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Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF)

Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF)

YEAR ESTABLISHED OR BECAME ACTIVE: 1996

ESTIMATED SIZE: 150

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Northern Ireland; Scotland

OVERVIEW

The Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) is a Protestant paramilitary organization based in Northern Ireland. It was formed in 1996 by dissident Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members led by Billy "King Rat" Wright and soon became notorious for its attacks on civilians and rival loyalist paramilitaries, as well as targeting prominent lawyers and journalists.

HISTORY

The Loyalist Volunteer Force was formed in the summer of 1996 by dissident Ulster Volunteer Force members following the expulsion from its ranks of Billy Wright, its renegade mid-Ulster Brigade Commander.

Wright, dubbed King Rat, is one of the most controversial, charismatic, and violent individuals associated with Northern Ireland's thirty-year-long troubles. He was linked with the murders of more than forty Catholics in the Portadown area of Ulster, most of who were civilians without connection to paramilitary activity. His notoriety brought him minor fame and a loyal backing, and he sought a greater role within the UVF leadership, ambitions, which, when stunted, would bring him into conflict with its hierarchy. Moreover, during a UVF ceasefire in the mid 1990s, he increasingly disagreed with their politics.

A particular point of contention was his support for the Orange Order marches in Drumcree, a particular hot point in Ulster's controversial marching season. At the height of the 1996 Orange Order stand-off, Wright sanctioned the murder of a Catholic taxi driver, Michael McGoldrick, an intentionally incendiary action designed to sink Drumcree into a state of insurrection.

Incensed by his potentially calamitous action, the UVF ordered Wright's unit to disband. When Wright refused, the UVF gave him seventy-two hours to leave Northern Ireland or face summary execution. Wright stayed and formed the LVF from the remnants of the mid-Ulster Brigade. "I'll either be shot dead, framed or I'll disappear," he said in the autumn of 1996. "But I'm scared of no one. I've just celebrated my 36th birthday and I fully intend to be around for my 37th."

The LVF quickly set out its stall as an organization that would bring terror to Northern Ireland's Catholic community—and to any Protestants who dared mingle with them. The murder, in July 1997, of an eighteen-year-old Catholic woman near Portadown was typical; likewise the shooting, in March 1998, of a Catholic and his Protestant friend as they sat drinking at a bar.

Religious hatred seemed to be the principle motivation of the LVF—particularly its leader, Wright. Yet, it was his violent sectarianism that brought his downfall, in December 1997. Incarcerated at the Maze Prison for threatening to kill a woman, Wright was killed in a daring attack carried out by prisoners who were members of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), who had smuggled a gun into the prison.

In death, Wright was instantly deified, made an iconic figure in the loyalist community. Yet, just five months after his killing, his successors called a ceasefire—a possibility he had vigorously opposed—in the run up to a referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. The LVF urged its supporters to vote no, but when the vote passed in favor, the LVF reaped its benefits anyway, as its prisoners were eligible for release under the treaty's early release scheme.

LEADERSHIP

BILLY "KING RAT" WRIGHT

In the violent history of Northern Ireland's recent past, Billy Wright, stands apart as arguably the most notorious loyalist paramilitary of the Troubles. Born in Wolverhampton, England to an Irish Protestant family in 1960, Wright was brought up in South Armagh, Northern Ireland. Involved in paramilitary activity from the age of fifteen, he was soon arrested for arms offences and hijacking in 1977 and sentenced to six years imprisonment.

After serving forty-two months, he returned to frontline activity and quickly earned himself a reputation as a brutal and ruthless killer of Catholics in the Portadown area. Despite repeated arrests and the attentions of the IRA and INLA, that tried on many occasions to kill him (and succeeded in murdering his uncle, father-in-law, and brother-in-law), Wright—dubbed King Rat by the press—was undeterred and went on to serve as a Commander of the Ulster Volunteer Force's mid-Ulster Brigade.

Wright seemed to be a man of many contradictions. At once a cold-blooded murderer and closely associated to the drugs trade, he was also renowned for exerting a strong moral force on paramilitaries serving under him and had even served as a lay preacher. Famously, while serving a prison sentence, he banned pornography from fellow paramilitaries.

His rising influence and cult following among parts of Northern Ireland's loyalist community inevitably brought him into conflict with the UVF leadership. By 1996, Wright wanted to exert more influence in the UVF's running, but was snubbed by its leaders. He also wanted to lead attacks on Catholics at the Orange Order's march at Drumcree. Again, he was refused on account of a ceasefire in place but went ahead anyway and murdered a Catholic taxi driver. The UVF ordered his brigade to disband, but Wright refused. He was then ordered out of Northern Ireland within seventy-two hours or face summary execution, but Wright stayed. From the remnants of his mid-Ulster Brigade, he formed the Loyalist Volunteer Force and installed himself as its leader.

An iconic figure, Wright was only able to lead his nascent organization for a matter of months. He was jailed in March 1997 for eight years for threatening to kill a woman and sent to Maghaberry Prison and then the Maze. It was there, on December 27, 1997, that Wright was murdered by a three-man unit from INLA, while waiting in a van for a visit. INLA claimed that his execution was in reprisal for Wright's sectarianism and the catalogue of deaths linked to his name.

Yet, his name is synonymous with the organization he created, and in some minds he remains a legendary figure, his image bearing down from dozens of loyalist murals across Northern Ireland and in parts of Scotland, too. If Bobby Sands was the IRA's Che Guevara, Wright probably emerged as his loyalist equivalent.

Despite its ceasefire, the sectarian attacks continued, although they were carried out under guise of the "Red Hand Defenders"—a badge of convenience also used by another loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defense Association. The most notorious of the murders carried out in this period was of the prominent human rights lawyer, Rosemary Nelson, in March 1999. Nelson had previously represented Catholic residents opposed to Orange Order marches in Portadown. (The Royal Ulster Constabulary, whom she also stood against in a number of high-profile cases and who reportedly threatened her, was also accused of complicity in her killing.)

Yet, the LVF became as noted for its fratricidal war with the UVF as it did for violence against Catholics. They were accused of murdering the alleged UVF leader, Richard Jameson, in January 2000. Yet this inter-Loyalist conflict was increasingly based as much on fighting for the spoils of organized crime in Northern Ireland as on long-standing political differences. In particular, LVF members became notorious for their involvement in drug smuggling, even to the extent that they allegedly cooperated with their Catholic enemies.

So valuable was the drugs trade to the LVF and so ruthless were they in their methods that, in September 2001, LVF paramilitaries killed Martin O'Hagan, an investigative journalist who wrote for the Dublin Sunday World. O'Hagan had, over a number of years, built a reputation as a fearless exposer of the LVF's crimes and follies, and his killing provoked outrage across Ireland. In the wake of his murder, the British Northern Ireland secretary, Paul Murphy, declared that his government no longer recognized the LVF's ceasefire.

In June 2002, Wright's successor as LVF leader, Mark "Swinger" Fulton, was found hanged in Maghaberry Prison of an apparent suicide. Fulton had been Wright's notorious partner in crime since their days with the UVF's mid-Ulster Brigade and his death marked, in many ways, the end of a notorious era for the organization. Since then, the feud with the UVF has continued, but with the LVF's position waning, further killings have been accompanied by suggestions that the UVF is intent on eradicating its dissident offspring for good.

PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS

The core aim of the Loyalist Volunteer Force is the maintenance of Northern Ireland's ties with Great Britain. It resists any efforts to weaken such links, particularly perceived threats posed by closer integration with the Republic of Ireland.

Shortly after the double murder of a Protestant and his Catholic friend at a bar in Poyntzpass in 1998, the LVF issued a ten-page policy document threatening politicians, Church, and industry leaders and paramilitaries who it claimed were colluding in a "peace surrender process designed to break the Union [i.e., the United Kingdom] and establish the dynamic for Irish unity, within an all-Ireland Roman Catholic, Gaelic Celtic state." Later, in a Sunday Times interview, an LVF representative said his organization supported the views of the Reverend Ian Paisley, the controversial leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

KEY EVENTS

1996:
UVF ordered disbandment of Wright's mid-Ulster Brigade after renegade action at the Orange Order march in Drumcree. From its remnants, Wright forms the LVF.
1997:
Wright jailed for eight years for threatening a woman.
1997:
LVF linked to murder of an eighteen-year-old Catholic woman.
1997:
Wright murdered by three INLA members while incarcerated at the Maze Prison.
1998:
LVF declare a ceasefire.
1999:
Murder of nationalist human rights lawyer, Rosemary Nelson.
2001:
Murder of journalist Martin O'Hagan; British government says it no longer recognizes the LVF ceasefire.

The LVF has sought to prevent a political settlement with Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland by attacking those Catholic politicians, civilians, and even Protestant politicians who endorse the Northern Ireland peace process. In reality, however, since the Good Friday Agreement passed, many of their energies have been focused on their long-running feud with the UVF; as well as maintaining their preeminence in aspects of organized crime throughout the province, particularly drug dealing. This should not detract, however, from the sectarian killings it has carried out on both Catholic civilians and Protestants who associate with them.

OTHER PERSPECTIVES

"What terror groups do well is to exert a grip on their own communities, one that demands loyalty to their self-proclaimed mission to speak for that community," wrote the journalist, John Lloyd, in the New Statesman in 2003. "This loyalty is bought in part by playing on, and magnifying the oppression felt by, that same community, but more by using the instruments of terror on that community itself.

"This is what Northern Ireland has now come to: a state of affairs in which substantial sections of the working-class areas, almost wholly 'pure' Catholic—nationalist/republican or Protestant—unionist/loyalist, live in communities where the fear of one or other version of terrorist republicanism, or terrorist loyalism, rules. These are now networks of organised crime, especially on the loyalist side, where drug-dealing is a major source of income and wealth. To describe this in the abstract cannot convey the fear, the stuntedness of life, the glamour of the terrorist—crime bosses for the young men on the housing estates, the struggle, especially for women, of trying to keep families decent and optimistic, and the arbitrariness of punishment and of injury or death."

PRIMARY SOURCE
Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF)

DESCRIPTION

An extreme Loyalist group formed in 1996 as a faction of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the LVF did not emerge publicly until 1997. Composed largely of UVF hardliners who have sought to prevent a political settlement with Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland by attacking Catholic politicians, civilians, and Protestant politicians who endorse the Northern Ireland peace process. LVF occasionally uses the Red Hand Defenders as a cover name for its actions but has also called for the group's disbandment. In October 2001, the British Government ruled that the LVF had broken the cease-fire it declared in 1998 after linking the group to the murder of a journalist. According to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, the LVF decommissioned a small amount of weapons in December 1998, but it has not repeated this gesture. Designated under EO 13224 in December 2001.

ACTIVITIES

Bombings, kidnappings, and close-quarter shooting attacks. Finances its activities with drug money and other criminal activities. LVF attacks have been particularly vicious; the group has murdered numerous Catholic civilians with no political or paramilitary affiliations, including an eighteen-year-old Catholic girl in July 1997 because she had a Protestant boyfriend. The terrorists also have conducted successful attacks against Irish targets in Irish border towns. From 2000 to 2004, the LVF has been engaged in a violent feud with other Loyalists, which has left several men dead.

STRENGTH

Small, perhaps dozens of active members.

LOCATION/AREA OF OPERATION

Northern Ireland and Ireland.

EXTERNAL AID

None.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

"Wright was one of the most brutal terrorist killers of the Troubles," said the Daily Telegraph on his death in December 1997. They marked his murder by running a previously unpublished interview with the terrorist, reporting: "He was believed to have been [directly] responsible for the murders of more than a dozen innocent Roman Catholics in the 'murder triangle' of Mid Ulster. There were the 'dial-a-Catholic' murders whereby the UVF's Mid Ulster brigade, commanded by Wright, would telephone a taxi or food-delivery firm. The randomly summoned victim—religion the only criterion—would then be lured to a place where his killers lay in wait … 'I am seen as a soldier,' he said … 'The Protestant people and their culture are under attack and they have a right to be defended.'… As the evening light faded, Wright was silent for more than a minute when asked how he would like to be remembered after his death. 'As a Loyalist, firm and true,' he said finally. 'And as someone who finally helped to secure peace for his people.'"

SUMMARY

Still beset by the same feud with the UVF that marked its birth in 1996, the LVF is alternatively perceived as an organization on the brink of destruction, or one that is merely going through the latest of its periodic crises. Indeed, if nothing else, it is an indefatigable force, and it should not be forgotten that it has already survived all number of challenges to its existence. These have included death warrants issued against its members; the murder of one of its leaders and suicide of another; countless arrests; a potentially ruinous turf war with the UVF; plus, all the usual attentions of republican rivals and the British and Irish security forces. Its role in Northern Irish organized crime ensures a regular income, and its grip over important loyalist strongholds, notably Portadown, suggest that those who announce the LVF's imminent demise may well be premature.

Nevertheless, the LVF's refusal to engage in the post-Good Friday Agreement political process has marginalized it, and, without a leader of charisma like the late Billy Wright or the Ulster Freedom Fighters' Johnny Adair, it has struggled to assert its identity in the maze of Northern Irish politics. This, along with its notorious input into Northern Ireland's gang-lands, has left it with something of an identity crisis: it is potentially still a violent and deeply sectarian terrorist organization, or it is merely a Protestant crime gang?

SOURCES

Books

Anderson, Chris. The Billy Boy: The Life and Times of Billy Wright. Edinburgh: Mainsteam, 2003.

Web sites

BBC.co.uk "Paramilitaries: Loyalist Volunteer Force." 〈http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/troubles/factfiles/lvf.shtml〉 (accessed October 14, 2005).

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