Loyalist Paramilitaries after 1965

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Loyalist Paramilitaries after 1965

Hard-line unionist opposition to the modernizing policies of Terence O'Neill inspired quasi-military organizations modeled after the Ulster Volunteer Force of the Third Home Rule Bill period; these organizations also drew on near-continuous traditions of paramilitary action (especially in Belfast). Two of the most prominent were Tara (whose leader William McGrath was subsequently jailed for sexually abusing inmates of the Kincora Boys' Home) and the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV), who marched in support of Ian Paisley.

The present-day Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was founded in 1965 by working-class loyalists on Belfast's Shankill Road. They were linked to UPV, Tara, and similar organizations; they may have had tacit support from some middle-class Ulster Unionist Party activists. The UVF was banned on 28 June 1966 after members committed three murders. O'Neill denied any connection between this "sordid conspiracy of criminals" and the Carson-era UVF. UVF leader Gusty Spence was imprisoned for the murder of a Catholic barman but the organization survived, growing rapidly in response to the upheavals of the early 1970s. The Red Hand Commandos, founded in the early 1970s by John McKeague, has usually been a satellite of the UVF.

The other principal loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), was founded in 1972 as a coalition of local vigilante groups formed during sectarian rioting from 1969 onwards. After internal feuding between East and West Belfast leaders, Andy Tyrie emerged as "Supreme Commander." Both the UVF and UDA engaged in extensive sectarian murder campaigns epitomized by Lenny Murphy (d. 1982), whose UVF "Shankill Butchers" became notorious in 1975–1976 for torturing random victims to death and mutilating their bodies. UDA violence was often claimed by the "Ulster Freedom Fighters," a codename intended to preserve the UDA's legality. Some particularly sectarian or repulsive UVF crimes were attributed to the equally nonexistent "Protestant Action Force." Both groups developed youth wings and prisoner support organizations: Ulster Young Militants and Loyalist Prisoners' Aid for the UDA, Young Citizen Volunteers and Loyalist Prisoners of War for the UVF.

The upheavals of the early 1970s caused large numbers of unionists to dabble in paramilitarism either through "home-guard" organizations (which saw themselves as a reserve army to be unleashed in a doomsday situation) or the militaristic symbolism of the Vanguard organization. Thousands of working-class Protestants marched in loyalist rallies. The high point of loyalist paramilitary influence occurred in 1974: In that year loyalist paramilitaries provided the muscle for the Ulster Workers' Council strike, which brought down the power-sharing executive established under the Sunningdale Agreement. However, the paramilitaries were unable to establish a coherent political program and were further discredited by infighting, criminal activity, and extreme violence; these have persistently undermined their self-projected image as "defenders of the community." Tougher state security policies reduced fears of a doomsday situation, and mainstream unionist politicians reasserted their leadership.

In response to these setbacks, some loyalists attempted to develop a distinct political agenda; Spence tried to influence younger loyalists associated with the nascent Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) toward an explicitly socialist and secular loyalism, while in the late 1970s onwards Tyrie's deputy John McMichael advocated an independent Northern Ireland. McMichael founded the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party (later called the Ulster Democratic Party) but received little electoral support; at the same time he reorganized the UDA's military structure and orchestrated further sectarian murders.

Loyalist paramilitarism revived in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and a massive leadership upheaval in the UDA, involving the IRA's assassination of John McMichael, the resignation of Tyrie after an attempt on his life, and the removal of other leading figures by arrest or exposure as informers. (Tyrie was replaced by a collective leadership—the six-member "Inner Council" that unleashed young, more violent activists.) Individuals such as Billy Wright ("King Rat"), Portadown-based Mid-Ulster UVF "Brigadier," and Johnny Adair ("Mad Dog"), UDA commander in the Shankill area of Belfast became feared celebrity gangsters who combined extensive racketeering with sectarian murder.

The PUP (which developed a small core of experienced activists led by Hugh Smyth, David Ervine, and Billy Hutchinson) and the UDP (nominally led by McMichael's son Gary) persuaded the loyalist paramilitaries to call a cease-fire in October 1994 (after the IRA cease-fire in August). The loyalists played a significant role in the Belfast Agreement of 1998; their record allowed them to undercut DUP accusations of "a sell-out." The PUP had initial success as a working-class rival to the DUP but failed to expand outside its core support in parts of Belfast. The UDP, whose leadership was less experienced and cohesive, had little electoral success and eventually disintegrated. (It was replaced by the Ulster Political Research Group.) The loyalist ceasefires were underpinned by prisoner releases and racketeering opportunities. However, the organizations continued to engage in vigilantism and to intimidate isolated Catholic minorities. The increasing political profile of republicans and the restlessness of activists whose status derived from the gun increased internal tensions. In 1996 Wright, his profile raised by the 1995 and 1996 Drumcree protests, sought the overall leadership of loyalism; he seceded from the UVF and established the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), combining anticompromise rhetoric with criminality. Wright was assassinated in prison by republicans in December 1997. Sectarian attacks were perpetrated by splinter groups calling themselves the Red Hand Defenders (generally regarded as a codename used by elements of the UDA and LVF) or the Orange Volunteers. Adair (jailed in 1994 for directing terrorism but released after the Belfast Agreement) became increasingly disruptive; in 1999 his alignment with the LVF led to a bloody UDA-UVF feud and his imprisonment. After his release in 2002, Adair attempted to displace the UDA leadership; another bloody feud again led to his arrest, while Adair supporters were driven from their Shankill power base after the assassination of an anti-Adair "Brigadier," John Gregg. Despite a renewed cease-fire loyalist organizations remained wracked by personal rivalries, criminality, and low-level violence. Loyalist paramilitary groups are generally less disciplined and politically aware than the IRA and contain a larger criminal element. (They have also been more prone to internal feuding than the IRA, though the Irish National Liberation Army [INLA] has experienced similar patterns of division and criminality.) Because of their traditional identification with the state, the loyalist working class does not have a history of creating a coherent oppositional subculture on the same scale as nationalists; the political opinions of the loyalist working class are largely reactive and their principal "oppositional" institutions—trade unions and independent churches—have been undermined by socioeconomic change. Protestant upper and middle-class elites have historically been more distant from their poorer co-religionists than their Catholic counterparts, who still tend to see themselves as part of a historically oppressed minority. The community's pro-state orientation means that potential middle-class and skilled working-class recruits tend to join the security forces, leaving paramilitaries with a relatively restricted and low-quality support base among the unskilled working class. (This forms a notable contrast to the paramilitaries' principal role model, the elite-led 1912–1914 UVF.) While shared origins have led some security force personnel to collaborate with loyalists, they also make it easier for security forces to detect, infiltrate, and capture or manipulate paramilitaries. The republican view of loyalist paramilitaries as simply state puppets is an exaggeration, but there has unquestionably been information-passing and cooperation among loyalist paramilitaries and some locally recruited security-force elements. In recent years there have also been revelations (most prominently involving the activities of Brian Nelson, a high-level infiltrator within the UDA) about the willingness of some military and police agencies to tolerate crimes by loyalist informants or even to assist loyalists in targeting particular republicans.

Loyalist paramilitaries maintain a certain constituency, but their role has been primarily reactive and destructive. It is unlikely that this will change in the future.

SEE ALSO Hunger Strikes; Irish Republican Army (IRA); Paisley, Ian; Ulster Politics under Direct Rule


Bruce, Steve. The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. 1992.

Cusack, Jim, and Henry McDonald. UVF. 1997. Expanded, 2000.

Dillon, Martin. The Shankill Butchers: A Case Study of Mass Murder. 1989.

Taylor, Peter. Loyalists. 1999.

Patrick Maume

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Loyalist Paramilitaries after 1965

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