Northern Ireland

Flags protest: UDA speaks out

The Andy Tyrie Interpretive Centre on the Newtownards Road is named after one of the most prominent figures from early years of the UDA.

On display there are exhibits from the UDA's past, including an AK47 and a homemade submachine gun - both legally deactivated.

I watched as a group of teenagers was given a guided tour.

"It's to take the kids off the streets to learn about our past," says one of those running the place. But the organisation has a view on the present too.

I went there because two influential figures in loyalism agreed to speak to me for a Radio Ulster documentary seeking to discover who has been behind the flag protests and how they have been organised.

Jimmy Birch joined the UDA at 17, he is now 42 and a senior figure in the organisation in east Belfast. He tells me he has been "lucky enough" not to spend time in jail. The same cannot be said for his friend David Stitt.

He was even younger when he joined the organisation, just 15, he is now 41, but spent nearly five years in prison for armed robbery and possession of a firearm.

He was released under the Good Friday Agreement and these days is a leader of the UDA in north Down and Ards. Both men work for the Charter organisation which seeks to help former UDA prisoners adjust to life on the outside. They claim 2,000 men are members of the paramilitary group in east Belfast, north Down and Ards

I was keen to know whether any of those men might have been involved in the violence that has accompanied the flag protests. Jimmy Birch says UDA members have been told not to take part in rioting.

He says he does not support the violence and that it should stop. He says it plays into the hands of Sinn Féin.

"We are so predictable. They (Sinn Fein) are playing us - they're like our band captain - they're calling the tunes and we're playing them," he says.

"And every time they call the tune, we take to the streets, we wreck our own areas, we fight with the police, we burn our own cars and we stop our own people going to work and coming home from work and disrupt our own people's way of life.

"It's wrong, we need to take a step back and we need to stop being predictable."

Jimmy Birch acknowledges that the union flag decision at Belfast City Hall was a democratic vote and says politics is the only way the issue can be resolved. And there are clear signs that the political path the UDA is taking in east Belfast is in the direction of closer engagement with the DUP. David Stitt says contacts with the party have been building over the past four years.

"We've been linking into the biggest political party that's there on the loyalist side and we've been connecting with politics and that's what people are saying we need - to connect with politics. So why don't they connect? Why don't they connect?

"People were asked the same thing as me four years ago to connect with politics and we connected with politics - so why didn't everyone else? So instead of gurning about not connecting - connect. You know what I mean? And instead of creating another forum, stop unionism splitting up."

The men also say that it's time the loyalist community focused on education,

David Stitt says: " We say now arm ourselves with education.

"Five years ago, two people started university within our organisation; this year 16 people. Sixteen young lads and girls started university, so we've been on that journey, we've been on the journey of education because education is the new power."

Jimmy Birch and David Stitt say they were part of General Jean De Chastelain's decommissioning process.

David Stitt says: "All the guns are gone. All the guns under our control are gone.

"Jimmy and myself were part of that process - the decommissioning process with General John De Chastelain. We were part of that process of taking the UDA's weapons in east Belfast beyond use."

News Special: Inside The Flag Protests

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