In spite of being responsible for over 1000 deaths during the Troubles, or roughly 29% of the total number of fatalities, and having brought down a Northern Ireland Prime Minister and the power-sharing government of 1973/74, the UVF/RHC and UDA/UFF have never benefited from the level of analysis and study devoted to the Provisional IRA. The pro-state paramilitaries, to use Steve Bruce’s term, are usually – with some notable exceptions – treated as a homogeneity by the press and academia, with the implication that they look alike, think alike, and behave alike. Writing during the Shankill feud of 2000, Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian provided an example of this when he wrote “in true Monty Python style, no one can name a doctrinal difference that separates Adair’s UFF from the Ulster Volunteer Force which it hates so bloodily. It is not as if they are fighting over the details of the Good Friday agreement”. This approach is both under-researched and reductive, reflecting a wider ignorance of the loyalist paramilitaries that is unfortunately typical of many who have written about the Northern Ireland conflict. The lack of awareness and ignorance of nuance has had a knock-on effect for the general public who, insofar as they are aware that loyalists exist at all, probably only vaguely recall something called the UDF, or maybe the UVA (many professional journalists have proven to be similarly acronymically-challenged). Dismissive attitudes such as these betray a failure to understand organisations which, while sharing the same overall goal, in fact differ from each other in many ways, to the extent that these differences have at times led to open conflict and numerous deaths.
Even at first glance there are considerable contrasts between the UDA and UVF, the two main loyalist paramilitary organisations: one a legal, mass membership movement with vigilante origins, the other a proscribed, conspiratorial, self-limiting group describing itself as a “counter-terror” outfit. The origins of the two groups differ significantly. The Ulster Volunteer Force is the older of the pair, its name harking back to the first UVF of the Ulster Covenant in 1912. The present group was formed in late 1965 in circumstances that are still the subject of conjecture. Gusty Spence, its first leader, stated that it was set up by figures in the Unionist establishment partly out of fear of possible IRA moves coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, but more as a means of destabilising the liberalising reforms of NI Prime Minister Terence O’Neill. In this contention he is supported by Martin Dillon and his biographer Roy Garland, while Steve Bruce and David McKittrick tentatively concluded that there was no such backing for the conspiracy. The Ulster Defence Association on the other hand came together in the autumn of 1971 as a confluence of various vigilante and defence groups which had arisen as a response to republican violence. An exception was the pre-existing Shankill Defence Association which had been set up in 1969, initially to fight against an unpopular housing redevelopment, but which quickly assumed a vigilante character under the control of John McKeague. It was later joined by the Oldpark, Woodvale, Tigers Bay, and East Belfast Defence Associations which first met as the “UDA” in the early summer of ’71. The organisation mushroomed over the next few months: at only its third meeting 3,000 supporters turned up. Watching from the shadows was the UVF, which secretly sent a number of members to attend the meetings and report back on what they had seen. They had done much the same with Tara – William McGrath’s esoteric grouping – and other fringe loyalist organisations, poaching weapons and militarily-experienced personnel, but the UDA was simply too big and moving with too much momentum for this tactic to be repeated.
The rapid and voluminous growth of the UDA highlights one of the most obvious differences between it and its rivals in the “People’s Army”. In 2006/07, when the UVF was carrying out its internal consultation aimed at bringing about an end to its paramilitary role, representatives from the PUP spoke of the organisation comprising some 1,600 members across the United Kingdom. This, by a considerable margin, is the largest the organisation has been since its foundation. Although Gusty Spence claimed in July 1972 that the UVF could call on 1,500 members that figure was almost certainly an over-estimate. Throughout the 1970s the group probably never had more than half that number in total, and the core of active members would comprise a fraction of that in turn. By mid-’72 the UDA was a genuine mass movement with anywhere between 15,000 and 40,000 activists, depending on which estimate you read, with the true roster of dues-paying members likely numbering around 20,000. It could certainly put that amount of uniformed men on the streets of Belfast – given a few hours notice – as it did on several occasions in 1972. The UDA was happy to take all the recruits it could get and does not appear to have been particularly choosy in who it accepted. Speaking to Dr Sarah Nelson years later, Andy Tyrie, its overall leader from late 1972 to 1988, admitted that many thugs, corner boys, and petty criminals were indeed taken into the organisation at that time. The UVF on the other hand has always been distinguished by its policy of selective admittance, and in the early days this was particularly strict. Recruitment was largely piecemeal, by trusted word of mouth, and until 1975 by invitation only. Mass swearings-in of the type carried out in the UDA were distinctly uncommon – although they did occur during the recruitment drive led by Gusty Spence during his “on the run” episode in late 1972 – and prospective candidates were scrutinised for their political beliefs, family background, and the all-important ability to keep one’s mouth shut. The idea that the UVF’s policy led to a higher standard of recruit finds some support from Sarah Nelson, who notes a barrister’s remark about “(a) better class of terrorist” and relates that locals in Protestant areas spoke of young UVF prisoners as being “the very best” youths who did well at school and were conscientous to their families and neighbours. Like the IRA, UVF members charged with terrorism offences would often even refuse to recognise the court, arguing (unlike the IRA) that the Diplock system, where a single judge would decide upon guilt or innocence without the aid of a jury, denied them “their rights as British citizens”. On the other hand, the fact that an individual like Lenny Murphy could join the organisation during this period throws some doubt on the idea of a “better class of terrorist”.
Selectivity, both in recruitment and in the type of actions carried out by the two groups, leads us on to the topic of professionalism, or sometimes lack of it. Henry McDonald, Martin Dillon, Ian Wood, and Jim Cusack are all counted among the writers who have at one time or another commented upon the operational superiority of the UVF compared to its much larger rival. This widespread notion of UVF ascendancy over an amateurish UDA is shared by Dr Aaron Edwards, who describes the UDA as “a second-rate terrorist organisation that could never quite match the military bearing or sophistication of its UVF rival”. UDA men understandably resent and disagree with this characterisation. They point out, correctly, that it was their organisation which first launched a concerted assassination campaign against known republican activists. If we except the UVF killing of former Sinn Fein vice-president Maire Drumm in 1976, John McMichael’s “shopping list” of 1980-81 was indeed the first time loyalist paramilitaries had gone on the offensive against republicans, in this case the INLA/IRSP and those associated with the Anti H-Block campaign. This offensive, said to have been planned in the room above McMichael’s pub, caused serious damage to the upper levels of the INLA/IRSP by eliminating Belfast OC Ronnie Bunting and political leader Miriam Daly. Against this we have to count the fact that the UDA was more heavily involved in random sectarian killings in the ’72 and ’73 period, failed to generate any expertise in explosives (in sharp contrast to the UVF), and quickly developed a reputation for infighting, petty theft, and racketeering. Throughout the early years of the conflict the UVF successfully maintained its image as a secretive and disciplined military force, breaking cover only rarely to invite journalists to press conferences with elaborate security arrangements where masked men dressed totally in black and wearing leather jackets would read some statement on the war effort. However, a wide range of commentators have all pointed to a period in the mid-70s when this security and discipline began to break down. The legalisation of the group in 1974, followed the next year by a relaxation of the previously strict vetting process, led to a swelling of the ranks. Additionally, a number of the wilder personalities from the UDA crossed over to the UVF. Some of these men had fallen foul of UDA discipline, or were in disagreement with its policies. Others were simply psychopaths looking for a vehicle which would facilitate their violent urges. Importantly, this came at a time when both the UDA’s Supreme Commander Andy Tyrie, himself a former UVF man, was making efforts to reduce the number of random sectarian killings carried out by the group, and a more militant body had ascended to the Brigade Staff of the UVF. This group included figures associated with its youth wing, the YCV, which had always had a reputation for being less well controlled than its parent body. 1975 saw a number of serious setbacks for the UVF, including a series of “own goal” explosions, loss of weapons and personnel, and mass arrests following an unprecedented wave of attacks on the 2nd of October. This led to the militants being forcibly removed from the leadership and replaced with those who had held power prior to their accedence. By 1977 a stable leadership had coalesced who would head the group through the next three decades.
As a legal organisation the top deck of the UDA was highly visible. Figures from the 1970s such as Andy Tyrie, Charles Harding Smith, Tommy Herron and Tucker Lyttle were all well-known to the press and public, featuring regularly on screen and in print, not to mention their appearances in public. Even after the proscription of the organisation in 1992 high-ranking members like Johnny Adair, Jim “Doris Day” Gray and Andre Shoukri continued to attract (and in some cases court) attention, featuring in everything from broadsheet analysis to lurid tabloid exposes. By contrast, upper-tier UVF figures from the 70s such as Rab McAulay, “Smudger” Smith, and Stanley Grey were – and remain – virtually invisible. A gravestone inscription was the first public acknowledgement that Sam “Bo” McClelland had served as UVF chief of staff.
Behind the veil of secrecy though the leaderships of both organisations shared similar social backgrounds. UDA and UVF leaders were almost exclusively working class, skilled or semi-skilled manual workers in their thirties and forties. Some, particularly in the UDA, had been active in community work or trade unionism prior to the conflict, while the innate militarism and martial stylings of the UVF led to a preponderance of ex-soldiers in its top ranks. An exception was Andy McCann, one of a number of key UVF figures who were interned in 1973. A somewhat atypical paramilitary, he was a schoolteacher and economics graduate of Trinity College Dublin where he was a contemporary of future Tanaiste Dick Spring. As a student he was also active on the rugby pitch and, notably, in the boxing ring, where he developed a reputation as a formidable pugilist – a handy talent for someone with vocal loyalist beliefs in a setting populated with not a few republicans. Following his release from Long Kesh after six months of imprisonment he was involved in setting up the UVF’s initial abortive venture into electoral politics, the Volunteer Political Party, becoming chairman of the party’s Ballymacarret branch. Disillusionment with the failure of the VPP and the reactionary and highly militant turn taken by the UVF from late ’74 led to him drifting from the organisation. He later became involved with the Northern Ireland Negotiated Independence Association along with another ex-internee from the UVF, Billy Davidson.
With the obvious exception of Gusty Spence and later Billy Wright, John Bingham stood out as the only high-ranking UVF member to attract media attention during the conflict. As one of those held on remand for several years as a result of the supergrass trials of the early 80s he was highly vocal in protests against the practise. He even appeared on platforms next to such unlikely figures as Clare Short and US Congressman Peter King, both usually regarded as having republican sympathies, to complain about the use of “converted terrorists”. It is said that King, having initially mistaken Bingham for an IRA man, turned a peculiar shade when informed that the man he had just shaken hands with was a notorious loyalist gunman with a well-deserved reputation for ruthlessness. Some of Bingham’s senior comrades in the UVF resented the publicity he attracted and he was not universally popular in the upper levels of the organisation. His death at the hands of the Provisional IRA in September 1986 might have been shocking – he was the first high-ranking UVF member to be killed by republicans – but it was not surprising. The secrecy which had been carefully built up around the organisation was not just an exercise in mythos-building, but a defence measure against attack, whatever quarter it might have come from. The lesson was clear: publicity is fatal for UVF “operators”. Unfortunately, the supergrass trials had publically exposed a large number of activists from both sides, providing their enemies with a state-generated list of potential targets. In coming years a number of serving or former UVF members would join Bingham in the “Battalion of the Dead” as the IRA cynically used the names of those accused – while vehemently denying the guilt of their own indicted – as high-grade intelligence. Fred Otley, Frenchie Marchant, Jackie Irvine, and Robert Seymour all took the journey to Roselawn or Carnmoney as a result of this hypocritical policy, although it must be said that both the UVF and UDA also took advantage of the same source.
In spite of its ultimate failure, the supergrass policy seriously disrupted terrorist activity in Northern Ireland throughout the early and mid-1980s. The IRA’s size and organisational skill allowed it to weather the storm, while the UVF recovered by about 1986 without any major changes in leadership and actually enjoyed a resurgence as a result of resistance to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which led to an influx of both new recruits and experienced activists (such as Billy Wright) returning to the fold. The INLA, which had neither the IRA’s resilience nor the UVF’s stable leadership, was left in disarray and arguably never functioned as a coherent body again. It split into rival factions in 1987 and struggled through the 1990s, alternating sectarian killings and attacks against the security forces with feuds which left a number of senior members, including several Chiefs of Staff, dead.
The UDA was the sole paramilitary organisation to escape any real damage as a result of the supergrass policy. Only two “converted terrorists”, James Williamson and Leonard Campbell, were recruited from the group, neither of whom stayed the course. The UVF by contrast experienced five defections – Clifford McKeown, William “Budgie” Allen, John Gibson, James Crockard, and Joe Bennett (the most damaging of all) – which led to dozens of arrests, literally hundreds of charges, and knocked holes in its image as a tight-knit, stealthy force. Virtually the entire Brigade Staff was held on remand for over two years, largely as a result of Bennett’s evidence, with their places being taken by other experienced activists, some of whom had been in semi-retirement. There are a number of possible reasons why the UDA did not suffer to the extent that other groups did during the supergrass period. The most likely is the fact that in the early 80s it was largely out of business as a terrorist outfit. In 1982 for example the UDA killed just two people, both of whom happened to be members of its own organisation shot as alleged informers. Although most of the charges in the supergrass cases were historical, it may have been the case that there was a conscious decision by the authorities not to target the UDA given its inactivity, for fear that removal of senior figures would lead to more militant types filling their posts – exactly what later happened as a result of the Brian Nelson scandal and Stevens Inquiry.