advantage in a number of often violent stand-offs with the prison authorities. These confrontations, at times resulting in hand-to-hand fighting, are described in vivid detail.
The book is well-illustrated with two glossy picture sections of excellent and evocative photographs, many of them taken surreptitiously within Long Kesh itself. Similar photos occasionally appeared in Combat magazine during the 1970s, credited to the “Phantom photographer”. (As an aside, a former UVF prisoner explained to me that during Twelfth and Remembrance Day parades the photographer would be seen quite blatantly taking pictures of the assembled inmates. In response, the jail governor would summon Gusty Spence and demand the forfeiture of the camera and handing over of the photographer, only to be told that the man concerned was an eccentric who had fashioned a cigarette packet into a “camera” and that to deprive him of it would distress him!). An appendix details UVF/RHC Standing Orders (sample: “REQUESTS: Governor, Doctor, Welfare. Permission must be given from the hut OC before names are entered into request book”), directives on Diplock courts, a sample paramilitary court martial, and a list of greviances drawn up by the Camp Council. A glossary is particularly welcome for those unfamiliar with prison or paramilitary terminology, and a map – an aid absent from many books – of the jail is most helpful for assisting the reader in orienting themselves, particularly during the book’s accounts of the fire of 1974 and confrontations with the British Army. The index is restricted to proper names only and it would have been preferable for researchers if the publisher had extended this to a list of common themes also.
There are a few small but frustrating niggles which arise within the text. On page 113 Smith mentions the “irony” of Miriam Daly teaching loyalist students within the jail. While noting her murder in 1980 (a victim of the UFF and John McMichael’s “shopping list”) he does not explain the irony, namely that Daly was a member of both the IRSP and INLA. It is Napoleon, not Churchill, who is usually credited with saying that an army marches on its stomach (p.161). On occasion typographical errors appear to have slipped past the editor. These are minor points however.
For loyalists, the most important words found within the book appear on the very first page, in the dedication: “(t)his is my story, my version but I would encourage other Loyalists to tell their experiences and their stories so that the Loyalist story will not be lost beneath a sea of green”. We can take his words both as challenge and admonition. All forms of autobiography must necessarily be approached with caution as the author is free to be as selective in his recollections as he wishes. The fallibility of memory, particularly after 40 years, is another unavoidable concern. As such, Inside Man has its limitations. The answer to this is not to pick holes in Smith’s account – which, after all, is nothing more than his own and makes no claim to be anything else – for it is a laudable and, considering the task, successful effort. Instead those remaining loyalist paramilitants (ex-prisoner or otherwise) of the 1960s and 70s, whose numbers diminish almost weekly, must be encouraged to share and record their recollections before they are lost. Even if by some herculean scholarly effort Smith had managed to provide a definitive account of the UVF/RHC behind the wire, it would still tell us very little of the story of imprisoned UDA men. Most academic and journalistic research on loyalist prisoners has concentrated on the UVF/RHC constituency, while far less has been written of their counterparts in the UDA/UFF. As for female loyalist prisoners, virtually nothing attests to their existence let alone experiences.
In seeking to challenge assumptions and stereotypes we should be careful not to construct well-intentioned but equally false counter-myths in their place. It would be wrong to speak as if all UVF/RHC prisoners heeded Spence’s words about “stretching out the hand of forbearance” to their enemies and engaged in peace-building. Lenny Murphy and Basher Bates were among those who went through the Long Kesh of this period, with its discipline, drill, and educational opportunities. Upon release Bates and Murphy soon embarked upon a spate of abductions and killings so reprehensible they need not be detailed here. If these men were exposed to any enlightened philosophy during this period in jail they proved impervious to its truth.
With Inside Man Plum Smith has made an invaluable contribution to the literature of the Troubles and especially the underpopulated loyalist perspective, but it is only a start. His comments about a “sea of green” should be heeded not just by loyalists, but by former prison staff, RUC, soldiers, and those who survived the conflict without joining any combatant groups, illegal or otherwise. Sinn Fein and its satellite groups are presently engaged in a determined effort to rewrite the history of the conflict which frequently omits events and groups (including other republicans such as the INLA and OIRA) which have no place in its decontextualised and sanitised narrative. That a recent retrospective on the fire of 1974 in An Phoblact makes no mention of the humanity of the UDA prisoners who, at some risk to themselves, retrieved wounded republicans from the scene of battle and took them back to the safety of their compound, is proof of that. That particular part of the story would likely have been lost had an account not appeared on Long Kesh Inside Out, but a more permanent testimony speaking to a wider audience must be sought also. If the stories of loyalists – and all other groups whose voices are underrepresented – are washed over by a green sea and lost to posterity, they will have only themselves to blame.
Inside Man is available from the publisher, Colourpoint Books, priced £9.99