Posted by Niall O'Dowd at 6/27/2009 5:54 PM EDT


If Ireland needs a great president to replace the current occupant, Mary McAleese, when her term ends in a few years, they should look no further than to the man at her side.

Almost singlehandedly, Martin McAleese brought about the remarkable statement by the Ulster Volunteer Force yesterday that they have decommissioned their weapons, finally bringing their side of the 30-year war to a definitive end.

McAleese has worked quiety and powerfully with the Loyalist paramilitaries since his wife became president. It was a thanklelss task, trying to win the confidence of hardcore gunmen and former gunmen. Somehow he bridged the gap, and and the statement yesterday is the result.

The UVF were a bloody bunch. They effectively began the Troubles by killing a young Catholic barman, Peter Ward, aged just 18, in 1969. In the following decades they killed 500 people and carried out some of the worst massacres of the Troubles. Who can forget the indiscriminate shooting in a a County Down bar of innocent Catholics watching a World Cup soccer game, or the massacre at a bookmakers shop in Belfast when they opened fire without warning?

Those days are gone, and the statement yesterday reinforced that reality. Like the IRA, it was hard to finally believe that the day had come.

I'm glad that Billy Hutchinson was there to help deliver the good news. Hutchinson was the closest thing to a Gerry Adams that the Loyalist groups had. He was unafraid to question the old certainties, unafraid to put it all on the line when it counted.

I got to know Hutchinson and his fellow Loyalist peacemaker David Ervine during the peace process negotiations. They came from a different angle altogther when it came to their perception of right and wrong in Northern Ireland.Theirs was a radical working class Protestant viewpoint -- a wonderful anamoly in a situation where very little original thinking had been evident on the unionist side for generations.

They saw the discrimination against working class Protestants to be every bit as lethal as it was against Catholics. A stroll with them up the Shankill Road certinaly convinced me they were telling the truth. The deprivation was worse if anything than on the Falls Road. They gave me some incredible statistic that only a handful of young people from the Shankill had graduated high school the year before an that unemployment was close to 50 per cent.

What was wonderful about them was how open they were. The unionist mind is often suspicious, hostile, withdrawn, especially when Irish Americans come around. I never found that with Billy Hutchinson or David Ervine. Indeed, some of my best memories are nights spent with both men singing rebel and orange songs in equal measure.

They didn't measure success by what we have we hold, they measured it by what they could do for their own people to give them a better life. I always thought they had far more in common with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness than probably all four men realized.

Their mentor was Gusty Spence, another giant of intelligent Ulster loyalism I was glad to get to know. Spence too, understood that Northern Ireland was as much a class war as a religious conflict. He saw the bridges that could be built across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland before most anyone else.

I am only sorry that David Ervine was not alive to see this great day for his beliefs and his life's work. No doubt he is smiling somewhere in the wild blue yonder. He deserves to be. Martin McAleese no doubt is smiling back on planet Earth. He more than anyone richly deserves that, too.