Former loyalist killer dies aged 56
BILLY McCaughey, once loathed for his role as a convicted paramilitary killer, went to his grave described as onje of the most progressive loyalist 'thinkers' of his generation.
In recent years, Billy McCaughey took on the role of community worker was most closely associated with ground-level activities in the Harryville area of the town.
However, he could never fully escape being linked with the UVF and a number of killings and other incidents which made his name infamous during the troubles.
Billy McCaughey had been diagnosed with lung cancer more than a year ago and his condition seemed to be in remission after treatment.
But in recent times, the once vociferous PUP spokesman had faded from the public view and it was an open secret that the cancer had returned to haunt him.
He died last Wednesday evening and was buried on Friday. The service as at the family home in Lurgan with interment at Trinity, Ahoghill.
The 56-year-old Ahoghill man spent 16 years in prison for his part in the murder of a Catholic pharmacist, William Strathearn in Ahoghill in 1977. In a time of atrocity and counter atrocity, the case sent shockwaves through because he was a serving member of the RUC at the time.
He was also convicted for his involvement in the bombing of a Keady pub and for kidnapping a Catholic priest in Ahoghill in 1978.
He was freed from prison in 1993 and was to become an active supporter of the peace process. Although never a councillor, he was one of the most influential loyalists in the town and indeed, throughout Northern Ireland.
In that role, he sought to change traditional thinking in loyalist circles, arguing for a sea-change in attitudes and extolling the moderate party line espoused by David Ervine.
A regular attender at political 'think tanks', the man who had once been a paramilitary icon even found himself invited to lunch in the heart of Dublin by prominent Southern politicans.
But most people will associate Billy McCaughey with some high profile protest campaigns in recent years.
In May 2003, he mobilised up to 100 loyalists to march on the Council offices in protest at comments made by SDLP man Declan O'Loan.
As a tri-colour was set light, McCaughey told the crowd: "This is what we think of the Tri-colour. The people of the Borough will never agree to the Tri-colour on the Town Hall or in the Council chamber.
"I would hope that this would be the beginning of a loyalist strategic unarmed response to Republicanism. If any councillor is prepared to put his seat before the flag, then he should forget about the seat."
Also in 2003 he spoke out in a bid to rid Ballymena of neo-Nazi racism which had been on the rise.
Most recently, he played a key role in an initiative to rid Ballymena of all paramilitary flags.
A seat in the Council chamber, however, continued to elude the PUP man. Despite the impressive turnouts of support at various protests.
When it came to the public vote he was resoundingly defeated. After unsuccessfully standing for the Local assembly elections in 2004, McCaughey was even out-polled in the Ballymena South ward by Sinn Fein in the 2005 Council elections.
PUP leader David Ervine paid tribute to Mr McCaughey's work.
"I am very sorry to hear of Billy's death at such a young age. He made an immense contribution to attitudes, particularly in Ballymena."
One political opponent who saw both sides of Billy McCaughey, SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan' have a measured view of the PUP man.
Mr. O'Loan said he had no doubt that much of his (McCaughey's) thinking was forward looking and progressive.
He said: "There is no doubt that Billy McCaughey was responsible for some terrible things in the past. Some of his local contributions were disruptive and unhelpful, even up to quite recent times. But I have talked to him at length and I have no doubt that much of his thinking was forward looking and progressive.
"He was way ahead of most unionist politicians in this area. I have no doubt that if he had been entirely consistent he could have been a more influential figure. But he started significant movement within loyalism and that deserves to be recognised.
"He also faced up to his final illness in a way that was very courageous and uncomplaining."
Alliance Party North Antrim representative Jayne Dunlop also described 'the other side' of Billy mcCaughey.
Expressing her condolences following his death, she added: "I am sorry that Billy has lost his battle with illness. He was working tirelessly to bring some sort
of reconciliation and understanding between republican and loyalist groups, particularly in recent years through Community Voice.
"He also provided leadership and a voice to local loyalists who otherwise might have felt marginalised. At first I was reluctant to work with Billy because of past
events in Ahoghill but as time passed I realised that he was making a genuine effort to distance himself from the past and to encourage others to move towards a peaceful future.
"He was mocked by local elected representatives because he was unable to attract a larget number of votes at
elections, but my respect for him grew when I saw he was devoted to his cause despite the size of the task and the lack of support from others. I hope that those who supported him politically will be equally determined to
pursue a shared and peaceful future. That would be a fitting tribute to Billy."