Ulster Defense Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters

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Ulster Defense Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters

LEADERS: Johnny Adair; Jackie McDonald


ESTIMATED SIZE: 2,000-4,000

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Northern Ireland; Scotland

DECLARED AN ILLEGAL TERRORIST ORGANIZATION BY THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT IN 1991; U.S. TERRORIST EXCLUSION LIST DESIGNEE: the U.S. Department of State declared the UDA to be a terrorist organization in December 2001


The Ulster Defense Association (UDA) is the largest loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. It was formed in 1971 as an umbrella organization to unite vigilante groups in Protestant areas that gathered together as a response to Irish Republican Army (IRA) violence. At its peak, it claimed to have a membership of more than 40,000. Its small but ruthless military wing, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, emerged as one of the most brutal and violent paramilitary groups in the province's three-decades-long troubles.


Amid the rising tensions and violence of the early 1970s in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Defense Association was launched in September 1971 to amalgamate the rising number of Protestant vigilante groups, originally set up in response to rising IRA violence. These self-styled defense associations were growing in strength in areas such as Shankhill as loyalists became increasingly concerned about the army's inability to either defeat or even contain a resurgent IRA.

Modeled along military lines, the UDA's membership peaked within a year of its formation at 40,000. In these early stages, it seemingly showed few of the hallmarks of a conventional terrorist organization, and extolled the motto "Law Before Violence." In March 1972, with the prospect of the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont being dissolved and direct rule imposed from Westminster, the UDA were instrumental in leading street protests and instigating strikes. The protests, nevertheless, came to nothing and, on March 28, 1972, Stormont adjourned for the last time.

This was a profound blow for Northern Ireland's Protestants and unionists, who regarded Stormont as the principle bulwark against nationalists and republicans. With fellow unionist groups, the UDA arranged massive demonstrations on the streets of Belfast during the summer of 1972, when thousands of uniformed members marched through the city center.

One of the biggest standoffs between the UDA and the British Army took place on July 3, 1972, in Belfast. Eight thousand UDA members dressed in masks and many armed with cudgels sought to erect barriers between the Catholic Springfield area and Protestant Shankhill. When confronted by 250 British troops, the soldiers backed down.

Yet this organization was no benevolent champion of human rights; rather, it was operating in the shadows as a brutal paramilitary organization, which ruthlessly hunted down civilians. The year 1972 was the bloodiest year of the "Troubles," in which 479 people were killed by paramilitary organizations or by the police or army. Of those lives, the UDA claimed twenty-eight, including twenty-four civilians. Despite being a self-styled defender in the face of IRA violence, none of those members killed belonged to any other terrorist organization but the UDA.

A year later, in 1973, it confirmed its notoriety when its emergent military wing, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), brutally murdered the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) politician, Paddy Wilson, and his secretary. When their bludgeoned bodies were found in a quarry, the violenct act provoked shock and consternation across the province. Still, the UDA retained its legality, and in 1974, it led strikes against the power-sharing executive at Stormont, which brought the Northern Irish Parliament to its knees.



As with the majority of Northern Ireland's paramilitary organizations, the UDA is run by an inner council. While this may seem inherently democratic, in practice the bulk of power rests with the individual who can most skillfully build up and manipulate allegiances. It is the Machiavellian input of a man like Johnny Adair that threatens to bring the system crashing down. In part because he successfully opposed Adair, Jackie McDonald, a South Belfast Brigade Commander has emerged as the UDA's most powerful figure in recent years.

Even in exile, however, it is Adair who remains the most synonymous with the UDA/UFF and, on account of his unashamed publicity-seeking, remains the organization's most famous—and infamous—relic. As commander of the UFF's C Company, he attracted notoriety as a brutal hitman in West Belfast in the early 1990s, which was the highpoint of UFF violence when the group claimed the lives of nearly 90 people; Adair is alleged to have been behind 40 of those killings. In October 1993, in an attempt to kill Adair, the IRA bombed a fish and chip shop on the Shankhill Road, where a UDA meeting was due to take place. However, the bomb went off early, killing one of the bombers as well as nine Protestant civilians. The UFF retaliated with a random attack on a Catholic bar near Londonderry, which killed seven people who had no paramilitary connections.

Adair was subsequently imprisoned after boasting to undercover police officers of his activities, but was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. This marked the onset of a period in which Adair became almost a 'celebrity' paramilitary. Short, bullet headed, and bristling with tattoos, he was a distinctive addition to news schedules, and was usually willing to speak to media.

Yet, his colleagues viewed his publicity seeking with disdain, likewise his reputation for drug dealing, which seemed to contradict those who claimed the UDA were moral protectors of Ulster's loyalist community. Moreover, his pursuit of an alliance with the LVF was viewed with intense suspicion. Combined, these factors would bring Adair into a murderous feud with his fellow UDA bosses and lead to the revoking of his release from prison. In October 2003, the Observer concluded a lengthy article about Adair's travails by asking: "When he is finally released from jail … Adair will face a stark choice. Does he go back to the Shankill and try one last throw of the dice? Or does he settle quietly away from Belfast, hoping he can avoid assassination and live in peace with his family?" Since his release in January 2005, Adair has lived in Bolton, and while few of his new neighbors would claim he is a peaceful addition to their area (he has been implicated in drug dealing and various petty crimes), it seems that, for now, his paramilitary career is over.

Yet, this marked the end of the UDA as a political entity of any real significance. Despite setting up the New Ulster Political Group in 1978 and the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party in 1981 (which advocated independence for Northern Ireland—anathema to many of the UDA's traditional constituency), politically the group failed to make anything but insignificant inroads in the decades that followed.

For most of the 1980s, Northern Ireland's conflict was stuck in an unsavory stalemate: the IRA gained further notoriety with atrocities on the British mainland and in the province; and the loyalist groups—notably, the Ulster Volunteer Force UVF), the UDA, and its military wing the UFF—played their part with retaliatory killings in Ulster.

In December 1987, John McMichael, then-deputy leader of the UDA, was killed in a bomb attack carried out by the IRA, although it was alleged that he had been set up by fellow members of the UDA. This event marked the onset of a period of radicalization in the UDA and soon large quantities of arms were secured by the organization. There was an upsurge in assassinations of Catholics. Also, it would emerge during a subsequent British government inquiry that the UDA had gained access to a large number of security files on republicans and suspected members of Republican paramilitary groups, leading to renewed accusations of collusion with the British military forces.

One of the UDA's most notorious attacks came in 1988 when its member, Michael Stone, attacked mourners at an IRA funeral with hand grenades. The dramatic attack, which had been designed to kill the Sinn Fein leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, was captured live on TV; the attack killed three and injured more than fifty.

Even more heinous was a number of multiple killings in the early 1990s targeted at Catholic civilians. By then, the British government had belatedly outlawed the UDA as a terrorist organization.

Yet, when moves towards a peace agreement came in 1994, the UDA matched the IRA in calling a ceasefire, a cessation that would hold until January 1998 when the Loyalist Volunteer Force leader, Billy Wright, was murdered by republicans in the Maze Prison. In the wake of that killing, on January 4, 1998, UDA and UFF prisoners had voted by 2-to-1 to withdraw support from the peace process. Four days later, however, they were visited by the British Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, and persuaded to change their minds. Four months later, the UDA endorsed the Good Friday Agreement.

It was hoped that the agreement would bring an end to the UDA's terrorist activities. The retaliatory killing with republican groups did virtually end, but a new kind of conflict erupted, this time with its one-time loyalist counterparts, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The feud centered on the belief that elements in the UFF were siding with the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), which had its own feud with the UVF. Bubbling underneath the surface was also infighting over the spoils of Belfast's drug trade, which had become the prime cause of many former paramilitaries in the post-Good Friday era.


UDA formed as an umbrella organization for emergent Protestant vigilante groups.
Involved in organizing protests at dissolution of the Stormont Executive; linked to twenty-eight deaths in the most bloody year of Northern Ireland's "Troubles."
Onset of Ulster Freedom Fighters paramilitary activity, including murder of SDLP politician, Paddy Wilson.
UDA Brigadier, Michael Stone, kills three during a grenade attack at an IRA funeral.
UDA announces ceasefire and backs the subsequent peace process, including the Good Friday Agreement.
In the midst of internal wrangling, and a bloody feud, Johnny Adair is expelled from party ranks.

That rift was healed by late 2000, but another opened in 2002 with Johnny Adair, the controversial commander of the UDA's "C Company," at the center. Adair, a charismatic maverick in the mold of the LVF's former leader, Billy Wright, had been part of an effort to forge closer ties with the LVF. Yet, sections within the UDA/UFF union opposed such movements, viewing them as an attempt by Adair to take over the leadership of the UDA by winning external support. An internal feud within the UDA began, with several killed and many others burned out of their homes.

In September 2002, Adair was expelled from the UDA, and the movement nearly collapsed in the wake of his attempts to woo senior UDA members into a renegade Loyalist Freedom Fighters organization. These efforts floundered, in part, because Adair returned to prison in January 2003.

A month later, in February 2003, a UDA divisional leader and enemy of Adair's, John Gregg, was shot dead along with another UDA member. The killing saw about twenty Adair supporters exiled from Northern Ireland by UDA members seeking to avenge Gregg's death.

Ulster Defense Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters (UDA/UFF)


The Ulster Defense Association (UDA), the largest Loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, was formed in 1971 as an umbrella organization for Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). Today, the UFF constitutes almost the entire UDA membership. The UDA/UFF declared a series of cease-fires between 1994 and 1998. In September 2001, the UDA/ UFF's Inner Council withdrew its support for Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement. The following month, after a series of murders, bombings, and street violence, the British Government ruled the UDA/UFF's cease-fire defunct. The dissolution of the organization's political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party, soon followed. In January 2002, however, the UDA created the Ulster Political Research Group to serve in a similar capacity. Designated under EO 13224 in December 2001.


The UDA/UFF has evolved into a criminal organization deeply involved in drug trafficking and other moneymaking criminal activities through six largely independent "brigades." It has also been involved in murder, shootings, arson, and assaults. According to the International Monitoring Commission, "the UDA has the capacity to launch serious, if crude, attacks." Some UDA activities have been of a sectarian nature directed at the Catholic community, aimed at what are sometimes described as 'soft' targets, and often have taken place at the interface between the Protestant and Catholic communities, especially in Belfast. The organization continues to be involved in targeting individual Catholics and has undertaken attacks against retired and serving prison officers. The group has also been involved in a violent internecine war with other Loyalist paramilitary groups for the past several years. In February 2003, the UDA/UFF declared a twelve-month cease-fire, but refused to decommission its arsenal until Republican groups did likewise and emphasized its continued disagreement with the Good Friday accords. The cease-fire has been extended. Even though numerous attacks on Catholics were blamed on the group, the UDA/UFF did not claim credit for any attacks and in August 2003 reiterated its intention to remain militarily inactive.


Estimates vary from 2,000 to 5,000 members, with several hundred active in paramilitary operations.


Northern Ireland.



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

As of 2005, the UDA remains in dispute with Adair, who, following his release from prison, is currently living in exile in Bolton, England. The group declared a cessation of hostilities with the UVF in February 2003—to which it has largely stuck.


As its name suggests, the Ulster Defense Association was originally formed to protect the Protestant community of Northern Ireland in the face of rising IRA insurgency and a rising lack of police control. As a loyalist group, it vigorously opposes closer integration with the Republic of Ireland or a weakening of ties with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Yet, despite its purportedly defensive outlook and its founding motto "Law Before Violence," it soon became involved in terrorist activity, killing Catholic civilians as reprisal for IRA murders and targeting loyalist rivals. The Ulster Freedom Fighters initially set out to wage war on the IRA, but found that attacks on IRA members merely saw savage reprisals on its own. In more than three decades of activity, the UDA/UFF is only credited with the deaths of three republican paramilitaries. It found it far easier to kill civilians.

The UDA has also been strongly linked to far-right extremist groups operating on the British mainland, notably Combat 18. Johnny Adair, in his youth, was allegedly a skinhead and member of the British National Party, a neo-Nazi leaning apparently shared by some of his contemporaries.

In its present incarnation, the UDA operates through six largely independent brigades, who extend their influence—to varying degrees—across Northern Ireland. The UDA has been observing a ceasefire since February 2003, but this is largely irrelevant as the group has existed over most of the last decade as a criminal gang. Its activities extend to drug dealing, extortion and racketeering, and, like a Mafia family, in some areas its influence is all pervasive.


"Having got rid of the Catholic enemy within the increasingly powerful loyalist gangs, the Ulster Defense Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Loyalist Volunteer Force and others fight each other for control of the shebeens, the drug trade and the protection rackets," wrote John Lloyd, a British journalist who covered Northern Ireland during the Troubles, of the new post-Good Friday Agreement realities of life in the province. "These are spreading over to the mainland, and are very lucrative. A paramilitary drug lord can drive a Mercedes, wear Armani suits and take holidays in the Bahamas—a long way from singing 'The Sash My Father Wore' on the Shankill, though it is loyalism that provides the discipline and the recruits for his criminal rackets." Lloyd believes that the UDA, in common with most paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, purposely cows the populations it controls ("informers are murdered, dissenters tortured and the awkward individuals forced out of their houses, or out of the province") to reap personal profit and maintain power. He describes their role as a "cancer" in Northern Ireland's communities, which deepens the population's "alienation from the political process, and makes them more cynical, more sectarian."

"How, you might wonder, could a half-psychopath, half-showman such as Johnny Adair ever become so powerful in Belfast?" asked the journalist, Jenny McCarthy in the Daily Telegraph in 2003. "The reasons are many," she explained. "The Shankill Road itself, once a thriving working-class Protestant community, has been slowly transformed by bad planning, neglect and the Troubles into an urban semi-wasteland. As the police force has retreated from 'difficult' areas—hampered by dwindling resources—the paramilitaries have intensified their grip. Yet both the Government and the media, in different ways, have long bolstered Adair's inherent belief that he is a Very Important Person. The Government has alternated between courting his approval and struggling to contain his worst excesses. Journalists, on the other hand, have been fascinated by Adair's crudely crowd-pleasing sense of humour. 'Mad Dog' introduces his son as 'Mad Pup,' and wears a T-shirt proclaiming 'Simply The Best.' The Adair mythology—he was said to have survived thirteen assassination attempts—was pumped up by his boastful joking. Yet this has helped to mask the raw ghastliness of what his paramilitary career has been all about: the promotion of sectarian hatred, terror and drugs."


The Ulster Defense Association remains the largest and most influential loyalist paramilitary organization in Northern Ireland, although, as of 2005, it remains less a "protector" of the province's Protestant community and murderous sectarian threat to Northern Ireland's Catholics than a powerful and pervasive criminal gang. Meting out summary justice to maintain their control over the drugs trade and their own communities might not have been the UDA's founding intention, but in Northern Ireland's post-Good Friday Agreement era, it reflects the reality of many former paramilitaries who have no wish to enter politics.



Edwards, Ruth Dudley. The Faithful Tribe. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.

Jordan, Hugh, and David Lister. Mad Dog: The Rise and Fall of Johnny Adair. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2003.

McDonald, Henry, and Jim Cussack. The UDA. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Web sites

Andrew Mueller. "A Brush With Death." 〈http://www.andrewmueller.net/〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

Guardian Unlimited. "The Downfall of Mad Dog Adair." 〈http://books.guardian.co.uk/extracts/〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).


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