Tagged: guns

Terminal Effects: The Guns of the Loyalist Paramilitaries

UDA checkpoint, 1972

UDA checkpoint, 1972


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 “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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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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Subversion in the UDR

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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
Ulster/New Ulster Defender
Loyalist News
An Phoblacht
The Independent
The Herald
The Guardian
Irish Echo

Apples and Orangies: The UVF and UDA compared, part 2

Cartoon from front page of UDA's

Cartoon from front page of UDA’s “Ulster” magazine, September 1985

For part 1, click here

A few intrepid souls aside, for many writers exploring the Troubles ignorance of the intricacies of loyalist paramilitarism – even basic details – has sadly been the norm rather than the exception, common enough that their mistakes are rarely challenged. Indeed it is so prevalent that even a supposed terrorism expert such as the late J Bowyer Bell could pass off statements such as this without censure or correction:

Until Spence’s kidnapping in June 1972, the UVF was little more than an unorganized collection of bloody-minded bigots […] the weight of evidence suggests that this supposedly most secret army was never an army and probably is still not despite the sprinkling of military titles and rising pretensions after 1972. The world of the UVF is fluid, composed of ad hoc squads, self-appointed assassins, leadership struggles over drifting followers, in-house violence, area commanders with local support willing to come under the umbrella – an army, even in the IRA sense, it is not […] (it is) an incoherent group of vigilantes, filled with grievances and suspicions but beyond organization or basic ideology.

Even for an ignoramus this is bad stuff, but for one who has lectured at Harvard, been published widely in the field of conflict studies, and held a professorship it is unforgivable. The later conflation of the UDA and UVF into a mythical “UDF” for example is something one expects of the uninitiated, or a tabloid editorial, not a world-renowned authority on the IRA. His strange assertion that Gusty Spence’s drive to improve discipline and organisation within the UVF was inspired by his jailhouse contact with the IRA, not his experience from the British Army, is dubious to say the least. Ignorance of the ethos, activities, and value systems of the paramilitaries of the UDA and UVF is a direct consequence of a reluctance, or refusal, by many writers and journalists to pay anything but cursory attention to these groups, and their failure to accept or portray armed loyalism as heterogeneous in nature. When referred to at all they are often simply called “the loyalists”, but this blanket designation fails to take into account the fact that the histories of the UDA and UVF have been marked by considerable differences in outlook, organisation, politics, and modus operandi.


(a) The National Territory shall consist of the six Nothern Counties of the Island of Ireland – formerly known as Northern Ireland – i.e. the counties of Antrim; Down, Fermanagh, Armagh, Tyrone, and Londonderry; its islands, seas and air-spaces.

(b) The name of the National Territory shall be Ulster.

Article 3 of proposed constitution for independent Ulster, taken from Beyond the Religious Divide (NUPRG, 1979)

We state that by forming a political wing in the Ulster Volunteer Force we have added a new piece of weaponry, which if used to its full potential can be just as deadly as the SLR or the GPMG, but like all weapons it must be used correctly and by the right people. Therefore in order to ensure that we have the right people using this weapon, we require immediately Volunteers to join this wing. It is not enough to know that you can fight physically without knowing as to why you are fighting. If you are not politically aware then you will be taught.

Combat magazine, early 1974

Although frequently derided as apolitical or even as being incapable of acting (or thinking) in a political manner, the paramilitaries of the UVF and UDA have a consistent track record of political involvement, from often successful grassroots ventures to less fruitful – but no less innovative for that – electoral moves. The UDA was an almost schizophrenically diverse organisation containing within it groups and individuals that focused on community work (in the form of the Ulster Community Action Group), vigilantism, politics, trade unionism, and sectarian assassination. It was the first to become overtly involved in political moves, endorsing the Vanguard movement headed by Bill Craig. UDA leaders Tucker Lyttle, Billy Hull, and Glenn Barr all stood as Vanguard candidates, with Barr eventually becoming vice-chairman of the party for a period. The UVF initially held itself aloof from established political figures, with Gusty Spence declaring in his famous 1972 World in Action interview “we are a militant force – a purely military force – with no allegiance to any particular political party”. Its Ulster Loyalist Front of 1973 quickly gave way to the Volunteer Political Party, with ex-internees Ken Gibson and Billy Davidson as chairman and vice-chairman respectively.

The greatest difference in opinion between the political representatives of the UDA and UVF is to be found in the issue of independence for Northern Ireland. Although the UDA had been seriously considering some form of independence since late 1975, it was in the wake of the disastrous Paisley-inspired 1977 loyalist strike that Andy Tyrie, chairman and Supreme Commander of the UDA, invited Harry Chicken, Bill Snoddy, Tommy “Tucker” Lyttle, and Glen Barr as chairman to form the New Ulster Political Research Group to provide political guidance to the UDA (they also had assistance from a young David Trimble, then a lecturer at Queen’s University). Having felt betrayed by the political leaders who led them into the strike and then abandoned them when it failed to produce a favourable result, Tyrie believed that the UDA could not proceed without a coherent political vision. After much debate, workshopping, consultation, and research this finally appeared in November 1978 as Beyond the Religious Divide. The only policy document ever endorsed and voted on by all UDA brigades, BTRD advocated negotiated independence for Ulster, with a radical shake-up in the structure of government including an elected President from outwith party politics. Its proposals were met with praise from a number of figures across the political spectrum, including Paddy Devlin of the SDLP.

The NUPRG also made a foray into electoral politics. In 1981 it achieved one success when Shankill candidate Sammy Millar was elected for Belfast Area G. He had topped the polls in a by-election at the beginning of the year running as an Independent Unionist, and at the time of his second victory he was recovering from an INLA assassination attempt which left him paralysed from the waist down. Millar aside however, candidates for the NUPRG and later the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party failed to find much electoral success. In the by-election for the Westminster seat of Belfast South brought about by the IRA’s assassination of Rev Robert Bradford, John McMichael received just 576 votes (1.3%) running on a ULDP ticket.

However innovative and concilliatory Beyond the Religious Divide was, for the reasons detailed by Adrian Guelke and Frank Wright of Queen’s University any form of independence for NI in the 1980s would probably have been untenable. They pointed to the obvious difficulties in “selling” the proposal to the minority community and the ever-present issue of financial support from the UK. In 1979, the year after Beyond The Religious Divide was first published, the UK subvention to NI was £695 million (excluding security costs) or over £3 billion in todays money. Although the NUPRG called for Great Britain to continue subsidies for a period of 25 years there was little prospect of Britain signing up to such a deal without written-in clauses for withdrawal of financial aid under certain circumstances, the presence of which would undermine the viability of the proposals. In any case, the UDA push for independence was met with little enthusiasm from the public: a 1986 poll indicated that just 6% of the population supported the prospect of an independent Northern Ireland among a choice of constitutional settlements, with the figures for both Protestant and Catholic respondents mirroring one another to within 1%. Nevertheless, the fact that the UDA produced and backed the paper at all shows that it possessed a degree of political insight that many casual (and not so casual) observers have so often failed to attribute to it.

It has often been written that the UVF and its political associates have always strongly rejected the notion of NI independence, and while this assertion is substantially correct it did for a very brief period in late 1976 flirt with the possibility of negotiated independence. The idea had some support among certain UVF “politicos” but when news of the policy reached its incarcerated prisoners in Long Kesh the reaction was one of anger. In a “comm” sent from the jail by Gusty Spence he wrote “[O]ur men in Long Kesh did not know that the UVF were in favour of Independence until they read it in the pages of the Belfast News Letter […] will the UVF in future consult 260 of their imprisoned Volunteers before such major policy decisions are finally implemented and published?”. Spence had little time for independence as a practical concept:

When we read in the papers that the UVF were toying with independence it came as a big shock to us. Independence went against our principles; it even went against the very reason why the UVF had been formed in 1912 and perhaps why it was reconstituted in the twenties and the thirties and again in the sixties. It was worthy of investigation but not serious investigation.

Most UVF volunteers concurred with this sentiment and at all other times the UVF did indeed shun the prospect of breaking from the Union. As part of a 1974 statement the VPP declared its opposition to independence under heading “No to U.D.I.”:

Some loyalists think that U.D.I. would be “O.K.”. Go it alone and save money by cutting down the social security, social services and increasing taxes and let those who don’t work emigrate. This is very foolish because it would be against those who are in work as well as the unemployed. People in Ulster are suffering enough with shooting, bombing,and greater poverty than in any other part of the U.K. As well as being unjust, cutting off the social security would make the unemployed desperate to find work. There is a shortage of work in Ulster at the moment and for an employer to get workers he only has to offer a bit more than people would get on the ‘dole’ (do we want to go back to the hungry thirties?)

The statement concluded:

U.D.I. means anarchy and anarchy means Civil War, the outcome of which would be too horrible to contemplate.

By the late 1980s both groups had settled on devolved power-sharing as their preferred political settlement. The UDA reached this conclusion in 1987 with the publication of Common Sense under the aegis of the ULDP and South Belfast brigadier John McMichael, while the UVF had advocated such a deal since the 1970s, formally codifying its proposals in the Progressive Unionist Group’s (later PUP) Proposed Democratic Devolved Administration for Northern Ireland from 1979. One interesting illustration of the differing origins of the two group’s political wings in this later era can be found in the makeup of a joint loyalist delegation to the United States in late 1994 following the ceasefires. While of the three UDP representatives only Joe English had seen the inside of prison walls, and then only as a remand prisoner, all of the PUP delegates had served lengthy jail sentences – Billy Hutchinson and Gusty Spence for murder – and required visa waivers. This example demonstrates that within the UDA there was a sharper delineation between “militarists” and “politicos” (although not a definite delineation – see the signatories at the end of Common Sense for example), while the vision for the UVF and its political wing had its gestation within a core group of incarcerated volunteers in the compound system of Long Kesh under the tutelage of Gusty Spence.

One of the biggest mistakes made by certain observers of the Troubles is to accept a narrow view of loyalist paramilitaries as being essentially right-wing, reactionary organisations. Taking their cue from a simplistic post-colonial analysis of the Ulster situation, loyalists are reduced in their view to a sort of unpleasant residue byproduct left over from the days of empire. Such a theory makes perfect sense when one views the world from a prismatic, dogma-led standpoint, but it does not stand scrutiny. In reality the political views of those who have made up the UDA and UVF are so varied as to be unclassifiable. During later years certain figures with pronounced right-wing views, such as Johnny Adair, did achieve prominence in the UDA. Adair had been a National Front-supporting skinhead in his teenage years, and a number of such youths were recruited into the junior wing of the UDA throughout the early 80s. Years later these individuals, having risen in rank, had no time for the politics of the UVF’s political wing, the PUP, which expressed an avowedly socialist philosophy. Echoing the rhetoric used against the VPP in the early 70s a member of UDA’s C Company denounced the UVF/PUP’s “atheistic communism” which sought to “impose a socialist ideology over a conservative people”. Greysteel killer Stephen Irwin was feted by the ultra-extremist (and informer-riddled) Neo-Nazi group Combat 18, but this was after his release under the Good Friday Agreement. Generally though these did not represent any formalised contact.

The UVF has typically maintained a distance from far-right groups. Although in the early 70s Combat reproduced articles from the National Front magazine Spearhead and published a number of columns praising certain NF policies, these reflected the passing predelictions of its then editor Billy Mitchell rather than any official organisational policy. Certainly this was the view of Sarah Nelson, who worker on the Shankill as a social worker in the 1970s and knew him personally. An intelligent autodidact and voracious reader whose appetite took in everything from Calvinist tracts to feminist manifestos, Mitchell’s fondness for filling Combat with wide-ranging and often esoteric articles – he could also be found reaching out to the Official IRA and expounding on Gaelic history – was viewed by Nelson as the product of a restless mind given a great deal of editorial latitude, and this included his short-lived interest in the National Front. More generally, they were a desperate attempt to rebut allegations of “Communism” and head off “reds under the beds” smears which the UVF were subjected to from various sources at this time.

The policies of the UVF political wing, the Progressive Unionist Party, have always been firmly on the left of the political spectrum, and are best compared to the “Old Labour” of the pre-Blair era. Though it would be incorrect to describe the UVF itself as a socialist organisation, there has since the early 70s been a strong strand of support for labour politics within influential elements of the group, particularly within its Brigade Staff and especially among certain welfare officers.

The UDA and UVF were certainly happy for right-wing groups in Britain to hold disruptive counter-demonstrations at pro-republican parades on the mainland, but aside from some personal relationships within the UDA the contacts went little further. The far-right was only indulged as part of that most pragmatic of paramilitary concerns – the supply of weapons.


Joint UVF-UDA commemoration parade as detailed in Ulster magazine

Joint UVF-UDA commemoration parade as detailed in Ulster magazine

Ironically, perhaps the single most successful electoral exercise by the paramilitaries didn’t actually involve a UDA- or UVF-associated candidate, or even a unionist one. In 1992 the two groups sponsored a campaign to get working class unionists in West Belfast to vote for Joe Hendron of the SDLP in that year’s general election instead of Fred Cobain of the UUP. The reason for this seemingly bizarre move was simple tactical voting: by giving their support to Hendron (who stood a strong chance of winning) rather than Cobain (who did not) it would be possible to deny Gerry Adams a victory. Extraordinary posters imploring “A vote for Cobain is a vote for Sinn Féin: vote for Dr Joe Hendron” were put up along the Shankill. The strategy was successful: 3,000 loyalist ballots swung the vote and Adams lost the seat he had held since 1983. It was an example of how effective the loyalist paramilitaries could be when they acted in concert, but it represented the exception rather than the rule. While the UDP did cooperate with the PUP in the early 90s and lead-up to the ceasefires, there was no electoral pact and its social policies were more populist than expressly socialist, as in the case of the PUP.

During the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974 it was very much the UDA which took the lead role in providing the muscle so essential for the strike to succeed. This was only natural given its great numbers and predeliction for street mobilisation. The UVF, while not inactive, maintained a distinctly lower profile during the strike although it played a role in shutting down the province’s power stations and in certain areas where it then had particular strength such as South-East Antrim and Bangor. This was in keeping with its secretive nature, although ironically the group was legalised on the very day the strike began. For the most part UVF members took part as individuals. The comparatively low profile of the UVF was resented by Andy Tyrie, who in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph years later said “[O]ther organizations offered support but let us down. I never saw a UVF man for the whole of the strike, for instance”. Ken Gibson sat on the 13-man UWC executive as UVF representative but others in the body gained the impression that the group’s support for the strike was guarded and noncommittal.

Co-operation between the UVF and UDA was only sporadic and unformalised between the UWC strike and the early 90s. Some individual units were on fairly good terms: the UVF and UDA in the Woodvale area held joint commemoration services on Remembrance Sunday for several years in the late 80s/early 90s. It was not until spring 1991 and the formation of the grandly-titled Combined Loyalist Military Command/Combined Loyalist Political Alliance as an umbrella group that a concrete structure was put in place to facilitate contact between the two groups. Predictably responsibility for the idea is disputed with both the UVF and UDA claiming credit. According to the UVF’s second-in-command and liaison officer to the CLMC:

The CLMC seemed the logical thing to do at the time. By then all the talk was about moving towards peace. We could see an end in sight. One suggestion was that loyalists should now work together. I know this might sound elitist but we basically ran the show. It was our idea and the UDA simply came on board.

In his recorded interview for Boston College’s Belfast Project David Ervine was also firmly of the view that this was the case, stating “[t]here’s no doubt about it, that the creation of the Combined Loyalist Military Command was the UVF’s baby”. Naturally the UDA disputed this version of events and claim that Ray Smallwoods, the Lisburn UDA man who had been jailed for his part in a 1981 attack which nearly killed Bernadette McAliskey and her husband Michael, played the major role in setting up the grouping. Whatever the truth, the CLMC/CLPA represented an unprecedented degree of co-operation between two groups whose history had usually been characterised by mutual mistrust and outright violence. Ervine went on to describe the make-up of the CLMC and CLPA:

[…] the creation of the Combined Loyalist Military Command was a requirement in order to make loyalism able to move at all. The CLMC was an interesting vehicle because also set up around the CLMC was the Combined Loyalist Political Alliance. One, you could argue, was military and the other one was political. This was a discussion process between the UDP [the Ulster Democratic Party, the UDA’s political wing] and the PUP, and indeed the UVF and the UDA attended it as well…

Q: What would have been the make-up of that?

A: It would have been two PUP, two UDP and the Military Commander of the UVF and the Military Commander of the UDA.

The first major move by the CLMC was the ceasefire called on the 17th April 1991 during the Brooke/Mayhew talks involving the DUP, UUP, SDLP, and Alliance, as well as the British and Irish governments. Discipline held throughout the ceasefire which ended on the 4th July. The only exception was a retaliatory killing ordered by the UDA. On the 25th May a UFF team crossed into Buncrana, Co Donegal and shot dead Sinn Fein councillor Eddie Fullerton. The UDA argued that the ceasefire did not cover the Republic, but the fact that the UVF had no idea that the UDA were planning such an action not only demonstrated the limits of the CLMC but provided an omen of schisms to come. At the time the CLMC called their ceasefire in October 1994 unity between the UDA and UVF was perhaps stronger than at any time in their collective history. The sight of representatives of the UDP and PUP sitting alongside one another at the ceasefire announcement in Fernhill House projected the image of a united front which had the potential to greatly enhance the bargaining power of the loyalist bloc. Within three years however events would see the CLMC dissolved and the two groups revert to type as mutual antagonists bearing a barely-disguised loathing for one another.

Given the ever-present friction and rivalry between the two groups it is unsurprising that joint “military” operations have been a distinct rarity. The assertion by some authors that the Dublin/Monaghan bombings were a joint UVF/UDA attack is untrue – they were carried out by the UVF alone. Certain UDA units sent men out with collection buckets in the aftermath, and spokesman Sammy Smyth gave a typically intemperate statement which was interpreted by certain parts of the press as an admission of responsibility, but this was the extent of their involvement.

The only time an attack was carried out expressly under the banner of the CLMC came on the 13th of December 1992 when a UVF team from west Belfast fired an RPG, possibly sourced from the UDA, at the canteen of Crumlin Road Jail’s A-Wing from a hijacked taxi which had taken up a firing position outside the prison. At the time republican prisoners were dining inside, but the attack failed when the rocket impacted a protective grill covering the window and failed to fuse as a result. A year previously two remand prisoners,  Colin Caldwell of the UVF and the UDA’s Rab Skey,  were killed when the IRA detonated a bomb hidden behind a radiator while loyalists were eating dinner in the canteen on C-Wing. Despite containing just six ounces of Semtex the device caused serious injuries to eight other prisoners in addition to the two dead men. The rocket attack was carried out in direct retaliation for the bombing.

In fact the most renowned instance of a joint UDA/UVF operation may not have been that at all. On October 3rd 1976 the legendary republican Maire Drumm, 57yr old Vice-President of Sinn Fein and the leader of Cumann na mBan, the womens section of the IRA, checked into the Mater Hospital for a routine cataract operation which would keep her in until the end of the month. To the republican and nationalist community Drumm represented a potent symbol of female resistance to British rule in a tradition which stretched back to Constance Markievicz, founder of Na Fianna Éireann. For loyalists and unionists though Drumm was a confirmed hate figure, known instead for her fiery speeches delivered to republican rallies and marches, and invariably filled with violent rhetoric and exhortations to arms. Secretary of State Merlyn Rees famously compared her to Dickens’ villainous Madame Defarge, and two months before her entry to the Mater she was arrested for giving a speech at the annual internment anniversary rally in which she declared “we will
destroy this town (Belfast) and any other town, and that goes for Britain as well”.

On the evening of 28th October, two days before Drumm was due to leave hospital, two young men dressed as doctors complete with white laboratory coats entered the small side ward on the building’s second floor where she was recuperating. Once inside, and without hesitation or comment, one of them drew a revolver and calmly shot Drumm in the chest. She was hit three times, while a fellow patient standing next to her was slightly wounded in the leg. The two men then escaped in a dark blue Ford Escort waiting for them at the main hospital entrance. By the time they had disappeared Drumm was dead.

The killing of Drumm was professionally carried out and enormously popular within the loyalist community, who uniformly loathed her. In reporting her murder even the Glasgow Herald called her an “apostle of hate”. Almost all sources record the death as a “joint UDA/UVF operation” and a number of UDA men were in fact charged in connection with her death.

Doubts, however, have been cast upon the unusual joint UDA/UVF nature of the killing. According to veteran journalists Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald, the UVF alone killed Drumm. They strongly contend that the origin of the joint-op version of events originated with UDA racketeer Jim Craig who through his associate, West Belfast brigadier Tucker Lyttle, briefed journalists that the UDA had carried out the killing. According to the reporters, the UVF at that time was happy for its rivals to take credit as it drew attention away from its own hitmen, and that it in fact encouraged such claims for the same reason. Supporting their contention of sole UVF responsibility is the fact that the only person convicted in relation to Drumm’s death was a hospital security guard who was member of the UVF, and that a forensic analysis of the bullets removed from Drumm’s body showed that they came from a weapon used in previous UVF shootings.

Sinn Fein vice-president Maire Drumm

Sinn Fein vice-president Maire Drumm

Whatever the real facts, one definite instance of UVF/UDA co-operation that was to have far-reaching effects was the conspiracy to import weapons which took place in the late 80s. In June 1987 £325,313 was stolen from the Northern Bank in Portadown by the UDA. The intelligence and surveillance for the robbery had been carried out by the Mid-Ulster UVF. The cash was then split between the two groups and a third party in the form of Ulster Resistance, the legal paramilitary group founded by members of the Ulster Clubs, Ian Paisley, and Peter Robinson. The money was for guns – a lot of them. Via an American and a Maronite arms dealer, just over 200 Czech Vz.58P assault rifles, 90 Hungarian FEG P9M 9mm pistols (a clone of the British Army’s Browning Hi-Power), several RPG-7 rocket launchers, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, and a staggering 500 RGD-5 fragmentation grenades were smuggled into Northern Ireland from Lebanon between October and December 1987 inside crates of ceramic tiles and taken to a safe location near Portadown to be split three ways. While happy to collaborate with the rural loyalists within Ulster Resistance, with whom they were on good terms, the UVF had been nervous from the start about co-operating with the UDA who they considered lacking in internal security. Their fears were confirmed when the UDA’s entire share – 61 assault rifles with two magazines each, 30 pistols, 150 grenades, and 11,500 rounds of ammo – was seized on the 8th January 1988. The UVF clearly had their own security issues too however as half of its share – 38 rifles, 15 pistols, 100 grenades, and 40,000 rounds of ammunition – were uncovered in North Belfast in the first week of February 1988.

One of the Vz.58p assault rifles imported by the UVF, UDA, and Ulster Resistance in 1987. Credit: Imperial War Museum

One of the actual Vz.58p assault rifles imported by the UVF, UDA, and Ulster Resistance in 1987. Credit: Imperial War Museum

Although somewhat outside the scope of this article, due to the number of inaccuracies, myths, and outright falsehoods which accompany many retellings of the 1987 shipment it is worth taking the time out to make the reader aware of the facts of the case and to dispel certain mistruths which have gained currency seemingly through little more than repetition.

Firstly, the weapons did NOT come from South Africa. They were sourced by Joe Fawzi, a freelance Lebanese Maronite arms dealer. The arms are believed to have originally been PLO stocks captured by Israel and then turned over to their allies in the Kataeb Regulatory Forces, military wing of the Phalange, the right-wing Lebanese Christian movement allied to Israel.

Second, the weapons were NOT imported by Brian Nelson, the UDA’s intelligence chief and agent of the army’s Force Research Unit. Nelson was not involved in the conspiracy. He made one trip to South Africa in July 1985 at the behest of the UDA on a fact-finding mission to source arms from the state. While there Nelson failed to impress his South African contacts who almost immediately began to suspect he was a British agent. According to journalist Chris Moore, they confirmed their suspicions through some embarrasingly elementary intelligence work: at Heathrow Airport during his return journey, Nelson was observed by SA operatives meeting his FRU handlers at Heathrow Park Hotel. The South Africans thereafter refused to have anything to do with Nelson, and their future dealings with loyalists – including a conspiracy to steal and reverse-engineer prototype surface-to-air missiles being designed and manufactured at Shorts in Belfast – were through representatives of Ulster Resistance.

While there is no information regarding any other joint weapons buys which may have taken place, some tantalising possibilities are raised through a close inspection of photographs taken of armed displays mounted by the two groups. In several unrelated pictures taken at various points in the 1990s masked UDA and UVF men are shown toting the Israeli version of the FN FAL assault rifle. Closely related to the British Army’s SLR, this distinctive and unusual weapon was only fielded for a relatively short period and in limited numbers by a single user. As such it is highly unlikely that the UDA and UVF independently came into possession of such a weapon. Two possibilities exist therefore: either they cooperated in purchase of a shipment which included the rifles, or one group bought them and then sold or swapped a number after they arrived in Ulster. The presence of other rare or unusual weapons in the hands of both groups, such as the Mk1 Bren gun and Madsen SMG, further suggests such possibilities.


Many in the UVF looked upon the UDA as amateurish pretenders to the role of paramilitants, unskilled in military matters and willing to accept virtually anyone into the ranks. David Ervine, the PUP assemblyman whose political career had its genesis in a five year sentence behind the wire of Long Kesh, once remarked that he would “rather have been a private in the UVF than a general in the UDA”. For their part, there were those in the UDA who regarded the “blacknecks” as pompous and elitist. Relations between the two were never particularly good, although in the early-mid 90s the CLMC facilitated a degree of cooperation, but open conflict broke out on only two occasions: the first in 1974/75, the second – and undoubtedly worst, particularly in terms of damage inflicted upon the loyalist community as a whole – in 2000.

In the early 1970s the UVF had warily observed the UDA’s frighteningly rapid growth from a motley collection of street vigilantes into Northern Ireland’s largest paramilitary group. It had been there, in secret, at the very meeting in North Howard Street school on the 15th May 1971 when the vigilantes first came together to discuss a merger. A legal organisation with high-profile representatives and leaders and whose very scale alone earned it a place in high-level negotiations, the UDA could send delegates to meet with the Secretary of State merely on account of its awesome potential if fully mobilised. The UVF on the other hand shunned publicity, taking comfort in a protective cloak of secrecy. On the ground there was uneasy co-existence between the rival groups. UDA and UVF men lived among one another in the same neighbourhoods, sometimes as next door neighbours. Each group regarded itself as the superior force and within the teams of “operators” of the UVF and the UDA’s operational wing, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, there was inevitable rivalry.

Tensions between the two groups were also periodically raised due to the frequent habit of anonymous callers claiming responsibility on behalf of the UFF for bomb attacks which had actually been carried out by the UVF. After an explosion one of the province’s newspapers, TV, or radio stations would often receive a call from someone claiming to be one of the UFF’s “Captains” (there were Captains Black, White, and Red among others) who would state they had carried out the attack. One such occasion was when the UVF bombed Traynor’s pub in Aghinlig near Moy, and a bogus UFF claim was phoned in to a local news office. In fact the great majority of bombings carried out against nationalists were the work of the UVF. As noted in a previous article, the UDA lacked the capability to sustain regular operations using explosives that the militaristic UVF did.

Whether or not most of these callers, or even any of them for that matter, really were from the UFF is not known. All the same, the practice infuriated the older loyalist group. During the UVF’s highly intensive bombing campaign of late-’73 the UFF, or members of the public seeking to cause trouble, made false claims of responsibility after a number of explosions, sowing confusion and causing anger within the UVF. This phenomenon neatly demonstrated how the UVF’s secretive nature could work both for and against it. At the time the paramilitaries had not yet begun to use the system of recognised codewords to claim actions as they would later do, and in any case the UVF rarely publicly associated itself with such acts. Still, its anger at these stunts could be seen in an article in Combat magazine denouncing what it referred to as “the Telephone Terrorists”. Referring to a loyalist car bombing over the border in Clones which had been claimed in the name of the “Young Militants of the UDA”, the piece attacked those who it said “simply sit by the radio and wait for the Late Night News to inform them what operations they carried out that day”. In turn the Young Militants were described as “the latest mythical organisation to join the ranks of (the) ghost platoons – the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Citizens Army” (it should be noted that the existence of the UYM and UFF as bona fide entities was hotly disputed at this time). Ominously, when the UVF launched its first cessation of hostilities in mid-November 1973 it threatened to turn its guns on its loyalist rivals if they attempted to force the UVF off its ceasefire, declaring “if the Freedom Fighters break the ceasefire, we’re prepared to take action against them and even kill their leaders if we have to”. It would not take long for conflict to begin in earnest.


False claims of responsibility after UVF bombings deeply angered the group. Credit: Combat

Hostilities broke out during the latter stage of the UWC strike in May 1974. At the beginning of the year the UVF had pleaded with the UDA to cease its assassination campaign, which had been stepped up in what the UVF believed was indeed a deliberate attempt to undermine its own ceasefire. It called on them to “desist from their present murder campaign and to channel their energies and resources into some form of constructive action designed to preserve the glorious heritage of Ulster and to bring about peace and prosperity to our beloved Province”. This sort of flowery, heady language was unlikely to convince the UDA, which considered such statements evidence of the UVF’s grandiosity and elitism. In fact UDA/UFF killings sharply increased in mid-February when it killed five people in four days. Street disturbances organised by the UDA also intensified. Individual UDA units had a great deal of autonomy and so it is unlikely there was any high-level strategy to disrupt the UVF suspension. All the same, such activity posed a very real danger to UVF discipline – even during the ceasefire certain of its units continued to carry out sporadic killings and bombings on a no-claim basis.

The first death occured on the fourth day of the UWC strike. A brawl between two groups of UVF and UDA men in relation to a seemingly minor dispute regarding the opening of a UVF bar during the strike shutdown ended in the death of UVF volunteer Joe Shaw, killed by a shotgun blast. The killing had long-lasting consequences. The UVF identified two men who it believed to be the shooters: Stephen Goatley and John Fulton. Although the UDA adamantly denied that Goatley and Fulton were involved in the incident which led to Shaw’s death, the UVF were nevertheless convinced they had been behind the killing and resolved that they would pay the price.

In a later report compiled by a UDA “committee of inquiry” the organisation detailed its version of the affair:

As a result of conflicting orders a UVF bar on the Shankill was open while other clubs and bars all over the city were closed. Volunteer Shaw with several companions went to the UVF bar. While there they were ribbed about allowing the UDA to close their own bar in the North Queen Street district. Later on volunteer Shaw and his companions, intoxicated, left the Shankill, returned to North Queen Street and opened the bar. A UDA patrol came on the scene and ordered the bar to be closed. The patrol was assaulted with empty bottles which had apparently been accumulated for this purpose. The patrol withdrew and returned later with a shotgun to frighten Volunteer Shaw and companions into closing the bar. During the fracas which ensued the gun went off and this was sincerely regretted.

A high-level meeting between the warring groups, attended by UDA chairman Andy Tyrie and UVF chief of staff Tommy West, was called to defuse the situation. According to the UDA report:

Both commanders accepted that ill feeling existed and would probably result in some violence. Personnel of both organisations were ordered by their respective commanders that in the event of ill feelings resulting in violence, weapons under no circumstances would be used. Fisticuffs would be permitted on a man-to-man basis.

The killing of Shaw led to a great deal more than mere fisticuffs and began over a year of sporadic violence between the UDA and UVF as long-standing rivalries were given full vent. There was a brief respite as a result of the talks but in July local tensions in east Belfast erupted in a wave of gun attacks on the homes of UVF men. David Ervine was an active member of the UVF in east Belfast during the early part of the feud and described the situation in his Boston College testimony:

…at that time, it seemed to me there were eighty UVF people to about eight thousands UDA in East Belfast; there was always tension between them, and you could have been called together to be given information about UDA threats. I remember one time being called to a meeting where everybody was told to be very cautious, because they believed that we were about to be attacked. There were quite a number of UVF homes attacked that night in the Woodstock Road area, so the UVF must have had intelligence on the UDA. I lived in the Woodstock area and my house was one of the very few UVF houses that wasn’t actually attacked, which probably meant they didn’t know I lived there.

Speaking anonymously in Cusack and McDonald’s book UVF, Ervine also told of how he carried a gun for his protection throughout the feud and twice came close to being killed. Ken Gibson’s east Belfast home was petrol-bombed over a dozen times in total and his 16yr old son beaten up by a group of UDA men. Gibson himself was the subject of several determined attempts on his life, the most serious coming on the 6th May 1975 when a group of east Belfast UDA men ambushed him outside the London Bar and tried to bundle him into a car. Gibson would almost certainly have been killed had he not fought free, breaking his arm in the process. By this time UVF men still inside the pub had armed themselves and now rushed to his aid, shooting one of his attackers in the stomach and stabbing another.

UVF spokesman Ken Gibson (right) was attacked during the '74/'75 feud

Pictured here with Hugh Smyth (left), UVF spokesman Ken Gibson was attacked during the ’74/’75 feud. Credit: Combat

Although largely confined to Belfast, South-East Antrim saw considerable violence during the feud. In August 1974 a UVF drinking club in Monkstown was burned down and the UDA blamed. In Larne the home of Bobby “Boots” McKee, the local UVF battalion commander and one of the very few UVF men to go public about his membership of the organisation following its legalisation, was the target of an attempted bombing by the UDA shortly after the end of the UWC strike. The device failed to detonate properly. In a front page article in Combat, titled “Dummy Soldiers”, the attempt on his life by “thick-skulled morons” was strongly criticised. Without naming the UDA specifically its anonymous writer asked readers “what type of people are commanding some of our paramilitary groups? What sort of commander would send out a squad of men to place a bomb directly under sleeping children?”, continuing “[i]t is one thing to use explosives in selective hits against enemy property but it is another kettle of fish when petty little armchair generals send their dummy soldiers out with lethal devices to plant them willy nilly amongst women and children”. Yet the UVF would quickly show that it had no moral objections to using explosives against its enemies in the UDA. Bombings, particularly when delivered without warning, had always been its hallmark and the feud with the UDA was no different. The Bunch of Grapes in east Belfast, which was strongly associated with the UDA, was bombed by the local UVF. After the homes of no less than 20 UVF men in the east of the city were shot up, the UVF responded with a series of small bombs directed at the houses of a number of UDA members, to the outrage of that organisation. The potential for far greater destruction was there though: in an off-the-record interview with Jim Cusack, David Ervine stated that the car bomb he was transporting upon his arrest on the 2nd November was destined for UDA headquarters on the Newtownards Road.

The conflict continued into 1975, and that year saw a serious escalation in violence. After a series of brawls and shootouts between the two groups the UVF raised the stakes considerably when three masked men entered the Alexandra Bar where Stephen Goatley and John Fulton were and shot them dead. The first man was playing a bandit machine when he was cut down while Fulton was drinking with several others, some of whom were injured in the fusilade of bullets unleashed by the UVF team. The UDA report concluded:

A number of fight took place involving Lieutenant Goatley, Volunteer Fulton and UVF personnel. Lieutenant Goatley and Volunteer Fulton proved the better men on each occasion. Because of the ability of the two men to hold their own and remain resolute UDA members some UVF personnel decided to murder – we could find no evidence to mitigate the term – Lieutenant Goatley and Volunteer Fulton, apparently believing that such an action would make UDA personnel more amenable to pressure from the UVF.

5,000 uniformed UDA men attended their funerals, while retaliation came days later in the shooting and wounding of two UVF men in the Albert Bar in east Belfast.

The violence on the streets and in homes was accompanied by a heated war of words in the publications of the UDA and the UVF’s Combat magazine. Much venom was directed at Combat‘s editor, Billy Mitchell, denounced as “Billy Liar” in the pages of Ulster Loyalist and accused of meeting with the Provisional and Official IRA. This specific allegation was vehemently denied even though Mitchell, along with Jim Hanna, had in fact met with the PIRA and also OIRA (at the latter meeting also accompanied by Tommy West). UDA News ridiculed the UVF who they said “spent all night long polishing their leather jackets and robbing milkmen, old-aged pensioners and kiddies’ piggy-banks”. When the UDA sent a delegation to Libya on a bizarre mission to meet with Muammar Gaddafi, Combat seized upon what it called its “abandonment of our Protestant British heritage”. The East Antrim Workers Council, controlled by Mitchell, called for Glenn Barr’s expulsion from the UWC co-ordinating committee for “begging for aid” from the “murderous Communist regime in Libya”. In response to a question concerning the feud in a 1975 interview with German TV a masked Mitchell stated “there is no real feud between the UVF and the UDA. What there is is a difference of opinion as to strategy and tactics. There is also a certain amount of ‘personality’ differences and regimental pride”. He was being somewhat optimistic in denying the existence of the feud, but he was not far wrong in ascribing tensions to personality clashes and “regimental pride”, however ostentatious the term.

A front-page article in UVF journal Combat from the height of the feud

A front-page article in UVF journal Combat from the height of the feud

Mitchell would soon be removed from the scene as a result of his role in perhaps the most sordid episode of the entire dispute. On the 7th April 1975 two furniture company employees were making deliveries from their van on the Shankill Road. The driver was 36yr old Hugh McVeigh from the huge Ballybeen estate to the east of Belfast, his assistant David Douglas, aged 28 and a resident of East Belfast. On the afternoon of the 7th their van was discovered on the Antrim Road, abandoned, the furniture still inside. McVeigh and Douglas were both members of the UDA and their disappearance deeply worried the organisation. Initially believing them to have been taken by the IRA the UFF threatened to kidnap and kill 20 Catholics if they were not returned. The IRA denied involvement however, and suspicion then quickly fell upon the UVF. At a tense meeting the UVF men suspected of involvement flatly denied they had anything to do with their disappearance, but the truth was revealed in late August when a UVF member living in East Antrim became a “walk-in” informer. In bad odour with the local leadership and fearing he was going to be shot, he ran to the local police station and ended up giving them the most detailed confession the RUC had ever received about the shadowy group.

It transpired that McVeigh and Douglas had been abducted by the UVF on the Shankill and transported to the UVF-controlled British Legion club in Carrickfergus where they were beaten and handed over to the local battalion. They were then driven to a desolate and isolated promontory in Islandmagee where, hands tied behind backs, they were forced to kneel in a pre-dug grave. Both were then shot in the head. While Billy Mitchell did not pull the trigger he, as the senior officer, was held responsible for their murder. Arrested on the 5th October along with dozens of other UVF men he was eventually sentenced to life after what was then the longest and most expensive trial in Northern Irish legal history. 26 men were jailed, virtually wiping out the East Antrim Battalion of the UVF, with eight life sentences and almost 700 years imprisonment being handed out among the defendants. Speaking years later one senior UVF figure described his dismay at the affair:

I was shocked. Stunned. I just couldn’t believe it. I was almost in tears. I had sat there and heard the buggers deny they had anything to do with it.

McVeigh had been a senior UDA figure, a member of its Inner Council who had been part of a delegation attending peace talks in the Netherlands in March ’75, and his loss was acutely felt. The feud did not end with the deaths of McVeigh and Douglas, but after a couple of killings the next year it eventually fizzled out. It is possible the leadership changes which occurred in the UVF in late ’75 and ’76 had something to do with this, given the more “reasonable” and cautious nature of the personalities who took over. By that time the damage had been done: the nebulous rivalries between two well-armed and mutually antagonistic groups had been given firm and enduring form in the names of the dead – “murdered by cowards” as paramilitary language puts it – which now appeared on gable ends across Belfast. With the lack of any formalised inter-organisational mechanisms for communication, liaison, and mediation it was perhaps inevitable that what would otherwise have been minor localised disputes escalated into a brutal city-wide feud resulting in more than half a dozen deaths, most of them UDA members. In the absence of any non-violent alternative, the men with guns resolved their disputes in the way that came naturally to them. The fact that much paramilitary business took place in bars and clubs also cannot be overlooked, as alcohol played a significant role in exacerbating tensions. It was certainly a factor in the death of Shaw, which came about after a dispute over the opening of a pub.

Senior UDA member Hugh McVeigh, abducted and killed by the UVF along with his assistant

Senior UDA member Hugh McVeigh, abducted and killed by the UVF along with his assistant

Paramilitary feuds were not an exclusively loyalist phenomenon. Far from it – the Official and Provisional wings of the IRA fought with each other throughout the 1970s, and while territoriality and personality clashes played a part in these disputes there were real and profound disagreements as to ideology and strategy fuelling the ill-feeling. However, there was no real single difference of opinion or ethos between the UVF and UDA which could not have been dealt with through dialogue. The feud of ’74/’75 was a failure of leadership on the part of both organisations.

We always had the idea that we would be an elite. That we would respond to nobody, not even the blacknecks (UVF). Our job was to gain control of the Lower Shankill. Take control of every wee blade of grass in the place and make sure we had the power to launch attacks upon the Taigs. The UVF were soft. We had rid ourselves of the soft arses in C Company. We were, like, open for serious business. You can’t have that type of idea in your head unless you control your own back yard. It was like copying the Provies. They ran their places with an iron fist. We wanted that type of way of doing things too.


We are making it clear to the Prods that we have not given up and that we will not sell them down the river. We are not like the UVF. We are here to fight and to ensure that Ulster remains British. We are the defenders of our community. We trust no one but ourselves.

unnamed members of C Company quoted in Forward to the Past by Peter Shirlow & Rachel Monaghan

When it was clear that transitional and progressive loyalism was aiming to take loyalism off the stage then you saw the fear in Adair’s eyes. When we said that it was over and the drugs and the crime had to go you saw him full ‘ah fear. You knew then that he would use any mean to try and destroy us lot who wanted peace. He started getting more sectarian as he thought if he could get the Provies back to war and then he could keep his wee criminal empire.

UVF commander, Forward to the Past

The 2000 feud between the UVF and UDA, still raw on the Shankill and in North Belfast, is to an extent outside the chronological scope of the article occuring as it did after the ceasefire of 1994. Nevertheless, it cannot be completely ignored as its consequences were even more devastating than the conflict of ’74/’75. At its heart were two figures, Johnny Adair and Billy Wright. Although Wright was dead by the time of the feud, assassinated by the INLA in an extraordinary incident inside the Maze Prison, his legacy had a considerable half-life and played a significant role in kindling the most deadly conflict between the two main loyalist groups. The activities of these two men, who each played major roles in the resurgent loyalist campaign of the late 80s and early 90s, merits closer attention and will be covered in greater detail later in the article.

The roots of the feud lie in links forged between C Company – the lower Shankill constituent of the UDA’s 2nd Battalion – and the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the rejectionist anti-ceasefire body largely comprised of Wright’s Mid-Ulster UVF which began breaking from the Shankill leadership in 1996. C Company’s leader, Johnny Adair, admired Wright (although the feelings were not exactly reciprocated) and his LVF, who he reverently described as “the daddies”. He also loathed the UVF which he felt looked down upon the UDA, an estimation which was not entirely untrue. Adair was also attracted to the prodigious money-making potential of the LVF’s drug empire. Any link-up with the dissident grouping was anathema to the UVF, who were still determined to strike back at the LVF following its murder of the UVF military commander in Mid-Ulster, Richard Jameson, in January 2000. 46yr old Jameson and his family were well-known and highly-respected loyalists and his killing seriously wounded the UVF.

By the time hostilities broke out in the summer of 2000 relations between the UVF and UDA on the Shankill were toxic and filled with mutual mistrust. A member of the UVF had already been killed in Larne during Twelfth celebrations in Larne in an attack which was linked to members of the LVF and UDA. In contrast to the PUP which had enjoyed the election of David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson to the Assembly, the UDP had failed to make any electoral headway and was virtually moribund. With the exception of his close ally John White, Adair was contemptuous of most UDP figures who he believed had played no part in the “war” he had dedicated himself to in the early 90s. The UDP’s lack of success removed high-level politics as an avenue for the advancement of the UDA’s goals, confirming the views of militarists within the organisation who had only grudgingly backed it in the first place, and drastically limited its ability to act as a pacifying influence on Adair and his allies. C Company had also engaged in aggressively territorial behavior, painting dozens of murals marking out its turf throughout the lower Shankill, including one dedicated to Billy Wright which was bound, and no doubt intended, to antagonise the UVF. C Coy and the UVF further up the Shankill also engaged in competitive recruitment drives to attract young men into their organisations:

We were on ceasefire and in a way we wanted to stop recruiting so as to bring some sort of normality into young lads lives. When we saw that C Company were trying to recruit from within our area we had to give up that idea and make sure young men joined us so that we could keep them on the straight and narrow […] It wasn’t just that we didn’t want young lads becoming drug dealers and the like, it was just as important to make sure that they didn’t join that sectarian rabble down there.

senior UVF member from Shankill Road

The blacknecks are keeping us out of their area, for they know that the wee lads want to join us. Cause they know that we are talking sense and that we will lead them into a true loyalist culture. They’re afraid of us, and the fact that we are more popular than them. They know that the wee lads know that they are betraying loyalism.

C Company member

Most worryingly, by this time Adair was secretly carrying out attacks in Belfast on behalf of the LVF with the aim of pulling the IRA off its ceasefire. These included false-flag pipe-bombings on vulnerable Protestant homes in interface areas which were then blamed on republicans. In one such attack Adair was slightly wounded by a device which exploded prematurely, which he then rather unconvincingly blamed on an IRA assassination attempt.

The violence began on 19th August 2000 during the so-called “Loyalist Day of Culture” organised by Adair. Aside from the unveiling of more murals and numerous parading bands, it amounted to a huge show of strength by the UDA involving 5,000-7,000 men from brigades across Northern Ireland. A concerned UVF leadership had sought an assurance that no LVF regalia would be displayed, which was given. No one outside of Adair’s inner circle knew that he had chosen that day to begin his assault on the UVF. Just after 3PM as one band marched up the Shankill it stopped outside the Rex bar, a UVF-associated pub, where an LVF flag was unfurled. A brawl began as UVF members tried to seize the flag, and the fight ended with them barricaded inside the Rex as C Coy supporters surged up the Shankill and began firing into the pub. The building was attacked several times that day, with a number of those inside suffering gunshot wounds. At the same time, Adair’s men began coordinated attacks on the homes of UVF members, their families, and associates within the lower Shankill. According to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive 547 people, including Gusty Spence and his son-in-law Winston Churchill Rea, a former Red Hand prisoner, were among those left homeless. Community workers put the figure much higher, at some 1,300 affected.

The UVF shooting of C Coy’s Lieutenant Jackie Coulter and former UVF man Bobby Mahood, brother of the LVF’s de facto quartermaster Jackie Mahood, two days later began a deadly three-month cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation which would lead to the demise of seven people over the course of the feud, which continued despite Adair’s license being revoked by Peter Mandelson. As Adair was bundled into a police car on 22nd August he was alleged to have said “I think you’ve saved my life”.

What distinguished the 2000 dispute from previous feuds was the sheer depth of bitterness and the personal nature of hostilities. At the height of the feud C Company, in conjunction with members of the LVF, circulated leaflets which accused UVF commanders of everything from drug dealing and adultery, to informing and mental instability. One even accused the late Richard Jameson of having committed incest with his sister. As absurd as this claim was it demonstrated the awesome hatred between the UVF and C Coy along with its sometime LVF allies. For his part, Adair was No1 hate figure for the UVF. He had failed to rouse the support of other UDA units in his bid to “cleanse” the lower Shankill, leaving him isolated and potentially vulnerable.

True to form, the analysis from the British press was rarely more than cursory and superficial. Drugs and territory were assumed to be the driving forces for the feud. According to an editorial in the Independent, “the killing of two members of the UFF (sic) has little to do with concerns about the peace agreement; it is, above all, a brutal settling of scores between two sets of violent criminals”, while the Guardian wearily observed “seasoned Ulster watchers believe that the UFF/UDA is largely funding itself from the drug trade, and that its current feud with the Ulster Volunteer Force is more of a turf war than an ideological one”. One wonders as to the identities of these anonymous “seasoned Ulster watchers”.

A more convincing diagnosis of the causes of the conflict has been posited by a number of academics since the feud. In their estimation it represented in part a battle for control not just of the Shankill, the hub of the loyalist wheel, but also recognition as the true defenders of the loyalist people as a whole. According to Peter Shirlow and Carolyn Gallagher:

While there is no denying that paramilitaries are involved in criminality, the feud was also a battle about the legitimacy of transitional Loyalism and the anti-transformation actions of C Company. It was a battle fought on highly symbolic terrain in Ulster Loyalism – the Shankill Road, which is viewed as a Protestant heartland in Northern Ireland.

This view of the feud as an ideologically-inspired dispute between the more progressive UVF and PUP, and a revanchist, rejectionist element in the form of C Coy was endorsed by the late Billy Mitchell, by now a strategist within the PUP. Writing in the North Belfast News he said:

The current regrettable conflict that is tearing the heart out of the loyalist community has been put down a a “turf war” being waged between two criminal gangs to see who can gain overall control of a criminal empire that includes drugs, racketeering and prostitution. This simplistic and wholly inaccurate analysis is commonplace within the media and certain sections of church and state.


If there has been a “turf war” for the past year it has been a war to exclude the voice of radical progressive politics from the loyalist turf. It has been primarily a one-sided war and it has been waged, not just by paramilitaries, but by so called constitutional politicians and religious fundamentalists as well. The object of the campaign is to demonise, marginalise and eliminate the voice of radical democratic politics within loyalism.

The theory finds some support in the fact that PUP members formed a distinct target group for C Coy. Among their victims was Bertie Rice, a worker at Billy Hutchinson’s consituency office. 63yr old Rice was a former internee who had been a senior member of the UVF in the 70s but had severed his links with the group upon emigrating to South Africa in 1980. In retaliation the Mount Vernon UVF – led at that time by Special Branch informer Mark Haddock – broke into the home of UDA Sergeant-Major and UDP activist Tommy English and murdered him in front of his family. A number of unsuccessful attacks were also carried out on the homes of other PUP activists. C Coy shared with the LVF a contempt for the left-leaning, concilliatory policies of the UVF-linked party. As a website associated with the two groups put it:

In the past we have made it clear the PUP are the target of our distaste and that the many good men of the UVF were being used as pawns to employ the PUP’s agenda. It is now too difficult to distinguish the difference between the two organizations. Here we see the death throws (sic) of the UVF/PUP vying for their share of the pie.

A lasting consequence of the feud was the way in which it would assert an inhibiting effect on coming efforts to persuade the UVF and UDA to decommission their considerable arsenals of weaponry over the next decade. As both groups, privately and publicly, stated that they did not view dissident republicanism as an existential threat to the state of Northern Ireland and were happy for the PSNI to deal with such threat as they did pose, their desire to retain their guns was predicated upon the possibility of future intra-loyalist conflict. The UVF in particular had no intention of giving up so much as a single round, although in their case the primary potential threat came from the LVF rather than the UDA.


Cartoon from Ulster magazine, early 80s

Cartoon from Ulster magazine, December 1981

The 2000 conflict between the UVF and UDA left an indelible mark on the Shankill. For the first time the road was divided definitively between the two groups, with the UDA now dominating the “cleansed” lower Shankill and the UVF in control of the upper part of the road up into the Woodvale area. It also demonstrated the inherent weaknesses of the federal nature of the UDA, where brigades and their component units were given considerable autonomy to govern their own affairs. This independence not only gave Johnny Adair the leeway to begin the feud, but was a crucial factor leading to the isolation of Adair and C Coy as other brigade commanders, even A and B Companies further up the Shankill, declined to become involved in hostilities. The structure of the UDA was such that Adair had little official recourse to compel them.

The UDA enjoyed particular strength in Northern Ireland’s second city, Londonderry, where the UVF have always come a distant second place. According to government figures, in 1976 there were 13 UDA Special Category prisoners from Derry city and county, compared to none from the UVF. In general terms however the UDA was markedly weaker in rural areas compared to its rival. For reasons that are not particularly clear – Steve Bruce posits that the name of the UVF carried a greater historical resonance, others that the UDA was too associated with racketeering and extortion for the more conservative country dwellers – the older organisation has always found much greater appeal in the smaller towns and villages of rural Ulster, with the exception of some larger towns such as Portadown where the UDA has had a presence. Another factor to consider is the UDA’s origins in the various vigilante groups which sprang up around interface areas in Belfast: such hotspots of sectarian tension are not generally a factor in rural life. This demarcation can clearly be seen when deaths as a result of UDA and UVF activity are plotted geographically, revealing hotspots of UVF activity in north Armagh and east Tyrone. Over time certain areas of Belfast became associated with one paramilitary group or other, although such delineation was less marked in the early years of the conflict. For example, one could safely state that on the republican side the lower Falls, Divis Flats complex, and Markets areas were known as Official IRA (and later INLA) strongholds. The same holds true for loyalists: thus in south Belfast Donegall Pass is usually associated with the UVF and Red Hand, Sandy Row with the UDA, while in the north of the city Mount Vernon was home to a particularly militant unit of the UVF which had its UDA counterpart in Tiger’s Bay.

For the purposes of plotting, the periods of greatest loyalist paramilitary action during the Troubles have been broken into two six-year campaigns, the first from 1971 to 1977, the second from 1988 to the CLMC ceasefire of October 1994. Although the UDA and UVF were not inactive outside these two periods, the vast majority of killings carried out by the two groups took place during the years in question.

Click for larger versions





Two things immediately stand out: the volume of UVF activity outside Belfast particularly in north Armagh and east Tyrone, and the comparative absence of UDA activity in this area, confirming the notion of the UVF’s greater rural presence. Also revealed is evidence that while UVF actions were spread out over a greater geographical area in both time periods, in the late 80s/early 90s the UDA was active over a much wider range in Belfast and the surrounding areas. The way in which it aggressively penetrated into nationalist communities such as Ardoyne and New Lodge, and particularly the Andersonstown/Ladybrook/Dunmurry area, contrasts with the UVF of the time who do not appear to have ventured so far. Also interesting is the fact that the Mid-Ulster “murder triangle”, so named by Father Denis Faul, actually appears as the nexus of a much larger region of UVF operations stretching down into South Armagh and across into the border towns of the Republic. This area of activity is mirrored in the ’88-’94 campaign, excepting South Armagh and with the UVF making more forays into the IRA stronghold of east Tyrone, as will be discussed later.

The other standout feature of the ’71-’77 map is obviously the large number of bomb attacks carried out by the UVF across Northern Ireland as a whole and Belfast in particular. Well over a third and possibly as much as half of all UVF victims in this period died as a result of bombings. Although as can be seen the UDA/UFF were also bombing at this time, their offensive paled in comparison to that of their rivals (the extremely small number of deaths as a result of UVF bombs in the ’88-’94 period were not deemed statistically significant enough to be represented with a separate pictogram).

The basic differences in the structure of the UDA and UVF have been mentioned. Both groups organised themselves on British Army lines, as the IRA initially did, but there was considerable disparity in the implementation of this. The UDA comprised six organisational areas: West, North, East, and South Belfast; South-East Antrim; North Antrim & Londonderry. These “brigades”, led by an eponymous Brigadier, enjoyed a high degree of autonomy within the overall UDA heirarchy. Although often mocked for its inflated rank structure and military posturing, “brigade” is actually a fairly accurate title for the UDA’s component areas, at least in the 70s. When one considers that a military brigade typically consists of about 4000 to 5000 men, and that there were at least 5000 UDA men in east or west Belfast in 1972 or 73, the appelation does not look so grandiose. Brigades in turn would be made up of battalions, companies, and platoons in conventional military fashion. The brigadiers came together in the UDA’s executive body, the Inner Council, which for exactly 15 years from March 1973 to March 1988 was headed by Andy Tyrie as Chairman and Supreme Commander. Tyrie, replacing Jim Anderson, had come to the post almost by accident, a compromise candidate between Tommy Herron from east Belfast and Charles Harding Smith from the Shankill.

While by no means a figurehead, Tyrie was to an extent only nominally in control of the UDA; considerable power rested with the inner and outer councils and, most importantly, with individual brigade commanders. Individual units such as the Woodvale and Oldpark Defence Associations maintained their own distinct identity within the wider organisation even 20 years after the initial formation of the UDA. This fragmented command structure hampered strategic decision-making, which was further complicated by personality clashes that could develop between commanders. At times some UDA brigadiers were barely on speaking terms with each other. Initially the Inner Council was a large and unwiedly group, at one point comprising some 50 or so members, before being streamlined down to the area brigadiers and chairman. One representative would also be designated head of the UFF, the UDA’s operational arm. Contrary to the belief of some, it is not the case that all UDA men held dual membership in the UFF. Nothing could be further from the truth in fact, although it would be accurate to say all UFF men were members of the UDA, which is not the same thing. Hard as it is to comprehend 40 years later, the great majority of killings carried out by UDA/UFF operators in Belfast during ’72/’73 were the work of a very small number of men working in several highly active “teams” based in different areas of the city, and perhaps numbering no more than two dozen in total at any one time.

It was only natural that the highly militaristic UVF would adopt a structure based on the British Army, being as it was that many in its leadership had served in that army. In the early 1970s the organisation is known to have comprised three battalions, namely Belfast (1st), East Antrim (2nd), and Mid-Ulster (3rd), based on British Army lines. In later times seven battalions have been mentioned – North, South, East, and West Belfast, Mid-Ulster, East Antrim, and a little-mentioned North Ulster battalion. Like the UDA, smaller units existed in England and Scotland to provide financial and logistical support but, excepting the bombing of the Clelland and Old Barns pubs in Glasgow in 1979, these do not appear to have carried out any actions other than armed robbery and “procurement” operations.

Steve Bruce has noted “even the most senior UVF figures find it hard to talk consistently in the language of brigades, battalions, and companies”, and that “the command structure of the UVF seems to have been no tighter than that of the UDA”. This may be true to an extent in the first instance, as there appears to have been some confusion and inconsistency even in statements supplied by the organisation to the press, but there is no doubt that these operational groupings existed as coherent entities, whatever the designation used. There is no doubt also that the UVF controlling body, the “Brigade Staff”, was a more cohesive organism than the UDA’s Inner Council. Numbering a core of four to six men, with duties ranging from intelligence gathering, provost duties, and welfare matters, it more resembled the IRA’s Army Council than the Inner Council in that it was a separately-selected body dealing with “staff” matters. Management of day-to-day operational matters was left to the Lieutenant-Colonels leading the battalions. Ed Moloney has also mentioned the existence of a “Command Staff” comprising the Brigade Staff, battalion commanders, and representatives of the Red Hand Commando. While battalion commanders had some autonomy in planning operations, finance, and even weapons procurement (so as to limit the possibility of infiltration) they were expected to follow policy as decided upon by Brigade.

The public's first glimpse of the new UVF Brigade Staff, October 1974

The public’s first glimpse of the new UVF Brigade Staff, October 1974. Credit: Combat

While taking into account the militaristic language regarding “companies” and “brigades”, for practical purposes it can be assumed that the UVF organised its units in the manner best suited to carrying out a clandestine terror campaign, and in this sense the “wee teams” appraisal of Bruce seems to fit. The basic street-level operational unit of the UVF was the platoon, usually based out of and organised around a particular bar, club, or hall. David Ervine, interviewed by Wilson MacArthur for Boston College, described the organisation he joined in July 1972 as:

…broken up into what they described as units or teams and you would have only ever realistically known your own unit’s members, [but] of course, tittle-tattle again, a nod and a wink, you knew who others were in different teams. But in the main you kept to your own group, [and] they functioned and operated internal to themselves. Each unit had a Commander and they … liaised with a Battalion Commander who had … overall authority, but you wouldn’t have spent too much time in their company. I remember meeting in the back room of various bars, and there probably were no more, at any given time, than twenty of us.

All this gave the it a pseudo-cellular composition pre-dating the Provisional IRA’s restructuring into this model. As in all matters, secrecy played a strong role in deciding the makeup of the organisation.

The definition of the “pro-state paramilitaries” of the UDA and UVF as interpreted by Steve Bruce, Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen, has become virtually standard in analysis of the two organisations. Briefly, it holds that whatever their successes pro-state groups are inherently hampered by virtue of the fact that they exist in competition with the legitimate state forces who provide a legal outlet for those wishing to combat militant republicanism. These state forces cream off the best recruits while the paramilitaries are left with what amount to factory floor sweepings, with the inevitable consequences in terms of discipline and professionalism. This is not the sum of his definition but it is the central conceit.

There are some problems with this analysis however. Firstly, it presumes that those paramilitaries and state forces are mutually exclusive and excluding groups, when of course there have been a number of instances of dual membership. The UVF in particular made a point of both a) recruiting members of the locally-raised UDR and Territorial Army, and b) infiltrating these organisations with a view to gaining weapons and training. That the UVF was best placed, and more likely, to do this is an unsurprising consequence of its illegality, secretive nature, and militaristic mindset. In the case of the UDA, while nationalist campaigners have frequently charged that membership of the legal UDA was no bar to entry into the UDR, this was actually only the case for the first few years of the conflict. As its darker nature became revealed through the activities of the UFF such dual membership became unacceptable. Secondly, it fails to take into account the fact that many commanders and quite a few ordinary members of the UDA and UVF had served in the armed forces prior to beginning their paramilitary careers. The first three Brigadiers of the UVF had all served as regular soldiers, one in special forces, while Andy Tyrie was a former paratrooper in the Territorial Army. Indeed, it could be argued that veterans were more likely than the average citizen to become involved in the paramilitaries precisely because their military skills made them valuable to these groups. Bruce acknowledges this to an extent, but alleges that the ex-services personnel in the loyalist paramilitaries were “marginal characters” with “unsuccessful careers” that suggest personality problems. The problem with this statement is the inherent visibility bias whereby those most prone to detection are naturally likely to be the least successful. It is quite plausible that well-placed loyalist agents operated without detection for considerable periods of time within the UDR in particular, and that ex-services members of the paramilitaries were able to use their training and familiarity with military procedure to evade arrest and conviction. But since this means there is no way of measuring such penetration one cannot draw any conclusions, and it can only be classed as speculation.


[T]hose who did belong to the UDA firstly seen that loyalty to its own people i.e. the communities within Northern Ireland, the working class people – as defenders of those communities who were besieged by republican aggression. The Ulster Volunteer Force, on the other hand, see themselves firstly being loyal to the Crown and secondly to the Union and thirdly to the people. There is a difference in the analysis of the two organisations.

UDA member, Londonderry, 2005, quoted in Duck or Rabbit? The value systems of Loyalist paramilitaries by Lyndsey Harris

An important aspect of understanding organisations such as the UVF and UDA is the way in which those groups view themselves and by extension each other. There is no doubt that as a result of the greater historical import of the UVF name that that organisation has been more successful in shaping and managing its image. This connection has allowed it to capitalise on the legend of the 36th Ulster Division which fought so admirably at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War. Far from being an opportunistic and cynical exploitation, individuals and groups associated with the UVF genuinely prize this history and spend a considerable amount of time researching and commemorating those lost in the trenches of Belgium and France 100 years ago. The imagery of this period features heavily in UVF publications and street art, and its use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, however veterans of the British armed forces might feel about its appropriation, has become standard, even featuring in memorials to Protestant civilians killed in IRA pub bombings. Its use has also spread beyond the confines of the UVF family to the UDA. Well-known UVF songs, such as YCV Brigade, Gunrunners, Daddy’s Uniform, and the ballad Billy McFadzean, continue the historical theme. Opponents of the UVF have complained that the original UVF of 1912 bore no resemblance to the latter day organisation and that links, if any, are tenuous. In fact the connection – the “golden thread” as the British Army puts it – is slightly more solid than they might assume. The UVF was reactivated in 1920 in response to civil unrest (eventually forming the basis of the A, B, and C Specials) and a number of its former members were also active in the 1930s. In both these periods it carried out retaliatory violence against republicans and the minority community which in its character and MO were strikingly similar to the actions of the modern-day UVF.

The UDA is at an inherent disadvantage in lacking a historical predecessor with which to identify and draw inspiration from. Attempts by some in the organisation to find an antecedent in the Ulster Defence Union of the early 1890s have been met by a slightly mixed response from within. The UDU, formed in opposition to the Second Home Rule Bill, was constituted from the landed gentry in contrast to the working class origins of the UDA, although it shared with it the motto of “Quis Seperabit” (Who Shall Separate Us? or Who Will Come Between Us? depending on which translation you prefer). Where the UDA has been more successful is in the field of Ulster Nationalism and Ulster-Scots identity. Ulster independence proponents within the UDA admired the work of Dr Ian Adamson, a gynaecologist and sometime amateur historian, whose writings on the ancient Cruithin people were taken as a historical foundation for the forging of a new and wholly Northern Irish vision for the people of the province. Whatever its appeal, its vision for a culturally and politically distinct Ulster people, complete with its own flag – a red saltire on a dark blue background superimposed with a six-pointed star and Red Hand of the O’Neills – represented a coherent philosophy, however successful.

The militaristic mentality of the UVF also meant it could concentrate on building a warlike and “soldierly” image. It had a regulation outfit – black trousers, boots, black polo neck sweater, cap comforter, sunglasses, and most famously a black leather jacket – designed by Gusty Spence and which all volunteers were expected to possess, whereas the UDA left its individual units to cobble together some semblance of uniformity from army surplus (with 20 to 40 thousand members it could hardly have done otherwise). The UVF getup led to the UDA calling them “blacknecks”, while they were “Japs”, “Hair Bears”, or “Wombles” to the men in leather jackets, the latter name probably coming from the furry trim on the hoods of the parkas they favoured (though in the early days of the UVF the younger members often wore blue parkas as a sort of unofficial uniform).

The way in which the UVF conducted itself in Long Kesh played a significant role in perpetrating its martial ethos. The regime instituted by Long Kesh OC Gusty Spence drew heavily on his experiences from the British Army, introducing UVF prisoners to features of barracks life which would be familiar to any serviceman: bed packs, kit inspections, parade and muster call in full uniform, and regular drilling. Paramilitary authority was asserted by restricting access to the governor and prison doctor by permission of a commanding officer only. Even the names of the UVF compound huts – Saint Quentin, Thiepval, Mons, among others – harked back to the First World War, being titled after famous battles. Some prisoners resented the strict discipline imposed by Spence but many more enjoyed and took pride in it.

Uniformed UVF internees, faces censored by editor, in Long Kesh. Credit: Combat

Uniformed UVF internees, faces censored by editor, shown in illicit photograph by the “Phantom Photographer”. Smuggled out of Long Kesh. Credit: Combat


The message we were sending out to the IRA was quite clear: if we can’t get you, then we will get your nearest and dearest. We hit them where it hurt them most, their own families. In the early 1990s the IRA in east Tyrone began to hurt. They were now experiencing the same pain as they had inflicted on the Protestant community for years and they didn’t like a taste of their own medicine.

Billy Wright

“What do we do with taigs?”
“We spray them”

Johnny Adair and unnamed member of C Coy

In 1983 the RUC were able to claim of the “decimated” UVF and UDA “they had a lot of appeal early on, but responsible people have dropped out. There’s no real danger now […] we’re not too worried”. The UDA had largely abrogated terror in favour of community action and politics, while the UVF were embroiled in a series of temporarily but highly damaging supergrass cases. By the end of the decade however both groups would be rejuvenated and well on the road to becoming the dominant paramilitary presence in Northern Ireland, and for very different reasons. The collapse of the supergrass system and a collusion scandal were among those factors. And just as the reasons for the organisational revitalization of both the UVF and UDA differed, so too did the way in which their respective campaigns were carried out vary, while sharing broadly the same aims in their resurgent war against the republican movement. The dominant figures driving these two campaigns, Billy Wright and Johnny Adair, are central to understanding this war, as are the respective units they commanded, the Mid-Ulster UVF and C Company. More than that, in their own individual ways Wright and Adair embody the contrasts between the UVF and UDA as paramilitary entities.

Before delving into this it is important to describe the state of the conflict at this time. The Provisional IRA’s campaign continued in strength throughout Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It had successfully weathered the supergrass trials of the early and mid-80s and remained a sophisticated, well-armed threat to the state. It also drastically widened the list of what it considered “legitimate targets” to include:

[…] those in the Civil Service, fuel contractors, caterers and food contractors, transport, ie shipping and bus companies who ferry British soldiers and UDR men back and forth from Britain, cleaning contractors, those who supply and maintain vending machines and anyone else who takes on Ministry of Defence or Northern Ireland Office contracts.

This extraordinarily sweeping provision included people such as fruit & vegetable wholesaler Wallace McVeigh and lumber merchant John Haldane. In Haldane’s case he was not even directly connected to the security forces. He merely supplied materials to Henry Brothers, the Magherafelt construction company which undertook repairs of RUC and army bases and which itself had suffered several deaths at the hands of the East Tyrone IRA. This reclassification of who exactly constituted a “legitimate” target for the IRA is critical to understanding the resurgent loyalist campaign for it allowed them to greatly expand their own range of “legitimate” republican targets. Unprotected by the extensive security measures that republican activists equipped their homes with it was the families of these activists, rather than Sinn Fein, which really represented the soft underbelly of the republican movement, to the UVF in particular. The UDA meanwhile widened their criteria to include the SDLP, members of republican-linked taxi associations, and GAA and Irish language activists – all deemed members of the hated “Pan-Nationalist Front”.

At the same time the SAS and other special units of the security forces mounted ambushes on IRA ASUs in which the republicans invariably came off the worse. That the UDA and UVF would enjoy a second wind alongside this offensive by the forces of the state directly contradicts the theory of some, such as Steve Bruce, which holds that the level of loyalist violence rises and falls depending on the success of measures taken by the police and army against republicans.

By their actions and avowals the Provisional IRA largely set out the parameters and boundaries within which the war would be waged. The late 1980s was to see a change however as loyalists became proactive instead of reactive, and this time they were on many occasions able to successfully launch attacks on identified republicans.

The mere list of the dead does not adequately convey the frequency and extent to which members of the IRA, INLA/IPLO, Sinn Fein, and their families were being targeted by loyalists. It would be no overstatement to say that republicans were under constant attack from the UDA and UVF during this period. Neither Malcolm Sutton’s index of deaths nor Lost Lives records the great number of unsuccessful attacks which were carried out on high-profile targets such as Brendan Curran and Alex Maskey (shot by the UVF and UDA respectively), Colin Duffy, Sean Keenan, Eddie Copeland, Gerry Adams, Brendan Quinn, Hugh Torney, and many others at this time.

Some republicans experienced lucky escapes from their loyalist would-be assassins. Prominent Belfast IRA member Joe “The Hawk” Haughey, was ambushed by a four-man UVF team as he walked to his home in Unity Flats in the west of the city. Narrowly missed by the initial burst of gunfire, his attackers chased him into the complex where he succeeded in evading them, although not before being hit in the arm. It was just one of several attempts to kill Haughey in this period. Just prior to the killing of the Markets IRA commander Brendan Davison in July 1988 the UVF ambushed one of his comrades at Dunnes Stores. Their victim, a former INLA operator who had defected to the IRA and had been charged with the murder of a police reservist in one of the supergrass trials in the early 80s, miraculously survived despite being shot in the head and was one of the mourners at Davison’s funeral a few weeks later. Sinn Fein councillor John Joe Davey escaped death by running across a field near him home in Gulladuff in an attack for which Michael Stone was eventually charged (Davey was later killed by the UVF in February 1989). Liam Maskey survived being shot at his workplace by the UVF, who alleged he had played a part in the death of Norman McKeown, an employee at the same firm who was blown up by the IRA some months earlier. In other instances the security forces frustrated attempts to kill prominent republicans. A UFF unit dispatched to kill Brian Gillen was fired upon by the army and its members arrested, tried, and convicted, while the UVF’s bid to kill former internee Tony “Bootser” Hughes in Ardoyne was intercepted without the aid of gunfire leading to a similar result in court.

Some of these victims included former republican activists who have never been claimed by the IRA, such as newsagent Jim Brown, murdered by the UVF at his shop in April 1994. Years later Brown was named as an IRA commander in The Insider, the memoir of former IRA prisoner Gerry Bradley, a transgression which was seen by Sinn Fein and the IRA as tantamount to informing and for which Bradley suffered a form of community shunning, contributing to his eventual suicide in late 2010. Brown, a former internee who had spent part of the 1970s on the run, was killed two days after the UDA shot dead his friend Joe McCloskey, another ex-internee. Patrick Shields, a victim of the Mid-Ulster UVF along with his song Diarmuid, was named by Ed Moloney as having been a member of the IRA in the 70s.

1991 was militant loyalism’s “best” year in its campaign against the republican movement. Seven acknowledged members of the IRA/INLA/IPLO were killed by loyalists that year – six by the UVF and one by the UDA – and three members of Sinn Fein shot dead, all by the UDA, versus 21 victims with no connection to the republican movement. In other words, almost a third of militant loyalism’s victims that year were active republicans – 38% of UVF and 27% of UDA killings. To put these figures into context, the UVF and UDA killed roughly the same number of republicans in 1991 as they did in the entire five-year period of 1972 to 1977. This being noted, the fact that even now the majority of UVF and UDA victims remained Catholics with no connection to the republican movement cannot be avoided.

Sometimes they killed on the same day, such as on the 16th of August when Sinn Fein member and former IRA prisoner Thomas Donaghy was killed by the UDA. Later on, the UVF shot dead Martin “Rook” O’Prey, the OC of the IPLO in Belfast and a notorious gunman in his own right, at his home near Divis Flats. O’Prey has been characterised as an “enemy celebrity” to loyalists on the Shankill, and their visceral hatred for him was evident in the pages of Combat following his killing, which described him as the “Son of Satan […] put down by an Active Service Unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force like the rabid rat he was”.

Combat reported the death of Martin

Combat reported the death of Martin “Rook” O’Prey in its usual restrained style


In his Secret History of the IRA Ed Moloney is correct in writing that the IRA in East Tyrone invited the UVF onslaught through their attacks on Protestant workmen and off-duty or ex-members of the UDR, but the genesis of the campaign can also be traced to a tit-for-tat mini-war that the IRA and UVF in Belfast had been locked in since the killing of John Bingham in 1986. Although Bingham’s death was seemingly avenged with the assassination of senior IRA figure Larry Marley at his Ardoyne home six months later, the Provisionals soon retaliated by killing Robert Seymour, the East Belfast UVF gunman who in 1981 had shot dead IRA Northern Command Quartermaster and wife-killer James “Skipper” Burns in a highly-professional hit. According to one version of events, desperate to strike back in revenge for Seymour’s death but unsure of their targets, the UVF turned to UDA intelligence chief (and army agent) Brian Nelson, who gladly supplied the details of senior Markets IRA figure Brendan “Ruby” Davison, a man from a well-connected extended republican family. However, Davison had previously been imprisoned on the evidence of PIRA supergrass John Anthony Morgan and would therefore have been well known to UVF intelligence collectors. Whatever the facts, Davison was promptly killed by UVF gunmen disguised in stolen police uniforms, dying instantly from a 7.62x39mm bullet to the forehead when they fired a burst of automatic fire through his front door.


Brendan “Ruby” Davison

Once again, using a target list gleaned from the UVF supergrass trials, the IRA struck back. In March 1989 they killed 49yr old Jackie “Nigger” Irvine, shooting him 15 times at his flat in Skegoneill Avenue. Irvine, a former internee, had been one of the most senior UVF officers in the mid-70s but the organisation insisted that he had severed all links with them following his release from jail after a successful appeal against Joe Bennett’s evidence.


Jackie “Nigger” Irvine, killed by the IRA in 1989. Credit: Combat

Thereafter it became increasingly difficult to target republicans in the city. Faced with a round of mounting tit-for-tat assassinations, significant amounts of money were spent fortifying their homes with reinforced doors, roller shutters, drop bars, and lockable steel gates at the bottom of stairs. As a senior UVF officer said:

You couldn’t lie in Ardoyne in somebody’s garden waiting for a Provo to come. In Belfast it would have taken a JCB digger to break into certain Provo homes.

Attention therefore turned to republicans in rural areas. He continued:

But in the country it was easier, their houses were larger, harder to protect, and some of them lived in isolated communities.

IRA members in the country, like their UVF equivalents, were frequently more militant than their city compatriots and this also played a role in the decision to outflank the republican movement as UVF strategists predicted – correctly as it turned out – lingering opposition to any peace settlement from these quarters. South Armagh was out of the question: the Provisionals were simply too strong and in any case it was home to a massive security force presence. It was East Tyrone which would form the killing zone for the unit which would carry out much of the organisation’s violence in this period, the Mid-Ulster UVF.

In the 1970s the Mid-Ulster Battalion of the UVF had been one of its most active units. Extremely secretive, with valuable links to the local UDR (which it had thoroughly infiltrated), it was involved in some of the most notorious operations of the period, such as the massacre of the Miami Showband and the bombing of Dublin and Monaghan which was conceived and planned in Portadown. One recruit to the Mid-Ulster UVF in the 70s described his experience of joining up:

…at the time…like, you know they didn’t just allow me to become involved straight away. It was quite a number of months after I first expressed my interest […] they just didn’t accept people at (that) time purely just because they wanted extra numbers. And they probably had a closer look at me to see what was motivating me, and…you know, they were probably guarding against all sorts of thing, like infiltration and what not…and they eventually came back to me, and said was I still interested?

“Alan”, quoted in Walking Away from Terrorism

This man observed that it was several months between the time he first expressed interest in joining and when the UVF finally accepted his approach. Another recruit around this time was a teenager named Billy Wright. From a well-regarded Portadown family with a history of liberal, independent unionist politics, he would become infamous both as a result of his later activities and his appetite for publicity.

Billy Wright, 1991

Billy Wright, 1991

The UVF in mid-Ulster was largely inactive throughout the 80s, and by the time Wright took over was in a period of senescence. Wright himself had left the UVF for a period, got a job as an insurance salesman, and become a born-again Christian. It was apparently the death of Keith White, killed by an RUC baton round during rioting at a Portadown Apprentice Boys parade in early 1986, which prompted him to reactivate his association with the UVF. When exactly he became leader is unknown, but in January 1989 the UVF journal Combat carried a statement from Mid-Ulster declaring:

We have recently completed a thorough reorganisation process activating dormant Units and forming new ones. We are now numerically stronger as well as being better equipped and trained than at any time in the past.

Among the revitalised Mid-Ulster UVF’s operations in the early phase of the campaign were the killing of Phelim McNally, brother of Sinn Fein councillor Francie and IRA man Lawrence (killed at Loughgall), and an unsuccessful attack on Stewartstown republican Johnny Rushe who was shot in the leg whilst escaping across a field after being ambushed at his home. Rushe claimed that the man who shot him was a part-time member of the UDR. Next to die were Sinn Fein councillor John Davey, a veteran of the IRA’s Border Campaign, shot as he returned from a council meeting, and Liam Ryan, a native of New York and a senior figure in the Tyrone IRA, killed with a bystander at his pub on the shores of Lough Neagh. In October ’89 a unit from Mid-Ulster threw a stun grenade into the home of Brendan Curran’s parents, where he was staying at the time, and then opened up on him with a sub-machinegun. He survived with serious injuries.

Attacks continued throughout the next two years, with Sam Marshall and Tommy Casey joining the growing list of casualties. After Casey was shot the UVF said he had been killed for IRA activities, not his membership of Sinn Fein, a common allegation in its statements. In fact the killers had been waiting for two IRA men who were known to frequent the house where he was killed. The Mid-Ulster UVF’s most successful attack came on the night of 3rd March 1991 when three young men, John Quinn, Malcolm Nugent, and Dwayne O’Donnell, were shot dead in the solidly republican village of Cappagh, Co Tyrone, and in this case there was no doubt as to their status despite the disavowals of Sinn Fein and the IRA. As the three, along with one other man, drew up next to Boyle’s Bar the headlights of their Peugot car illuminated two men wearing boiler suits, gloves, balaclavas, and armed with Vz.58p assault rifles, standing in the road in front of them. Positioned in front and to one side of the car, they then opened fire. The only survivor of the attack described what happened:

I just looked up, like that, seen the balaclava, seen the gun and I knew there was something wrong and as I was going down the firing started. If I had been any slower I wouldn’t have been here to talk. And I went down and John tried to get reverse. Actually, he did get reverse. He only got back a couple of yards. As I was going I got hit and I lay on the flat floor, lay on it only for a lock of seconds and the whole thing was over. I was laying there, I didn’t know what was happening, it just only happened in a lock of seconds. The next thing all stopped. John shouted, ‘are you all right, are you all right?’. I said I was all right and he grabbed me, clasped my hand and that was it, that was him dead like, you know. I lay there. I don’t know how long. The engine was revving flat out. He was lying over the steering wheel. I can mind after it all stopped, the smell – the smell in the car was lethal.

Again, in spite of UVF claims, the men in the car were not the intended targets of the attack. In fact, their visit to Boyle’s was completely unplanned. The real aim that night was to kill Brian Arthurs, the IRA’s OC in the area, who was inside the pub with his wife. As it was one man inside, an innocent patron, was killed by a bullet fired into the building. It has been speculated that one of the gunmen recognised John Quinn, who stood out after losing all his body hair due to a blow to the head during a fight with members of the UDR. Either the shooters had very good information or one of them was himself a member of the UDR. Neither possibility is implausible.

The car driven by the young IRA men was riddled with bullets.

The car driven by the young IRA men was riddled with bullets.

Billy Wright lauded Cappagh as “a gem”, and not long after the attack he appeared on the Channel 4 “documentary” – really a semi-fictitious blend of rumours concerning the Mid-Ulster UVF, reportage on killings in the Armagh/Tyrone area, and the fabrications of Jim Sands – “The Committee”. Though he denied being in the UVF Wright’s decision to appear on the programme was imprudent to the point of foolishness. The unprecedented massacre of their personnel in such a supposedly safe area as Cappagh confronted the IRA with a problem they could no longer ignore. Just days after the killings Wright was informed by the RUC for the first time of a serious threat to his life from the IRA. Over the next four years there would be a number of attempts to kill him. In June 1992 in the Edgarstown area of Portadown a resident spotted two men placing an under-vehicle bomb with a mercury tilt-switch under Wright’s car and called the RUC who disarmed it. On another occasion in early 1993 a notorious IRA gunman and two other volunteers took over a house across the road from Wright’s home with the intention of shooting him. After almost two days Wright had still not appeared – he was on holiday at the time.

During the last few months in the lead-up to its ceasefire of August 1994 the IRA made a number of score-settling attacks on loyalists across Northern Ireland in which several members of the UDA and UVF were shot dead. Wright was one of its prime targets and in June it came closer than ever to killing him. While staying at his aunt’s house in the Brownstown estate in Portadown he became suspicious that his car, parked outside overnight, had been tampered with. The RUC were called and after an examination of the vehicle declared it safe. When Wright opened the door a booby-trap attached to the car exploded. The engine block was blown clear out of the car and Wright hit by shrapnel, but miraculously he survived. The PIRA claimed responsibility.

After Cappagh attacks on republicans continued. Sean Anderson, a former IRA OC, was killed by a UVF unit from Tyrone in October ’91. Although it had always carried out the usual random retaliatory killing of Catholics, the relatives of republican activists were now being picked off by the Mid-Ulster UVF. Sometimes this was unintended or unplanned: when it went to kill his sons, who it believed were both in the IRA and were wounded, Patrick Boyle was shot in circumstances which the subsequent UVF statement not very convincingly described as “unfortunate”. Diarmuid Shields was shot dead along with his father Pat, a former OC of the IRA in south Tyrone. Kevin and Jack McKearney, and Gerard and Rory Cairns were also killed for their familial links to republicans. Such incidents became increasingly bloodthirsty and callous. 76yr old Roseann Mallon had two nephews who were IRA members in the Tyrone area, and although in its statement the Mid-Ulster UVF stated it did not realise it was her when it opened fire at a figure through the window of her sister-in-law’s house this excuse does not stand up to scrutiny. She was not the only aged victim of the Mid-Ulster UVF. Charles and Tess Fox, aged 63 and 53, were killed at their home in Moy – they too were related to IRA activists. When the UVF killed 72yr old widower Sean Fox it made the bizarre claim that its members had posed as an IRA unit and been welcomed into his home for an hour before they decided to shoot him. Fox’s son had served 15 years for killing an RUC Reserve Constable. The onslaught against the families of republican activists by the Mid-Ulster UVF reached its dreadful apotheosis when 38yr old Kathleen O’Hagan was chased around her home by gunmen who had broken down the back door before being shot dead in front of four of her children. She was seven months pregnant at the time of her death. After this sickening act the killers left a 10 pence piece on her forehead, the significance of which (if any) remains unknown. Mrs O’Hagan’s brother and husband had both served prison sentences for IRA offences.

By the time of the ceasefires Billy Wright had become that strange contradictory creature – the famous UVF man. Other senior figures in the group coveted their anonymity and greatly disliked being named in the media, and expected others to behave likewise. As the organisation likes to say, “those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know”. Wright however was regularly appearing in the Sunday tabloids as the pseudonymous “King Rat”, leader of the “Mid-Ulster Rat Pack”. Although said to despise the name he was rumoured to have endorsed it by having a rat wearing a crown tattooed on his arm, something Belfast leaders privately mocked him for. He also sailed close to the wind in his relationship with the press, occasionally giving statements on loyalist matters and praising this or that operation without actually admitting involvement, as in his Channel 4 appearance. That people might wonder exactly why the press would be so eager to seek out the opinion of an otherwise unremarkable Portadown greengrocer does not appear to have concerned Wright. In his private life he was conservative, shunning alcohol, drugs and cigarettes (though he later financed his operations through dealing ecstasy, or rather by “taxing” others who did). Although polite and articulate in TV interviews, he unavoidably presented as a dead-eyed, emotionless killer, one who claimed he was “immune to fear”. He rarely swore, did not embark on affairs, and was fond of littering his conversations with pious utterances like “God bless you”. Although he said that through his actions in the UVF he was “walking with the devil”, on the wall of his home hung a religious nicknack which blandly declared:

Jesus’ name is sweet in every ear


A young Johnny Adair pictured with future fellow C Company comrade Sam

A young Johnny Adair pictured with future fellow C Company comrade Sam “Skelly” McCrory, right

Johnny Adair would no more have adorned his walls with such decoration than he would have with the Stations of the Cross. A very different character from Wright, he equalled him in notoriety, and fondness for it, if little else (Wright would certainly never have entertained the idea of getting his nipples pierced for one thing). From 1988 to 1991 the UVF took the lead in loyalist killings. Throughout the next two years though it was the UDA which was in ascendance. In no small part this leap in UDA activity can be attributed to the rise of Johnny Adair. Adair’s actions were not merely restricted to his home territory of the lower Shankill or indeed West Belfast, for he traveled to UDA units across Northern Ireland giving encouragement, building support for operations, and urging on the younger and more active members of the organisation. The steep drop-off in UDA/UFF activity in 1994, when they were out-killed by the UVF by over 2:1, can plausibly be linked to his arrest in the early part of the year on a charge of directing terrorism.

Although the UFF also killed Catholics because of their family links to republicanism, they did not do so in highly concerted manner that the UVF did. Robert Shaw, a sickly 56yr old shot by the UDA as he sat in his van on the shores of Belfast Lough, was killed due to the associations of his son, well-known Larne republican Bertie Shaw. Teresa Clinton and Sean Lavery were the wife and son respectively of Sinn Fein councillors. Its campaign was distinguished by the alternation of well-directed attacks against confirmed IRA and Sinn Fein targets with random, unapologetically sectarian killings and mass murder. These acts were not mindless, as some commentators dismiss them. Rather the UDA genuinely believed (and still does) that by responding to IRA violence with a greater and more terrible violence of its own it could inflict such pain on the ationalist/republican community that the IRA and Sinn Fein would be forced to sue for peace. They view the ceasefire of late August 1994 as evidence of effectively just that. This conclusion is unsupportable given our knowledge of the multiple forces at work within the republican movement which pushed it to a ceasefire position – state infiltration, general war-weariness, political ambitions in the south, and the theories of Adams as eventually codified in the “TUAS” paper – but there is no doubt that the actions of the UDA/UFF and the loyalist offensive in general lent a considerable hand. The republican movement had already decided to jump: the UDA gave an helping shove.

What cannot be disputed is the effect its violence had on the nationalist community, particularly in north and west Belfast. At the height of C Coy’s killing spree some Catholic families in Ardoyne took to sleeping in their cars rather than take the chance that their front door would be the one receiving the attentions of the sledgehammer that night. To understand how such a situation came to be it is necessary to analyse what led to the resurgence of the UFF, which throughout the 1980s was barely active, and the way in which it differed from the UVF’s comeback.

The UVF campaign of ’88-’94 had relatively straightforward origins. Firstly, the Anglo-Irish Agreement had triggered a surge of recruitment and re-enlistment. At the same time the supergrass trials collapsed, releasing a number of experienced and militant activists into a loyalist community seething with anger at the AIA. One of them, John Bingham, was widely held responsible for promptly ordering a series of random killings throughout north Belfast. Bingham was then killed by the Provisional IRA in defenderist mode. The UVF retaliated, the IRA struck back, a cycle of tit-for-tat began which the Mid-Ulster UVF opted into.

In the case of the UDA, several factors were at work. In early March 1988 Andy Tyrie was forced out of his post as chairman of the UDA, which he had held for a remarkable 15 years. His demise was followed by the introduction of collective leadership in the UDA, with each of the six brigadiers assuming equal standing. The loss of the UDA’s share of the Lebanon shipment, covered previously, led to further disquiet and was probably a factor in the ousting of Tyrie. A special edition of ITV’s The Cook Report exposed racketeering (often for self-gain) and extortion at the very top of the UDA. Additionally, the killing of John McMichael by the IRA just before Christmas 1987 was a severe blow to the organisation as his death left the UDA without a strong central politico-military leader. McMichael’s legacy would prove pivotal however. In 1985 he had formed the Ulster Defence Force, a training cadre intended to nurture and instruct the men who would hopefully go on to become the UDA’s future leadership. Although resented by some senior figures who, rightly, saw it as a potential threat, it would become more successful than McMichael could ever have hoped. Its recruits were trained in weapons handling, intelligence gathering, and other appropriate skills by former British soldiers. Additionally, the experience of former prisoners and lessons of failed operations was taken on board with regard to forensic “hygiene” and other means of evading detection. UDA men on “jobs” would in future wear surgical gloves underneath woolen ones to avoid leaving fingerprints, stuff their ears with cotton wool and wear nose-clips to keep out firearms discharge residue which could be detected by police sampling kits, and destroy any possible evidence afterwards. This instruction greatly increased the professionalism and effectiveness, so often lacking in the past, of the recruits who received it.

The collective leadership which took over after Tyrie was ousted did not impress these men or other younger UDA members. They were seen as has-beens, racketeers, and “auld ginnies” who had got rich through building site and gaming machine fraud while doing nothing about the IRA threat. Mo Courtney, a member of C Coy, described the situation to Peter Taylor:

We (had) got all the men but there was a lot of frustration about. The hierarchy people upstairs seemed to be holding us back. They were holding the reins. They didn’t want the bombings and the shootings. It just seemed to be, ‘Just let things go. Let things settle down.’ Whereas the young ones wanted to go and start killing republicans.


We were actually out planning this or planning that as a potential [target] to attack […] we weren’t getting the OKs at all.

The collective leadership would not last long, however. An editorial on The Cook Report in Ulster magazine in October 1987 had said:

Cook did not finish the UDA, as he was supposed to. On the contrary, it may well be the catalyst that regenerates the UDA…

The writer could not have known how prophetic his words were, but not quite in the way he perhaps intended.

The number of UFF operations did increase in 1988 and ’89, but the more militant members were limited in the pressure they could exert from below. Their chance came through a scandal which illustrated just how incompetent and complacent the UDA leadership had become. In response to their killing of Loughlin Maginn, which was criticised as a random sectarian murder, West Belfast brigadier Tucker Lyttle pasted up photocopies of Maginn’s “P” or “Personality” Card on walls across Belfast. P-Cards were the documents used by the security forces to keep soldiers and policemen on the ground informed of persons of interest, and Maginn’s one showed that he was “heavily traced”, meaning that he was in regular contact with PIRA members and haunts. The UDA had received thousands of such papers through their chief of intelligence, Brian Nelson, who was a long-standing agent for the army’s Force Research Unit. To cut a long story short, Lyttle’s actions triggered a huge collusion scandal resulting in the arrest of him, Nelson, and a number of other senior
UDA leaders. The leadership of the UDA was effectively decapitated, leaving a vacuum which the younger and more belligerent faction soon filled. Far from bringing it to its knees, the Maginn affair ironically led to the revitalisation of the UDA.

Nelson had been inserted into the UDA by the FRU for the purpose of improving its intelligence-gathering and targeting capability, with the intention that he would direct its attacks against known republicans only. In this respect he failed. Despite Nelson’s access to quality intel on IRA members the organisation’s operations in 1987-1990 were no more discriminating than in the past. There were more of them, but then loyalist violence of all kinds had greatly increased following the AIA. In January 1988 it even shot dead a UDR captain, Timothy Armstrong, as he walked down the Ormeau Road in the belief he was a Catholic. Either Nelson was a poor intelligence chief or the UDA leadership were incapable or unwilling to exploit his files, which would not be unlikely given that a number of them were long-standing informers for rival branches of the intelligence services. The UFF’s sole success in these years was the shooting of Gerard Casey, an IRA commander in north Antrim. However, after the removal of Nelson and the old guard UFF operations rapidly became more professional, and more importantly increasingly successful in targeting republicans.

In a later article in one of its official magazines the UDA acknowledged the strife it had experienced throughout this period:

The past five to six years have probably been the most turbulent in the twenty year history of the Ulster Defence Association. A less resolute organisation would have capitulated amidst allegations of widespread corruption within its ranks. Allegations which were made not only by outside observers but also by members within the organisation who could see Ulster’s last line of defence being sold down the river by men who had a greater interest in their pockets, and own welfare, than they had in fighting republicans and protecting our country. By the mid 1980s the criminal activities of so-called Loyalists within the UDA had begun to surface amidst allegations of widespread extortion and corruption.These so-called Loyalist/UDA men were not great in numbers but were in prominent enough positions to be able to safeguard their own interests, provided they were careful in their activities.


[following McMichael’s death] the UDA’s credibility slipped further in the public eye as the corrupt leadership ran riot in their activities knowing that they no longer had to worry about John McMichael breathing down their necks. What they failed to recognize was that John’s support within the rank and file of the UDA ran very deep and his principles were also their principles. Most volunteers put Ulster and John McMichael first and were more interested in fighting the IRA than lining their pockets. They were prepared to remove the gangsters and reorganize.

The UDA/UFF campaign against republicans got off to a later start than their UVF rivals, but the first signs of it appeared outside of Belfast in the summer of 1991. On the 25th May a four-man UFF team from Lisburn crossed into Buncrana, Co Donegal, shot dead Sinn Fein councillor Eddie Fullerton, and quickly escaped back across the border. The IRA retaliated a month later when it shot dead Cecil McKnight through the window of his home in the Waterside area of Derry. The IRA at this time was in possession of Garda intelligence documents on suspected loyalist activists in the Derry area, which quite possibly allowed them to target him. Some of these files were hopelessly inaccurate, but McKnight was a brigadier in the UDA as well as being a member of the UDP. His death was witnessed first-hand by a police inspector and constable who were questioning him at the time but who, for whatever reason, did not return fire at his killer. The loss of McKnight was a blow to the UDA in the city, but if the IRA believed it would hinder its offensive it was quickly proven wrong. Padraig O’Seanachain, a member of both the IRA and Sinn Fein, was shot dead by a UFF sniper near Killen, Castlederg a he traveled to work on the 12th August. Less than a week later Thomas Donaghy, a member of Sinn Fein and a former republican prisoner, was shot dead as he arrived for work at the Portna Eel Fishery near Kilrea. Donaghy was the last acknowledged republican activist to be killed by the UDA/UFF in 1991, but he would not be the last in their campaign, which was in fact only beginning. Nor would republicans be alone in finding themselves in the sights of a resurgent UDA as the organisation drastically widened its own definition of “legitimate targets”.

Early in April 1992 the UDA’s New Ulster Defender magazine carried an article titled “The UDA: a Young Man’s View” in which an anonymous activist expressed “my views on the present troubles and on the UDA itself”. As well as the usual anti-republican rhetoric the writer reserved a considerable amount of hostility for the “English government”, who he said were “only too willing to see a people and a country destroyed rather than take on this scum [the IRA] that murder their own kith and kin”. Such sentiments were common amongst UDA activists, some of whom were ambivalent about the link with Britain and still considered a form of independence to have advantages. The author also spoke of the large number of young recruits “flooding” into the UDA, and a feeling of renewed confidence within the group, finishing:

The one certainty to come out of the last twenty two years is that there will never be peace in Ulster unless republicans get a taste of their own medicine. Throughout last year this was proven with calls for peace coming from top republicans after one of their own was killed, be he an active IRA terrorist, or a Sinn Fein councillor.

Having stated the views of the young men of the Ulster Defence Association I can only conclude in one way: the young men of  the UDA wish the Inner Council a good year and hope it will be as successful as the last, and we warn the Republicans (Republicans everywhere) from young and old in the UDA, prepare for the worst, for we will do our best!

Teenagers being sworn into the Ulster Young Militants, 1989. Credit: Ulster/New Ulster Defender

Teenagers being sworn into the Ulster Young Militants, 1989. Credit: Ulster/New Ulster Defender

Thus was neatly summed up the UDA’s mission statement for 1992. The first major UFF action came on the 5th of February in retaliation for the IRA’s killing of eight Protestant workmen, blown up in their van at Teebane, Co Tyrone three weeks earlier. Tragically, the company they worked for – Karl Construction – had been named for owner Cedric Blackbourne’s son, 19yr old Karl Blackbourne, who was one of three RUC men shot dead in their patrol car in Newry by the IRA in 1986. The UFF decided to avenge the workmen’s deaths with the killing of five Catholics, mown down inside Sean Graham’s Bookmakers by two gunmen armed with a Vz.58p and a Browning 9mm. 44 shots were fired in total, the dead ranging in age from 15 years to 66. As the killers left, they shouted “remember Teebane”.

Just as tit-for-tat pub bombings had come to represent the callousness of the conflict in the 1970s, the “spray job” became emblematic of the vicious nature of the resurgent loyalist campaign in the late 80s and early 90s. Without access to explosives or the expertise to use them, it was the only way the UFF could inflict maximum damage and hurt on the nationalist community. The tactic was brutally uncomplicated: armed men would simply walk into a public place where Catholics gathered and open fire on them. The UDA/UFF was responsible for almost all of these incidents, with the IPLO on the republican side also carrying out several attacks on Protestant bars. The attack on the Avenue Bar by the UVF in May 1988 is often held to be the first of such events, but in reality it was somewhat different. Two UVF men had gained entry to the pub looking for Joe Haughey and an associate who will not be identified. Eyewitnesses spoke of how the men seemed nervous and appeared to be looking for someone, checking the corners and even the bar’s toilets. Patrons soon realised that two loyalists were in their midst. Reports of what happened next are conflicting: at some point customers pelted the men with bottles and glasses and the loyalists opened fire, killing three young nationalists with no connection to the IRA.

The most notorious of the spray jobs, the October 1993 attack by the Londonderry Brigade of the UDA on the Rising Sun lounge in Greysteel, Co Derry, in retaliation for the horrific IRA bombing of Frizell’s fishmonger on the Shankill, was for many in Northern Ireland one of the lowest points of a conflict studded with tragedies. Yet the name “spray job”, suggesting an almost casual, spur of the moment act, is an inapt description of the attack. In reality it was a professionally-executed, meticulously-rehearsed act of mass murder.

Shortly before 10pm on Saturday, 30th October, UFF members Stephen Irwin and Geoffrey Deeney walked into the lounge of the Rising Sun bar. Deeney, armed with a 9mm pistol, was first to enter and he remained by the entrance to cover Irwin, who was carrying a Vz58 assault rifle and was the main shooter. Irwin approached an elderly man and asked him “trick or treat?”, prompting laughter from several patrons. Almost immediately afterwards he opened fire. The shooting was not wild: each of the victims was systematically picked out and fired upon in an accurate and methodical manner. Eight were killed in total: seven at the scene, and one later. It is worth noting the pathologist’s report detailing the fatal wounds suffered by 20yr old Stephen Mullan as testimony to the carnage wrought and the devastating effects of high-velocity bullets on the human body:

…a bullet had entered the front of the abdomen and had passed to the left lacerating the liver, the stomach, the spleen and the left kidney before making its exit on the left flank. Another bullet had entered the right side of the back and had passed upward lacerating the right lung before making its exit on the front of the right shoulder.  The combined effect of these injuries caused his rapid death.

Far from being a reckless, unplanned event, the attack on the Rising Sun was the subject of painstaking planning and rehearsal. The escape route was plotted and noted beforehand, weapons test-fired, clothing and equipment gathered, drop-off points and safe-houses selected. The gunmen even visited the bar prior to the attack to make notes regarding its layout, down to the size of the booths and height of barstools, which they mapped out and were subsequently quizzed on.

Such incidents became the hallmark of the new, more militant UFF leadership and specifically Johnny Adair. In November 1992 a gun and grenade attack on another bookmakers, in Oldpark, left three dead. Five were wounded in Brian Graham’s bookmakers in North Queen Street in February 1993. Many more would have been killed and injured had the attacker’s assault rifle not jammed. On the 6th October 1993 one man was killed and another injured when a pub in Twinbrook was raked with gunfire. The UVF largely avoided the tactic although it made a late entry into the field with the brutal and pointless killing of six men at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland in June ’94.

Alternated with these mass shootings were the randomly-selected killings of nationalists that frequently involved home invasions at the point of a sledgehammer. Ardoyne and New Lodge were areas that saw a particular increase in incidents of this kind. The increasing violence emanating from the organisation led Secretary of State Peter Mayhew to take the step nationalists had been calling on successive governments to take for 20 years. On the 10th August 1992 the UDA was finally bannned. In practise this was little more than a publicity move: prisoners aid groups changed their names, fundraising tactics altered slightly, but no operational damage was suffered by the UDA. Indeed, some even welcomed the ban. As an editorial in New Ulster Defender put it:

…history shows clearly that proscribing organizations does nothing to reduce their support or their ability to operate. Indeed many experts suggest that the opposite is the case. So it can be said that the ban will suit the UDA in many ways…

1992 was also the year when the UFF got into its stride in pinpointing and killing republicans. Danny Cassidy (an election worker for Sinn Fein candidate Pauline Davey Kennedy), Leonard Fox, and Malachy Carey were all shot dead as the UFF began to overtake the UVF as the most active loyalist group. Tony Butler and Peter Gallagher were killed early the next year as UFF attacks assumed an ever greater intensity. Alan Lundy, an IRA and Sinn Fein activist, was killed while renovating the home of his friend Alex Maskey. Maskey, who had survived a previous UDA murder bid which left him with permanent injuries, survived by barricading himself in the toilet. The UFF also carried out a number of rocket attacks on republican bars and Sinn Fein offices, while at the end of July 1992 it launched a gun and grenade assault on the Distillery Walk premises used by the IRSC, the political wing (such as it was) of the IPLO. The building was unoccupied at the time.

Just a day after Gallagher was gunned down a van containing five men drew up at a building site in Gortree Park in Castlerock, Co Derry. Two UFF gunmen leapt out and riddled the van with bullets. Four of the occupants were killed, a fifth seriously wounded. One of the first policemen on the scene described how:

…you could tell two of them were dead as soon as we got there. I did what I could for the injured until the ambulances arrived, though one of the men looked really bad.

Although initially all four men were described as the victims of another random UFF shooting, the IRA were forced to admit that one, 25yr old James Kelly, was their OC in the area. The UFF already knew it and were jubilant:

We have the arms, the information and more than enough volunteers and the dedication is most certainly there as well. It is a terrible thing that anyone should lose their lives, but if you are talking in terms of success rates, yes, this week has been a success, and it’s still only Thursday.

Johnny Adair was not solely responsible for the upswing in UFF activity during the early 90s, but his role was a significant one. After coming to prominence among the West Belfast UFF in 1991 – largely through force of personality and brass neck rather than formal procedure – he was a key figure in several respects. For instance, he organised the re-equipping of a number of units, buying and swapping guns, and obtaining a number of assault rifles, pistols, and rockets from Ulster Resistance after the UDA had lost their share of the 1987 shipment. Along with other militants like Alec Kerr he was critical in maintaining support for a rapid tempo of “ops”. The month leading up to the Frizells bombing saw a UFF shooting at least once every two days, and it is believed the IRA outrage was a direct attempt to halt the seemingly unstoppable onslaught Adair and the West Belfast UFF were unleashing on nationalist north Belfast. Even if Adair could have forseen such a consequence – and foresight was not one of his gifts – it is debatable whether it would have mollified him. His devotion to the “war effort” was utterly single-minded and unswerving. He was determined to show not just the IRA but also the UVF – who he at once admired and detested – that the UDA were a force to be reckoned with.

Adair was conscripted into the UDA as a teenage hoodlum, but forced enlistment was anathema to the UVF and went against its selective, elitist ideals. Billy Wright entered the organisation freely as a teenager and returned to it as an adult of his own free will. It is hard to picture Adair as a UVF man. He would have had little time for its conservative, authoritarian, centralised leadership, and the tighter power structures would have provided him less opportunity for advancement. Its sombre, soldierly, and disciplined self-image would have held no appeal for him and would have been hard to reconcile with his and his followers brazenly sectarian view that “any Taig would do” (although there would possibly have been some in the UVF who agreed). Adair and Wright are known to have met on several occasions but accounts of their regard for each other vary. What is certain is that Wright greatly disliked Adair, viewing him as reckless and unstable, but the UDA man’s views on his Portadown counterpart are at odds depending on which report one reads. In some, Adair regarded Wright with something close to hero-worship. In others he admired yet resented him. The campaigns unleashed by both men – one rural, one urban – differed in a number of respects but were each terrifying in their own way.

The main areas of UDA activity were rural County Derry, west and north Belfast. Although Adair’s C Company has assumed near-legendary status, the South Belfast and Londonderry UFF were highly active too. Whether or not Adair was actually officially the leader of the UFF throughout this period is not particularly important, for he was certainly the dominant military figure in the UDA during the early 90s. Much UVF violence, and that which most successfully targeted republicans and those around them, took place in north Armagh and east Tyrone. That is not to say the UVF in the capital were inactive, not in the least. The Belfast men were responsible for perhaps the most significant and far-reaching of all loyalist killings in the resurgent campaign, the 1992 killing of Sheena Campbell. Campbell, shot dead at the bar of the York Hotel, was an intelligent and highly able Sinn Fein activist who had devised the party’s very effective “Torrent” system of election canvassing which remains in use today. Had she lived, it is likely she would have occupied one of the most senior posts in Sinn Fein…it is not hard to imagine her in Mary Lou McDonald’s role as party Vice-President.


When in March this year PUP leader Billy Hutchinson gave an interview to the Newsletter in which he made rash and ill-advised remarks regarding his paramilitary past in the UVF he was roundly condemned for his comments by virtually every commentator who could reach for their pen fast enough. On the face of it they were correct to do so. His justifications were crass, blundering, and insensitive, but we should be careful not to let them obscure other facts. Although clearly in need of briefing and media training, it should be remembered that without Hutchinson’s work liaising with republicans, at a time when such activity presented a very real and physical risk, the CLMC ceasefire of 1994 would almost certainly not have come about.

What was more striking was the way in which the furore illustrated how most commentators view the legacy of the UVF and UDA campaigns. Hutchinson’s assertion that loyalist violence helped prevent a united Ireland was treated as prima facie ludicrous. Indeed the very notion that the UVF, an organisation with hundreds of members, a political wing with elected representatives, an estimated annual turnover (in the early 90s) of £1.5 to £2 million a year, and an arsenal of thousands of guns, could have an influence on anything was viewed with outright scorn. And yet not one of those pundits, if asked to, would surely deny the political consequences of the Provisional IRA campaign. They have been too closely scrutinised, and to interminable length, for that to occur. People can even acknowledge the political consequences of disorganised violence, such as street crime, football hooliganism, and riots but not, it seems, the organised and politically-motivated violence of armed loyalism.

Another almost universal response to Hutchinson’s comments regarding the prevention of a united Ireland was to point out that the great majority of UVF and UDA victims were not members of the IRA but Catholic civilians. This is of course correct, but the implication, intended or otherwise, was that because loyalists were not (for most of the conflict at least) effective in attacking the IRA they couldn’t have prevented such an eventuality. The IRA, therefore, were the arbiters of Ulster’s destiny, and through their violence had the ability to bring about a united Ireland. Yet in spite of what certain republicans might still think, a 32-county solution was only going to come about with the cooperation and participation of the southern government, and by the early 90s the structure of the peace process reflected a de facto admission of this by the leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA. Accepting that, the UVF and UDA presented therefore presented a hostile foreign body a united Ireland would not have been capable of absorbing, except without grevious and permanent discomfort. Indeed, the UDA publicly declared that in the event of a united Ireland it would go to ground and act as “the IRA in reverse”. Put simply, the government of the south were always fearful of the UDA and UVF and the potential violence they could unleash throughout the island. Sometimes the violence was more than potential, as in the case of the terrible bombings of Dublin and Monaghan.

In spite of their estimation of their own role in the conflict the UVF and UDA did not defeat the IRA. The entire British state forces in Northern Ireland did not, and indeed by their own admission could not, defeat them. What the security forces did accomplish was to contain and to a large extent suppress IRA violence to an “acceptable” level in order to allow a political solution to develop.

Because so much loyalist violence was random most commentators dismiss it as politically irrelevant. They do not want to contemplate its real political consequences because the moral questions involved are so uncomfortable. For those who wish to remain socially acceptable dismissing the notion that loyalist killings prevented a united Ireland is their only available option, for to confront merely the possibility that they did raises implications that are too awful for most to contemplate. No one wants to be the one to say that that killing, in certain circumstances, works. It is, after all, a horrendous thing to acknowledge. The activities of the UVF and UDA therefore exist in an analytical vacuum. We should be very clear here: any group which decides upon premeditated mass murder as a tool of change has mortgaged decency and morality in favour of political gain. The spectre of IRA killings continues to haunt Sinn Fein, particularly in the Republic, and will do so for some time to come. Yet as long as the UVF and UDA remained a threat Dublin would not countenance any development which entailed hosting that threat. In this sense, and in spite of their differences and general failure to co-operate, they proved a definite obstacle to a united Ireland.


The Red Hand, Steve Bruce (1992), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-285256-6
Gusty Spence, Roy Garland (2000), The Blackstaff Press, ISBN 0-85640-698-8
Loyalists, Peter Taylor (2000), Bloomsbury, ISBN 0-7475-4519-7
Forward to the Past? Interpreting Contemporary and Future Loyalist Violence, Peter Shirlow & Rachel Monaghan (2011)
UVF, Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald (2000), Poolbeg, ISBN 1-85371-687-1
Inside the UDA: Volunteers and Violence, Colin Crawford (2003), Pluto Press, ISBN 978-0745321066
UDA, Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald (2005), Penguin
Lost Lives, David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton (1999), Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 1-84018-504-X
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Ulster’s Uncertain Defenders, Sarah Nelson (1984), The Appletree Press Ltd, ISBN 0-904651-89-3
Duck or rabbit? The value systems of Loyalist paramilitaries, Lyndsey Harris (2008), in “Irish Protestant Identities”, Manchester University Press
The Option of a “British Withdrawal” from Northern Ireland: An Exploration of its Meaning, Influence, and Feasibility, Adrian Guelke & Frank Wright, Journal of Conflict Studies, Volume 10, issue 4, 1990
Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein, Peter Taylor (1998), Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-0747538189
UVF: An Anatomy of Loyalist Rebellion, 1966-73, David Boulton (1973), Gill & MacMillan, ISBN 978-0717106660
The Northern Ireland Troubles: Operation Banner 1969-2007, Aaron Edwards (2011), Osprey Publishing, ISBN 978-1849085250
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
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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
Crimes of Loyalty, Ian S Wood (2006), Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0748624270
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Loyalist Disaffection and their Understanding of the Strategic Environment in Northern Ireland, Lyndsey Harris (2006), prepared for The Junction, Londonderry/Derry
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Thanks also to all Twitter subscribers who have provided feedback and suggestions.

Loyalist Paramilitary Improvised Machine Guns

I will write on the topic of loyalist weaponry in the near future, but in the meantime this fascinating look at improvised loyalist sub machineguns was posted on another blog a few years ago…

Below are some examples of homebuilt submachine guns utilizing standard square section and round tubing. The urgent and crude look of these weapons lend themselves quite fittingly to a post apocalyptic anarchic underworld setting, would they not?. Information indicates that these were retrieved by police while investigating loyalist paramilitary groups in Northan Ireland.

loyalist improvised machinegun 1 - amodestpublicationloyalist improvised machinegun 2 - amodestpublicationloyalist improvised machinegun 3 - amodestpublicationHomebuiltSMG loyalist improvised machinegun 4 - amodestpublicationloyalist improvised machinegun 5 - amodestpublication

The submachine gun shown in this UVF training session video seems to be identical to the square section type.

The following information is from an old newsgroup post dated 28 Feb 1999. It seems that this dexterous bunch of gunsmiths were stamping serial numbers onto their works.

#I was watching a documentary on the IRA the other day, and it showed a meeting
#of one of the other paramilitary groups being taught how to shoot what looked
#like a home-made SMG. Can anyone verify or deny this? Are there any web
#resources/books discussing how the terrorist groups…

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