A former member of the Red Hand Commando Plum Smith was a senior loyalist figure, at one time chairing the PUP. He was one of the public faces of the Combined Loyalist Military Command that announced the loyalist ceasefire in 1994. I would meet him at a University of North London conference a year later. During a session he passed me a note saying that nationalists would be "getting fuck all." We both sat and laughed and later went on the drink.
It was great craic but when we arrived back in Belfast he explained that it was too much of a risk for David Ervine and the others in their company to be seen being friendly with we republicans at Belfast International Airport, even though he explained it in the most friendly manner. This was not England where they could get away with such things, he explained. It took me back a bit but I was quick to appreciate that looking over their shoulders at their grass roots was something loyalists felt more compelled to do than their republican counterparts. There was a greater unease within the loyalist camp. Billy Hutchinson could talk comfortably at venues in the heart of West Belfast where he would lay out the loyalist position, whereas republicans could not risk venturing into the Shankill for something similar.
On another occasion myself and Tommy Gorman shared a panel with Plum and a former UDA prisoner at a discussion in the Wellington Park Hotel where we addressed an audience of American students. He told me after it that while he could laugh at my fulminations against Catholic clergy there was no way somebody from his community could get away with saying it in public. After it, along with the republican driver - a former IRA prisoner - we had with us, we dropped both men at a pub in the Shankill. Needless to say we didn't join them for a drink.
When he died in June former PUP leader Brian Ervine, brother of the late David, had this to say:
Plum was in the forefront of negotiating and bringing loyalist paramilitaries into the peace process and politicising the UVF and Red Hand Commando. He was a very intelligent fellow, he educated himself in Long Kesh. He also took Irish lessons there as well, he called the Irish language his own language. I'm just very, very sorry, I found him a very decent human being, and I found him a very forward thinking human being and he will be a loss, certainly to the Progressive Unionist Party and the loyalist community. He was a clear thinker, he was left of centre politically, he had a heart for ordinary people, for working class people, he tried to provide a voice, a voice which had been neglected.
He was also happy enough to stretch over the fence and do business with traditional enemies."
Which, give or take a bit, is pretty much how I found him: someone who identified with the working class and trade unionism and who was equipped with an intuitive mistrust of the political establishment, holding a particular disdain for big house unionism. He lost his post-prison job in Belfast Shipyard for leading a campaign against privatisation. While in London in 1995 Chris McGimpsey was winding him up about disliking the RUC even more than republicans. His hostility seemed not to abate once they were renamed as the PSNI. He was a target of their vindictive raid on the history archive at Boston College. He was consistent and non-discriminatory in his view:
One of his last public appearances was as defence witness for republican Gerry McGeough, charged with attempted murder. Smith gave evidence that the British government had reneged on a promise of amnesty for those involved in Troubles-related violence before 1998.
It was this type of nuance that helped puncture the myth that loyalists were all irremediably bigoted right wing Neanderthals, suggesting instead that a greater appreciation of complexity was required to understand them.
Plum had served a ten year sentence in the 1970s for the attempted killing of a 18 year old Catholic a week after Bloody Friday. He was reported to be the first loyalist prisoner to arrive in Long Kesh.
Two years before his death he spoke of the impact a meeting with the mother of his victim had upon his thinking:
She was a lovely woman. She could have mentioned the shooting, but she didn't. I was humbled by her magnanimity, her forgiveness. Down the years her words made me even more determined to leave the past behind. She showed more courage than me, or any of us.
He expressed "regret that anything happened here, which is why I fought for the peace process."
On his release from prison in 1977 he threw much of his energy into assisting loyalist prisoners. Much later he authored a book narrating life in the loyalist cages of Long Kesh, Inside Man: Loyalists Of Long Kesh - The Untold Story.
He walked a different road when it came to addressing the North's violent past, holding out little hope for the success of truth recovery. He instinctively recognised the vested interest which would prevent the emergence of truth. His opposition was not merely to the idea of retribution. He seriously doubted the value of revelation. “I disagree with building up the hopes of people regarding any truth-recovery process. I think it’s wrong and misleading.”
A firm believer that the telling of loyalist stories is long overdue, his passing has made it even more challenging for the emergence for a fuller loyalist historiography.