[This is an edited version of the interview in my book ‘Whose Past Is It Anyway?’]
Davy Adams was involved in the struggle from his earliest years. No, not the political struggle – the struggle to put bread on the table. He is one of ten children and that was their everyday worry – getting the money to survive and endure as a family.
But his home was a political one, in that his mother always insisted that they vote: “She said it was the one time everyone was equal”. Although his home was the only Protestant one in a small row of houses, it was set in a wider predominantly unionist area. “Three-quarters of the population could have sat at home and the unionist guy would still have swept home with the vote”.
His parents never had any fear that their children would be swept into paramilitarism or “become enthralled by Paisley or any of his people”, because they believed their children were too sensible. They were right, with one exception: their son Davy, who joined the UDA. He speaks of a resentment among working-class unionists about how deprived other people were. “We had nothing either, and it was as if we were living in the lap of luxury. And then you would know people who were killed, people who were in no-warning bombs or shot on the least excuse or no excuse at all…I joined the UDA very late, in relative terms – I would have been in my early twenties – and it flowed from knowing people who had been murdered and decent people who had done no one any wrong.”
He says his thinking these days is massively changed. “In fact I’m not even sure that I would have a party political mode of thinking. I would be unionist because I happen to think that’s where the best future lies. According to the Good Friday Agreement, and I stick very much by that, if the majority on both sides of the border voted for a united Ireland, they would get no reaction from me. If there was a proper united Ireland out there, that would benefit us all and suit us all, where the pain and hatred and nastiness could be set aside or left behind, that would be no problem for me”.
He doesn’t believe the Stormont Assembly is achieving much in real terms, but “I think they’re doing an awful lot in terms of building understandings and building relationships, not only among themselves, but ones that bleed down into the wider community”.
A bad way of commemorating centenaries would be to be too militaristic or celebrating subjugation. “There are no more multi-racial,multi-ethnic, multi-religious communities than there are within the UK. That’s what unionism should have been pointing out for years and should be pointing out now. So a bad commemoration would be singular, it would be triumphalist it would be about subjugation, it would be harking back to supposed good old days when unionists ruled the roost completely – that to me would be a bad commemoration”.
He would like to see republicans invited to commemorations of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, but he’s not too optimistic that the invitations will be offered or, if offered, accepted. “It would be great if people from all sections took part in each of the commemorations, but even if that doesn’t happen, I don’t think that’s a recipe for disaster necessarily. I think it can still be handled”.
He thinks 2012 is a good opportunity for unionists to reflect on unionism, although “no one can say that unionism hasn’t spent forty years reflecting on unionism. An awful lot of it had to be forced on them, but it happened none the less”.
He believes there is “widespread ignorance” in the unionist community about 1916, and a few television programmes about it would help. “What we need is a straight historical piece – or two or three – on the Easter Rising, what foreshadowed it, what brought it about, what followed, the Civil War even. And you know, the state that came from it wasn’t exactly in line with Irish republicanism – I would argue it wasn’t within a beagle’s goul of Irish republicanism.”
He believes we should spend less time dwelling on the pitfalls of the centenaries and more on what can be done with them.
“There’s a great opportunity for education here and understanding other points of view – about how people got to the position they were in, how people ended up with their beliefs and allegiances, and how people who have different allegiances don’t necessarily have to be enemies, even such starkly different allegiances as those to an Irish Republic or those to a Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom”.
He’s very much opposed to “one-eyed presentation” of events – providing a unionist-weighted programme, then a republican-weighted programme, and then claiming you’ve created balance. “Each programme should be a historical analysis, a straight historical analysis pointing out benefits, faults, why people made the decisions they did”.
He believes that what both unionism and republicanism have to learn is Irishness – “the breadth of Irishness. It doesn’t stop at a certain religion or a certain set of political views, and it never did until relatively recent times. My father was born before partition, and a lot of his modes of reference were in an Irish context. He’d say ‘Ah, you wouldn’t meet a dafter man if you walked to Dublin!’ And if you’d asked him if he was Irish he’d have laughed at you. ‘Do you think I’m Australian or something?’ That was lost, so we all have to learn that Irishness doesn’t belong to one, almost singular identity”.
He acknowledges that it’s hard to project oneself into the past and understand it. “But it’s not impossible. I think we underestimate ourselves far, far too much in Northern Ireland. We just say, ‘Ah, Jesus, we can’t trust ourselves to do this that or the other’. And often, almost subconsciously,you can attract the reaction that you expect – not that you want but that you expect. Instead, why not go for it? Let’s go for it and do it properly, and do it hoping for the best and planning to get the best from both sides of the community”.
He thinks republicans and nationalists in the north may go a bit overboard “to prove how Irish and republican they are [Laughs] Whereas down in the south, they’re far more relaxed about it. I think the commemoration in the south will be a relaxed thing – probably far, far better done in terms of presenting different sides of the story accurately”.
The Battle of the Somme commemorations, he believes, have always been something that unionism has claimed ownership of, although that may in part have been due to nationalism “pushing it away”. “It never should have been treated like that. It was a sacrifice made by people from all arts and parts of Ireland, and from all religions and all politics, so I think it has real potential for being commemorated in the proper sense and it has far more legitimacy for being commemorated right across the communities.”
He sees the Great War as being imperial. “You know the old one – ‘Lions led by donkeys’. It wasn’t quite the case but that certainly has got a grip now on people’s understanding of that event”.
But in terms of the centenary commemorations generally? He’s optimistic. “Minds are broadening – I’ve no doubt about that. You’ve only to look at who’s sitting up in Stormont together. That has set a great example to the rest of Northern Ireland. The centenaries are going to happen, they’re historical events, let’s look at them, let’s commemorate them. And let’s try and do it in as reasonable and as sensible a manner possible, with an underlying notion of using them to help better understanding across communities.”