Further Reading: Some Basic Book Recommendations on Loyalist Paramilitaries

Occasionally I receive messages from readers asking for advice regarding what books to read on the subject of loyalism and especially the loyalist paramilitaries. With this in mind I thought it would be a good idea to prepare a basic list of “required” reading for those looking into the topic, whether for research or simply curiosity. It is aimed at the relatively unfamiliar and so will not deal with the drier, more technical works or academic papers.

For a sociological perspective on the loyalist paramilitaries two books – both by two Scottish academics – stand out, the first by Steve Bruce. Now a Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen, Bruce spent 13 years in Belfast teaching at Queen’s University. Shortly after leaving Northern Ireland he published The Red Hand, a meticulous and superbly-researched study of Northern Ireland’s “pro-state paramilitaries”, a definition which has become virtually standard. Covering everything from the original UVF of Carson to the UWC strike and up to the early 1990s, he applies a rigorously factual approach which combines original research, including interviews with named key players and anonymous contributors within the UVF and UDA, and a vast bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Especially valuable is the array of statistics in the appendices which are not to be found in any other sources. The Red Hand is indispensable for anyone undertaking a serious study of the UVF and UDA. His later Edge of the Union serves as a companion piece and is also well worth purchasing, although as its subtitle – The Ulster Loyalist Political Vision – suggests it will be of less interest to those purely interested in paramilitary affairs.

Sarah Nelson takes a less forensic approach than Bruce but her work is no less useful for that. Nelson spent a year from 1971-1972 working as a social worker on the Shankill and came to know a number of people involved in loyalist activism including community workers, political figures, and paramilitants. From 1972 to ’76 she engaged in research and fieldwork which eventually led to the publication of Ulster’s Uncertain Defenders in 1984. The book only partly deals with paramilitarism, devoting many pages to a sociological analysis of the loyalist psyche and the way in which the fears and concerns of the loyalist people have been manifested. On this topic Nelson is sensitive and broadly sympathetic, although not uncritical. The discussions of the cultural aspects and particular value systems of the UVF and UDA are especially valuable and are made all the more intimate as a result of her personal acquaintance with her subjects.

On the UVF specifically the eponymous book by Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald remains definitive. Originally published in 1997 and updated twice since then, the most recent version subtitled Endgame, its 400+ pages contain the most detailed overview of the organisation yet published. Politics, killings, relations with other groups, significant figures, structure, history, and overseas activities are all dealt with in a straightforward, broadly chronological manner. Cusack and McDonald are both veteran reporters from Belfast, having covered the conflict for decades, and their contacts within the UVF and Red Hand are second to none.

The best stand-alone work dealing with the Ulster Defence Association is Ian S Wood’s Crimes of Loyalty. Another Scottish academic, Wood’s study of the UDA stands out for being scholarly and intellectually rigorous, while remaining highly readable. Like Cusack and McDonald, Wood has excellent sources within his particular choice of organisation and uses interviews with notable UDA figures, such as Andy Tyrie, Sammy Duddy, and Jackie McDonald among others, to good effect. Inside the UDA: Volunteers and Violence by Colin Crawford, a former welfare officer at the Maze/Long Kesh prison, draws heavily on the testimony of UDA members themselves, and is a useful adjunct to Wood’s book (his Defenders or Criminals, looking at the effects of criminalisation and imprisonment on the UVF and UDA, is also recommended). UDA: Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror, Cusack and McDonald’s follow-up to UVF, is not as good as that book and is somewhat coloured by the authors’ obvious distaste for the group.

For a general overview of the UVF and UDA, Loyalists by Peter Taylor is an excellent and attractively-priced buy (it is often listed on eBay for literally pennies). Having covered the hostilities and subsequent disputes in Northern Ireland in television and print for over 40 years, few if any journalists possess the breadth and depth of experience Taylor has. Part of a trilogy of books and accompanying BBC documentaries – rounded out by Brits and ProvosLoyalists covers not just the paramilitaries but the loyalist/unionist experience as a whole. If I were to recommend just a single book on loyalism one could do far worse than this.

Another general overview of loyalist paramilitaries, in spite of its title, David Boulton’s dated but still worthy UVF: An Anatomy of Loyalist Rebellion, 1966-73 fleshes out many of the now-forgotten matters and incidents which took place early in the conflict. The formation and early days of the UDA are well covered, as is the UVF/UPV bombing campaign of 1969 and the numerous but now largely-forgotten political rallies and protests of the time.

For those interested in the politics of the loyalist paramilitaries, Tony Novosel’s groundbreaking Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity thoughtfully revises the stubborn misconception that the UVF and RHC were politically aimless and inarticulate entities. Beginning from a self-admitted standpoint of ignorance regarding loyalism, Novosel completed a scholarly journey which ended with this thorough reexamination of the UVF/RHC’s own political course from the late 1960s up to the mid/late 80s. If the book has any one weakness it is that it does not cover the political development of the UDA, which can hardly be classed as a flaw given that Novosel consciously decided at the outset to focus on the UVF/RHC.

In the field of biography there is not much to choose from. Roy Garland’s biography of Gusty Spence is valuable for those researching the Ulster Volunteer Force, particularly its early development and its existence within Northern Ireland’s prison system, but is disappointingly light on Spence’s own involvement in paramilitary activities, a subject he was always reluctant to discuss in detail. Garland was a personal friend of his subject for many years and this may have had an influence on his rather gentle (though informed) line of questioning. A less familiar author might have pressed Spence harder; on the other hand, they might not have had the opportunity to in the first place. Another worthwhile biography is Hugh Jordan and David Lister’s highly detailed and surprisingly restrained (given its tabloid origins) Mad Dog. While principally a portrait of Johnny Adair it provides a wealth of information about other C Company figures and the workings of the group in the late 80s and early 90s. Leaving aside the controversy regarding the Boston College tapes saga, Ed Moloney’s Voices From the Grave manages to make the most out of David Ervine’s highly reticent testimony by way of interspersed analysis and commentary, but the late PUP leader’s posthumous account is disappointingly guarded after Brendan Hughes’ unrestrained confessions earlier in the book. Ervine’s authorised biography, Uncharted Waters, similarly fails to shed much light on his paramilitary career but is very good at charting his political awakening and subsequent development as a member and later leader of the PUP.

Taking a brief moment to turn away from loyalism, one book I have no hesitation in recommending for those interested in the less-explored paramilitary groups is The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party. After decades of academic neglect and (a few exceptions aside) a distinct lack of journalistic interest, Scott Millar and Brian Hanley’s work is timely and essential. Much praise should especially be given to the authors for their work recording the testimony of Tomas Mac Giolla and Cathal Goulding before the deaths of these two pivotal figures within republicanism. Particularly interesting is their effort to shed light upon the decidedly murky activities of the OIRA (and its later “Group B” guise) after the 1972 ceasefire. The Lost Revolution also provides a counterpoint to the Provisional narrative which, with that movement’s eventual near-total dominance of republicanism, has till now monopolised (and sometimes wilfully manipulated) that constituency’s collective memory of events, particularly with regards to the years 1969-72. They notably put to bed the “I Ran Away” myth and the popular belief that the IRA was non-existent in Northern Ireland in 1969 and before. A book well worth buying and which begs for a follow-up dealing with the INLA, who are covered only in part here.

Another book unrelated to loyalism but which should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in the Troubles is Killing Rage, the memoir of Eamon Collins. A former Provisional IRA volunteer who became disillusioned with the movement (he was eventually murdered by elements of the South Armagh IRA in 1999), it is an unvarnished account of his time within the organisation. A ruthless demythologisation of the IRA, it provides a unique look into the day-to-day workings of republican paramilitarism, the motivations and personalities of people involved in it, and is particularly valuable for its insights into the PIRA’s means of intelligence-gathering. Although Collins was never personally involved in killing, his activities as an intelligence officer were instrumental in a number of deaths in the South Down/South Armagh area during the period he was active. Collins was an employee of Customs & Excise during this time and used his position to access information on potential targets, demonstrating how these state bodies were exploited by paramilitaries for such purposes, in much the same manner as “collusion” between loyalists and the UDR occurred. Also of interest for students of loyalism is the chapter where Collins, himself briefly an “assisting offender”, describes his interactions with UVF supergrasses John Gibson, William “Budgie” Allen, and James Crockard within the Annexe of Crumlin Road Jail.

For those willing to invest in its considerable cover price, Lost Lives is both an indispensible reference for the Troubles scholar and an awesome literary monument to the 3,000-plus victims of the conflict. The senselessness of some of the killings and their often pathetic details make this a notoriously difficult book to read (having read all 3661 entries I can attest to that) but for those willing to persist it contains a wealth of information compiled from an enormous range of sources. The statistical index is also useful for researchers, if not as exhaustive as Malcolm Sutton’s.

It should be noted that the book perhaps understandably errs on the side of caution when identifying certain victims as being members of paramilitary groups and as a result is not 100% reliable in this respect. Indeed, despite being printed on Bible-like paper it is not infallible, but given the scope and scale of such a work it is unreasonable to expect it to be. What I would consider to be Lost Lives‘ greatest misstep is its editors decision to use the UVF killings of 1966 as a chronological starting point. In doing so they have inadvertently provided support for the erroneous but increasingly popular revisionist narrative which holds that the conflict began in 1966 and was caused by the actions of Gusty Spence and his Standard Bar UVF. If it did begin in 1966 then the three-year interbellum between then and 1969 is striking and unexplained. And if one looks back to 1966 for the roots of the conflict, why not go a little further and trace it to the Border Campaign which ended in 1962? I would contend that the authors would have been better off including these murders in a separate category, as they did with several other deaths.

Ones to Avoid

…or at least be wary of. Martin Dillon is one of, if not the most, widely-read writers to have covered the Troubles, and while there is much credible and verified information in his books I cannot wholly recommend them as sources for those undertaking serious study. The reasons for this arise from a number of objections. First is his tendency, with increasing frequency in each passing book, to fill the gaps in his own, and the collective, knowledge with speculation and assumption. He writes from a position of moral and factual certainty, which is all the more disconcerting when one sees those certitudes repeatedly revised in successive books as new facts come to light. One can track the development of these opinions within his canon: in 1973’s Political Murder in Northern Ireland the UVF are a “dedicated political organisation” and “genuine Protestant Ulster patriots”, the “disciplined” loyalist version of the Official IRA…compare with the contemptuous assessment in his later Shankill Butchers and The Trigger Men.

Details appear as revelation, rather than illumination, and readers will become familiar with the phrases “I can reveal” and “it is my belief”. One of Dillon’s less appealing habits is a fondness for amateur psychoanalysis which he indulges at every opportunity. For example, his claim that Lenny Murphy’s desire to kill originated as a result of mockery of his “Catholic” surname is absolute nonsense and without foundation, as others have pointed out, but it has taken root and become the subject of endless repetition elsewhere. Unfortunately for Dillon and others seeking to find a psychiatric explanation for paramilitary violence, one of the distinguishing characteristics of terrorists worldwide is their comparative normality. The motivations of those who become involved in political violence are to be found in a sociological rather than psychological analysis. Paramilitants, and indeed people in general, are not powerless microorganisms cast about by uncontrollable forces, but the potent influences of politics, society, economics, and geography are more salient factors in explaining the violence in Northern Ireland. Martin Dillon is not a sociologist; Sarah Nelson is and so is Steve Bruce, and the latter’s conclusions in The Red Hand regarding the Murphy gang rest on a sounder basis than the imaginary couch upon which Dillon places often long-dead men.

Nicholas Davies’ Ten-Thirty-Three and Dead Men Talking are the worst kind of tabloid cash-in crap and to be avoided even by the most curious. The odd mistake is to be expected even in the best works, but when an author clearly hasn’t bothered to do even the most basic research, as in here, it is unforgivable. If you’ve already bought one of these, tear out the last page and throw it in someone else’s bin.

No time should be wasted describing Killing For Britain, the purported memoir of a loyalist who operated on behalf of the MRF. It is only necessary to say that it is fiction, and bad fiction at that.

Joe Tiernan’s The Dublin and Monaghan Bombings has already been discussed previously on this site. It is an amateurish self-published work with some suspect sourcing, to put it polite terms. No one – and I include J Bowyer Bell with his In Dubious Battle – has yet managed to write a satisfactory study of this most terrible of events.

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3 comments

    • balaclavastreet

      I haven’t read it yet but I know a fair bit about Little himself. I’ve seen Five Minutes of Heaven, didn’t think much of it but Neeson and Nesbitt were very good in the two lead roles. Interesting casting given their respective backgrounds.

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