Tagged: Gusty Spence

“Why Are You Here Son?”, 16th October 2015: a review


“Lock-up C-wing!”

These words, spoken by an actor in period prison officer costume, opened Why Are You Here, Son?, held within the foreboding confines of Crumlin Road Gaol’s old chapel on the night of 16th October. A capacity audience of some 250 filed in to the strains of a live acoustic performance of Johnny McEvoy’s You Seldom Come to See Me Anymore to take their seats for the event, a co-production between the ACT Initiative, Ex-Prisoners Interpretive Centre, and REACH (Renewing, Engaging, Advancing Community Hopes). Timed to coincide with the 21st anniversary of the CLMC ceasefire, and in the belief that “the significance of former political prisoners in the implementation of the ceasefires and the subsequent Good Friday Agreement cannot be ignored”, the event sought to “present a collection of experiences, thoughts, and emotions from those who were incarcerated”.

EPIC director Tom Roberts introduced proceedings, paying tribute to the efforts of ACT co-ordinator Dr William Mitchell in organising the event, and dedicating the night to those Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando prisoners who died while in prison. Noting that the UVF and RHC prison experience has often been overlooked compared to the republican version, Roberts commented upon the profound nature of the question that gave the event its title. Every UVF and RHC volunteer who found himself in Long Kesh during the years when Gusty Spence was OC was asked this question by Spence upon his arrival. Spence was interested not in the offence they had been convicted of, but rather the personal motivations of the mostly young men who found their way into the compounds:

[…] he wanted to understand why I was in the prison and what beliefs had taken me there. I found it an arrogant question and yet it was a question that began to unlock a door to a different idea. He was confronting my attitudes and was forcing me to question why.

David Ervine, interviewed by Roy Garland

PUP prisons spokesman Ken Wilkinson introduced the next speaker, Bobby Rodgers. A former RHC life sentence prisoner whose incarceration took in the H-Blocks, Long Kesh compounds, Magilligan, Maghaberry, and Crumlin Road itself, Rodgers is also a highly experienced youth worker of over 20 years standing. An engaging speaker, he began his talk with a history of Crumlin Road Gaol – grimly noting the 17 hangings carried out there – leading into a contextualisation of the social and political turmoil of the late 1960s which led ultimately to the conflict and the imprisonment of an estimated 5000 to 10000 loyalists. From seeing as a 13yr old in the Village graffiti proclaiming “Gusty Spence is innocent”, he recalled the “overwhelming sense of lawlessness”, paramilitary mass recruitment, and continual arrests which saw Crumlin Road “fit to burst” with political prisoners. He went on to recount often overlooked episodes from those early days such as escapes by Tommy Cull and Danny Strutt, and the sabotaging of the gaol laundry and cookhouse by loyalists during protests.

Rodgers stated that while not all UVF/RHC prisoners appreciated the strictly regimented system put in place by Spence within Long Kesh, he believes “it was the best system for prisoners doing long sentences”. Magilligan, situated on a bleak peninsula jutting out into Lough Foyle, operated under a far more relaxed – perhaps too relaxed? – regime. His talk concluded with reflections on those prisoners detained on indeterminate sentences due to their youth (“Secretary of State’s Pleasure” or SOSPs in legal parlance), referring to them as the “child soldiers” of the Troubles. The abnormality of their experience was vividly recounted in the surreal affair of a volunteer who took a weapon to school so that his mother would not find it.

Next came a short extract from The Man Who Swallowed a Dictionary, Robert Niblock’s forthcoming play about the late David Ervine. Produced by Etcetera theatre group, the scene portrayed a dialogue between Jeanette Ervine and her husband during a fraught visit following his arrest, and while all too brief it provided a taster of what will surely be a highly-anticipated work.

A fascinating insight into the UVF/RHC prison experience was given by the short documentary Voices From Behind the Wire, put together by the ACT Initiative’s Archive Group. The first half focusing on the compounds, interviews with former prisoners – interspersed with evocative and previously unseen photographs – touched on the militaristic yet progressive Spence regime; one recalled a discussion group on the question “will there be a federated Europe by 1990?”. While the hardships of imprisonment were still keenly felt, the camaraderie bred by solidarity was much in evidence even 40 years later, one contributor even declaring of his jail time, “I wouldn’t want to have missed it”. For Billy Hutchinson, the experience emphasised the importance of the collective, rather than the individual. It was particularly interesting for this writer to see Denis McClean among the interviewees, 25 years on from his appearance in Peter Taylor’s 1990 H-Blocks documentary The Enemy Within, and on whose poignant words Taylor chose to end that programme:

[…] I think everybody is going to have to give a little to resolve the situation.
Does that solution involve those IRA prisoners on the other side of this wing?
Well…it would have to involve everybody. Otherwise there’s no solution.

At this point there was an intermission and a chance for a cup of tea and a glance through the literature produced for the event. In addition to a small pamphlet given to each attendee a 27-page booklet was on sale for a small fee. Post Scriptum featured a dozen pieces of writing from former UVF/RHC men, comprising poems, reminisces, and anecdotes on the theme of incarceration. Particularly amusing was The Brief Cell Mate, the story of the “countryman” mistakenly housed with UVF remand prisoners for possession of “six bullets”, who in fact turned out to be a heavily-accented cattle rustler charged with stealing “six bullocks”! Post Scriptum was illustrated throughout with the first-rate artwork of Geordie Morrow, the Belfast artist who himself passed through the “Crum” and Long Kesh as a UVF prisoner in the 70s.

After the intermission the documentary’s second half looked at UVF/RHC experiences of the H-Blocks and Magilligan. The bitter and drawn-out fight for segregation involving “wreck-ups”, a regime of 23-hour lock-ups persisting for years, blanket protests, and the remoteness and inaccessibility of Magilligan with attending difficulties for visiting families were all recalled in vivid detail. The stories were memorable and forthright: one man spoke of his father’s obliteration in an IRA bombing and the subsequent burial of a coffin weighted down with sandbags. This left him with “a big chip on [his] shoulder”. He joined the youth wing of the UVF aged just 15.

Taking the stage next, Robert “Beano” Niblock reminded the uninitiated within the audience (which was admittedly peppered with former residents) that we were in the old chapel of the gaol, which had also doubled up as the cinema. He recalled one particular Easter when Ian Paisley came to preach, only to find himself being pelted with eggs by loyalist Young Prisoners. Niblock, a former RHC prisoner and now a poet and playwright of some note – last year’s Tartan being staged to strongly positive reviews and sell-out audiences – shared his own memories of his time in the perpetually windswept Magilligan, including the fresh eggs from hens each morning, and a Christmas concert by a showband which ended in a mass brawl! He pointed out the importance of including the often-overlooked prison, whose compounds closed in 1977, in the loyalist prison narrative.

The night’s next speaker David Martin served a 12 year sentence in Long Kesh. A District Master in the Orange Order and for 27 years a Sunday school teacher, the Lurgan man remembered Crumlin Road Gaol as “damp, squalid […] horrendous conditions”. He experienced a religious awakening in July 1983 and interestingly his testimony contradicted the common belief that once one is sworn into the UVF one is a member until death. Not true, he said: on the contrary, the UVF leadership wished him well after his request to leave the organisation. Nevertheless, he is “not afraid to call [himself] a loyalist”, and used his talk to draw attention to the many difficulties faced by ex-prisoners in matters of employment and reintegration.

That subject, and the issues faced by the families of loyalist prisoners, was the subject of the talk by Marion Jameson, a Community Relations Officer with REACT (Reconciliation, Education and Community Training). She was just 23 when Ralph, her husband now of 36 years, was arrested after being shot and badly wounded by security forces. She spoke of the great difficulty of being the wife of a loyalist prisoner in a rural town such as Armagh, not least the lack of a support service at that time. The stigma – people crossed the road to avoid her following her husband’s arrest – was also great, although she acknowledged the support from family and “true friends”, without whom “[we] wouldn’t have got through it”. She concluded her talk by expressing the hope that the loyalist prison experience would not be repeated.

Last speaker of the night was Raymond Laverty, manager of the Inner East Youth Project, which provides opportunities and support to young people in east Belfast. Having spent two years on remand on the word of a supergrass in the early 1980s, he was keen to highlight the resurrection of this practice in recent years: “internment did not end in ’75”, he said, but continued to the present day in a modified form based on the same values. He drew attention to the work being carried out by community workers and groups such as ACT, rarely remarked upon by a press calibrated for negativity: “a good news story doesn’t fit the narrative of those who want to stereotype”. His talk ended on a quote from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”

A Q&A session featuring a panel made up of the night’s speakers followed the talks, with the evening rounded off by another theatrical short, this time in the form of Dr William Mitchell’s Yo, Mister!, a sharply-written 10 minute monologue – an ideal form for prison drama, for obvious reasons – featuring a commendable performance from its young actor.

This was another professional and well-staged event by EPIC, REACH, and the ACT Initiative, which is finding its feet as a valuable contributor to the loyalist community as it channels the resources and abilities of UVF ex-combatants into a new, constructive role. The event overran considerably but this was pardonable given that it was the first staging (hopefully with more to follow outside Belfast). My impression was one of a growing confidence within the UVF/RHC ex-combatant community in its ability to relate its own story, without third-party interlocutors. The documentary Voices From Behind the Wire had the courage to record the opinions of those who questioned or disagreed with the Spence system, showing that self-reflection by no means implies uncritical self-mythology. It would be gratifying to someday see a similar project detailing the UDA prison experience, which also deserves attention, from its “auld hands”. The capacity audience for Why Are You Here Son? confirms an interest amongst the wider public in the loyalist story, and could potentially be replicated throughout the rest of the UK.

“Inside Man” by William “Plum” Smith: a review


Inside Man, the prison memoir of former Red Hand Commando and Progressive Unionist Party chairman William “Plum” Smith is, foremost, a necessary book. The fact that it is the first, and indeed only, serious-minded first-hand account from a loyalist paramilitary perspective is evidence enough of that. Until now the only available accounts have come in the form of decidedly less credible offerings, tabloidesque cash-ins from the pen of ghostwriters “without whom this book could not have been written”. Johnny Adair’s Mad Dog reads more in the style of true crime, with its focus on vendettas and reliance on a persecution narrative where the protagonist is endlessly threatened by enemies out to get him. None Shall Divide Us gave us a frequently less than reliable version of Michael Stone’s life story, as when playing urban myth as straight fact with its the hoary tale of Stone having to execute a German Shepherd Dog to pass initiation into the UDA (the story usually involves the US Marines or SAS).

With a 200-year history of incarceration, the republican as prisoner is a well-established archetype, a vital component of the movement’s self-image and one which is carefully guarded (Bobby Sands dinnerplates notwithstanding). IRA prisoners were held, and continue to be held, in high favour within the communities from which they came due not just to support for the actions which led to their imprisonment, but because a republican’s deportment within prison was seen as noble in itself. Resistance to authority, education in confinement, and maintenance of The Army’s discipline were the ideals to be upheld. Depressingly, however, the regard held by republicans for their paramilitary prisoners is often accompanied by a tendency to denigrate or outright dismiss the experiences of their loyalist counterparts. For example, the elderly bigot Jude Collins flatly refuses to believe that loyalist prisoners were even capable of attaining qualifications. Indeed if certain individuals are to be believed republicans floated out of Long Kesh in the lotus position, preaching enlightenment in fluent Gaelic, weighed down with degrees and doctorates and ready to perform brain surgery or build particle accelerators. Loyalists meanwhile are alleged to have passed the time heaving weights and gobbling steroids like Dolly Mixture, while reading materials were supposedly restricted to publications of the one-handed variety. This is a foul and pernicious lie, and one which Smith successfully challenges.

This stereotype appears to owe much to, and perhaps has its origins in, the opening scenes of Peter Taylor’s H-Block documentary The Enemy Within (1990), in which the UDA’s John Gregg (not an especially articulate subject, whatever his other qualities) is seen lifting weights in the prison gym, the camera lingering on his huge physique and numerous tattoos, intercut with a piece-to-camera in which semi-nude pin-ups can be seen on the wall behind him. In spite of considerable work by various authors in recent years the caricature has proven remarkably resistant. This is unfortunate but not surprising; people take comfort in stereotypes and are reluctant to abandon them even in the face of credible argument and abundant evidence to the contrary. Loyalists are particularly vulnerable to this type of smear not simply because their stock within the media is so low but due to the paucity of first-hand accounts from those best placed to refute them, namely the ex-prisoners themselves.

This makes Inside Man all the more valuable. Yet the very lack of first-hand accounts from loyalists , particularly in this area, highlights what is both a strength and weakness of the book. Starting from what is effectively a blank page in sum terms, Smith feels obliged to explore a very broad range of topics relating to the prisons issue, from court proceedings, legal matters, internment, political development within Long Kesh, relations with republicans, to escapes, paramilitary discipline and procedure, prison arts, and confrontation with prison staff and the British Army. This provides an excellent overview of the compound system as experience by the UVF/RHC, and the book can be taken as a “prison primer”. On the other hand, it also means that the space given over to each individual topic is somewhat limited: the issue of internment for example is breezed through in just five pages. Accepting that the task of making loyalism’s first credible entry into the field of memoir is a daunting and unenviable one, Smith rises to the challenge admirably.

His childhood is briskly dealt with in the space of a few hundred words and less than a dozen pages later we find ourselves in a jail cell for the first time, quickly establishing that this is strictly prison memoir, not autobiography. Smith restricts his chronology to the years of his own imprisonment, from 1971 to 1977. This is a strength of the book, in that he sticks solely to a time period that can be backed up by personal knowledge, but it means that many important matters – such as the development of the H-Blocks, supergrass trials, the fight for segregation – are outwith the scope of this work. A passage describing Smith’s experiences as a short-term prisoner in Crumlin Road Jail, although brief, successfully depicts it as a forbidding and unsettled place, but does not expand upon Gusty Spence’s claim that he acted as a loyalist “mole” while working on the republican wings as an orderly. Those hoping to find illumination regarding Smith’s paramilitary activities as a founding member of the Red Hand Commando will be disappointed. Very little time is spent on the subject, perhaps for understandable reasons: anyone researching loyalist paramilitaries will have noted the suppressant effect the HET has had on people’s willingness to talk. As it is, Smith reveals his role as a bodyguard for Spence during his brief period at large during the second half of 1972. Although the attempted murder for which he was sentenced along with two others is not described in detail, a chance meeting between Smith and the mother of the man he shot (Imelda Hall, not named here) during the run-up to the referendum on the Belfast Agreement is recounted in the afterword, an encounter which says much about the character of this brave woman and Smith’s own personal development.

In his descriptions of daily life in this unique prison Smith’s recollections are easy to follow and sympathetic. Battles with prison authorities over bad food, access to education (an early attempt by offering bridge classes shows a laughably out of touch jail regime), overcrowding with resultant poor sanitation, and basic healthcare are a constant feature throughout the early and mid-1970s. The pettiness of the Northern Ireland Office is sadly much in evidence. The military-style regime overseen by Gusty Spence has been commented upon at length in various other sources and so it is especially interesting to read how this was first established, something Smith, as one of the very first loyalist prisoners in Long Kesh, is well placed to recall. The prose is plain and functional throughout. It is not necessary for it to be anything else. In an underdeveloped field such as this there is little room for flourish or experimentation. During writing Smith had access to original documents from the paramilitary archive of Gusty Spence and these are well used throughout the text. In particular the full text of a letter from Bo McClelland is included and makes an interesting comparison to the abbreviated version found in Roy Garland’s biography of Spence.

The book is successful in refuting the image of loyalist prisoners as backward and uninterested in self-improvement. As Smith relates, it was in fact loyalists who were the first to take up the opportunity for formal education classes within the prison. That they did so alongside the Official IRA says much for the forebearance of the two opposing groups, and the dogmatic perversity of the Provisional IRA who in fact initially rejected the Open University. A significant number of loyalists gained degrees while in jail, several of whom progressed to Phd level after release. For the truly sceptical Smith provides a group graduation photograph of UVF/RHC prisoners in academic gowns, evidence that even the likes of Jude Collins surely cannot ignore. The author himself gained his Fáinne literally studying “through the wire” under a republican tutor.

Although not found within the book, further testimony to these inclinations can be seen in a “Books Wanted” appeal from UVF/RHC prisoners in Long Kesh placed in Combat magazine in early 1979. Among the texts “urgently require(d)” are works on sociology, criminology and penology, social psychology, and journals and magazines dedicated to education, politics, current affairs among others. Under the heading “Philosophy/Religion”, the prisoners sought “works dealing with Existentialism, particularly by or about Kirkegaarde (sic), Jaspers, Sarte, Heidegger, Barth, Tillich, Bultmann”.Their literary selections, displaying a distinctly Irish bent, include authors such as Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, Lady Gregory, George “AE” Russell, and Matthew Arnold, the father of modern literary criticism. Such tastes hardly speaks to the popular image of shelves groaning with Rodox and nandrolone.

Throughout history prisoners have frequently displayed practical ingenuity when confronted by a particular need, and the UVF/RHC inmates of Long Kesh appear to have been no different. Inter-compound communications were relayed by coded semaphore from atop Nissen huts, while a link with the organisation on the outside was maintained using a juy-rigged (and naturally illicit) radio transmitter secreted in the bottom of a tea boiler. The boilers also found use in stills for concocting poteen, the recipe passed on to Smith by his Irish language tutor. In the most memorable of these tales of improvisation, basketball stanchions and bed legs are fashioned into primitive but deadly shotguns in response to an abortive UDA assassination attempt as ill-feeling from feuding on the outside penetrated the jail. Paramilitary uniforms and other forms of contraband were sneaked in by relatives such as Granny McCrea, who Smiths pays tribute to as the most skilled of all the smugglers.

He also disproves with several examples the commonly-held belief that loyalists either did not mount escape attempts or proved inept jailbreakers, while noting the inherent difficulties arising from the lack of a nearby safe haven that republicans enjoyed in the Republic. In particular the flight of Danny Strutt from Crumlin Road Jail would not seem out of place in a Clint Eastwood movie, with smuggled hacksaws and papier mache heads (complete with wig) to confound the headcount. Strutt was arrested in Larkhall, Scotland over a year later after raiding a coal mine for explosives and stealing over a dozen guns from an Edinburgh rifle range.

A broad range of notables and prison “characters” feature throughout the book, but with so many topics to cover and limited space available one does not get to know them particularly well. The one personality detailed in full is camp CO Gusty Spence. A towering figure within loyalism, the book’s depiction of Spence is strongly positive and paints him as a visionary in his approach to education, conflict resolution, and what we might term “paramilitary human resources”. This is true to a large extent, and the endeavors of the Spence-inspired political cadre which arose particularly from the progressive regime within Compound 21 are well documented (if not always appreciated). However, the numbers of those who fully took to his teachings should not be exaggerated. Not all UVF/RHC prisoners left prison preaching peace and concilliation, and many more were more than happy to return to the ranks following a period of confinement. Not all prisoners shared his lack of enthusiasm for guerilla training. In addition, Smith spends no time on the often bitter disagreements between Spence and the UVF leadership on the outside during the mid-70s, which at one point saw one of his missives returned with the words “FUCK OFF!” added to it by the juvenile then-Brigadier. What cannot be disputed is Spence’s success in imposing a strictly-regimented, military-style discipline, often carried out by NCOs with prior military experience. Smith leaves us in no doubt that this regime was remarkably effective in maintaining cohesion amongst several hundred mostly young men, many imprisoned for violent offences. In addition to serving a practical domestic purpose by ensuring cleanliness and an active daily schedule for men who might otherwise vegitate, Smith intimates that it gave the UVF/RHC prisoners an advantage in a number of often violent stand-offs with the prison authorities. These confrontations, at times resulting in hand-to-hand fighting, are described in vivid detail.

The book is well-illustrated with two glossy picture sections of excellent and evocative photographs, many of them taken surreptitiously within Long Kesh itself. Similar photos occasionally appeared in Combat magazine during the 1970s, credited to the “Phantom photographer”. (As an aside, a former UVF prisoner explained to me that during Twelfth and Remembrance Day parades the photographer would be seen quite blatantly taking pictures of the assembled inmates. In response, the jail governor would summon Gusty Spence and demand the forfeiture of the camera and handing over of the photographer, only to be told that the man concerned was an eccentric who had fashioned a cigarette packet into a “camera” and that to deprive him of it would distress him!). An appendix details UVF/RHC Standing Orders (sample: “REQUESTS: Governor, Doctor, Welfare. Permission must be given from the hut OC before names are entered into request book”), directives on Diplock courts, a sample paramilitary court martial, and a list of greviances drawn up by the Camp Council. A glossary is particularly welcome for those unfamiliar with prison or paramilitary terminology, and a map  – an aid absent from many books – of the jail is most helpful for assisting the reader in orienting themselves, particularly during the book’s accounts of the fire of 1974 and confrontations with the British Army. The index is restricted to proper names only and it would have been preferable for researchers if the publisher had extended this to a list of common themes also.

There are a few small but frustrating niggles which arise within the text. On page 113 Smith mentions the “irony” of Miriam Daly teaching loyalist students within the jail. While noting her murder in 1980 (a victim of the UFF and John McMichael’s “shopping list”) he does not explain the irony, namely that Daly was a member of both the IRSP and INLA. It is Napoleon, not Churchill, who is usually credited with saying that an army marches on its stomach (p.161). On occasion typographical errors appear to have slipped past the editor. These are minor points however.

For loyalists, the most important words found within the book appear on the very first page, in the dedication: “(t)his is my story, my version but I would encourage other Loyalists to tell their experiences and their stories so that the Loyalist story will not be lost beneath a sea of green”. We can take his words both as challenge and admonition. All forms of autobiography must necessarily be approached with caution as the author is free to be as selective in his recollections as he wishes. The fallibility of memory, particularly after 40 years, is another unavoidable concern. As such, Inside Man has its limitations. The answer to this is not to pick holes in Smith’s account – which, after all, is nothing more than his own and makes no claim to be anything else – for it is a laudable and, considering the task, successful effort. Instead those remaining loyalist paramilitants (ex-prisoner or otherwise) of the 1960s and 70s, whose numbers diminish almost weekly, must be encouraged to share and record their recollections before they are lost. Even if by some herculean scholarly effort Smith had managed to provide a definitive account of the UVF/RHC behind the wire, it would still tell us very little of the story of imprisoned UDA men. Most academic and journalistic research on loyalist prisoners has concentrated on the UVF/RHC constituency, while far less has been written of their counterparts in the UDA/UFF. As for female loyalist prisoners, virtually nothing attests to their existence let alone experiences.

In seeking to challenge assumptions and stereotypes we should be careful not to construct well-intentioned but equally false counter-myths in their place. It would be wrong to speak as if all UVF/RHC prisoners heeded Spence’s words about “stretching out the hand of forbearance” to their enemies and engaged in peace-building. Lenny Murphy and Basher Bates were among those who went through the Long Kesh of this period, with its discipline, drill, and educational opportunities. Upon release Bates and Murphy soon embarked upon a spate of abductions and killings so reprehensible they need not be detailed here. If these men were exposed to any enlightened philosophy during this period in jail they proved impervious to its truth.

With Inside Man Plum Smith has made an invaluable contribution to the literature of the Troubles and especially the underpopulated loyalist perspective, but it is only a start. His comments about a “sea of green” should be heeded not just by loyalists, but by former prison staff, RUC, soldiers, and those who survived the conflict without joining any combatant groups, illegal or otherwise. Sinn Fein and its satellite groups are presently engaged in a determined effort to rewrite the history of the conflict which frequently omits events and groups (including other republicans such as the INLA and OIRA) which have no place in its decontextualised and sanitised narrative. That a recent retrospective on the fire of 1974 in An Phoblact makes no mention of the humanity of the UDA prisoners who, at some risk to themselves, retrieved wounded republicans from the scene of battle and took them back to the safety of their compound, is proof of that. That particular part of the story would likely have been lost had an account not appeared on Long Kesh Inside Out, but a more permanent testimony speaking to a wider audience must be sought also. If the stories of loyalists – and all other groups whose voices are underrepresented – are washed over by a green sea and lost to posterity, they will have only themselves to blame.


Inside Man is available from the publisher, Colourpoint Books, priced £9.99

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.

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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
CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet)
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
Loyalism After the Good Friday Agreement: History, Identity and Change, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0230228856
Mad Dog: The Rise and Fall of Johnny Adair and ‘C Company’, Hugh Jordan & David Lister (2005), Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84018-890-5
Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, Tony Novosel (2013), Pluto Press, ISBN 978-0-7453-3309-0
Crimes of Loyalty, Ian S Wood (2006), Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0748624270
The Billy Boy, Chris Anderson (2002), Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 1 84018-639-9
Loyalist Disaffection and their Understanding of the Strategic Environment in Northern Ireland, Lyndsey Harris (2006), prepared for The Junction, Londonderry/Derry
Between Exclusion and Recognition: The Politics of the Ulster Defence Association, Arthur Aughey (1985), Journal of Conflict Studies, Volume 5, issue 1,
The Kincora Scandal: Political Cover-up and Intrigue in Northern Ireland, Chris Moore (1996), Marino Books, ISBN 978-1860230295
The Secret Army: The IRA, J Bowyer Bell (1997), Transaction Publishers, ISBN 978-1560009016
The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party, Brian Hanley & Scott Millar (2010), Penguin, ISBN 978-0141028453
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The Newsletter
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The Herald
Belfast Telegraph
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The Irish Times

Thanks also to all Twitter subscribers who have provided feedback and suggestions.

Apples and Orangies: The UVF and UDA compared, part 1


In spite of being responsible for over 1000 deaths during the Troubles, or roughly 29% of the total number of fatalities, and having brought down a Northern Ireland Prime Minister and the power-sharing government of 1973/74, the UVF/RHC and UDA/UFF have never benefited from the level of analysis and study devoted to the Provisional IRA. The pro-state paramilitaries, to use Steve Bruce’s term, are usually – with some notable exceptions – treated as a homogeneity by the press and academia, with the implication that they look alike, think alike, and behave alike. Writing during the Shankill feud of 2000, Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian provided an example of this when he wrote “in true Monty Python style, no one can name a doctrinal difference that separates Adair’s UFF from the Ulster Volunteer Force which it hates so bloodily. It is not as if they are fighting over the details of the Good Friday agreement”. This approach is both under-researched and reductive, reflecting a wider ignorance of the loyalist paramilitaries that is unfortunately typical of many who have written about the Northern Ireland conflict. The lack of awareness and ignorance of nuance has had a knock-on effect for the general public who, insofar as they are aware that loyalists exist at all, probably only vaguely recall something called the UDF, or maybe the UVA (many professional journalists have proven to be similarly acronymically-challenged). Dismissive attitudes such as these betray a failure to understand organisations which, while sharing the same overall goal, in fact differ from each other in many ways, to the extent that these differences have at times led to open conflict and numerous deaths.

Even at first glance there are considerable contrasts between the UDA and UVF, the two main loyalist paramilitary organisations: one a legal, mass membership movement with vigilante origins, the other a proscribed, conspiratorial, self-limiting group describing itself as a “counter-terror” outfit. The origins of the two groups differ significantly. The Ulster Volunteer Force is the older of the pair, its name harking back to the first UVF of the Ulster Covenant in 1912. The present group was formed in late 1965 in circumstances that are still the subject of conjecture. Gusty Spence, its first leader, stated that it was set up by figures in the Unionist establishment partly out of fear of possible IRA moves coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, but more as a means of destabilising the liberalising reforms of NI Prime Minister Terence O’Neill. In this contention he is supported by Martin Dillon and his biographer Roy Garland, while Steve Bruce and David McKittrick tentatively concluded that there was no such backing for the conspiracy. The Ulster Defence Association on the other hand came together in the autumn of 1971 as a confluence of various vigilante and defence groups which had arisen as a response to republican violence. An exception was the pre-existing Shankill Defence Association which had been set up in 1969, initially to fight against an unpopular housing redevelopment, but which quickly assumed a vigilante character under the control of John McKeague. It was later joined by the Oldpark, Woodvale, Tigers Bay, and East Belfast Defence Associations which first met as the “UDA” in the early summer of ’71. The organisation mushroomed over the next few months: at only its third meeting 3,000 supporters turned up. Watching from the shadows was the UVF, which secretly sent a number of members to attend the meetings and report back on what they had seen. They had done much the same with Tara – William McGrath’s esoteric grouping – and other fringe loyalist organisations, poaching weapons and militarily-experienced personnel, but the UDA was simply too big and moving with too much momentum for this tactic to be repeated.

The rapid and voluminous growth of the UDA highlights one of the most obvious differences between it and its rivals in the “People’s Army”. In 2006/07, when the UVF was carrying out its internal consultation aimed at bringing about an end to its paramilitary role, representatives from the PUP spoke of the organisation comprising some 1,600 members across the United Kingdom. This, by a considerable margin, is the largest the organisation has been since its foundation. Although Gusty Spence claimed in July 1972 that the UVF could call on 1,500 members that figure was almost certainly an over-estimate. Throughout the 1970s the group probably never had more than half that number in total, and the core of active members would comprise a fraction of that in turn. By mid-’72 the UDA was a genuine mass movement with anywhere between 15,000 and 40,000 activists, depending on which estimate you read, with the true roster of dues-paying members likely numbering around 20,000. It could certainly put that amount of uniformed men on the streets of Belfast – given a few hours notice – as it did on several occasions in 1972. The UDA was happy to take all the recruits it could get and does not appear to have been particularly choosy in who it accepted. Speaking to Dr Sarah Nelson years later, Andy Tyrie, its overall leader from late 1972 to 1988, admitted that many thugs, corner boys, and petty criminals were indeed taken into the organisation at that time. The UVF on the other hand has always been distinguished by its policy of selective admittance, and in the early days this was particularly strict. Recruitment was largely piecemeal, by trusted word of mouth, and until 1975 by invitation only. Mass swearings-in of the type carried out in the UDA were distinctly uncommon – although they did occur during the recruitment drive led by Gusty Spence during his “on the run” episode in late 1972 – and prospective candidates were scrutinised for their political beliefs, family background, and the all-important ability to keep one’s mouth shut. The idea that the UVF’s policy led to a higher standard of recruit finds some support from Sarah Nelson, who notes a barrister’s remark about “(a) better class of terrorist” and relates that locals in Protestant areas spoke of young UVF prisoners as being “the very best” youths who did well at school and were conscientous to their families and neighbours. Like the IRA, UVF members charged with terrorism offences would often even refuse to recognise the court, arguing (unlike the IRA) that the Diplock system, where a single judge would decide upon guilt or innocence without the aid of a jury, denied them “their rights as British citizens”. On the other hand, the fact that an individual like Lenny Murphy could join the organisation during this period throws some doubt on the idea of a “better class of terrorist”.

Selectivity, both in recruitment and in the type of actions carried out by the two groups, leads us on to the topic of professionalism, or sometimes lack of it. Henry McDonald, Martin Dillon, Ian Wood, and Jim Cusack are all counted among the writers who have at one time or another commented upon the operational superiority of the UVF compared to its much larger rival. This widespread notion of UVF ascendancy over an amateurish UDA is shared by Dr Aaron Edwards, who describes the UDA as “a second-rate terrorist organisation that could never quite match the military bearing or sophistication of its UVF rival”. UDA men understandably resent and disagree with this characterisation. They point out, correctly, that it was their organisation which first launched a concerted assassination campaign against known republican activists. If we except the UVF killing of former Sinn Fein vice-president Maire Drumm in 1976, John McMichael’s “shopping list” of 1980-81 was indeed the first time loyalist paramilitaries had gone on the offensive against republicans, in this case the INLA/IRSP and those associated with the Anti H-Block campaign. This offensive, said to have been planned in the room above McMichael’s pub, caused serious damage to the upper levels of the INLA/IRSP by eliminating Belfast OC Ronnie Bunting and political leader Miriam Daly. Against this we have to count the fact that the UDA was more heavily involved in random sectarian killings in the ’72 and ’73 period, failed to generate any expertise in explosives (in sharp contrast to the UVF), and quickly developed a reputation for infighting, petty theft, and racketeering. Throughout the early years of the conflict the UVF successfully maintained its image as a secretive and disciplined military force, breaking cover only rarely to invite journalists to press conferences with elaborate security arrangements where masked men dressed totally in black and wearing leather jackets would read some statement on the war effort. However, a wide range of commentators have all pointed to a period in the mid-70s when this security and discipline began to break down. The legalisation of the group in 1974, followed the next year by a relaxation of the previously strict vetting process, led to a swelling of the ranks. Additionally, a number of the wilder personalities from the UDA crossed over to the UVF. Some of these men had fallen foul of UDA discipline, or were in disagreement with its policies. Others were simply psychopaths looking for a vehicle which would facilitate their violent urges. Importantly, this came at a time when both the UDA’s Supreme Commander Andy Tyrie, himself a former UVF man, was making efforts to reduce the number of random sectarian killings carried out by the group, and a more militant body had ascended to the Brigade Staff of the UVF. This group included figures associated with its youth wing, the YCV, which had always had a reputation for being less well controlled than its parent body. 1975 saw a number of serious setbacks for the UVF, including a series of “own goal” explosions, loss of weapons and personnel, and mass arrests following an unprecedented wave of attacks on the 2nd of October. This led to the militants being forcibly removed from the leadership and replaced with those who had held power prior to their accedence. By 1977 a stable leadership had coalesced who would head the group through the next three decades.

As a legal organisation the top deck of the UDA was highly visible. Figures from the 1970s such as Andy Tyrie, Charles Harding Smith, Tommy Herron and Tucker Lyttle were all well-known to the press and public, featuring regularly on screen and in print, not to mention their appearances in public. Even after the proscription of the organisation in 1992 high-ranking members like Johnny Adair, Jim “Doris Day” Gray and Andre Shoukri continued to attract (and in some cases court) attention, featuring in everything from broadsheet analysis to lurid tabloid exposes. By contrast, upper-tier UVF figures from the 70s such as Rab McAulay, “Smudger” Smith, and Stanley Grey were – and remain – virtually invisible. A gravestone inscription was the first public acknowledgement that Sam “Bo” McClelland had served as UVF chief of staff.

Behind the veil of secrecy though the leaderships of both organisations shared similar social backgrounds. UDA and UVF leaders were almost exclusively working class, skilled or semi-skilled manual workers in their thirties and forties. Some, particularly in the UDA, had been active in community work or trade unionism prior to the conflict, while the innate militarism and martial stylings of the UVF led to a preponderance of ex-soldiers in its top ranks. An exception was Andy McCann, one of a number of key UVF figures who were interned in 1973. A somewhat atypical paramilitary, he was a schoolteacher and economics graduate of Trinity College Dublin where he was a contemporary of future Tanaiste Dick Spring. As a student he was also active on the rugby pitch and, notably, in the boxing ring, where he developed a reputation as a formidable pugilist – a handy talent for someone with vocal loyalist beliefs in a setting populated with not a few republicans. Following his release from Long Kesh after six months of imprisonment he was involved in setting up the UVF’s initial abortive venture into electoral politics, the Volunteer Political Party, becoming chairman of the party’s Ballymacarret branch. Disillusionment with the failure of the VPP and the reactionary and highly militant turn taken by the UVF from late ’74 led to him drifting from the organisation. He later became involved with the Northern Ireland Negotiated Independence Association along with another ex-internee from the UVF, Billy Davidson.

With the obvious exception of Gusty Spence and later Billy Wright, John Bingham stood out as the only high-ranking UVF member to attract media attention during the conflict. As one of those held on remand for several years as a result of the supergrass trials of the early 80s he was highly vocal in protests against the practise. He even appeared on platforms next to such unlikely figures as Clare Short and US Congressman Peter King, both usually regarded as having republican sympathies, to complain about the use of “converted terrorists”. It is said that King, having initially mistaken Bingham for an IRA man, turned a peculiar shade when informed that the man he had just shaken hands with was a notorious loyalist gunman with a well-deserved reputation for ruthlessness. Some of Bingham’s senior comrades in the UVF resented the publicity he attracted and he was not universally popular in the upper levels of the organisation. His death at the hands of the Provisional IRA in September 1986 might have been shocking – he was the first high-ranking UVF member to be killed by republicans – but it was not surprising. The secrecy which had been carefully built up around the organisation was not just an exercise in mythos-building, but a defence measure against attack, whatever quarter it might have come from. The lesson was clear: publicity is fatal for UVF “operators”. Unfortunately, the supergrass trials had publically exposed a large number of activists from both sides, providing their enemies with a state-generated list of potential targets. In coming years a number of serving or former UVF members would join Bingham in the “Battalion of the Dead” as the IRA cynically used the names of those accused – while vehemently denying the guilt of their own indicted – as high-grade intelligence. Fred Otley, Frenchie Marchant, Jackie Irvine, and Robert Seymour all took the journey to Roselawn or Carnmoney as a result of this hypocritical policy, although it must be said that both the UVF and UDA also took advantage of the same source.

In spite of its ultimate failure, the supergrass policy seriously disrupted terrorist activity in Northern Ireland throughout the early and mid-1980s. The IRA’s size and organisational skill allowed it to weather the storm, while the UVF recovered by about 1986 without any major changes in leadership and actually enjoyed a resurgence as a result of resistance to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which led to an influx of both new recruits and experienced activists (such as Billy Wright) returning to the fold. The INLA, which had neither the IRA’s resilience nor the UVF’s stable leadership, was left in disarray and arguably never functioned as a coherent body again. It split into rival factions in 1987 and struggled through the 1990s, alternating sectarian killings and attacks against the security forces with feuds which left a number of senior members, including several Chiefs of Staff, dead.

The UDA was the sole paramilitary organisation to escape any real damage as a result of the supergrass policy. Only two “converted terrorists”, James Williamson and Leonard Campbell, were recruited from the group, neither of whom stayed the course. The UVF by contrast experienced five defections – Clifford McKeown, William “Budgie” Allen, John Gibson, James Crockard, and Joe Bennett (the most damaging of all) – which led to dozens of arrests, literally hundreds of charges, and knocked holes in its image as a tight-knit, stealthy force. Virtually the entire Brigade Staff was held on remand for over two years, largely as a result of Bennett’s evidence, with their places being taken by other experienced activists, some of whom had been in semi-retirement. There are a number of possible reasons why the UDA did not suffer to the extent that other groups did during the supergrass period. The most likely is the fact that in the early 80s it was largely out of business as a terrorist outfit. In 1982 for example the UDA killed just two people, both of whom happened to be members of its own organisation shot as alleged informers. Although most of the charges in the supergrass cases were historical, it may have been the case that there was a conscious decision by the authorities not to target the UDA given its inactivity, for fear that removal of senior figures would lead to more militant types filling their posts – exactly what later happened as a result of the Brian Nelson scandal and Stevens Inquiry.

Click here for part 2: political ventures, loyalist feuds and cooperation, strongholds, modus operandi, structure, and the nature of paramilitary violence.

Collusion: sometimes it IS an illusion

Collusion mural on Whiterock Road, Belfast

Collusion mural on Whiterock Road, Belfast

The above photograph depicts one of the more well-known republican murals in Northern Ireland. It draws attention to the contentious and murky issue of collusion, that is, the involvement of the state in paramilitary killings, invariably loyalist. Uniquely, this mural also utilises testimony from a loyalist leader, UVF founder member Gusty Spence, to support the long-held republican belief that loyalist paramilitaries are artificial constructs set up by the British government to oppress, harass, and attack Catholics. It is a powerful and well-composed work which combines fine draughtsmanship with a searing political message that has the effect of lodging this most controversial of topics in the mind of the observer.

There is only one problem: the quote is a fabrication.

Well, sort of. It is a deliberate and rather clever misquote. The original, undoctored passage actually reads:

“There was an element of the UVF reconstituted in 1935 and some were covertly enlisted by the Ulster government at a fee of ten shillings a day to promote a sectarian war, which they did do” (Gusty Spence, Roy Garland, p.44)

And for those who don’t take my word for it, here’s a photograph:


The original, unaltered quote is taken from Roy Garland’s authorised biography of Gusty Spence published in 2000. The Gusty Spence speaking to Garland was a very different man from the boisterous militant who had served as the modern UVF’s first leader in the mid 1960s. The Spence of the 1990s worked to disseminate an accessible and purposely non-doctrinaire form of socialism among the Protestant working class which contained at its heart a rejection of “big house unionism” which in the past had worked to stymie cross-community labour politics. Spence here was ruefully recounting the nascent cooperation between the deprived loyalist and nationalist communities of Belfast during the outdoor relief protests of the mid-1930s (meticulously detailed in Paddy Devlin’s thesis Yes We Have No Bananas) which was deliberately and maliciously sabotaged by figures in the unionist establishment who hired former UVF hard men such as “Buck” Alec Robinson and Bobby Moore to shoot Catholics and so foment sectarian conflict1. It is the twisting of this sincere critique of unionist misrule, which came hard to Spence after years of historical fact-finding and questioning of long-held loyalist certitudes while in prison, for the sake of a cheap stab at The Brits, which makes the deliberate misquoting so cynical.

Perhaps it could be argued that the relevant dates were omitted for the sake of valuable wall space, but the mural-makers were clearly referring to the present day UVF as the largest cross next to the body bears the inscription “2003”. In any case, it demonstrates the importance of adopting a critical and inquiring attitude when investigating claims of collusion, particularly when made by republicans.


1 Prompted by IRA activity such as attacks on the rail network, figures in the unionist hierarchy secretly commissioned a small number of loyalist gunmen and thugs to attack Catholics, and so force the IRA to switch to defending its nationalist support base (knowing that defenderism would invariably also involve pre-emptive attacks on loyalists). Many years later, one of these gunmen confided that he was paid by William Grant, a shipyard worker turned Unionist MP and a fanatical Protestant, to smash the windows of shops owned by Catholics and attack Catholic traders. Buck Alec told a similar story to Gusty Spence. The strategy worked.