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The search for peace
Gary McMichael
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• Loyalist splinter threat
Gary McMichael
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• Gary McMichael weighs up the Good Friday Agreement, 1998

Gary McMichael

In July 1996, the then UK Prime Minister John Major opened the door of 10 Downing Street to the political representatives of loyalist paramilitary organisations. One of them was Gary McMichael, the young leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, a group linked to the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Mr McMichael's involvement in mapping out the future for Northern Ireland loyalism was made almost inevitable by the role that his father, John, played as a senior UDA commander in the 1970s and 1980s.

While the bombing and shooting continued, John McMichael co-authored a 1979 discussion document which proposed taking both traditions of the province "beyond the religious divide" within new political frameworks.

John McMichael was killed by an IRA car bomb in 1987 and, after the subsequent killing of the emerging UDP's leader Raymond Smallwood in 1994, Gary McMichael took up the political mantle.

Born and raised in a working class Protestant area of Lisburn, Mr McMichael first became involved in politics when he was 17. Unlike many members of political parties linked to paramilitary organisations, Mr McMichael has no terrorist convictions.

Gary McMichael was present at the Combined Loyalist Military Command's public announcement of its ceasefire in 1994. A year later he took part in the first public debate between a representative of the loyalist paramilitaries and Sinn Fein.

During the talks in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement he advocated a constructive form of unionism based upon devolved power. Like other paramilitary groups, he also argued for the release of their prisoners from the Maze H-Blocks and elsewhere.

His time at the helm of the UDP has not been without serious trials.

When loyalist paramilitary prisoners voted against the peace process in 1998, Mr McMichael and colleagues persuaded Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam to take a major political gamble by meeting the prisoners face-to-face.

The prisoners accepted promises that the union would be safe and they backed the UDP in negotiations. Despite his undisputed success in motivating UDA members, Gary McMichael's work failed to translate into votes: The UDP failed to win any seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr McMichael was bitterly disappointed but he pledged to continue to work for peace. He returned to the main political scene when decommissioning began to dominate the agenda in the summer of 1999.

However, as with all other loyalism-aligned parties, the influence of the politicians over the paramilitary wings have been sorely tested.

Without representation in the Assembly, the UDP found it increasingly difficult to maintain support for the good Friday agreement among its section of the loyalist paramilitaries.

At the same time, the party became embroiled in the fatal territorial feud between rival loyalist paramilitaries that erupted in 2000.

A year later, Mr McMichael admitted that the pro-agreement party did not have enough money to put up candidates during the 2001 general election, further casting doubt on the long-term political fortunes of the divided loyalist camp.

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