Terminal Effects: The Guns of the Loyalist Paramilitaries

UDA checkpoint, 1972

UDA checkpoint, 1972

Gunrunners

Throughout the Troubles and even decades before, Irish republicans used bombings as a practical means of attacking the British and as a form of kinetic propaganda. Bombs conveyed a number of advantages to the user. They could be assembled in relative safety by dedicated specialists and delivered with minimal hazard to the operator. They offered maximum return on a minimal investment – a single blast could result in hundreds of thousands, even millions of pounds of damage, with attendant media focus. Loyalists may have been relative newcomers to the field of explosives compared with republicans, but their involvement with firearms and gun smuggling pre-dates the formation of even the “Old IRA” of the days of Collins and flying columns. Moreover, the gunrunning schemes embarked upon by the militants gathered around Sir Edward Carson, those who signed the Ulster Covenant of 1912 and subsequently formed the Ulster Volunteer Force in opposition to the Third Home Rule Bill, were to have a fateful effect on the course of British and Irish history.

The importation of tens of thousands of rifles by the UVF on-board SS Clyde Valley via Larne in 1914 is undoubtedly the most celebrated episode of loyalist arms smuggling, but there had been piecemeal and sporadic attempts to bring guns into the country over the preceding decades, usually coinciding with efforts by Home Rule proponents to introduce a measure of self-government to Ireland. After the efforts of the Parnellite Irish Parliamentary Party paid off with the drafting of the first Home Rule bill in 1886, scores of rifle clubs sprang up across Ireland and Ulster in particular as Unionists put out a call for “20,000 Snider rifles in good order, with bayonets”. Similar schemes followed a second attempt to bring in Home Rule in the early 1890s. One figure involved in early smuggling efforts around this period who was later to prove a pivotal figure in Ulster gunrunning, and whose name has become legend amongst those who venerate these icons of early loyalist militancy, was Frederick Hugh Crawford.

The eldest of four brothers from a family of ancient Presbyterian colonist stock, it was Crawford who as UVF Director of Ordnance masterminded the Clyde Valley operation, but his involvement in importing arms to equip the enemies of the third Home Rule bill pre-dated this appointment. In 1913 Crawford, posing as an American businessman named John Washington Graham, managed to purchase six Maxim guns from Vickers at the then not-inconsiderable cost of £300 each, his persona proving robust enough that he was even able to test-fire the machine-guns at Woolwich prior to their being shipped to Belfast disguised at musical instruments.

In his meticulously-detailed Carson’s Army, Timothy Bowman contextualised gunrunning by the nascent UVF by drawing attention to the oft-overlooked shooting culture which then thrived. Target shooting was a national pastime for Edwardian Britons. Country pubs were often equipped with gallery or pipe ranges, some of which survive today, where drinkers could while away an afternoon target shooting with .22 rifles. Ireland had a particularly well-regarded national shooting team which competed for various trophies at Bisley camp, the mecca of UK target shooting. More pertinently, firearms laws were liberal, even lax, by today’s standards. Any private citizen of good character could walk into one of the thousands of private arms dealers of the day and equip himself with any number of military-type rifles, revolvers, or pistols. Even belt-fed machine-guns and other fully-automatic weapons were not prohibited by law until 1936. A steady flow of guns arrived in Ulster by such means: 24 Martini-Henry rifles and 1,000 rounds of .577/450 ammo in December 1911; 1,188 Martini-Enfields in November 1914 by RJ Adgey, who imported thousands of surplus rifles through his pawnbrokers and second-hand firearms dealership. Guns were sourced from vendors in high and low society. The Earl of Lanesborough purchased 175 Martini-Enfield rifles from Harrods Department Store for delivery to the UVF in Enniskillen.

The numbers of weapons involved represented a mere trickle to the leaders of an organisation endeavouring to arm 100,000 pledged volunteers, but compared to what their latter-day equivalents were able to achieve it was a deluge. More open markets, less (or non-existent) governmental and international oversight of the arms trade, and wider support from unionist society were all factors in this, the latter in particular. The upper and upper-middle classes were able to use their connections in society and trade to expedite deals, establish contacts domestic and overseas, and help bring in arms, something that their latter-day working class equivalents were unable to fully replicate, aside perhaps certain members of Ulster Resistance.

The ruses and schemes used to conceal the true nature of the shipments coming into Ireland would however have been familiar to the UVF and UDA of 70 years hence. Barrels of “bleaching powder”, their seams packed with farina (a type of starchy wheat powder) so as to “leak” convincingly when offloaded, baize-covered crates of “musical instruments” and “furniture”, steel cylinders marked as industrial filters, and bogus consignments of “cement” and “pitch” destined for phantom construction firms were all among the disguises employed by resourceful loyalist gunrunners. Front companies were established at both ends and sometimes vital intermediate points of smuggling routes, such as John Ferguson & Co. set up with the assistance of Conservative MP Sir William Bull (another example of the original UVF’s wider support base). Involved in various schemes throughout this period was Fred Crawford, whose tireless and energetic efforts to arm the UVF, while not always successful – a caper involving a Maxim gun at a German Army range outside Hamburg ended in farce with Crawford literally making a run for it – did much to sustain support for armament which at times showed signs of flagging.

In spite of the myriad and often ingenious means used, aided by the reluctance of HH Asquith’s Liberal government to wholeheartedly combat unionist smuggling in spite of its sponsorship of Home Rule, by late 1913 the UVF was far from well-equipped. A significant number of its guns had been seized by the authorities while in transit, a major setback taking place when 4,500 Vetterli M1870/87 rifles were impounded in London by the Metropolitan Police under the Gun Barrel Proof Act of 1868. Under-armed local-level UVF units reduced to drilling with wooden rifles pressed for action. A major injection of arms was required to transform it from a theoretical into a substantive force.

The Clyde Valley episode has been recounted in great detail in many other sources, most notably ATQ Stewart’s The Ulster Crisis (where it forms the centrepiece of the book) and Guns For Ulster by Crawford himself, so only an overview will be provided here. The bare facts of the case involve the transit of 25,000 rifles plus 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition from Hamburg to landing sites in Larne, Bangor, and Donaghadee, the enterprise, codenamed Operation Lion, being masterminded by Fred Crawford. The arms were supplied by Bruno (or Benny) Spiro, a Hamburg arms dealer dubiously described as an “honest Jew” by Ronald Neill in Ulster’s Stand for Union. Spiro gave Crawford a choice of several deals of differing makeups, the one accepted consisting of 10,900 M1904 Steyr-Mannlichers and 9,100 Mauser Gewehr 88s. 4,600 Vetterlis whose shipment had been delayed due to British government action would also make the journey, along with 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition. The price was £45,640. Sir Edward Carson was aware of the plot and gave it his blessing with the words “Crawford, I’ll see you through this business, if I should have to go to prison for it”.

Vetterli rifle imported by the UVF.

Vetterli rifle imported by the UVF. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

The epic journey taken by the munitions – through the Kiel Canal into the Baltic, around the Jutland peninsula, across the North Sea, stopping at Great Yarmouth and the Welsh coast, and a ship-to-ship transfer at Tuskar Rock off Co Wexford – was a pre-war escapade to match the best of Buchan (if not Childers!). After 22 days the shipment reached Ulster on the 24th of April on-board the coal vessel Clyde Valley, renamed Mountjoy II for the operation. Amidst decoy landings and deliberate misinformation the UVF then essentially seized the ports of Larne, Bangor, and Donaghadee where the arms were landed in three stages before distribution to UVF battalions across the nine counties.

The rifles disgorged from the holds of the Clyde Valley and via other clandestine routes were certainly prodigious in number, but they were not necessarily all of the highest quality and many could in no sense be said to represent the state of the art. The Martini-Enfields, a .303 conversion of the single-shot Martini-Henry of the Zulu Wars era, were intended as a stopgap weapon for second-line troops and the like. Although powerful enough, their rate of fire was decidedly lacking and like all British Army rifles prior to the SMLE they suffered from accuracy problems due to inadequate factory zeroing which would have required attention from UVF armourers. Lee-Metfords were considerably better, with a large for the time magazine capacity and a bolt-action which could be operated with great rapidity, but they were long and unwieldy and their rifling quickly wore out using the ammunition of the time. The Italian Vetterlis in particular were poorly-regarded. A report by Brigadier-General Count Gleichen was notably dismissive, remarking that they were “not good, but weedy + weak + only cost 5 francs apiece, including belt and bayonet!”.

In any event the rifles were not needed. War in Europe intervened and as its volunteers enlisted to fight Germany and its allies the UVF put its guns into long-term storage, co-operating with the authorities to ensure that they did not fall into the hands of the Irish Volunteers. It was an irony that the formation of the UVF and its energetic gun smuggling prompted militant Irish nationalism to formally organise and embark upon its own (less successful it has to be said) efforts to arm, and that guns brought into the country to potentially be used against British soldiers enforcing the will of parliament ended up in their care. Over coming decades the guns – a considerable nuisance to those charged with their storage and upkeep – were gifted or sold off piecemeal to various concerns including the newly-formed Ulster Special Constabulary, Belgium, South Africa, the Home Guard, and even the Sea Cadets.

The gunrunners of 1911-14 provided a source of inspiration to the leaders of the loyalist paramilitary organisations of the post-1969 conflict. The walls of the Eagle, the modern UVF’s headquarters, are adorned with images of fallen volunteers, the faces of those “killed in action” such as John Bingham, Charlie Logan, and Aubrey Reid. Superseding all though is a framed portrait of Sir Edward Carson, ratifier of Crawford’s Hamburg scheme, whose inscrutable countenance gazes down upon the room like St Peter in a Russian Orthodox shrine. But without the high-level connections possessed by the Ulster Volunteers of old the UDA and 1965 UVF could never hope to match the feats of their forebears – their example was an approximate model, not a template.

Early Days

The first shots of the Troubles fired in Belfast rang out in August 1969 when the OC of the IRA in the city, Liam McMillen, ordered his men out onto the streets with instructions to create disorder so that they might relieve pressure on nationalists in Derry who were then engaged in pitched battles with a concentrated force of RUC. The petrol bombing of police stations on Hastings Street and the Springfield Road quickly took place, followed by a car showroom in Conway Street between the Falls Road and the Shankill. The situation worsened over the next few days, with republicans exchanging fire with the RUC in Shorland armoured cars, culminating in the burning of Bombay Street by loyalists and B Specials after a street battle with nationalists. As violence worsened and British troops appeared on the streets IRA Belfast Brigade adjutant Jim “Solo” Sullivan, in his guise as chairman of the Belfast Citizens’ Defence Committee, told the Belfast Telegraph that nationalists and republicans were in possession of “automatic weapons, revolvers, and rifles”.

In the sustained communal violence of 1969-71 loyalists found themselves badly outgunned by the IRA and republican vigilantes. There were certainly weapons in working class Protestant areas – Constable Victor Arbuckle was shot dead in October ’69 during rioting on the Shankill by a “sniper” armed with a .22 rifle – but nothing particularly formidable, at least in comparison to what the IRA was able to field even at this early stage. Ardoyne IRA volunteer Martin Meehan described “bucket loads” of arms as…

[…] coming from everywhere, mostly from old republicans who had buried gear in the twenties, thirties, and forties. They were in perfect working order. We couldn’t cope sometimes with the amount of gear coming in. It was unbelievable. There were sub-machineguns, old .303 rifles and ‘Peter the Painters’ [Mauser C96s] – a pistol on a sort of a handle to give you a better grip than an ordinary pistol would.

On the 27th of June 1970 the newly-emerged Provisional IRA used Orange parades as a pretext for launching well-prepared attacks on loyalist marchers in east and west Belfast. It engineered a confrontation around St Matthews Church in the Short Strand, opening fire from within the grounds of the church itself. Contrary to the well-established republican version of events, it was Protestant civilians rather than UVF gunmen who suffered that day. Two men were shot dead and dozens injured, including a number of women, in addition to three dead in Crumlin Road. According to local accounts it was only later that loyalists managed to arm themselves with two handguns, plus an elderly Mauser Gew88 and a Martini-Henry rifle from the days of the original UVF, and return fire. Witness to the events of that evening was a young David Ervine, who was deeply affected by what he saw:

I can remember a guy getting shot and it wasn’t like the movies. The guy got shot in the hip and, and the blood spurted about three feet, and I just thought ‘Jesus’ you know, you saw John Wayne and there was a stain. That just wasn’t the way the world worked […]

Not only did the sole IRA casualty come about after one of its own gunmen, believed to be Denis Donaldson, lost control of a Thompson SMG, but it later transpired that the fallen “Oglagh”, Henry McIlhone, was not connected to the organisation in any way. Over the next three decades his family campaigned to have his name removed from the IRA honour roll, and were ultimately successful. But at the time the “Battle of St Matthews” was hailed as a great victory for the newly-blooded PIRA, immediately establishing their credentials as modern-day Defenders.

An arms dump found in October 1972 shows some of the antiquated weapons loyalists were equipped with at the time - Martini-Henrys, Martini-Enfields, and Steyrs. One rifle was dated

An arms dump found in October 1972 shows some of the antiquated weapons loyalists were equipped with at the time – Martini-Henrys, Martini-Enfields, and Steyrs. One rifle was dated “1893”. A homemade pistol marked with “For God and Ulster” and “UVF” was also found.

These events also helped to convince the loyalist vigilante groups which were gradually coalescing into what would become the UDA of the need to arm, but progress was slow and not helped by some of the so-called leadership at that time:

There was real atmosphere there at that time, that something was going to happen and we wanted the gear to defend ourselves. The boss kept saying it was stashed and when the time came, it would be there and we were saying ‘let’s see the weapons’. Eventually he brought some stuff up in the boot of his car and it was nothing. A couple of old rusty pieces.

Some managed to arm themselves with whatever relics and knick-knacks came to hand, weapons like “Steyrs, the odd Webley or Martini-Henry; a lot of the lads had been in the army and had hung on to something”. Sammy Duddy, a member of the early Westland Defence Association and later press officer for the UDA, recalled the dire state of their arsenal at that time in conversation with Colin Crawford:

[…] we had no guns. The IRA had automatics [machine-guns], high-velocity sniper rifles, powerful pistols, the lot, but we had fuck all. There were virtually no guns on the loyalist side. The only weapons we had were baseball bats and I just thought to myself, ‘what the fuck are we going to do when they [the IRA] come in with their machine-guns? Throw bats at them?’

Duddy spoke of vigilantes finding themselves in a situation where men manning barricades were reduced to carrying water pistols painted black, earning them the derisive nickname of “The Water-Pistol Men”. Like the UVF of 1913 the UDA was, on paper at least, a large and formidable body of men comprising tens of thousands, but without arms its capability was only speculative. Again, as in 1913, grassroots activists and ground-level units began agitating for more than imitations. It was clear that the organisation’s leadership would have to do something.

By early 1972 the UDA – although it had traded shots with the IRA in a long-range gun battle the previous December – was still woefully under-equipped for a campaign of defence never mind the savage retaliatory violence it later became known for. In February a solution seemed to be at hand. The November before an approach had been made to an assistant at a Belfast firearms dealership – Guns and Tackle – owned by Robert Campbell, a former B Special. It had been made at the behest of Charles Harding-Smith, leader of the Woodvale Defence Association and overall chairman of the UDA, and concerned the viability of purchasing rifles “under the counter”, a figure of £50,000 being mentioned. In February Campbell contacted a manufacturer of gun holsters who in turn passed him on to a person purported to be a Scottish arms dealer. This figure, hearing that Protestants “had had their noses rubbed in it for two or three years and were not going to take any more”, intimated that he and a contact of his in London would be able to meet the needs of the loyalists. After preliminary talks between the UDA party and the dealer at a pub in London’s West End, a final meeting was arranged to take place at the Hilton on April the 29th, using a Vanguard rally in the capital that weekend as cover. John White, later to find notoriety as one of the killers of Senator Paddy Wilson, travelled over with Harding-Smith and a number of others: “We were going to look at final shipment and work out the logistics of taking control of the arms and passing on the money”. Negotiations had progressed to the point where talk now was of an order in the region of £100-250,000, involving assault rifles, pistols, and submachine-guns. The UDA were on the verge of a major coup which had the potential to transform them from Water Pistol Men into a real army, as Harding-Smith spoke of the next deal being made “government to government”.

As with most things which seem to good to be true, it was. The deal was a set-up and had been from the outset. The Scottish connection turned out to be a policeman, William Sinclair, while his London counterpart was revealed to be a Michael Waller, a member of Special Branch. White and the rest of the UDA delegation were arrested in the foyer of the Hilton, Harding-Smith being picked up later. At their trial in December their lawyer offered the unusual defence of claiming that they were in fact attempting to trace and trap a gun dealer who had been supplying the IRA. Astonishingly this gambit was accepted by the jury, Harding-Smith, White and the others walking free. A number of the other conspirators were jailed, however, among them a former Belfast city councillor and another ex-B Special. None of the men had prior criminal records and the judge accepted good character references. Handing out relatively light sentences, Mr Justice Waller said:

I realise the tremendous emotions which must have been involved to turn you from the behaviour which you had adopted until 18 months ago into contemplating illegal activity of this kind […] it is impossible for us in this country to appreciate the pressures to which people have been exposed in Northern Ireland over the last two years.

Speaking to Peter Taylor 20 years later, John White said “we felt very silly and realised that we had been conned right from the very start. I suppose we were very naive in the way we tried to acquire these arms. But that was to change as we later became more professional as we went along”

The sting had internal repercussions for the UDA which was then in the throes of various power struggles which would not abate until 1975. The organisation had had its fingers burnt, and the supply routes which later developed in Great Britain and Canada were handled more cautiously. Still faced with the need to arm, in the meantime both it and the outlawed UVF turned their attention to a source of weapons closer to hand.

Self-Service: Arms Raids

The problem of supply of weapons, in particular the often limited sources available, has been and remains a perennial issue for guerilla and terrorist movements. The international arms market and the often dubious figures who move among it have frequently proved to be less than reliable, as he Hilton affair amply demonstrated. Expedient homemade weapons may fill the gap in the short term, but even the best examples cannot match the quality of the genuine article. Fortunately for the terrorist quartermaster, there is usually another ready source of modern, high-quality weaponry which may be tapped by those with the will and daring to do so – the armouries of the state forces themselves.

Long before loyalists embarked upon what Gusty Spence euphemistically called “procurement” operations the pre-split IRA were helping themselves to the ready stocks of Lee-Enfields, Stens, Webleys, and Bren guns held by both the British Army and an tArm, the Irish Army. In fact, in the years before American and Libyan arms came on stream this constituted their main source of arms.

In December 1939 during the early days of its sabotage campaign in England the IRA, taking advantage of a weak guard presence, launched a raid on Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park, Dublin which resulted in a haul of almost half a million rounds of .303 ammunition, 612,000 rounds of .45 ACP for use in Thompson SMGs, plus several rifles and a small assortment of military ephemera. The great majority of the ammunition was soon recovered, but the operation was a considerable morale booster for the organisation. From 1951 more raids occured, this time in the “Six Counties” and England. In June of that year Ebrington Barracks in Co Derry was hit, with 20 Lee-Enfields, 20 Sten guns, and a number of Bren and BESA machineguns taken. Six weeks later the IRA targeted the armoury of the Combined Cadet Force detachment at Felstead School in Dunmow, Essex. Although over 100 weapons, including a PIAT anti-tank spigot mortar, were seized, the raiders (including future Chiefs of Staff Cathal Goulding and John Stephenson, later Sean Mac Stiofain) were soon picked up by police along with their haul. Further raids of varying success occured at Gough Barracks in Armagh, Omagh Barracks, RNAS Eglinton near Derry, and Arborfield Army Depot outside Reading in Berkshire.

A common feature of these operations was the use of IRA moles to infiltrate the bases in order to gather intelligence prior to the robberies, just as loyalists would later do in their hold-ups of TA and UDR centres, putting republican claims of “collusion” in a rather different light. A rather self-congratulatory retrospective in An Phoblacht celebrating the 50th anniverary of the Gough Barracks raid breezily recounted how after Sean Garland enlisted in the British Army “a stream of maps, documents, time schedules and even photographs flowed into GHQ for processing”. Several IRA members including a senior intelligence officer even gained access to the base with Garland’s connivance. This constitutes an episode of collusion by any definition of the term, but it is one the republican movement appears prepared to accept, “[keeping] alive the flame of republicanism through to the present time” as it did.

As the first of the modern loyalist paramilitaries to appear, the UVF was unsurprisingly also the first to target military installations and other legitimate sources in its search for arms. After his swearing-in to the revived UVF in late 1965, Gusty Spence was informed that “we were never getting any firearms. We had to purchase our own. We were told to procure and to hold ourselves in readiness”. Funds for weapons would also have to be “procured”:

We bought our own firearms. We garnered funds whatever way we could and I think there was at least one bank done in those days on the far side of the town and I think it was six or eight thousand pounds.

It appears this was the theft of £8000 from a sub-post office on the Saintfield Road, “for further arms to be used against the enemies of Ulster” as an unconfirmed statement to the local press claimed. The disarming of individual members of the state forces, such as the Ulster Special Constabulary, was already a feature even before the conflict. According to Spence:

(the UVF) knew where the B men lived and it was a matter of going in and taking their arms.

Other legal arms could also be taken:

Virtually every bank in Northern Ireland at one time also had a legitimate firearm. I remember as a boy going to get change of thruppence and seeing the big gun sitting on the counter in the bank in Malvern Street. These weapons were withdrawn but it was known where they were kept. The Harbour Police could also be disarmed. The UVF had to have weapons.

Spence went on to state that illegal channels were also used at this time:

I was always pestering this man for firearms and I bought the first Thompson sub-machinegun that was ever seen on the Shankill Road. I paid thirty quid for it and twenty rounds of ammunition. A .45 Webley pistol cost a fiver, which was big enough money in those days for working men.

However the early UVF got hold of its weaponry it soon put it to deadly use. In the early hours of the 26th June 1966, Catholic barman Peter Ward was shot dead and two of his companions wounded upon leaving the Malvern Arms on the Shankill Road. Their attackers were all armed with handguns, including Smith & Wesson and Colt revolvers, and a .45 Colt automatic. During the trial it was alleged that earlier in the evening a UVF meeting had discussed acquiring more arms. Subsequent to the imprisonment of much of the Shankill UVF in the wake of the Malvern Street trial, the organisation retreated into the shadows. During the next few years procurement operations appear to have been seldom and pointedly unsuccessful, such as the 1967 break-in at an army camp in Armagh which yielded only a handful of non-firing drill rifles.

1972 was the year in which Northern Ireland came closest to civil war. A staggering 10,628 shooting incidents took place, roughly 30 each day. In working-class Belfast law and order had broken down almost entirely with several killings – often random and sometimes extremely brutal – occurring daily. Large areas of nationalist Belfast existed in a state of semi-seccession as virtual paramilitary fiefdoms run by the Provisional IRA, the security forces too fearful to venture beyond the barricades into these “no-go areas”. These developments, along with the proroguing of Stormont, greatly stimulated the growth of loyalist paramilitary groups. That summer the Provisional IRA, by then already well supplied with weapons from Irish-American sympathisers in the United States, successfully negotiated the delivery of arms from Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Loyalists did not enjoy the advantage of direct state sponsorship that the Provisionals had with Libya and briefly the Dublin cabinet, nor did they possess a well-connected diaspora in the US. Much of their arsenal at this time was made up of antiquated (sometimes dating back to the Clyde Valley shipment) or low-quality firearms. William “Plum” Smith, a founder member of the Red Hand Commando wrote of this period:

We, as Loyalists, didn’t have such impressive connections with the world of armaments [as the IRA]. Our first trawl of weapons looked like something from a WWI museum with bolt-action Steyr and Torino [Vetterli] rifles, shotguns, a few handguns and very little ammunition. The odd Lee-Enfield rifle or Sten sub-machinegun were a luxury […]

A situation in which an aged Lee-Enfield was regarded as a luxury suggests a poorly-armed Red Hand indeed. The need to equip the large number of new recruits with modern weaponry, and to offset attrition due to security force action, triggered a massive spike in the theft of guns from not just military bases but on- and off-duty members of the security forces. Gusty Spence, having escaped from jail at the beginning of July, was involved in reorganising and re-equipping the UVF at this time:

Firearms were most important. If they didn’t have sufficient firearms they had to be procured. This meant raiding for arms and taking on the army to a degree.

Small-scale thefts were already taking place – in May armed raiders struck at the homes of two off-duty members of the Ulster Defence Regiment in Coagh, taking three rifles, two shotguns, and the men’s uniforms – when a spate of robberies targeting military bases began in autumn. The first took place at the headquarters of the UDR’s 10th Battalion on Lislea Drive in the early hours of the 14th October. Having first subdued a lone sentry outside, a group of armed men burst into the guardroom and overpowered the three guards inside. Now in control of the armoury, they took 14 SLRs and a quantity of ammunition before escaping. Although proof of inside assistance was never conclusively established, the guard commander on duty that night was subsequently dismissed after several reliable intelligence reports linked him to the UVF. The robberies targeting individual UDR personnel also made a contribution. Between October 1971 and November ’73 96 weapons were taken from the homes of UDR personnel, including 47 SLRs and 37 pistols, although loyalists were not responsible for all of these thefts.

No doubt emboldened by its success earlier in the month, the UVF’s next raid was far more ambitious. Situated next to a picturesque public park, Kings Park Camp in Lurgan was shared between the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve and UDR. At around 4:15 or 4:20 AM on the 23rd October members of C Company, 11 UDR and 85 Squadron, 40 (Ulster) Signals Regiments TAVR were on guard duty when a red Ford Cortina containing four men in army uniform drew up to the gate where a lone TAVR sentry was “stagging on”. Moments later guns appeared in the hands of the “soldiers” who, overpowering the hapless part-timer, were immediately joined by another ten raiders. Gaining entry to the base they similarly captured and disarmed the duty guard inside, but in doing so alerted the armourer who locked himself in the armoury, sealing off their objective. Holding a gun to the head of one of their captives, the raiding party pounded on the door and shouted “we’ll kill these men here one by one unless you let us in”. With little choice but to comply, the soldier unlocked the door. The gang quickly began emptying the base’s stockpile of weapons, hastened by the fact that a soldier coming on duty had raised the alarm, transferring them to their cars and an army Land Rover outside. By the time they made their escape they had seized no less than 85 SLRs and 21 Sterling SMGs, plus 1500 rounds of ammunition. As one UVF man later said, “we got so much fuckin’ stuff we didn’t know what to do with it”. If there was any jubilation amongst the UVF team at the scale of the spoils it must have been short-lived: the Land Rover containing much of their captured weaponry quickly developed a fault. They were forced to abandon it in an isolated woodland spot about four miles from the base, near Portadown Golf Course, camouflaging it with branches and foliage. The guns themselves were stashed in a hastily-built hide near the Cusher River.

RG_1974lurganUVF

Having been caught unawares and with all nearby police and army units alerted, the security forces reacted swiftly and efficiently. Roadblocks were set up along all main roads, while local UDR units joined by the RUC and soldiers from the Staffordshire Regiment swept through a 16-mile search radius. They did not have to look for long. First a UDR sergeant found a Sterling lying on the Portadown to Gilford Road, then shortly afterwards the Land Rover and hide were found by another member of the regiment. 63 SLRs,  8 Sterlings, and 800 rounds of ammunition were recovered – the bulk of the UVF’s haul. It was enough for the authorities to declare the operation a success and the Belfast Telegraph front page to crow “Army strike back after gang raid on depot” the next day. In reality the UVF, in spite of their vehicular mishap, had got away with 35 “top-class weapons” (in Gusty Spence’s words) without firing a shot. That they did so was down to their infiltration of the UDR. As a Royal Military Police investigation noted:

It is quite apparent that the offenders knew exactly what time to carry out the raid. had they arrived earlier they may have been surprised by returning patrols and had they arrived later they may have been intercepted by the Tandragee Power Station guard returning from duty. The very fact that all the guard weapons had been centralised and there was only one man on the main gate, a contravention of unit guard orders, was conducive to the whole operation. The possibility of collusion is therefore highly probable [emphasis original]

In fact the conrate (full-time) UDR sergeant on guard duty that night was Billy Hanna, a former Royal Ulster Rifles regular and winner of the Military Medal for gallantry in Korea. Though much has been written about Hanna by amateur and self-published authors – he is variously alleged to have planned the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, to have been the leader of the Mid-Ulster UVF, and an agent for British intelligence – the UVF has consistently denied that Hanna was ever a member of the organisation much less on its Brigade Staff, as his particularly bad Wikipedia profile alleges. Although we cannot take this denial at face value, there is virtually no proof for any of these claims. It is almost certain however that Hanna was involved in setting up the Lurgan raid, and it is known that he was later dismissed from the UDR on account of his connections with loyalist extremists.

After Lurgan the hold-ups continued. At the end of October a loyalist gang broke into an unmanned RUC station in Claudy and took four Sterlings. Unfortunately for the raiders the weapons had been stored without their bolts as a precaution following the previous thefts, rendering them inoperative. However loyalists possessed the ability to manufacture replacement bolts, and had taken spare parts for Sterlings on other occasions. Such safety measures were therefore no guarantee that disassembled firearms could not be restored to working order. A week later two more incidents took place. At 10:00 AM on the 8th November an armed five-man UVF team burst into the small police station in the village of Aghalee near Lurgan and tied up the lone officer on duty, taking his uniform, cap, and Walther personal protection weapon (PPW) before fleeing. One of the gunmen was armed with a Sterling SMG, neatly demonstrating the self-sustaining nature of arms raids. Much more serious were the events which had taken place in Belfast in the early hours of that morning. As a vital part of the capital’s infrastructure, and a prime target for the IRA, the pumping station in Oldpark Terrace was allocated a “key point” UDR guard. During the interval between the changing of the guard shift an armed gang consisting of eight men overpowered the facility’s nightwatchman. With the rest of the group lying in wait, one of them posed as the watchman and let the new guard into the station. The trap was then sprung: all 13 UDR men were relieved of their SLRs plus their allocation of ammo – 260 rounds in all. Once again the raiders were armed with stolen army weapons, this time SLRs.

By now nationalists had become extremely concerned about the spate of successful heists targeting military arsenals and personnel. The Irish News reported that MP Ivan Cooper of the SDLP had contacted Willie Whitelaw to ask him “how much longer the arming of Protestant extremists by the UDR was going to be tolerated”. Referring directly to the pumping station hold-up, Cooper stated that only “imbeciles” could accept the story that 13 armed soldiers had allowed themselves to be surrounded and disarmed, and warned that in the event of civil war or a Whitehall-imposed settlement the UDR would likely side with the loyalist paramilitaries. Calling for the disbandment of the locally-recruited regiment, he said:

The Oldpark Pumping Station farce is one of a number of incidents which have demonstrated undeniable collusion between the UDA and the UDR. The Secretary of State cannot afford to turn a blind eye to this latest incident and the obvious step which he must take in the interests of the entire Northern Ireland community.

In 1972 the UDA was rarely out of the news and as such it took the blame for most of these incidents, but in reality there was no conclusive proof of their involvement. Most, but not all, of these early jobs instead appear to have been carried out by the UVF, and exactly who was responsible for the Oldpark robbery is debatable. But the UDA did carry out a number of operations directed against military installations. Indeed its raids were even more ambitious, as will be seen.

The number of raids on military bases dropped off sharply after this flurry of activity. Security measures at armouries were increased somewhat and sentries were better briefed on what action to take in the event of a hold-up, helping to staunch the outflow of arms. As a then-secret British Army report stated “[s]ubversion in the UDR has almost certainly led to arms losses to Protestant extremist groups on a significant scale. The rate of loss has however decreased in 1973”. 55 weapons were stolen from the army in 1973 compared to 148 the previous year, a considerable drop. Among the incidents which took place were two robberies in mid-Ulster targeting the homes of UDR members in which two Sterlings, each with a full magazine, and a .38 Enfield revolver were stolen. Five days later there was more embarrassment for the authorities. Thursday the 8th was the day on which all of Northern Ireland – in theory, at least – took part in the “Border Poll”, the referendum asking voters whether they wished the region to remain within the UK or not. Almost the entire nationalist electorate boycotted the referendum, with just 6,500 votes cast in favour of a united Ireland. As republicans organised mass burnings of postal votes and voting cards violence was anticipated, and a soldier from the Coldstream Guards was shot dead outside a polling station. Loyalist paramilitaries used the presence of extra guards outside the stations to conduct two arms grabs. The first took place at a polling point in Berlin Street on the Shankill. A delivery lorry blocked off the road to create an obstruction and then a Transit van appeared, seemingly wishing to get past. When a UDR commander approached the vehicle to speak with the van’s driver the front passenger leapt out and shoved a sub-machinegun in his stomach. Another man, armed with a Luger, sprang from the back of the van and held up the two sentries. Eight others followed him and disarmed the guard, taking 13 SLRs in total plus their body armour. One soldier who resisted was thrown into a glass door and slightly injured. The raiders then drove off in the van at high speed. According to an army spokesman “the sentries took no action for fear of the guard commander’s life”. On the other side of the city two UDR men guarding the polling station at St Patrick’s Hall in Dee Street were approached by six men who produced guns and stole their rifles and ammunition. The gunmen escaped in a hijacked Ford Cortina which was later found burned out near Beersbridge Road.

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1974 saw a further reduction in the number of military firearms stolen, 25 in total. Queen’s University was the site of the most significant theft when on the night of April the 3rd an armed UVF team attempted to break into the armoury of the Officer Training Corp centre at Tyrone House. They failed to do so but succeeded in disarming the guards of six SLRs, five magazines, and 75 rounds of ammunition. A week later a 26yr old welder from Donaghadee was arrested and charged in connection with the raid. The court heard that he had refused to make a statement or give an account of his movements that night. The arms were not recovered.

Until now the UVF had been the more active of the two main loyalist groups in launching procurement raids, but if anyone doubted that the UDA were inclined to get involved in such activities the next major break-in would have left them in little doubt. In 1975 the organisation carried out what was then the largest ever theft from an army base by loyalists. The scale of the robbery prompted questions in parliament, leading junior Labour defence minister Brynmor John to issue a statement:

At approximately 03:15 on the morning of 16th June a car containing four men dressed in combat clothing drew up at the base of F Company, 5 UDR at Magherafelt, Co Londonderry. The sentry who went to investigate was immediately held up by the men, who were heavily armed. Two further cars then drew up, bringing the total number of men involved to about 10. The guard, consisting of a corporal and six men, were overpowered and tied up. The raiders then broke into the armoury and stole 148 self-loading rifles, 35 sub-machineguns, one General Purpose Machine Gun, three smallbore .22 rifles, 35 pistols, and several thousand rounds of ammunition. The men then escaped with their haul in two Land Rovers, which were later found burnt out about four miles away. The only casualty during the incident was one of the guards who was knocked unconscious.

This was a well-planned and slickly-executed undertaking. Moreover, the minister also failed to mention that the UDA had got away with eight grenades and an 84mm Carl Gustav anti-tank weapon, used by the army to fire inert training rounds into car bombs in order to disrupt their firing mechanisms. But as with the Lurgan raid, success was short-lived. Later that morning the entire haul was recovered by 5 UDR when a 50,000 litre-capacity slurry pit at a farm roughly four miles from Magherafelt was pumped out after a police tip-off. Worse still, the UDA lost the four guns which the raiders had used in their takeover of the camp. Although in the government’s eyes calamity had been averted, Merlyn Rees was roundly criticised by Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe for the failure in security. Once more inside assistance was in evidence: Ronald Nelson, a member of 5 UDR, was later convicted in connection with the raid.

Loyalists did not always have to use force to acquire weapons from the security forces. On rare occasions soldiers or policemen sold arms to the paramilitaries out of sympathy or for base financial reasons. In 1971 a former B Special was convicted of passing guns to loyalists and given a 12-month suspended sentence. Nicholas Hall, a member of 1 PARA, was given a two-year jail term and discharged from the army for supplying the UVF with hundreds of pounds worth of military hardware. He later found notoriety as a mercenary in Angola under the brutal and amateurish command of his associate “Colonel Callan”, real name Costas Georgiou, another dishonoured former Para. In August 1986 a UDR colour sergeant, in spite of the fact that he was visibly drunk, managed to sign out 18 weapons from the armoury at Palace Barracks and then sell them to the UDA for £3,000, less than half their true value of £7,700. The guns included two L4 Bren light machineguns, 11 9mm Browning pistols, a .38 Special Smith & Wesson revolver, plus 17 telescopic sights. He was arrested in Dublin several days later and extradited, leading to a five-year prison sentence. Three years later Browning #BL67A 4931 was used in the killing of solicitor Pat Finucane.

By 1987 major robberies against army bases were thought to be a thing of the past, a feature of the conflict’s wilder early days. Many of the weapons stolen during the 1970s had been recovered, including most of the SLRs, and loyalists were believed to have turned to overseas sources of arms instead. There was therefore great shock when the UDA, with seeming ease, gained entry to the UDR base at Laurel Hill House in Coleraine and carried out another massive arms robbery. Just before dawn on the 22nd of February three armed and masked men suddenly appeared in the base armoury and overpowered four UDR soldiers on guard duty. One man resisted and was knocked unconscious, the remainder were handcuffed and gagged. The gang then spent the next two hours emptying the armoury, loading 144 rifles, two Bren L4 light machineguns, 28 pistols, and thousands of rounds of ammunition into a UDR Transit van. Military radios and binoculars were also taken. The raiders then calmly drove out the front gate.

Once again, such a large theft could not fail to initiate a massive security alert. One of the guards managed to free himself and raise the alarm, and less than an hour later the van was stopped by the RUC 40 miles away on the M2 near Templepatrick. The stolen weapons plus two guns used by the raiders were recovered.

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The Laurel Hill raid sparked a political outcry. Secretary of State Tom King immediately ordered an inquiry into the affair, and met with his deputy Nicholas Scott, and Major-General Tony Jeapes, Commander Land Forces, to discuss the break-in. Scott made a statement declaring “these weapons could have caused untold damage in Northern Ireland. We have to congratulate the police on getting them back”, but this did nothing to assuage those who suspected inside assistance. John Dallat, then a local SDLP councillor, called for the closure of the base, saying:

It is obvious that, if a loyalist group can drive up to the front gate of the UDR base, load up virtually the entire arsenal of weapons, using a UDR vehicle, then that base has nothing to contribute to security as I understand the term.

Concerns were raised about “unsavoury elements” having access to government property, while rumours abounded that UDA members had attended drinking parties inside the base. Although both Ken Maginnis and Coleraine deputy mayor James McClure dismissed allegations of inside help, instead blaming a recent reduction in guard numbers, two lance-corporals in the UDR were arrested. Initial reports that the UDA had gained access by cutting the perimeter fence were incorrect: it transpired that one of the soldiers had smuggled in the UDA raiders in the boot of a car, allowing them to surprise the guard. He was jailed for nine years while his accomplice received a two-year suspended sentence.

The procurement raids targeting the security forces were undoubtedly an important source of arms for the loyalist paramilitaries in the early days of the conflict. It gave them access to powerful and reliable hardware at almost no outlay for those bold enough to take on the military inside its fortified citadels. Penetration of the security forces helped. Although individually collusive acts were clearly in evidence in many of the incidents, there is nothing to suggest that this constituted a systematic or officially-sanctioned policy. On the contrary, the raids caused much embarrassment for the army and government. It is also clear from the Lurgan, Magherafelt, and Laurel Hill robberies that while security measures and personnel screening in those days left much to be desired, the army and police were diligent in recovering the arms once taken. Regular security operations also helped to pick up some of the firearms, but many more remained at large and were used intensively: forensic reports showed that one of the Sterlings from the October ’72 Lurgan raid was involved in no less than 11 shooting incidents carried out by the UVF and RHC between then and June ’73. An SLR taken from the Royal Irish barracks in Ballymena in 1973 was not recovered for another 20 years. It had been fired over the coffin of Colin Caldwell, a UVF member killed by an IRA bomb in Crumlin Road Jail.

For all the criticism from republicans regarding the raids on army bases, the IRA did not turn down weapons from similar sources across the Atlantic. Between 1971 and 1974, 6,900 firearms and 1.2 million rounds of ammunition were stolen from military installations across the United States – far more than were ever taken from bases in Ulster by loyalists – with many of the thefts believed to have been carried out by IRA sympathisers. One raid on a National Guard armoury in Danvers, Massachusetts in 1976 seized, among others, seven M-60 belt-fed general purpose machineguns, which were later smuggled to the Provisional IRA. Two years later Gunner Paul Sheppard of the Royal Artillery became the first member of the security forces to be killed in an M-60 attack. The IRA also targeted UDR members for weapons, a fact seldom mentioned by Sinn Fein, although not nearly to the extent loyalists did. In one such incident at the farm of a part-timer near Rathfriland a PIRA unit stole an SLR and shot the man and his son in the legs. The Official IRA stole guns and uniforms from the home of Joseph Wilson, a Lisdown UDR man later shot dead by the Provisionals. Weapons were also stolen from the Irish Army, including a GPMG from Clancy Barracks in January 1973 which went on to be used in numerous attacks – including several attempts to shoot down helicopters – against the security forces in Northern Ireland.

The record shows that when loyalists overreached themselves the arms raids usually ended in failure. In the case of the two mammoth UDA heists all of the weapons were recovered within hours, while the UVF raid on Lurgan was only a partial success in light of what could have been. The practical issues of transporting and hiding such large amounts of weaponry, and the aggressive response from the security forces that these undertakings inevitably provoked were inimical to making a clean getaway. The two UDA operations could not be faulted for their planning or execution, but their very ambition sabotaged their chances of success. UVF hold-ups on the other hand tended to be less grand in scale, but they kept more of their gains.

Civilian Guns

[…] nothing herein contained shall extend to authorize any Papist or person professing the Popish or Roman Catholic religion, to have or keep in his hands or possession any arms, armour, ammunition, or any warlike stores, sword blades, barrels, locks, or stocks of guns or fire arms, or to exempt such person from any forfeiture or penalty inflicted by any act respecting arms, armour or ammunition, in the hands or possession of any Papist, or respecting Papists having or keeping such warlike stories, save and except Papists or persons of the Popish or Roman Catholic religion, seized of a freehold estate of one hundred pounds a-year, or possessed of a personal estate of one thousand pounds or upwards, who are hereby authorized to keep arms and ammunition as Protestants now by law may … “

The raids on military facilities provided loyalists with quality firearms capable of matching most IRA weapons, but they required good planning and logistical backup. More importantly, they entailed a significant degree of risk – as the Magherafelt and Laurel Hill jobs showed, success was far from guaranteed. Another source exploited by the paramilitaries represented far less of a gamble in operational terms: the thousands of legally-held civilian firearms held by Northern Irish citizens.

The legal trade in arms continues to play a small but significant role in arming non-state actors in conflicts around the world. The quartermasters of Mexico’s narco-gangs for example have only needed to look across the border to find all the weapons they could ever need. The supply lines running from less-scrupulous gun dealers in New Mexico, Arizona, and elsewhere, supplemented by “straw purchases” where intermediaries purchase smaller batches, have led to a situation where American weapons form some 70% of all narco-gang arms, as evidenced by the large numbers of guns which have been seized by the Mexican authorities, ranging from automatic pistols and AR-15 derivatives, to Barrett and McMillan .50 calibre anti-material rifles capable of penetrating light armour.

The ownership of guns was a deeply contentious issue during the Troubles, particularly for nationalists and republicans, the roots of which can be traced back much further to the Penal Laws which began to be enacted in the late 17th century. In an effort to neutralise the threat to English and Scottish settlers, and to Great Britain itself, posed by the rebellious and discontent native Irish, legislation was introduced which barred Roman Catholics not meeting a property and financial qualification from owning swords or firearms. The laws were gradually repealed over the course of the 19th century, but disarmament at the hands of the Ascendancy proved to be a bitter and potent fragment of folk memory which played an important part in shaping modern republican attitudes towards legal Protestant-owned guns. In the endlessly protracted discussions over decommissioning Sinn Fein consistently made reference to the matter of these firearms when stating their desire for the removal of “all the guns” from Northern Ireland (meaning legally-held ones as well as those of the security forces). Further illustration of this viewpoint can be found in an article from this period by Ann Cadwallader. Writing in Ireland on Sunday, Cadwallader, now a researcher and activist for the Pat Finucane Centre, made use of a comically dramatic and overblown metaphor to relate nationalist fears:

[j]ust as during the Cold War, when the very existence of intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles, lurking in silos in the USA and USSR, had the effect of bi-laterally limiting the military/political ambitions of both superpowers, so these legally-held weapons in the North have their own baleful effect.

The risk posed by dour Presbyterian farmers with thermonuclear arsenals in their haylofts notwithstanding, legally-held firearms were neither an operationally significant nor plentiful source for loyalists, but for the poorly-armed paramilitaries of the late 60s and early 70s anything which went “bang” was regarded as better than nothing. Raids were soon organised on gun dealers, shooting clubs, and the homes of those known to possess weapons. Potential targets were plentiful – in 1972 there were 296 registered dealers and 108 clubs in existence throughout Northern Ireland. A gun club based at the ICI plant in Kilroot was targeted in November ’72 by loyalists who made off with four .22 rifles and 200 rounds of ammunition. The armed four-man team held up the club’s lone security guard before loading the guns into a car and escaping. A young Michael Stone, at this time a member of the UDA, was ordered to acquire firearms by the organisation’s commanders:

We decided to rob a blacksmiths/gunsmiths in Comber. I would have been about 16 1/2. We burgled it. We only got five shotguns, .22 rifles, Remington pistols and .303 ammunition. We took it to a ‘hide’ on the outskirts of the Braniel.

Stone was later arrested for the robbery, denied all paramilitary involvement, and received a six-month sentence.

In the same period raids were also taking place outside Northern Ireland. Over the border in Co Louth, loyalists stole 40 assorted firearms from a gun shop and gunsmiths in Drumiskin. The UVF and UDA were also at work across the sea in Scotland. In July ’73, on the same day that the army swooped on Gerry Adams and over 20 other senior leaders in the Provisional IRA, UVF volunteer Danny Strutt was arrested at Larkhall Orange Hall in south Lanarkshire. A search of the premises uncovered 15 rifles and 2300 rounds of ammunition which he had recently stolen from Greenside Rifle Range in Edinburgh. A year earlier Strutt had made a dramatic escape from Crumlin Road jail by sawing through the bars of his cell, disguising his absence with a dummy complete with painted papier mache head and wig (made from his own hair) in his bed.

Nationalist concern over the growing number of thefts targeting guns shops, clubs, and owners led to a major debate on gun control which dominated the second half of 1972. It came to a head in October when leader of the opposition Harold Wilson opened his speech at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool by calling for a total ban:

Must our troops be subject to a virtually uncontrolled gun-law? On April 6, 1971, 18 months ago, in the anxious debate which followed the deposition of Major Chichester-Clark and the accession of Mr Faulkner, I demanded that all gun licences be withdrawn, subject to a minimum issue for self-defence in remote areas, including the border. I demanded that, these apart, the holding of private weapons be no longer tolerated in Northern Ireland. There are upwards of 100,000 licensed weapons in Northern Ireland, and God alone knows how many illegal ones. I now warn Mr Heath. The possession of private arms is not an inalienable human right. Public opinion in Britain will not for long tolerate the continued presence of British troops, unless firm action is taken to make illegal the holding of private arms.

Compared with the surfeit of Armalites, sub-machineguns, and other weapons swamping Northern Ireland at the time legally-held firearms constituted a small and not particularly formidable threat, but Wilson was keen to take up the concerns of the minority community and outmanoeuvre the government on the issue. William Whitelaw pointed out that no member of the security forces was known to have been killed with a legally-held gun at that point, although the situation regarding civilians was less clear.

The Lynch government in the Republic had already mounted the preventative call-in of all handguns, and rifles over .22 calibre, they along with shotguns being exempted, as pressure mounted for the authorities further north to follow suit. A Belfast magistrate speaking after the prosecution of one FAC holder for exceeding his allowance stated “it is time everyone looked at everyone’s firearms certificates in this country. Another country has decided to call in certain arms”. Anti-gun sentiment gained momentum and the Belfast Telegraph reported “Legal arms in Ulster may be banned”. The paper threw its weight behind calls for a ban, an editorial declaring “the general public would breathe more easily if Mr Whitelaw ordered all civilian-held guns to be turned in immediately, and all gun clubs to be disbanded, for the sake of public safety”. Wilson’s proposals also found immediate support from the SDLP and Provisional Sinn Fein.

Adding its voice to the debate around civilian arms was the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association. A statement released following a meeting of the group in Lurgan let it be known that:

the Association expressed great concern regarding the continuing policy of allowing licensed guns to remain in the hands of over 100,000 people in Northern Ireland. They question the right of these 100,000 people to have a means of protection when a further 1 1/2 million people in Northern Ireland have no such right. What entitles them to the privilege of being armed other other than that they are, in the main, Unionist Government supporters?

Although plainly paramilitary in nature – members wore uniforms of a fashion and conducted street drills – the CESA, a legal group of some 8,000 members led by chairman Phil Curran, a former soldier himself, claimed that it neither possessed guns nor carried them during its “defensive” vigilante patrols. In reality the group was  armed to a certain degree, even if guns were not displayed openly. In November 1972 a 27yr old Dunmurry man was jailed for four years at a court in Belfast for unlawful possession of five rifles, two shotguns, and 350 rounds of ammunition with intent to endanger life. The ex-soldier, described as a “weapons training officer” in the CESA, had moved to Northern Ireland from England and converted to Catholicism after marrying a local woman. The court heard how he had smuggled the guns into the Bogside and given training lessons to people who were “not members of the CESA” – a veiled reference to the IRA. In fact the CESA regularly gave training to IRA volunteers. Following the trial the organisation was criticised by the Alliance Party in west Belfast who said, “[the] CESA has been in existence for some time now, and the only noticeable change in Catholic areas attributable to them is the rash of illegal drinking clubs […] the only reason for such a force is to give Mr Curran the satisfaction of having the same petty and illegal power as Tommy Herron of the UDA”.

Gun owners reacted angrily to talk of a ban, claiming that any law would unfairly and disproportionately affect rural Protestants and leave them at the mercy of an IRA well-armed with illegal guns, with George Green of the Ulster Special Constabulary Association heading up criticism. The Belfast Telegraph printed a copy of a letter sent to Wilson by an anonymous shooter writing under the name “Sportsman”:

I am quite appalled at your attitude towards legally-held guns which, as you must appreciate, are in the hands of sportsmen. I can appreciate that the present situation in Northern Ireland could cloud personal judgement but I can see only political opportunism in your recommendations to Mr Paul Channon in the House on 31st July 1972, to impound all privately and legally held guns in our province […] even the most naive person must appreciate that even if all legally-held guns were impounded, the illegal rifles, revolvers and explosives would still be in profusion, and it is these which are taking human life […] remember that the authorities know where the legal guns are; it is the illegal guns they have to worry about.

In the end only 1,000 fullbore rifles were called in to be held in gun clubs with fortified stores. The debate had an unexpected side effects as the UVF deviously took advantage of confusion over the law. Two men posing as police officers enacting a call-in of legal arms came to the door of a gun owner in Templepatrick and tricked him into handing over a licensed weapon. A week later in Glengormley they succeeded in taking a shotgun using the same ruse, even giving the owner a receipt for the gun. As a result of a number of such deceptions the RUC were forced to issue a statement reiterating that no call-in had been ordered. The more confrontational robberies that were also taking place at this time were not without risk. An attempt by two loyalists, one armed with a revolver, to steal weapons from a licensed owner living off the Albertbridge Road was foiled when the man opened fire on them with a shotgun.

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How important were legal civilian-owned guns as a source for the loyalist paramilitaries? The evidence suggests “not very”. Nationalist claims of upwards of 140,000 firearms in circulation were incorrect. In 1972 the figure actually stood at roughly 77,000 certificates covering 106,000 weapons of all kinds: 93% of these were shotguns (73,160), .22 rimfire rifles (13,767), or airguns (12,125). The militarily-worthless airguns were not, are not, subject to license in Great Britain, leaving a total figure of 92,926. Neither remaining category constituted a particularly formidable resource: 281 shotguns were stolen from private owners in 1972 and ’73 but they lacked range, ammunition capacity, and without buckshot or solid shot, hitting power; .22LR rifles suffered similar disadvantages and were less than a tenth as powerful as an Armalite. Many of the stolen guns were stashed away in long-term hides in rural Antrim and Down for issue in the event of a “Doomsday” united Ireland scenario. Even then it is doubtful whether they would have been of much benefit beyond a simple morale-booster. The experience of the Confederacy during the American Civil War proved that shotguns are a poor substitute for military firearms.

More useful were the 6,520 legally-owned handguns, of which 2,800 or roughly 40% were Personal Protection Weapons owned by members of the security forces. By 1978 and in the face of mounting attacks on vulnerable off-duty personnel that figure had increased to 7,550. Northern Ireland was not subject to the ban on handguns enacted by the Tory and later Labour governments in response to the Dunblane massacre of 1996, and while up to date figures are not available it is believed thousands of PPWs are still held by serving and former members of the security forces and prison service. Politicians, contractors to the security forces, and other figures seen as potential targets for assassination were also granted PPWs. Even Sinn Fein, in spite of its usual hostility towards legally-held firearms, called for its members to be permitted licensed guns for their protection in August 1993 after scores of loyalist attacks.

The standard PPW for members of the UDR in the early days was the .22LR Walther PP automatic pistol, adopted by the MOD as L66A1 at a cost of £155 each. It was not a popular choice – although concealable its hitting power was regarded as pathetic and its rimmed cartridge was not conducive to reliability, leading many to purchase more powerful guns at their own expense. Later it was replaced by the far superior Walther P5 in 9mm Parabellum. All the same, loyalists attempted to steal the little PPs whenever the opportunity presented itself. Typically an off-duty UDR man would be identified in a bar and waylaid on the way out once he was the worse for wear. Violence was sometimes used. In 1981 David Smyth, a 24yr old Protestant from Highburn Gardens, was stabbed to death in an bungled mugging when a UVF/RHC gang tried to take a PPW from his companion, a member of the UDR, as they left a UDA-run drinking club. The off-duty soldier had drunkenly fired his gun in the air minutes before the attack.

Politicians have frequently turned to gun prohibition as a quick-fix solution to violence or in response to political crises. Fear of socialist revolution in the years following the First World War prompted the UK’s first real firearms legislation and registration. Aside from the call-in of fullbore weapons held for sport and hunting there was little else the government – well aware that it was the illegal shipments of military-grade weapons flowing into the country which were really fuelling the violence – could do in this area given Northern Ireland’s already strict gun laws.

Even had a blanket ban been enacted loyalists would still have been able to equip themselves through raids wherever guns were kept. The lengths they were willing to go to, and the eclectic nature of the sites they targeted in their search for arms, are clearly demonstrated in the daring UVF raid on the government forensics laboratories in Belfast in early 1973.

Forensics labs were a vital and integral component in the security force’s fight against both loyalist and republican terror groups. It was there that spent ammunition cases and bullets unearthed from crime scenes and removed from the bodies of shooting victims would be expertly examined, catalogued, and cross-referenced against an index of previously-recovered examples to identify both the weapon used and the possible perpetrators. Articles of clothing were also held for analysis to detect traces of explosives and gunshot residue. The work of such labs had been instrumental in jailing countless active members of the UVF, UDA, and IRA over the previous four years.

At around 2am on Saturday the 31st of March a large number of UVF men – the exact figure is unknown, but as many as 10 cars are believed to have been involved – breached security at the Belfast headquarters of the Department of Forensic and Industrial Science on Newtonbreda Road. Surprisingly, this was not a difficult task in itself: in spite of the fact that it held a vast quantity of lethal weaponry and ammunition the building had no police or army sentries and the alarm system was not functioning, while the civilian security guards protecting the premises were easily overpowered and tied up. Having made it inside, the UVF got to work. Over the next few hours it worked methodically and selectively through the labs collections, leading the RUC to believe that the raiders were well-prepared and knew what they were looking for.

Roughly 100 firearms and an unspecified amount of ammunition were taken, including SLRs, Armalites, M1 carbines, handguns, Thompsons, and other sub-machineguns. Various articles of clothing relating to upcoming UVF trials were also stolen. But the biggest coup of the night was the theft of an RPG-7 rocket launcher originally seized, like many of the other weapons, from the Provisional IRA. This was militant loyalism’s first encounter with the RPG, many years before the Lebanon and Teesport shipments, but unfortunately for the UVF no rockets were to be found. Years later, the Joe Bennett supergrass trial heard that John Bingham was specifically tasked with sourcing a supply of rockets from contacts in the US and Canada, which he succeeded in doing.

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The raid was front-page news in the Belfast Telegraph and Newsletter the following Monday. William Whitelaw immediately called a meeting of his security committee to discuss the raid, with Army GOC Sir Frank King, RUC Chief Constable Sir Graham Shillington, and the laboratory’s director Dr John Howard in attendance. Such an audacious theft from an important facility was deeply embarrassing to the government. Indeed, so outraged were they that the Deparment of Commerce, which had responsibility for the labs, placed a ban on the release of information to the press regarding the robbery. In the absence of any details the raid soon faded from the public consciousness and today is virtually forgotten, in spite of it being one of the most successful instances of loyalist “self-service”.

In the wake of the lab raid a number of court cases fell apart, no doubt as the UVF had intended, but not all of the consequences were positive from their perspective. Just a week after the hold-up the trial of a Dungannon republican held for possession of a Thompson SMG and a full magazine of ammunition collapsed after prosecution lawyers informed the judge that the exhibit had been stolen from the forensics HQ.

But there was one more source of arms that loyalists raiders targeted, a source which has not been explored in detail but which illustrates better than any other the extreme measures which were resorted to in order to equip the UVF and UDA…

Eating the IRA’s porridge: raids on republican arms dumps

July 1972: a member of the UVF poses with an AR-18 stolen from the IRA

July 1972: a member of the UVF poses with an AR-18 stolen from the IRA

“The guerilla soldier must never forget the fact that it is the enemy that must serve as his source of supply of ammunition and arms”
Che Guevera

At the beginning of August 1972 the Northern Ireland press reported that the UVF had obtained a quantity of Armalite AR-18 assault rifles. This compact, high-velocity, rapid-firing weapon, easily capable of penetrating the soft American-type body armour then worn by British troops in theatre, had already become notorious in the hands of republican gunmen. Publishing photographs of masked UVF members wielding the rifles, the press speculated that the organisation had received a consignment of them from the US, or possibly Japan where they were produced by the Howa Armaments Company under license from Armalite. They had not. They had stolen them from the IRA.

Raids on IRA arms dumps remain a sensitive and poorly-understood aspect of loyalist arms procurement. It is beyond doubt that they occurred, but the scale and frequency of forays to seize “enemy” supplies as a source for the UVF and UDA is something that has still to be established.

Sorties to capture each others arms dumps were certainly a regular feature amongst the rival Provisional and Official wings of the IRA, and later the INLA, in the 1970s. According to Brendan Hughes’ testimony to Boston College’s Belfast Project, the Provisional IRA stole a consignment of image-intensifying night sights from the Officials. One member of the INLA in its early PLA guise was kneecapped by the Officials for stealing a gun from one of its dumps.

The best accounts of this phenomenon on the loyalist side come from the UVF. One member of the organisation I spoke with, who was not involved in the raids but is well-informed regarding all aspects of the UVF’s history, said that while raiding IRA arms dumps probably did not constitute a major source of guns, it could be understood as having a moral benefit quite superior to any material gain. Demonstrating that “[the UVF] can go into your areas and take your guns” was potentially a powerful message to the group’s republican enemies, showing that they could penetrate nationalist strongholds, even no-go areas, to strike at will. Another source informed me that loyalists employed as workmen for Belfast Corporation made a point of routinely searching homes in republican areas they were called upon to repair, to check for weapons caches which might be pilfered at a later date.

Violent takeover-style robberies of TA and UDR depots were a potentially hazardous undertaking at the best of times, but stealing weapons from under the nose of a watchful and ruthless IRA which would not hesitate to execute any loyalist interloper caught with his arm beneath the floorboards elevated the risk to an even greater level. The scant documentary accounts of this practice do indeed testify that it was not without repercussion. In May 1972 the UVF looted an OIRA arms cache being stored in a house off the Antrim Road. The furious Officials responded by abducting three Shankill Protestants stopped at one of their illegal checkpoints in Turf Lodge while driving to work along the Monagh Road. The men were taken to an OIRA “call house” and kept in a coal cellar where they were interrogated about the theft. After three hours the Officials released them. In another incident the OIRA snatched three loyalists from South Belfast. This episode would lead to a celebrated, albeit arm’s-length, encounter between Gusty Spence and the legendary Official IRA figure of Staff Captain Joe McCann. As Spence related to Roy Garland:

There were Official IRA armaments held in a house in north Belfast. The UVF knew about this and the guns were taken and passed over to the organisation. The Official IRA then swept into Sandy Row and lifted three fellows. They then released one man, saying, ‘Tell the UVF that if we don’t get these guns back we’re going to shoot these two fellows’. Through my contacts I was told that the two fellows were not UVF men although the man they released was. I sent word to Joe McCann, ‘Joe, you’d be shooting them for the wrong reasons. Don’t do it. Do me a turn and I won’t forget about it’. One Official IRA man wanted to shoot them dead but Joe released them, a magnanimous gesture.

In the early summer of 1974 Combat magazine carried reports of another raid. The piece alleged that:

As a result of information received from the Security Forces [emphasis mine], a Unit of the Mid-Ulster Volunteers seized a quantity of weapons from what is believed to have been an IRA arms dump.

The Unit captured a Thompson sub-machine gun, two revolvers and a quantity of ammunition and explosive materials. Before leaving the ‘dump’ the Unit laid a booby-trap mine which later exploded causing injury to an IRA quartermaster. In a report to Brigade Staff, the Officer Commanding the 3rd (Mid-Ulster) Battalion said that this had been the third successful arms seizure in the Tyrone area within the past month.

While the purported blowing up of an IRA quartermaster with a booby-trap reads like embellishment – I have not been able to confirm it thus far – the claim that the Mid-Ulster UVF raided a republican arms dump after a tip-off from a sympathetic – or infiltrated – source within the security forces is credible.

After the UVF’s successes in robbing republican arms dumps their recently-formed rivals in the UDA were keen to get in on the act. On the 6th October 1972 the front page of the Belfast Telegraph carried a statement from the UDA which said that a “commando team” had crossed over the border into Co Monaghan and raided IRA arms dump. Claiming to have captured a number of Armalites and a quantity of explosives, a UDA spokesman said:

While Lynch refuses to take stern action against the terrorists we feel we have no alternative but to continue our raids. As terrorism increases here in Northern Ireland we will step up our activities in the Republic.

It followed repeated threats from the organisation to carry out punitive operations across the border. The Gardai Siochana said that their patrols in the area had not noticed any unusual activity, while Cathal Goulding of the Official IRA claimed that the first he had heard of the raid was on the morning radio. Nor did the UDA put any of the alleged arms on display – although there was some debate about whether to hand them over to the army – but some time later weapons usually associated with the republican paramilitaries began appearing in the hands of UDA operators. The M1 carbine used by a UDA gunman to shoot and badly wound Charles Harding-Smith on the Shankill during an internal dispute was usually regarded as a signature IRA weapon, particularly of the Official wing, although the UDA had possibly received a small number of them from supporters in Canada.

Rattlers, Shipyard Specials, and Widowmakers: loyalist homemade firearms

Loyalist homemade Sten-type sub-machinegun

Loyalist homemade Sten-type sub-machinegun. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

The urban guerrilla’s role as gunsmith has a fundamental importance. As gunsmith he takes care of the arms, knows how to repair them, and in many cases can set up a small shop for improvising and producing efficient small arms […] homemade weapons are often as efficient as the best arms produced in conventional factories
Carlos Marighella, Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla

For all the raids on military bases and private gun owners, illicit purchases from underground arms dealers, and smaller “procurements” from other sources, sometimes even these diverse means were not enough. Attrition due to security force raids, losses during operations, and informers nibbled away at the arsenals painstakingly scraped together by the loyalist paramilitaries. There was one more avenue, however, which could always be relied upon to replenish and augment stocks, and it had the considerable advantage of bypassing the black market and its criminal arms merchants who charged a premium for their wares and were often less than wholly trustworthy.

Homemade or expedient firearms have been a commonplace phenomenon in many conflicts throughout the last century. The Mau Mau in Kenya fashioned extremely primitive but deadly single-shot rifles and shotguns, in some cases no more than a steel pipe attached to a block of wood with a firing pin driven by a rubber strip. Drug gangs in Brazil, a country awash with firearms, have equipped themselves with homemade revolvers, pistols, and sub-machineguns constructed in favela workshops – such weapons have in recent years been used to kill police officers.

The appearance of homemade firearms is governed by the simple equation of need plus ability, and in dire circumstances the second is sometimes expedited by the first. Historically speaking, outside of Northern Ireland the most prolific users and producers of homemade firearms were the Polish underground of the Second World War, specifically the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, set up in 1939 to resist their Nazi occupiers. In the most desperate of conditions, its own in-house gunsmiths designed, tested, and built at least 750 examples of the Błyskawica (Bliz-ka-wik-sa, meaning “Lightning”) sub-machinegun, an ingenious synthesis of Sten and MP-40 which drew on the best of its British and German parentage.

Sten-type homemade SMG recovered in 1978

Sten-type homemade SMG recovered in 1978

The use of the Sten as a blueprint or starting point for a homemade design was a common feature of firearms produced across occupied Europe and indeed by loyalists in Northern Ireland. The reasons for this are simple as Russian firearms writer Max Popenker explains, “Open-bolt SMGs are the simplest and cheapest form of full-automatic weapon; they offer much more firepower than any handgun, yet are much simpler to build than any rifle, especially semi- or full-automatic”. Open-bolt SMGs are so simple to produce they can be assembled without any sophisticated tools. The designs of the late Yorkshire amateur gunsmith Philip Luty reduced the SMG to sheets of folded steel and plumbing supplies, and Luty-inspired guns have appeared in the hands of Australian biker gangs and even Chechen separatists. Many loyalists were members of Ulster’s skilled working class employed in heavy industry, aerospace, and shipyards. As Billy Mitchell, a senior UVF officer in the 1970s noted, these skills were transferable:

Loyalists were building aircraft; they were building all sorts of high precision equipment. So building a gun did not pose that great a problem. I mean if you can manufacture one type of high precision tool you can manufacture another.

The types of weapons produced filled almost every niche. .22 pen guns that fit in a shirt pocket without attracting attention. .410 and 12 bore shotguns, in both single and double-barrelled configuration and of folding or “trombone” actions (detailed later)…single-shot .303 rifles and crude .22 “zipper guns” wielded by the Tartan gangs. Silencers were also made and existing weapons adapted to accept them by cutting threads into their barrels. But 9mm Sten/Sterling-type sub-machineguns were by far the most prevalent and practical.

Homemade

Homemade “trombone”-action 12 bore shotgun. Credit: Small Arms Review.

Homemade SMGs began appearing in the hands of the UDA and UVF in the early 70s. Some were built using spare parts kits for Sterlings stolen from UDR and TA bases, while others were produced from scratch “after hours” in places like Mackies, Harland & Wolff, and Short Brothers – as a young member of the East Belfast UDA Michael Stone carried a “Shipyard Special”. Components readily to hand were pressed into service. The square-section SMGs often found in the hands of the UVF and RHC used a metal table leg for the receiver and barrel shroud. Magazines, the most difficult part to fabricate along with the barrel, were typically taken from Sterlings or Stens.

Some of the weapons produced were distinctly rough-and-ready. “Colin” recalls that he “had heard about the homemade machine guns and the main problem I had heard was that when you pulled the trigger, it just emptied the magazine, there was no stopping the firing mechanism”. This proved to be a flaw particular to certain models of improvised loyalist SMG. Max Popenker explains, “Two major sources of the ‘runaway gun’ malfunction are either poor design – bolt movement is too short to engage the sear or trigger unit design is wrong – or poor manufacture”. In their haste to equip the UVF and UDA it seems some of the amateur gunsmiths failed to adequately test their creations. Yet even the best examples were austere in the extreme. These were brutal, inelegant machines created solely for the business of of close-quarters killing. Sights were invariably dispensed with and barrels were often left unrifled. As a consequence the bullets quickly began tumbling in flight, creating horrific wounds. It had the additional advantage of not leaving tell-tale rifling marks, although individual weapons could still potentially be identified through recovered cases.

Robert Niblock, who as a playwright has written of his experiences as a young member of the Woodstock Tartan and later Red Hand Commando during the early and mid-1970s, spoke with me about his experiences with DIY firearms:

As a teenager I would have experimented with homemade bombs long before I had even seen a homemade firearm. In fact I would have came across real guns before I encountered the homemade variety.  Around September of 1971 I along with many other Tartan members received weapons training from a number of individuals. They were mostly middle-aged men who formed the vigilante group who had sprang up in August 1969 and had been resurrected in August ’71 in response to the upsurge in Republican violence after internment. None of them at this stage were members of an organisation but all would go on to join the UVF quite soon afterwards. As well as firing legally held shotguns and revolvers/pistols we were introduced to a homemade Sten gun. I only remember one of the older men firing a short burst from it. We weren’t allowed to fire it and if memory serves me right the reason was that the ammunition for it was very scarce. I imagine it fired 9mm if it was based on the original weapon. Subsequently when we started acquiring guns ourselves there was a problem in obtaining the same ammunition, at least for a while.

When asked to describe these weapons in detail, and how they compared to the genuine article, he said:

The Sten I speak about looked much like the real thing…I did handle it…it was just an imitation and there were obvious differences. Of the other guns I recall very few of them resembled real weapons. There was no sophistication about them at all and were obviously made in the quickest and cheapest way possible. There was no frills around them and the majority were nothing more than cylinders with spring-loaded triggers or catches that were simply released to fire the round. A variation of these was a pump action type weapon – basically one cylinder inside another and pulled back. Not the most reliable of guns for obvious reasons! Most of the former were capable of firing a .22 and my thoughts around this is that this type of round was the most available and it may have been easier for whoever manufactured them to make something that size using whatever equipment they had. It is also reasonable to assume that the smaller the calibre of the bullet the less potential damage to the firer if something went wrong. As it sometimes did.

The general reputation of the most of these weapons was poor. There were many reports of accidents…accidental discharges, minor explosions, blowbacks, and simply not working. Many of the basic zip guns could only be fired once and had to be dumped. There was no accuracy with any of them and would have been useless outside of a few yards range. The common feeling was that they were more of a danger to the person holding them than to the target. I remember firing a small zip gun at a brick wall to test it. It was really very similar to [the pen gun pictured below]. It fired okay – a .22 round – but the heat burned my hand quite badly and I had to throw it away. We fired it again after it had cooled down by holding a rag around it and this time the barrel split, rendering it useless.

.22 calibre pen gun

.22 calibre pen gun made by loyalists. Credit: Small Arms Review.

Although clearly of limited utility even these basic contraptions could be potentially dangerous if not handled properly:

There was also an incident around the same time – it was June/July 1972 – where some young lads were test firing a zip gun on waste ground where there was a bonfire hut. The person firing the gun aimed it at the hut…believing it to be empty. It wasn’t. The gun fired and the bullet entered the hut. A girl and fella from the area came flying out. Neither of them were hit but obviously shocked and panicky. Turned out they weren’t going together and had been ‘outed’ by the zip gun.

As to who was making the homemade guns he said:

The origins of the homemade guns varied but by and large would have been produced by people who were “good with their hands”, worked for engineering companies, had access to milling machines and that type of equipment. During my time I don’t remember stuff being mass produced although I believe some were later. I remember by 1974 when I was in Long Kesh there was talk of many weapons being made. I know one man who was arrested and jailed for mass producing guns from his garage – he was from an engineering background — in County Down…around Crossgar or Killinchy I think. I believe many individuals tried their hand at making them especially around the tail end of ’71 but by the time the organisations were taking a hold in early ’72 the emphasis was more on procuring proper firearms rather than making them.

Even with the focus on getting hold of professionally-built arms loyalist paramilitaries continued to use and construct homemade SMGs. In September 1988 the security forces uncovered a large-scale weapons factory – believed to be the biggest ever found in Europe – being run out of a light engineering workshop owned by Sam McCoubry, a former soldier in the UDR, in the tiny village of Spa near Ballynahinch, Co Down. 30 fully-assembled Sten-type SMGs of a basic design – constructed mostly out of steel tubing and with unrifled barrels – were discovered at the site. More worrying was the presence of a dismantled Uzi found with two skilfully-made and fully functional copies. These were significantly more sophisticated than any DIY loyalist sub-machineguns identified up till then. Components sufficient to manufacture 800 of these potent firearms were found in several outbuildings, while numerous spent sheet stampings in varying stages of deterioration hauled from an adjacent lake indicated that the factory had been producing SMGs of one type or another in quantity and for a considerable time. Four presses for making ammunition were also found. McCoubry, who was jailed for 14 years in March 1989, was believed to have operated under cover of his saw-making business – which had even received a grant from the Local Enterprise Development Unit – for as much as 20 years. In 1978 homemade SMGs resembling his designs were unearthed along with an AR-18 and SLR in a UVF arms dump near Donaghadee.

One of the Ballynahinch Uzis

One of the Ballynahinch Uzis. Credit: Bobbie Hanvey

If the need was great enough firearms could be fashioned in the most trying of circumstances. Plum Smith devotes a brief chapter of his memoir Inside Man to guns manufactured by the UVF/RHC inside Long Kesh prison. In the summer of 1976 a group of UDA prisoners, led by two individuals armed by handguns, broke out of their compound in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Norman Cooke, a UVF prisoner who was serving a sentence connected with the UVF/UDA feud which had endured throughout 1974-75. With no firearms of their own, a UVF prisoner nicknamed the “Mechanic” came up with a plan to build simple “trombone”-style single-shot shotguns from tubular basketball stanchions and bed legs:

He pointed to the stanchions and told us they were the same diameter as a 12 gauge shotgun. All we had to do was cut them into barrel lengths and using a bed end which fitted neatly over the barrel end, affix a firing pin and we had a makeshift shotgun.

UVF prisoners armed with homemade shotguns. Two can be seen loading shells into the chamber.

UVF prisoners armed with homemade shotguns. Two can be seen loading shells into the chamber.

Four examples were made and a small quantity of ammunition smuggled in. One ex-prisoner I spoke to was of the opinion that the DIY shotguns were viable, saying “They definitely would have worked but they may have done some damage to the user if wrongly handled […] I smuggled in some rounds for it that were single shot so extremely lethal close up”. There can be few more instructive examples of the lengths loyalists were willing to go to when faced with an urgent need to arm themselves.

The final iteration of the loyalist SMG was the so-called “Avenger”, a distillation of the paramilitary gun-maker’s craft, if it can be called that. Like the Błyskawica the Avenger appears to have drawn from several existing designs. Its bolt – which wrapped around the barrel shortening the guns overall length – resembled that of the Uzi, while the use of a secondary recoil spring to ensure smooth functioning seems to have been inspired by that loyalist favourite, the Sterling. Adhering to the design maxim that form follows function, the Avenger represented the ideal firearm for the UVF and UDA: concealable, compact, silent, with an extremely high rate of fire – a pure murder weapon.

Like the Provisional IRA’s barrack busters and PRIG anti-armour launchers, the loyalist improvised guns represented mechanical ingenuity and acquired skills of the Northern Irish working class exploited for destructive purposes. As to their significance and practical benefit to the loyalist paramilitaries, a member of the UVF’s 1st (West Belfast) Battalion summed up his view of homemade firearms to me thus:

The utility in homemade weapons was simply one of availability and the ability to produce at will. In terms of quality the difference between the weapons themselves varied greatly over time. There is little comparison between early SMG versions, which needed to be held with a welders’ glove to prevent burning, and later designs that came suppressed, with foldable stock and fire control selector. In general though, it would be fair to say that factory weapons were certainly preferred and there was a greater confidence in them as opposed to homemade weapons of whatever quality.

The Canadian Connection

The UVF displays M10 sub-machineguns newly imported from Canada

The UVF displays M10 sub-machineguns newly imported from Canada

“I ran in the house and grabbed my clip
With the Mac-10 on the side of my hip
Bailed outside and pointed my weapon
Just as I thought, the fools kept steppin'”
Eazy E, Boyz N The Hood

On the 6th of November 1983 the British and Irish press published photographs of hooded UVF men posing with a variety of firearms at an undisclosed location in Belfast. The photo op had been called as a show of strength in response to the apparent continuing success of the supergrass trials, which had already jailed a number of UVF men including several members of its Brigade Staff. Much of the weaponry was old – Thompson SMGs, homemade Sten copies, Lugers – but the sight of brand-new Ingram M10 sub-machineguns inspired considerable anxiety on the part of the security forces and nationalists. Their fears were somewhat understandable – for the type of campaign carried out by the UVF there were few firearms more suitable. As Max Popenker notes:

The Ingram M10 was purpose-designed for close combat […] it is well-designed for ‘pop up, spray target with bullets, retreat’ scenarios. It is easily concealable, and can saturate the target area with 30 bullets in almost no time. All you need is to get close to the target.

Furthermore the Ingrams displayed by the UVF were fitted with the Sionics suppressor, which made the weapon virtually silent in operation. More importantly though, the presence of the guns confirmed suspicions which had been circulating since early that year: the organisation had been rearming with sophisticated weaponry acquired overseas.

The UVF’s rearmament effort is believed to have begun some time in the late 70s. The organisation had recently left behind a particularly traumatic period of ill-discipline, internal disagreements, and horrific violence after a highly militant brigade staff assumed control, followed by a leadership regarded as weak. Thereafter a more stable command endured. In an unusually frank interview with Combat magazine in 1977 a senior UVF officer admitted that the organisation had been left with “very little” support, saying “in 1975 the feuding amongst ourselves shattered the support for loyalist paramilitaries. I blame the people in the UVF and UDA who abused their positions. Many people joined the organisation and realised the power they could get through it. These people found power in a gun”. The UVF leader blamed its recent internal difficulties on “hard men who abused power and were hard to control once they got into strong positions”. The group announced a ceasefire in June 1976, and while this term is questionable – this was the period of the Shankill Butchers after all – violence was in time drastically reduced from its previous level.

From there on the organisation appears to have entered a period of restructuring and rearmament. Details of this came to light during the Joe Bennett supergrass trial which began in February 1983. The court heard how UVF teams had been dispatched to Europe and North America to locate sources of arms. A delegation to Antwerp in Belgium by Jackie Irvine and Bennett in August 1980 linked up with the Vlaamse Militanten Orde, a group of far-right Flemish ultra-nationalists. A deal for £50,000 of weapons was discussed in the back room of a bar decorated with a framed portrait of Adolf Hitler. Negotiations ended when the UVF pointedly refused the VMO’s offer of guns in return for bombing Jewish businesses in the UK. According to Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald, an earlier mission by two representatives to Beirut in the spring of 1978 was also unsuccessful. The UVF men hoped to meet with representatives of the powerful Gemayel clan – founders of the Phalange and its military wing the KRF – but could not after being informed of a death in the family, possibly linked to the feud between the Gemayels and the Frangieh family which erupted at that time.

The UVF had more success across the Atlantic. Canada, and the Toronto region in particular, represented one of the few foreign sources of support for Ulster loyalists. The city has a small but significant Ulster Scots diaspora, and is home to a network of Orange lodges. When Gusty Spence escaped from Crumlin Jail in 1972 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were placed on alert following reports that Spence was hiding out in the city having entered the country through Montreal. The RUC said at the time, “We [have] to follow up all possibilities. There are many Orange sympathisers in Toronto”

Sympathisers in Canada were already aiding those in Northern Ireland who were willing to use violence to defend the status quo. Two UDA smuggling rings had been uncovered, the first in 1972 involved five Toronto businessmen who planned to ship guns hidden in grain containers to ports in the UK. The second was closed down in April 1974. Early in the month English police acting on a tip-off found a cache of nine M1 carbines, 13 Sten guns, 66 Sten magazines, and 2,000 rounds of ammunition in the hold of a ship docked at Southampton which had recently arrived from New York. Two weeks later the Canadian end of the operation was shut down when the RCMP arrested 40yr old Ronald Whiteside and George Harry Hall, 24. Four M1 carbines were found in Whiteside’s home. The two men, both members of the Canadian Ulster Loyalist Association, were jailed that November.

The UVF operation centred around two men, William Charles Taylor from Etobicoke, Toronto, and John Dowey Bingham of Ballysillan in north Belfast. Taylor was a gun enthusiast and fervent anti-communist who had come to sympathise with Ulster loyalists through conversations with his friends Albert Watt, a Belfast expatriate who had moved to Canada shortly after the Troubles began, and former Canadian Army Reserve officer Howard Wright. Bingham was a UVF officer central to its rearmament efforts and at the time of his murder by the IRA in 1986 was the overall commander of the organisation in west Belfast, the “Lt Col” of 1st Battalion. He proved highly resourceful in hunting down foreign sources of weapons,travelling abroad on false passports or on a “clean” one issued to him by the Republic (as all Northern Irish citizens are entitled to if they so wish). Through his émigré associates, Taylor linked up with Bingham and the UVF. He and Wright drove to gun shows across the US where firearms could be bought with minimal fuss and began sending them to the UVF via its support units in Maryhill and Larkhall. The packages were marked as car components coming from the Old Mill Pontiac Buick Co. in Toronto but in fact contained guns wrapped in lead foil to defeat x-ray machines. After this route was compromised in April 1980 – eight Scottish UVF men along with Brigade Staff member Norman Sayers from Glencairn received sentences totalling 70 years – a more ambitious scheme was concocted where arms were shipped across the Atlantic in hollowed-out tractor engines, for which the UVF had acquired an import licence.

RG_UVFarmsbuying

The quantity of weapons brought in was not significant compared to the huge shipments the IRA were gifted by Libya during the 1980s, but the weapons that the UVF did receive were of the highest quality – pump-action shotguns, .38 Special and .357 Magnum revolvers, suppressed .22 pistols, M10s, Uzis, Armalite AR-15s, Colt Commando carbines and even grenade launchers were among those it received. Taylor, a skilled mechanic and gunsmith, also converted weapons from semi- to full-automatic. Until a crackdown by the US government in the early 80s many sub-machineguns such as the Uzi and M10 were legally sold in open-bolt semi-auto versions which were easily converted to full-auto. The type of guns the UVF was now armed with can be seen in a cache found in Oxford Street, Belfast in early April 1981. A sawn-off Remington Wingmaster 12 gauge pump-action shotgun, Ingram M10, and Smith & Wesson Model 27 .357 Magnum revolver were recovered. During the Joe Bennett trial in 1983 the court heard that the RUC found a handful of the new UVF guns from Canada when they searched the home of a UVF member in Ballysillan who was also in the UDR. There they discovered a custom-built arms store hidden behind a false panel in a walk-in wardrobe. In addition to silencers, magazines, and ammunition, found within it were some of the assault rifles the UVF had been importing – an AR-15, a fully-automatic Colt Commando, and a Ruger Mini-14. The court heard that all originated in the US and that their serial numbers had been “obliterated”. However the search team missed four new handguns which were later retrieved by the UVF.

Whether through Taylor and Wright or his connections in the US Bingham also imported at least one M60 belt-fed machinegun and warheads for the RPG the UVF had stolen from the IRA. His involvement with the smuggling network was brought to a temporary halt by his arrest as a result of Joe Bennett’s allegations, and finally by his killing at the hands of PIRA. Along with others involved involved in arms-buying missions Bingham was jailed for 10 years for possession of the M60, 20 for conspiring to arm the UVF, plus further terms for possession of firearms and explosives.

A cache of UVF guns from Canada found in Oxford St, Belfast, April 1981.

A cache of UVF guns from Canada found in Oxford St, Belfast, April 1981. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

Taylor’s role as a gunrunner survived Bingham’s death by just a few months. On Christmas Day 1986 he was arrested during an RCMP raid on his home. He had been betrayed by a jealous girlfriend named in his subsequent 1988 trial only as “Linda”. Along with Wright, Watt, and a Liverpool haulage contractor Trevor Cubbon, he was eventually jailed for his role in rearming the UVF.

A senior UVF commander said of Billy Taylor:

[he] was something else. He was a god-send. He could do anything with his hands. The beauty of it all was that he was a true believer. He didn’t want money. I think he enjoyed the thrill of it all. most arms dealers you work with are untrustworthy. They are always willing to sell you out to the highest bidder. Taylor was different. After we established trust with him we knew we had a great asset.

In 1995 not long after his release he was killed after a bar-room argument with one of his friends ended with a gunshot. Taylor was more than just a smuggler to the UVF. His significance to the organisation was such that at some time during his involvement with them he was formally sworn into the organisation as a “Volunteer”. The number of arms he funnelled to the UVF is believed to be in the low hundreds, but they represented a significant boost to the organisation.

Doing the Business: Operational concerns

The accumulation of weapons was only a means to an end for organisations involved in the deadly business of targeting republicans and more often those in the wider nationalist community perceived as their enablers and supporters, whether active or not. However the UVF/RHC and UDA got a hold of firearms they were then faced with hiding, transporting, and maintaining them, and training operators in their use.

Without the skills to use to use them guns are little more than expensive clubs. The task of training members in the use of firearms was an important and integral part of paramilitary business. Aside from imparting practical knowledge, it also served to induct “civilians” into the world of an illegal terrorist army. As a member of the UDA said to Colin Crawford:

When I was 16 —– gave me my first gun, and that has quite an impact upon you at that age, it gave you power, you were ‘somebody’. I was on my way to becoming a UFF gunman, and that was fine with me.

I asked a member of the UVF’s 1st Battalion to detail the sort of instruction members of the organisation were given in relation to firearms:

All Volunteers, whatever their intended role would be given at least basic weapons training on a variety of weapons systems depending on what was held by his particular unit. Those not directly involved in ASUs would be given such training in order that they could maintain weapons that may be left in their care. The level of training given to Active Service Volunteers would be dependent on their respective unit’s access to weaponry. In general terms this would involve field stripping, dry fire training, live fire training and the passing on of cumulative knowledge that had built up within the organisation on weapons both specifically and in the context of their intended use.

By 1972 the UVF and UDA had organised some degree of training for the large numbers of mostly young men who had joined up in response to the growing level of violence. “Colin” is an ex-paramilitant and former prisoner from Belfast. A friendly and well-educated man in his fifties, in 1972 he was in his mid-teens when he was invited to join the youth wing of the UVF, the Young Citizens Volunteers. Although he had handled zip guns as a member of a Tartan gang, his first paramilitary experience of guns came when a fellow volunteer asked him to stash a .38 revolver in a safe location of his choosing. One of his many memories of this time is seeing a Ford Anglia driving up Agnes Street off the Shankill with a Sterling SMG plainly sticking out of the window: “It was Frankie Curry just before or after spraying a place”.

He had previously learned to shoot in the innocuous and perfectly legal circumstance of firing .22 rifles during visits to the Isle of Man to attend Orange Order summer events there. Now along with other UVF recruits he was being drilled on various firearms by a former soldier who was introduced as a member of the Orange Volunteers:

The training mainly consisted of stripping down and putting back together an array of weapons. There was an SMG, SLR, Belgian FN, Thompson SMG, Lee-Enfield and an array of others I cannot remember.

Although he says that he “loved the training”, he regretted not having the opportunity for practical instruction. As it was, the first time he fired a gun was during a paramilitary operation: there was “no comparison” to shooting .22 rifles on the Isle of Man.

His experiences correlate closely with those of Red Hand Commando Plum Smith who describes being trained by a former Royal Marine Commando in the upstairs room of a bar. Unarmed combat, firearms training, guerilla tactics, and resistance to interrogation were all practised. There could be mishaps with inexperienced recruits however. He writes, “Weapon training was going quite well until one night a volunteer was fiddling with an old .32 revolver when it went off accidentally. The bullet went through the floor and landed in a pensioner’s pint glass in the public bar below”

Asked if he regarded the YCV as being well-armed at this time, “Colin” replied, “Not particularly well armed though better than some may have imagined. I retrieved many PPWs from off-duty part-time security force personnel. Certainly nowhere near as extensively as PIRA”.

In late 1972 Tommy Herron rashly and unilaterally made the astonishing announcement that Vietnam War veterans from the US were training UDA recruits in weapons handling and combat tactics. Erskine Holmes, chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, was the only taker for this lamp-swinging tale, describing the announcement as “extremely probable […] because the UDA seem to be very definitely preparing for an escalation of the violence in Northern Ireland”. Eddie McAteer of the Nationalist Party wryly noted “I would think that the UDA could teach the Vietnam veterans a few tricks”, while Ivan Cooper of the SDLP was closest to the mark when he said “I don’t believe that the story has a great deal of substance. My main worry would be people who were former members of the B Specials and the British Army who are giving training in weaponry rather than veterans of Vietnam”.

Indeed during research for this article and in conversation with former members of the UVF and UDA the importance of former servicemen, particularly in coaching recruits in the use of firearms, came up repeatedly. A former member of the Woodvale Defence Association stressed to me the crucial role ex-servicemen had in training and imposing strict discipline upon its members. The UVF in particular had within its ranks many men who had fought anti-insurgency campaigns in the numerous brushfire wars Britain became involved in during the retreat from empire, places like Cyprus, Borneo, Malaya, Aden. Billy Giles, who joined the UVF by invitation in 1975, was instructed by former soldiers who had fought in Aden and Borneo. David Ervine went through a similar process after joining the UVF in July 1972. According to his biographer Henry Sinnerton “the training he experienced was in stripping weapons, cleaning them and putting them together again. He was taught how to take up defensive firing positions, attack firing positions, and lay ambushes. This training took place mostly in Belfast, with never more than a handful of people”. Ervine himself consciously downplayed the level of training, speaking of “a bit of weapons training […] well, a fair bit of weapons training, mostly on pistols, so it was quite interesting”.

The weapons in this UVF arms dump discovered in April 1983 display an eclectic range of origins: an AR-18 stolen from the IRA, a homemade sub-machinegun, and a sporterized civilian version Lee-Enfield rifle - probably stolen

The weapons in this UVF arms dump discovered in April 1983 display an eclectic range of origins: an AR-18 stolen from the IRA, a homemade sub-machinegun, and a civilian version Lee-Enfield rifle – probably stolen

A glimpse into the way firearms training and practice was handled within the UVF can been seen in an article covering the “Annual Shoot” of the 2nd (East Antrim) Battalion in Combat magazine from mid-1974:

The Annual Shoot and Inspection organised by the 2nd Battalion’s B Company was held on Saturday 6th July at the Company Training Centre somewhere in County Antrim.

The Inter-Platoon Shoot was won by No. 3 Platoon with a score of 547. No. 1 Platoon came second with a score of 542 and No. 2 Platoon took third place with a score of 536. The Shoot was held on the 300 and 500 yard ranges. The Inspection part of the Annual Event was won by No. 2 Platoon with 3, 4 and 1 Platoons following in that order.

For the purpose of the Inspection, six members from each Platoon were selected at random by the Company Training Sergeant and tested in the various aspects of weapon handling. The ‘teams’ were tested on the Self-Loading Rifle, the Armalite assault rifle, the Submachine Gun and Pistol. Marks were awarded for safety procedure, maintenance and field stripping and general handling.

Given the practical problems that existed in finding a safe location for live-fire training at the best of times it is questionable whether the “annual shoot” was ever more than a one-off. An event which involved a large number of armed men gathering in a field or wooded area wearing combat gear or black leather jackets would quickly attract unwanted attention and present a security hazard. A member of the UDA’s north Belfast brigade told Colin Crawford of having to go into a densely-wooded forest in order to practice with pistols and Sterling SMGs without being spotted by army helicopters. Paramilitary training certainly did take place in rural Northern Ireland. Sarah Nelson wrote of UVF men discussing the problem of “having to wait for a night when a sympathetic UDR commander was on duty in a country area”, while another figure told Cusack and McDonald, “We had places in the country (for training). There were quite a few trained. There was ex-army guys who did the training. It was all done in Northern Ireland as it was impossible to travel. We did rifle work in fields”.

The winning team?

The winning team? “No.2 Platoon” pose with (l-r) Armalite AR-18, homemade Sten, and SLR.

Putting the regimental airs and formal language to one side the article does show that the UVF understood the importance of weapons training as a concept. Ensuring their upkeep, storage, and maintenance was also a priority, as my 1st Battalion interviewee noted:

Each unit would have a designated Quartermaster whose task it was to look after the unit’s weapons and to make sure they were in working order. The knowledge built up and passed on over decades, even if from a sparse beginning could become considerable even at that basic organisational level. At battalion level armourers would have had a more detailed knowledge of firearm mechanics, access to components and the skills necessary to repair a wide range of malfunctions. The tradition of heavy industry in Northern Ireland and Loyalist areas in particular means that there is a lot of skilled knowledge and practice available and whilst not directly related to firearms that expertise has some degree of carryover. Over the years, this has served the organisation very well.

One paramilitary quartermaster who achieved notoriety as a result of his role was William Stobie of of the west Belfast UDA. It was Stobie who stored, maintained, and supplied the weapons used to kill Pat Finucane in 1989. Stobie had previously served six years in the British Army followed by two in the Territorials.

It is an open secret that during the conflict, in spite of the Orange Order’s often ambivalent attitude towards loyalist paramilitaries, the UVF and UDA used Orange halls to store firearms and explosives. This habit was mirrored on the republican side, with the IRA sometimes taking advantage of GAA halls for the same purpose. Indeed the very guns that “Colin” trained on were later recovered by the security forces from West Belfast Orange Hall – the result, he believes, of a tip-off from a YCV who was in training. In June 1974 the army again found 17 rifles, 14 pistols, a quantity of ammunition, eight homemade mortars, explosives, and medical supplies in the West Belfast hall. Another raid on an Orange hall in Sandy Row that same week recovered six pistols, six rifles, grenades, and 1,000 rounds of ammo. Operations like this continually nibbled away at paramilitary stocks. According to “Colin”, “The security forces would have been watching suspected members and attempting to capture them with weapons so the weapons would be more under the control of those unknown and not suspected but raids like the one on the Orange hall would be an indication that they did have an impact”. He describes how he had once travelled to Scotland for Hogmanay having “stashed” a rifle: “During the time I was in Scotland I received a call to say it had been retrieved for an operation and was later captured by the security forces.”

Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald, two reputable journalists with excellent contacts in the world of loyalist paramilitarism, have written of arms exchanges taking place between the UVF and UDA in certain parts of west Belfast. The appearance of similar yet uncommon types of weapon in the hands of both groups further hints at the possibility of such transactions. With this in mind I asked my UVF contact directly how their weapons compared to those of the UDA and whether guns were ever swapped or shared between the two groups:

What the UDA had access to would be a question for them, though I have no recollection or evidence of any envy on that front. In terms of cooperation there was no official position or agreement. In some areas, relationships with the UDA were verging on the hostile, in others reasonably fraternal. The exchange or loan of weapons and ammunition would be dependent on those factors rather than anything official or corporate but did happen to one extent or another.

Within the organisations themselves weapons could be pooled and shared between different units, although with the risk that they came with their own forensic histories, some of which could be extensive. “Colin” told me, “Weapons were frequently passed around and shared. I can remember obtaining a .38 Special from a YCV from Donegall Pass to which he had stated that it would be dangerous to be caught in possession of. It had at least 11 on it. A ‘B’ Company volunteer was later caught in possession of it and was questioned about 14 or 15 attacks that it had been used in.”

During the 1970s the large majority of UDA victims, and roughly half of the UVF/RHC’s, were killed in gun attacks. Some of these were the result of mass shootings – such as the attacks on Annie’s Bar in 1972 and the Chlorane four years later, by the UDA and UVF respectively – others were victims, often picked out at random, shot by gunmen at close range. The formal term used by the security forces to describe such attacks was “close quarters assassinations”. When the UVF and UDA began to refine their targeting in the late 80s virtually all of their victims died in this manner.

Handguns were strongly favoured by loyalists and they possessed a frightening variety of this type of weapon. In contrast the IRA had continual trouble sourcing a supply of handguns throughout the conflict, and many of those they did possess were of antiquated design or poor quality. Exactly what operators chose to carry was often a matter of personal choice informed by their own knowledge, training, and the type of attack being carried out. According to my contact in the UVF’s 1st Battalion:

Preference for weapons would have been largely operation specific. Certainly fully automatic SMGs and assault rifles added a further dimension to that available with pistols, revolvers and bolt action rifles. Rifles gave the option of range however can be cumbersome at close quarters and when concerned with vehicles. Holding a range of varying types of weapons was a necessity and depending on the intended use, a range may have been required at the operational level too.

In other words, a varied mix of firearms could be carried by different members of the “teams”. In certain incidents the operator tasked with carrying out the shooting was often covered by another gunman armed with a pistol or shotgun.

The confessions of the UDA’s Michael Stone give us an insight into the way this meticulous gunman planned the execution of other human beings, particularly the way in which he selected firearms appropriate for the task. His preparation prior to the murder of Paddy Brady, a milkman and Sinn Fein election worker, in 1984 is revealing:

I knew his weight and that was one of the reasons I chose the shotgun. I reckoned he was so big that if I only got shots off from a pistols, and they were only body shots, he might survive. I was intending to do it quickly. I planned to immobilise him with one round to the body, and then shoot him in the head as he was going down. The shotgun at close range from the car was the best weapon. With a revolver I would have been obliged to get out […] I opted for an automatic shotgun and size 4 cartridges.

Stone is, by any standards, an atypical paramilitant, but these remarks show the depth of planning and thought which was put into selecting the right firearm to ensure success even when setting out to kill what was after all an unarmed man. In the case of Pat Finucane, his killer specifically selected a 9mm Browning Hi-Power over a Heckler & Koch pistol of the same calibre due to the Browning’s larger magazine capacity.

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A glimpse of how the paramilitaries “did the business” also came to light during the supergrass trials. The planning of one particular 1981 killing by the UVF was described in detail by Joe Bennett. If Bennett’s account is to be believed, he went to a house in Rockland Street and met with UVF commander John Wilson and two other men who arrived on bicycles, one of them named he named as a man known as “Squeaky”. This was Robert Seymour, a highly-regarded gunman with the UVF in east Belfast. They had come together to discuss assassination.

The man they planned to kill was 33yr old James Burns. One of twelve children, Burns came from a solidly republican background. His father, also named James, had been interned in Crumlin Road Jail in the 1940s. The younger Burns, known as “Skipper”, joined the IRA as a Fianna in 1964 aged 16 and after his arrest on the 2nd of October 1971 was himself interned. According to the republican memorial book Tirghra he “was taken to Palace Barracks where he was brutally beaten and interrogated for three days before he was moved to Crumlin Road Jail. After a period he was transferred to Long Kesh where he was interned for three years. He was later awarded £1,300 in compensation for his savage beating in Palace Barracks”. As a detainee in Long Kesh he was appointed to the IRA’s escape committee and was involved in planning several escapes. Upon release he immediately became re-involved with the IRA and went on the run. By the time of Burns’ death he had risen to become one of the most senior IRA members, its Northern Command Quartermaster.

IRA quartermaster James Burns pictured with his wife, Maura

IRA quartermaster James Burns pictured with his wife, Maura

The weapon to be used was supplied by Bennett who had himself obtained it from one of his men in Sandy Row. Seymour took the gun, a 9mm Star Model B, and loaded the magazine with a mix of ammunition, four rounds of full metal jacket and three hollowpoints. The hollowpoints were loaded last, so that these would strike Burns first. He is alleged to have said of the hollowpoints “if these hit him that should do the job”, to which Wilson is said to have replied “just make sure he’s dead”.

Seymour arrived at Burns’ Rodney Drive home some time before midnight on February the 23rd and found the house empty. Contrary to some reports he did not have to break in as the back door lock was broken – a point which will be returned to – and was wedged shut with a piece of wood. He entered the house and hid downstairs awaiting Burns’ return. Shortly after midnight Burns arrived back at his home with his girlfriend Bernadette Woods and they soon went to bed. In her testimony to the court during the trial of Seymour she said that she awakened some hours later hearing her boyfriend shout “Oh my God, don’t shoot!”. To her horror a tall figure silhouetted on the landing then fired five shots at Burns, four of which hit. She said “I turned to Jim and asked him if he was OK and he said he was. I asked him if he was hit and he said he was”. She called an ambulance which took Burns to the Royal Victoria Hospital, but he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Knowing that any tyre tracks left in the snow would easily be followed, Seymour made his escape across the M1 motorway and along the Donegall Road back to a safe-house in the Village carrying his bicycle on his back. Joe Bennett – admittedly a less than reliable source – claimed that at a “celebratory” drink at Paddy Lambes’ bar on the Upper Newtownards Road a few days layer Seymour had told UVF associates that Burns “squealed like a pig” after being shot, and of how he had vainly pleaded for his life.

The “vicious and cold-blooded” killing of James Burns, so described by sentencing judge Mr Justice Murray, earned Robert Seymour a life sentence as a result of the Joe Bennett supergrass trial. Seymour himself was shot dead outside his video shop seven years later, one of several loyalists imprisoned during the supergrass phase to be killed by the IRA. The shop was under RUC surveillance at the time.

The details which came to light during the trial give an insight into the role of firearms in the dirty business of killing. The 9mm pistol was handed over to Seymour by a middle party and no doubt taken away by another afterwards, probably to minimise access to arms dumps. The use of expanding ammunition for maximum effect, unusual at that time, suggests Burns was a priority target for the UVF. While a narrative of the killing in Henry McDonald and Jim Cusack’s UVF states that a silencer was used this was not mentioned during the trial and it appears this was not the case. The report was certainly loud enough for Bernadette Woods to count an exact number of shots.

UVF hitman Robert Seymour

UVF hitman Robert Seymour

Burns was shot exactly a year to the day after he had killed his wife Maura (or Mary), with whom he had three young daughters, with a single punch to the head. A charge of murder was reduced to manslaughter and two weeks before his death he was given a two-year suspended jail term (judicial attitudes towards domestic violence seem to have been rather unenlightened in those days, to put it mildly). The striking coincidence in dates and the fact that Seymour knew that the back door was unlocked may point to a degree of collusion involving some source within the nationalist community, although it must stressed that there is no firm evidence to this effect.

In addition to the more commonplace SMGs, handguns, and rifles loyalists also possessed an unknown number of machineguns such as Brens, GPMGs, and the aforementioned M60 imported by the UVF. Heavy arms of this type were often seen during shows of strength put on by both organisations. I had assumed that Bren guns and the like had no value except as prestige weapons held for morale and propaganda purposes, or perhaps a “Doomsday” scenario. When I expressed doubt that such weapons were ever used in anger by the UVF I was told:

Light machineguns such as the Bren were indeed used by the organisation, especially during the early years of the conflict when gun battles over middle distance were commonplace. As the conflict developed its nature changed somewhat and, mainly due to the security forces, those direct engagements were very rare. During our campaign of defence and retaliation when the greatest number of contacts were at close quarters, weapons such as the Bren proved to be of little tactical use.

The alleged use of Bren guns by loyalists intrigued me although I was still sceptical. In fact it transpired that this individual was correct. Light and general-purpose machineguns were indeed used by loyalists during gun battles with republicans in the early 70s. One such incident took place on the night of the 28th of August 1972 when a gun battle erupted between the Provisional IRA and troops from the Royal Green Jackets and 14th Hussars in the Broadway area of Belfast. It began suddenly at 11:30 PM with gunfire coming from at least 10 separate firing points, including one on the roof of the Royal Victoria Hospital, in what an army spokesman called a “carefully-planned assault”. Nurses inside Broadway Tower were reported as cowering on the floor in terror as bullets ripped through the building. Over 1,000 rounds were fired by the IRA with the army returning 450. At the height of the shoot-out however, the UVF in the Village area brought out a Bren light machinegun and opened fire on both the IRA positions and nationalist homes in Rodney Street and Rodney Parade. One bullet penetrated a house narrowly missing an 11yr old girl.

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Overall though the PIRA were much more likely to use this type of weapon than loyalists. Throughout the conflict they attempted, usually with little success, to shoot down British Army helicopters particularly in the South Armagh region. In Belfast in 1980 their “M60 Gang” killed SAS Captain Herbert Westmacott as he launched an impulsive one-man assault on a building on the Antrim Road. The IRA accumulated weapons such as .50 calibre Browning heavy machineguns, GPMGs, M60s, as well as hundreds of AK derivatives and modern assault rifles. I was curious to know how the UVF contact regarded their weaponry in comparison. When asked if he felt that the UVF’s arsenal was outclassed by that of the IRA he said:

I don’t believe we were outclassed by the Provos at all. Could we have done with more weapons? Certainly. Would it have added a dimension and made the organisation more effective? I would assume so. But to say that we were outclassed I think would be overstating it somewhat. Much of the Provos weapons were geared towards their modus operandi which as a Provo in South Armagh is a world away from what is ideal for a UVF Volunteer on the Shankill for instance. I think for those who want to look close enough the evidence exists that the Republican strategy was changed, or their ceasefire at least expedited, by being forced behind steel doors and worrying, not about being arrested but something ultimately more permanent. Whether that was done with a century-old Webley or an out of the box Armalite is I think academic.

As for how the group’s access to the tools of killing changed over the years:

From very early in the conflict the organisation had access to what were modern and effective weapons. The most persistent problem was usually the amount of them. From the early 70s the organisation was equipped with Sterlings and SLRs which of their time were as good as could have been hoped for. As the years advanced so too did the range of weapons available. Throughout the late 70s/80s the organisation had stocks of, among others, Colt Commando compact assault rifles, a version of which is still used by the US Army today. That I think gives an indication of their quality.

Some firearms assumed iconic status for the paramilitary groups which used them and among the supporters who provided them with moral backing. The first appearance of the AK-47 on the streets of Northern Ireland, in April 1974 in the hands of the Provisional IRA, was deemed significant enough to merit a front-page report in the Times and a bulletin on News At Ten. The Irish Brigade recorded My Little Armalite, making use of that curiously republican diminutive, and in doing so immortalised Eugene Stoner’s rapid-firing creation. When asked specifically whether any particular firearm stood out as a defining weapon for the UVF,  the 1st Battalion member said:

I think that each phase or period of the conflict had its own defining weapons. The reliability of Webley revolvers at the beginning; the firepower and manageability of Sterlings soon after. The US-based weapons which were available throughout the 80s were cutting-edge by any judgement. MAC 10s which were suppressed, compact and with a rate of fire which was utterly lethal made them a prized possession in any unit. The AKs or vZs which came in the late 80s were again a defining weapon in their scale but also their reliability, rate of fire, relative size but impact of round. The morale value of these weapons cannot also be underestimated. Internally, access to high-quality weapons gave a boost to Volunteers across the organisation. To the Loyalist community, seeing weapons made famous in popular culture in the hands of Volunteers inspired confidence; to the Provos, bearing the same or better weapons than available to them also sent the message that we were going nowhere and that we were more than equipped to take them on.

“Taking on” the IRA was something the UVF and UDA had rarely been able to achieve for most of the conflict. But by 1987 changes were beginning to stir within both organisations, the UDA in particular. Younger and more militant members were coming to the fore, agitating for their leaders to “take the war to the Provo’s doorstep”. The UVF were relatively well-armed with the fruits of their Canadian operation, but the UDA and a newly-formed paramilitary organisation would need to re-equip.

Lebanon, Teesport, and Beyond

The birth of Ulster Resistance, Ulster Hall 1986

The birth of Ulster Resistance, Ulster Hall 1986

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald in November 1984, caused deep anger and resentment across the unionist spectrum, from working class loyalists to well-heeled “Middle Unionism”. The introduction to the UDA’s 1987 Common Sense paper stated, “It is enough to say that after more than a year in existence, the ‘accord’ has not won over the support of even one small loyalist group; opposition to the agreement remains absolute. Any scheme which is opposed to such a degree, has little or no chance of developing into a solution”. Within the paramilitary world the UVF and UDA began to experience a new influx of recruits and the reactivation of dormant operators. At the same time the Ulster Clubs headed by Alan Wright and key members of the Democratic Unionist Party got together to organise their own militant response. At a secret meeting in a Tyrone farmhouse in autumn 1986, circumstances which recalled the resurrection of the UVF by similar elements 20 years earlier, Ulster Resistance was formed. Described by Peter Taylor as “a private or citizens’ army prepared to fight to the bitter end”, its most significant function in the long-term was to facilitate indirect (and later not so indirect) links between a network of mainly rural loyalists, previously law-abiding middle-class activists, and the UVF and UDA.

Launched at a rally held in Ulster Hall on the 10th of November 1986, UR was endorsed by and closely associated with Ian Paisley, but his deputy Peter Robinson – now First Minister of Northern Ireland – was also deeply involved. Paisley and the DUP’s Gregory Campbell would later claim that they invisaged UR as a “clean-living paramilitary group” which would use only legally-owned firearms, but elements of the organisation became involved in a three-way conspiracy with the UVF and UDA to import weapons, in UR’s case for a potential “Doomsday” situation involving joint authority or Irish unification; the UVF and UDA planned to put any arms to more immediate use.

Ulster Resistance’s role was a critical one. In the summer of 1985 the UDA had sent its intelligence officer, Brian Nelson, to South Africa in order to sound out the possibility of a deal with Armscor, the state-owned arms manufacturer. According to journalist Chris Moore, South African intelligence quickly discovered that Nelson was a British army agent and accordingly severed all links with the UDA (although critically they did not inform the UDA of their findings). Contact was reestablished in 1986, but from this point on the South Africans would only deal with certain Ulster Clubs activists and later Ulster Resistance when the groups linked up.

The key connection was Armscor employee Richard Wright, uncle of Alan Wright. South Africa was at the time still involved in the so-called “Bush War” against the Cuban-backed MPLA. Suffering under a UN arms embrago, the South African Defence Forces had little effective counter to air attacks against their troops or keypoints, in particular by Cuban-piloted MiG-23s. Searching for a defence against this they became interested in the Starstreak missile, designed and manufactured by Short Brothers in Belfast.

Then in the prototype stage, the Starstreak is a particularly impressive weapons system. In contrast with most missiles of its kind, which use a single warhead, it launches three tungsten “darts” at the incredible speed of over three and a half times the speed of sound. These manouevre in formation while in flight, increasing chances of a hit. Unlike comparable US or Russian missiles its launch gives no warning and it cannot be decoyed. Wright made it known that Armscor was willing to supply a significant quantity of weapons in exchange for missile technology. This was to prove a fateful offer for Ulster Resistance.

In the meantime, a straightforward cash deal for arms took shape. Wright put UR in touch with Douglas Bernhardt, an Armscor agent tasked with securing arms for South Africa using “unconventional methods”, as Minister of Defence General Magnus Malan later stated. In return for a commission of £15,000, he in turn handed the loyalists over to Joe Fawzi, a Lebanese Christian arms dealer with links to the Phalange and KRF – the same source the UVF had attempted to tap a decade before. Informed by Fawzi that guns could be had, the UVF and UDA collaborated in the robbery of a Portadown bank, stealing £325,000. The money was then allegedly taken to Switzerland, in person and in relatively small amounts that would not attract suspicion, by so-called “lilywhites” – respectable Protestant businessmen with no criminal or paramilitary traces. Once released, a large shipment concealed in a consignment of ceramic tiles left Naqoura in Lebanon bound for Belfast docks where it arrived in December 1987. In total, around 200 vz. 58P assault rifles, 90 FEG P9M pistols, 500 RGD-5 hand grenades, 10 RPG-7 rocket launchers plus 150 warheads, and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition made the trip. From there they were taken to a farm near Tandraghee in Armagh to be split between the UVF, UDA, and Ulster Resistance.

For reasons that are still not entirely clear, on the 8th of January 1988 Davy Payne, the UDA’s north Belfast brigadier, turned up at this location in a hired Maestro accompanied by two others, Thomas Aiken and James McCullough, each driving a hired Ford Granada. To the astonishment of the cache’s caretaker, Payne and his two companions began loading the Granadas with 61 vz. 58s (plus 124 magazines), 30 P9Ms, 150 grenades and fuses, and 11,520 rounds of ammunition – the UDA’s entire share.

As the procession left the farm, the Granadas with their rear bumpers practically scraping the ground, it is difficult to fathom exactly what Payne’s plan – if there even was one – for getting the arms safely to Belfast was. Indeed his thinking and motivation throughout the affair eludes comprehension. For whatever reason he decided to set off not on a direct route to the city but via Portadown. The main A27 road from Tandragee to Portadown was heavily patrolled by the security forces and the main entrance points to the town covered by checkpoints, which makes his decision to use this approach, and not one of the numerous back-roads which criss-cross the area, all the more mystifying. What happened next was virtually inevitable. Just three miles into their journey the UDA team were stopped by the RUC and the arms discovered. Various authors and reports have credited the seizure to a tip-off from an agent or informer, and given the extent to which the UDA was compromised at the time this is quite possible, but the sight of two heavily burdened saloon cars with their rear axles grinding along the asphalt would have immediately alerted even the most unobservant constable or squaddie. The lead Maestro, the supposed scout car, was not even equipped with a CB radio, a vital addition that Payne – evidently never having seen Smokey and the Bandit – had neglected to bring along. Given such a standard of planning the operation was doomed from the start.

Davy Payne (l) carrying John McMichael's coffin, Andy Tyrie pictured to the right.

Davy Payne (l) carrying the coffin of UDA brigadier John McMichael, Andy Tyrie pictured to the right.

The debacle on the Mahon Road was followed by the embarrassment of the inevitable trial. Aiken, a 31yr old on the periphery of the Oldpark UDA who had once been kneecapped by his own organisation for anti-social behaviour, claimed he was acting under duress and had been intimidated by Payne’s reputation for violence. At trial he pleaded guilty and actively assisted the police in trying to locate the farm they had picked up the weapons from. McCullough, at 56 an older man and in poor health, had no record for criminal or terrorist offences and strenuously denied all charges. Payne pleaded guilty and refused to implicate his associates, his lawyer presenting a number of glowing references from pillar of the community-type figures which drew attention to his spell as a community worker running a government Youth Training Programme.

These attestations drew no leniency from the judge. It was the second time in 12 months that Payne had been caught transporting large quantities of weaponry and his luck had run out. In sentencing Payne Mr Justice Nicholson said:

I propose to deal with you not as a leader of the UDA nor as a ruthless person prepared to kill, as stated in evidence out of your hearing, but as a person who is a member of the UDA, who, on your own admission, associates with top ranking members of the UDA and who willingly took a major part in organising the movement of weapons of war for this terrorist organisation. In a contested case in which terrorists are caught with a haul of weapons of this kind a person playing a significant role in the enterprise must expect a sentence of at least 25 years of imprisonment. Had I been satisfied, on admissible evidence, that you were a leader of the UDA I would have sentenced you to life imprisonment, but there is not admissible evidence of this kind. In your case I have taken into account such redeeming features as I can and I have indicated your pleas of guilty, your work in the community, the state of your health and such of your evidence as I can give credence to. But as I have indicated, I have rejected your version of events insofar as they seek to give you a lowly part, insofar as they seek to suggest that you were under orders to load the weapons, insofar as you suggest that you were not a willing party to the movement of these weapons. You obviously organised McCullough and Aiken to move these weapons on your own admission and, as I have indicated, these weapons were being moved in order to enable the UDA to kill, if they could, other members of this community. But I, of course, am sentencing you only on the basis of the charge to which you have pleaded guilty, namely that your intention was to enable others to endanger life.

Payne received two concurrent 19-year sentences. McCullough and Aiken were each given 14.

The UDA's share of arms put on display by the RUC

The UDA’s share of arms put on display by the RUC shortly after its capture.

The UDA could not conceal its dismay. An editorial on behalf of the Inner Council in Ulster magazine described it as “an episode of incompetence that is without parallel since the start of the present ‘Troubles'” before rounding on Payne himself, pouring scorn and “contempt” upon his conduct in court and alleging that he was receiving visits from the RUC within the Maze. The Portadown debacle was dealt with more directly in an article immediately below the editorial, under the byline “Braidman”. The writer used this piece to attack the DUP’s hypocrisy in its response to the arms seizure, pointing out that both Paisley and Peter Robinson had been instrumental in setting up Ulster Resistance:

[the DUP] said they are denying all knowledge of the find, and have broken off all contacts with the organisation.

But I remember Mr Paisley in the Ulster Hall – along with other DUP politicians – playing a major part in the proceedings. And didn’t Paisley later call for a torchlight parade in a midnight march through Hillsborough? And wasn’t a member of the National Front actually heading the parade along with Paisley?

It seems that every time this man forms a new “army” and things go wrong – he disowns it!

How many armies has he formed? At least three! What about the men who are in prison for possession of the guns found in Armagh? Who will look after their families? Paisley? The DUP? No way!

It was yet another instance of Paisley walking away from an unflushed toilet with a guilty look on his face. Already burned by the Ulster Workers Council affair, failed 1977 strike, and “Carson Trails”, the UDA’s antipathy towards the “Big Man” was confirmed.

A few weeks later a significant portion of the UVF’s share was found by the RUC in Ligoneil, north Belfast. 38 vz. 58s, 15 pistols, 100 grenades, an RPG plus warheads, and thousands of rounds of ammo were recovered, almost certainly as the result of a tip-off from an informer or agent. A small part of UR’s share – inconsequential given the overall quantities – was also seized. In time the UVF and UDA were able to access UR’s portion to make up for their losses. With over half of the total shipment therefore at large, exactly what sort of arms had the UVF and UDA received for their troubles and not-insignificant investment?

The Vzor 58P (Vzor 58 standing for “Model of 1958” and P for “Pěchotní”, meaning “Infantry”) is a gas-operated, selective-fire assault rifle designed and built in the Czech city of Brno, birthplace of the renowned Bren gun. Although it fires the same round as the famous AK-47 Kalashnikov, which it superficially resembles and is frequently mistaken for, the similarities end there. As Max Popenker states, “Internally almost everything is quite different in design”. Throughout the Cold War, and in contrast to most client states behind the Iron Curtain, Czechoslovakia shunned Soviet-supplied small arms in favour of its own designs. Popenker explains that, “Basically, [it was] a matter of national pride. The Czechs had a well established small arms industry and a bunch of talented designers, so they tried to get as much independence as was possible within the Warsaw Pact”. Compared to the SLR used by the British Army (and occasionally the UVF), the “AK and vz. 58 both are superior to in urban combat due to their compact size, bigger magazine capacity and full-auto capability”. Additionally, its shoulder stock is extremely easy to remove making for a much more concealable weapon at the expense of accuracy.

The business end of a vz. 58P assault rifle

The business end of a vz. 58P assault rifle. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

The vz. 58 became the favoured weapon of the resurgent UVF and UDA campaign of the late 80s and early 90s, being used in scores of killings and attempted murders. The P9M pistols, a Hungarian clone of the Browning Hi-Power, were similarly popular. The RPGs, a weapon previously more associated with the Provisional IRA, were put to use in attacks on Sinn Fein offices and republican bars – particularly by the UDA – although the first was carried out by the UVF against the Sinn Fein advice centre in Brompton Park on the 15th of May 1988.

Alone of all the groups involved Ulster Resistance had managed to keep a hold of the great majority of its share of weaponry. Apparently this was not deemed sufficient, as the group now tried – rather unpatriotically – to satisfy Armscor’s desire for classified British missile technology. In October 1988 it stole parts of a Javelin display missile from the Shorts factory in Castlereagh. While these were recovered a short time later, it continued in its efforts and at the beginning of April 1989 broke into a TA base in Newtownards and took a non-firing Blowpipe missile used for training. In spite of mounting evidence that the police and British intelligence were closing in, two weeks later three representatives of UR – Noel Little, chairman of the Ulster Clubs in Armagh, Samuel Quinn, a UDR sergeant, and James King – met with Douglas Bernhardt and an emissary from South African intelligence, Daniel Storm, at the Hilton hotel in Paris. As they handed over the missile components, French anti-terrorism operatives burst into the room and arrested all five men. They were acting on intelligence supplied by MI5 and MI6, who were deeply concerned about the potential loss of military secrets. The three UR men and Bernhardt, the arms dealer, eventually received suspended sentences and hefty fines. As an employee of the South African embassy – officially a “administrative and technical officer” – Storm had diplomatic immunity, but the affair caused considerable anger and recrimination between France and South Africa.

Even if the deal had gone undetected and come to a successful conclusion – unlikely given the poor personal security displayed by the Ulster Resistance activists – the value of the Blowpipe to the South Africans was dubious to say the least. In spite of initial glowing combat reports from the Falklands War, it was later found that only two missiles had successfully hit their targets out of scores of launches. Although it may have provided a starting point for future developments the Bush War was over by the spring of 1990, ending the urgent need for surface-to-air missiles.

The Lebanon shipment permitted the UVF and UDA to sustain the heightened level of violence they inflicted following the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In 1992 they killed 39 compared to the republicans’ 42 and the following year overtook them, killing 48 in total. Almost all of the victims were shot dead, many with weapons from the Lebanon deal. Although the UVF was by now in a seemingly comfortable position with respect to its arsenal the search for arms was unceasing. On the 24th of November 1993, a month after the horrendous IRA bombing of Frizzell’s fish shop, police and customs officials in England boarded the cargo ship MV Inowroclaw (pronounced “Een-o-rotz-clav”) docked at Teesport. They knew what they were looking for. Within a single shipping container was the largest arms haul ever seized in Great Britain. The consignment, worth £250,000 and once again hidden in a shipment of ceramic tiles, consisted of 320 AKM assault rifles complete with bayonets, over 50 P-83 Wanad pistols, 500 F1 grenades, 60,000 rounds of ammunition and, most worryingly, two tonnes of plastic explosive with hundreds of detonators. A customs official told ITN they had disrupted what:

[…] appears to be a new route which the paramilitaries were trying to get the weapons from eastern Europe to Northern Ireland through Britain, so it’s very significant indeed. We’re absolutely delighted to have been able to stop this before any of the weapons got into paramilitary hands.

The UVF had been the victims of a joint UK/Polish intelligence operation, in essence a state-organised scam. The Polish end of the deal had been a set-up managed by its domestic intelligence agency, the UOP, and the arms had been tracked all the way from the port of Gydnia to England. Hours after the seizure the UVF released a defiant statement:

We, the Ulster Volunteer Force, in claiming responsibility for the arms seized in England wish to make it clear to the people of Ulster that whilst it is a logistical setback, it in no way diminishes our ability nor our determination to carry on the war against the IRA. The spirit of 1912 and the Clyde Valley lives on. It is a heritage too proud to be cynically manipulated by political quislings nor brutally cowed by military means. For so long as we are in receipt of the support of the loyalist people, in whatever form, so we will continue to put at risk our volunteers to scour the world for arms to be used in their defence  and for that of our country. We would ask them in these dark days to continue that support in the sure and certain knowledge that we will remain unbowed and unbroken.

In the House of Lords a few days later Gerry Fitt said, “I have no doubts or illusions that, had that shipment of arms arrived in east Belfast rather than where it was apprehended on Teesside, those arms would have been used not at some time in the far distant future, but certainly within the foreseeable future; namely, within weeks or months of the date of their arrival”. Meanwhile Peter Robinson, who can be assumed to be well-informed about the business of setting up private armies, stated “The extent of this cargo goes beyond the replenishment of the stores of a terrorist organisation. This is the equipment for an army”.

UFF members armed with an AKM assault rifle and Desert Eagle pistol

UFF members armed with an AKM assault rifle and Desert Eagle pistol.

For much of the conflict the UVF was the better-armed of the two main loyalist groups. In 1981, at a time when the UVF was smuggling in high-quality guns from Canada, the RUC raided the Gawn Street headquarters of the UDA. There they found an ancient Thompson and a few dismantled homemade SMGs, along with a revolver so old the police were unsure whether it would fire. An attempt to bring in 10 modern assault rifles had been foiled at the same building two years earlier. Yet by 1993 photographic evidence began to suggest that the UDA was now frighteningly well-armed. One picture from its South Belfast Brigade showed two masked men armed with an AKM and a Desert Eagle pistol, an obscenely powerful weapon more usually seen in the hands of the likes of Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren. Where was the UDA getting such “gear” from? I was unable to find out. The UVF had been unsuccessful in trying to acquire AKs from Poland, but in the years that followed both it and the UDA somehow came into possession of a significant quantity of the rifles (although some of those seen in UVF shows of strength appear to be .22 calibre lookalikes). While neither the Fawzi nor Paris deals resulted in loyalists receiving any weapons from South Africa, the possibility remains however that some form of transaction subsequently took place. Circumstantial evidence is to be found in the presence of grenades  of “South African” origin in the hands of the UDA. And exactly where loyalists sourced the AK-47s which began appearing in the early 90s remains unknown to this day. Although many journalists mistakenly referred to the vz. 58s as AK-47s, neither the UVF nor UDA appear to have possessed any prior to at least 1991. After the loss of so many weapons due to past imprudence and loose talk, the origin of these guns is something the UVF and UDA prefer to keep to themselves.

Terminal Effects

RG_loughinisland

O’Toole’s Bar, Loughinisland, 18th June 1994.

The bullets that killed James didn’t just travel in distance, they travelled in time. Some of those bullets never stop travelling
Father of James Kennedy, shot dead in Sean Graham’s betting shop, February 5th 1992

When the trigger of a firearm is pulled it sets in train a complex series of mechanical and chemical events. Firstly the hammer or firing pin, being held in tension by a spring, is released and begins to move forward. After a few centimetres of travel it strikes a small copper cup at the base of the cartridge containing a minute amount of shock-sensitive explosive. A tiny jet of flame shoots through two small holes, no more than pinpricks, in the bottom of the brass case igniting the powder inside. For a moment the temperature inside the case reaches over 2000 degrees celsius. Within half a millisecond the pressure inside the chamber of the gun reaches as much as 50,000 pounds per square inch as the burning powder creates large volumes of hot gases. The bullet is beginning to move forward. In one instant it experiences a force 200,000 times normal gravity. It travels along the barrel, gripped by the rifling – spiral grooves cut into the steel – propelled by the expanding gas. Within a fraction of a millisecond it leaves the barrel, spinning at over 175,000rpm.

Death was the result of a small calibre bullet wound of the head. The bullet had entered the left side of the lower lip and it had passed backwards, upwards and to the right, breaking several teeth in the lower jaw, passing through the tongue and palate, entering the base of the skull and passing up through the pituitary fossa, then lacerating a venous channel in the skull and passing through the right side of the brain posteriorly, before lodging in the skull. From here the spent, distorted bullet was recovered. Following the initial injury some blood had been inhaled into the lungs, the brain swelled, and bruising extended into the brain tissue around the bullet track. In particular the bruising extended into the mid-brain and pons, and the initial brain damage and the added after effects on the brain caused her death in hospital some hours later.

The bullet is now moving at over 900 miles per hour – if it is a rifle bullet, over twice that – leaving a small sonic boom in its wake. In roughly a hundredth of a second it has covered ten metres.

When a handgun projectile hits a human body it sets in train a complex series of physical and biological events. The bullet, travelling at supersonics speeds, penetrates the skin and any fatty tissue with ease. It lacerates and destroys any tissue it passes through, leaving a permanent cavity. Its residual energy, which may be hundreds of foot-pounds, also creates a larger temporary cavity inside the body, stretching muscle and internal organs. Dust, debris, minute pieces of clothing, and other microscopic particles are sucked into this by the bullet’s wake.  Any bone in the bullet’s path is smashed. If it is moving fast enough, it may exit the body leaving a hole several times larger than that left by its entrance.

With advances in trauma care the victim’s chances of surviving even multiple wounds from a handgun are reasonable with prompt medical attention.

The effects of a high-velocity round fired from a rifle are devastating. Moving at roughly 3000 feet per second, shock waves from its impact ripple through the body creating a large cavity which tears muscle and dense internal organs apart. Bones are splintered. The rapid deceleration may cause the bullet to tumble inside the body, creating further trauma, and is sometimes sufficient to cause it to fragment, sending razor-sharp pieces of its copper jacket through muscle and internal organs, an event likened to a small explosion. If the bullet strikes the head it invariably causes massive destruction to the brain and skull. At point of impact the cranium is blown into fragments and large areas of the scalp are torn away. At close range one or both lobes of the brain may be ejected from the skull cavity completely.

…a bullet had entered the right side of the front of the abdomen and had passed downwards and backwards lacerating the intestines and the right external artery and vein, which carry blood to and from the right leg. It had then severely fractured the pelvis before making its exit on the back of the right buttock. These injuries would have caused his rapid death.

Television and film have sanitised the consequences of gunfire. Even today their effects are rarely portrayed truthfully. Some of those children of the 50s and 60s who became the combatants of the Troubles will have grown up watching westerns of the sort where the blue-eyed hero hauls out his Peacemaker and shoots down a horse thief or mad-dog killer, who obligingly clutches his stomach and bleats “Ya got me, Tex” before a theatrical tumble. The dictates of narrative and domestic good taste take precedence over factual accuracy.

The actual power of modern firearms to kill and maim is awesome and appalling. Colm Carey, the victim of an IRA “punishment squad”, died after his attackers shot him in both legs with a rifle. A surgeon said, “He died even before the ambulance arrived. His attackers couldn’t find a pistol so they used a rifle instead. It blew off one of his legs completely and left the other one barely hanging on”. One target of a UVF kneecapping had both legs blown off with a shotgun. He survived. The INLA’s Dominic McGlinchey once shot a man in the head with a .44 Magnum revolver at such close range that both of the victim’s eyes were blown out of his skull.

In real life bullets are rarely so cooperative as to provide picturesque shoulder wounds that can be clutched stoically. One of those killed on Bloody Sunday was shot in the anus. Tony Geraghty, guitarist with the Miami Showband, was shot once in the testicles. His bandmate Fran O’Toole was sprayed with sub-machinegun fire and hit eight times in the face, blowing off the side of his head. In the aftermath of the Showband killings, the then UVF command released photographs of gunshot wounds that it falsely claimed had been suffered by its patrol when they came under fire from the Showband. It was the nadir of a leadership which had already plumbed the depths of violence.

“Power grows out of the barrel of a gun” is an abominable cliche, but like all cliches it contains truth. The very control of firearms led to deaths. Ernie Elliot of the UDA was killed members of the organisation in Sandy Row after a disagreement over a borrowed gun. A decade later another member of the Woodvale UDA, Tommy Edgar, was shot by associates after refusing them access to a number of guns. The Official IRA and INLA shot each other by the braceload over control of arms dumps in the wake of their split.

Paramilitaries were not the only ones to be held in thrall by their potential power; politicians too came under their influence. In the wake of the ceasefires of 1994 the enduring question of what would happen to the arsenals of the loyalist and republican terror groups became one of the single biggest obstructions to progress, and a potential threat to peace in Britain and Ireland.

Decommissioning

DECOMMISSIONING
1. Participants recall their agreement in the Procedural Motion adopted on 24 September 1997 “that the resolution of the decommissioning issue is an indispensable part of the process of negotiation”, and also recall the provisions of paragraph 25 of Strand 1 above.
2. They note the progress made by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and the Governments in developing schemes which can represent a workable basis for achieving the decommissioning of illegally-held arms in the possession of paramilitary groups.
3. All participants accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They also confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.
4. The Independent Commission will monitor, review and verify progress on decommissioning of illegal arms, and will report to both Governments at regular intervals.
6. Both Governments will take all necessary steps to facilitate the decommissioning process to include bringing the relevant schemes into force by the end of June.

The issue of decommissioning during peace process negotiations and later as a reality is a vast and convoluted subject and so it will only be covered briefly, as it relates directly to the loyalist paramilitaries, and in particular the practicalities of executing it.

Following the ceasefires of late 1994 both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups remained subject to what the PUP’s Billy Mitchell described as the “pike in the thatch” mentality. Each regarded its arsenal as an insurance policy should the peace process at some point fail. Having worked so hard to assemble their stashes of AKs, Armalites, pistols, and RPGs convincing them to relinquish these carefully pieced-together hoards proved to be easier said than done.

Following the establishment of the IICD as a provision of the Belfast Agreement progress on the matter was glacial. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble found himself under enormous pressure to extract concessions on arms from Sinn Fein, and quickly found himself being outmanoeuvred on the issue by a bullish DUP exploiting a unionist electorate disillusioned with the peace process and deeply mistrustful of the IRA. At Drumcree the LVF, recently broken from the Mid-Ulster UVF, sneaked guns hidden in babies prams through police checkpoints and opened fire on the security forces. Yet the group was also the first paramilitary organisation to engage in some form of decommissioning when – hoping to benefit from any future prisoner release – it surrendered a handful of old and decrepit weapons which were publicly sawn up in a showcase stage-managed by the British government.

All the while the paramilitaries continued to smuggle arms into Northern Ireland. A Provisional IRA route from Florida which saw hundreds of badly-needed handguns mailed across the Atlantic, most notoriously hidden inside toy fire engines, was broken up. The UVF displayed an Yugoslavian M80 anti-tank rocket launcher and hinted at further imports.

That decommissioning came to be such a stumbling block to progress can in large part be attributed to the DUPs remorseless – and effective – use of the issue as a means to undermine David Trimble. It led to his eventual resignation and the overturning of 80 years of Ulster Unionist dominance.

For loyalists the situation began to change in October 2001 with the first limited act of decommissioning by the IRA. From this point on there was considerable pressure from both unionists and nationalists for a reciprocal move from the UVF and UDA. Both the DUP and UUP began to vie for status as “deliverers” of loyalist decommissioning. No move was forthcoming. Speaking to Aaron Edwards and Stephen Bloomer in 2005, a senior UVF commander said, “I can’t foresee a time when the UVF will decommission, there will always be a threat from dissident Loyalists, also from drug dealers and gangs…talking to various people over the last while there is an impression within the UDA that the UVF will move first, but I cannot see it”.

There were suggestions that a fractured loyalism’s reluctance to give up any arms was indeed predicated more on the need to defend against attack from within rather than any external enemy. The standing-down of the UFF and the UVF/RHC’s military units in 2007, with arms being placed “beyond reach” satisfied few, but deep scepticism still prevailed within the paramilitaries following IRA decommissioning. The UDA’s South Belfast brigadier, Jackie McDonald, said “We talk to republicans all the time who say how are you going to get the AK-47 off wee Paddy on the border? He’s been killing policemen and soldiers for twenty years, how are you going to get it off him? They didn’t get it off him, he still has it. They gave up the surplus stuff, the bunkers of stuff that were there for reserve purposes. We’ve spoken with republicans because we’re working with them daily and they will tell you, not a volunteer gave up a pearl handle revolver”, although he conceded that eventually “decommissioning has to happen”.

Solid progress on loyalist disarmament did begin to take shape in the period following the standing-down declarations of 2007. West Belfast UPRG described to me this process as it was experienced from the West Belfast UDA’s perspective. Their summation of IRA decommissioning was of a cynical and expedient exercise. For them…

The prospect of decommissioning by the Provisional movement was first viewed with scepticism and interpreted as a tactical move designed to bring the British Government to the negotiating table and provide the provisionals with leverage. This analysis has not changed.

In their analysis the IRA ceasefire had come about as a result of war-weariness within the Provisionals and wider nationalist community. The switch from Armalite to ballot paper was also a recognition of Sinn Fein’s growing electoral power, a conclusion arguably supported by the existence of the “TUAS” document.

Internal debates taking place within the UVF and UDA largely – but not entirely – endorsed a move towards disarmament. For the UDA in West Belfast, the views of ex-prisoners were “pivotal”. As their UPRG representatives put it plainly, “the decision to decommission would not have been made without their agreement and wholehearted support”.

If decommissioning was to be carried out there were significant practical difficulties to be overcome. Estimates of the number of arms held by the UVF and UDA varied enormously. The UVF and UDA were said by the Irish Independent to possess as few as 80 assault rifles each (almost certainly a major underestimate). Yet in 1990 Ian Bruce of the Glasgow Herald had alleged that in the mid-70s the UVF had smuggled in 10,000 (sic) M1 Garand rifles and several millions of rounds of .30-06 ammunition from the US, which were then packed in grease and buried in rural Antrim and north Down for the fabled “Doomsday” situation. Although the US federal government does run a scheme for selling surplus Garands at a knockdown price, this claim has never been corroborated by any other source and it would appear to be incorrect. A hundred Garands would be plausible, but 10,000? In truth, no one really knew how many guns the loyalists had, not even the UVF and UDA themselves.

The UDA was faced with the problem, inherent to its federalised structure, of having six brigade areas which had each independently pursued its own weapons purchases in addition to any deals carried out as a collective body. As West Belfast UPRG told me:

Given the structure of the organisation and its geographical spread the logistical challenges included drawing up a comprehensive inventory of munitions and equipment, transport to a central holding centre, verification, communications and liaison with government officials. Despite assurances this was all carried out at risk.

Even within the highly centralised and comparatively monolithic UVF there were problems with this as arms procurement had been devolved to its constituent battalions in order to disperse and compartmentalise the process. As such these individual units had permission to purchase their own arms, in the hope that this would reduce the chances of detection, or at the very least make sure that some guns got through.

Nevertheless, decommissioning – at the paramilitaries’ own pace – did come about. The UVF and Red Hand Commando were first. On the 27th of June 2009 they announced that all arms under their control had been put “totally and irreversibly beyond use”. The same day the UDA confirmed that they had begun the same process, which was completed on the 6th of January 2010 – just one month before the IICD deadline, beyond which any arms discovered would be subject to forensic analysis and those in possession of them prosecuted.

“All arms under our control”. This one terse passage potentially holds enormous significance. In saying this the UVF and UDA quietly appear to suggest that certain individuals or groups may have retained weapons in contravention of orders, for which they will not be held responsible. There is no doubt that large quantities of weapons were given up for disposal – there is some unofficial photographic evidence for UDA decommissioning – but privately many republicans and loyalists describe decommissioning as “a smokescreen”.

Throughout the peace process years and up to the present day, Sinn Fein spoke of loyalists as having been armed with South African weapons by the British intelligence services via Brian Nelson. They have recently even begun promoting the allegation that all UVF and UDA weapons were supplied to them by the British. Both of these assertions are entirely false. As detailed earlier, South Africa and Armscor disconnected themselves from the UDA following the abortive 1985 trip and the discovery that Nelson was a British agent. As Desmond de Silva QC noted:

The evidence I have seen […] suggests that this importation of arms was a separate operation in which Nelson had no involvement. The importation of arms in late 1987 appears to have been a joint project between the UDA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Resistance. Members of Ulster Resistance played perhaps the most critical part in the operation. The limited evidence available suggests that the 1987 loyalist shipment came via Lebanon.

In fact the only paramilitary group which has been proven beyond all doubt to have been armed by the state is the Provisional IRA. It is incredible to think that a conspiracy which took in constitutional nationalism, Catholic vigilantes, the IRA, Irish Army intelligence, ex-Nazi arms dealers, and the Dublin government briefly existed at one point, but the Arms Crisis as it came to be called is an indisputable fact. There is prima facie evidence – not least the multiple confessions of those involved – that Dublin cabinet ministers and Irish Army intelligence funnelled guns and money to PIRA, provided training to “defence committees”, and gave moral support through government-founded propaganda sheets such as Voice of the North.

A sense of complacency currently pervades in certain political quarters, the absence of structured violence apparently taken for granted by an executive who see the mere fact of peace as an end in itself, rather than an environment in which to foster a normalised, functioning post-conflict society. Those who assume that the silence of the guns is a permanent condition would do well to remember the cyclical nature of Irish history, and the words of the UVF in the wake of the Teesport seizure:

“What can be got once can be got again”

I would like to thank the following for their assistance and support during the writing of this article: Greater Shankill ACT, West Belfast UPRG, North Antrim & Londonderry UPRG, Robert Niblock, Gareth Mulvenna, Aaron Edwards, Farset International (especially Issac), Max Popenker, and @FGAU1912, @J0hnFr33man, @ulstersbest, @PurpleStandard on Twitter.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small donation – £5 or £10 – so I can recover some of the costs of researching and writing it.

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Sources

Interview with member of the UVF, 1st Battalion
Interview with former member of the YCV and UVF
Interview with former member of the Woodvale Defence Association
Interview with Robert Niblock
Interview with West Belfast Ulster Political Research Group
Interview with Max Popenker (website: http://world.guns.ru/index-e.html. You can also find his books on Amazon)

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Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements, John Horgan (2009), Routledge, ISBN 978-0415439442
Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland, Ed Moloney (2011), Faber & Faber, ISBN 978-0571251698
‘Quis Separabit? Loyalist transformation and their understanding of the strategic environment in Northern Ireland’, Lyndsey Harris (2011), in Ulster Loyalism After the Good Friday Agreement: History, Identity and Change, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0230228856
Mad Dog: The Rise and Fall of Johnny Adair and ‘C Company’, Hugh Jordan & David Lister (2005), Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84018-890-5
Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, Tony Novosel (2013), Pluto Press, ISBN 978-0-7453-3309-0

Ulster Loyalism after the Good Friday Agreement: History, Identity and Change, James W McAuley & Graham Spencer (Edited by), Palgrave MacMillan (2011)
Crimes of Loyalty, Ian S Wood (2006), Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0748624270
The Billy Boy, Chris Anderson (2002), Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 1 84018-639-9
Loyalist Disaffection and their Understanding of the Strategic Environment in Northern Ireland, Lyndsey Harris (2006), prepared for The Junction, Londonderry/Derry
Between Exclusion and Recognition: The Politics of the Ulster Defence Association, Arthur Aughey (1985), Journal of Conflict Studies, Volume 5, issue 1,
Carson’s Army, Timothy Bowman, Manchester University Press (2007)
Subversion in the UDR

The Kincora Scandal: Political Cover-up and Intrigue in Northern Ireland, Chris Moore (1996), Marino Books, ISBN 978-1860230295
The Secret Army: The IRA, J Bowyer Bell (1997), Transaction Publishers, ISBN 978-1560009016
Hatcher’s Notebook, Julian S Hatcher
The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party, Brian Hanley & Scott Millar (2010), Penguin, ISBN 978-0141028453
Northern Ireland’s Future: What is to be done?, John McGarry & Brendan O’Leary (1990)
Tirghra: Ireland’s Patriot Dead
Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, Richard English, Oxford University Press (2004)
Ruairí Ó Brádaigh: The Life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary, Robert W. White, Indiana University Press (2006)
The IRA, Tim Pat Coogan, Palgrave Macmillan (2002)
A Testimony to Courage: The Regimental History of the Ulster Defence Regiment, John Potter, Leo Cooper (2001)
The Ulster Defence Regiment: An Instrument of Peace?, Chris Ryder, Mandarin (1992)
Improvised Weapons of the Irish Underground – Dan Shea, Small Arms Review  (March 2007)
The Ulster Crisis: Resistance to Home Rule 1912-14, ATQ Stewart, Faber & Faber (1969)
The Secret Army: The IRA 1916-1979, J Bowyer Bell, Dufour (1990)
The Provisional IRA, Patrick Bishop & Eamonn Mallie, Corgi (1987)
Resurgence of a Terrorist Organisation part 1: The UDA, a case study, Jim Cusack & Max Taylor, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 5, Issue 3 (1993)
Behind the Lines: The Story of the IRA and Loyalist Ceasefires, Brian Rowan, Blackstaff (1996)
Stakeknife: Britain’s Secret Agents in Ireland, Martin Ingram & Greg Harkin, University of Wisconsin Press (2005)
“I Ran Away”? The IRA and 1969, Brian Hanley, History Ireland (July/August 2009)
Effects of Small Arms on the Human Body, Martin L Fackler MD, Wound Ballistics Laboratory, Letterman Army Institute of Research, San Francisco
What’s Wrong with the Wound Ballistics Literature, and Why, Martin L Fackler MD, Wound Ballistics Laboratory, Letterman Army Institute of Research, San Francisco
Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness, FBI Academy Firearms Training Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice
Wound Ballistics and Tissue Damage – Nimrod Rozen and Israel Dudkiewicz, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Emek Medical Center, Afula, Israel
The Queen v Payne, McCullough & Aiken [1988]
Minimal velocities necessary for perforation of skin by air gun pellets and bullets, DiMaio VJ, Copeland AR, Besant-Matthews PE, Fletcher LA, Jones A.
The Conflict’s Fifth Business: A Brief Biography of Billy Mitchell, Kate Fearon, LINC Resource Centre
Irish News
Belfast Telegraph
The News Letter
Combat
Ulster/New Ulster Defender
Loyalist News
An Phoblacht
The Independent
The Herald
The Guardian
Nuzhound
Irish Echo

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