Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)

views updated

Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)

LEADER: David Ervine



The Ulster Volunteer Force is the oldest and second largest loyalist paramilitary organization in Northern Ireland. It is committed to the maintenance of Ulster in the United Kingdom.


The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) first emerged as a paramilitary organization at the start of the twentieth century. In 1912, Sir Edward Carson, a Dublin-born Protestant and former Conservative MP, along with James Craig, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, concerned at the impetus behind moves to grant home rule to Ireland, formed the UVF as a militia to oppose any such settlement. As home rule seemed to near, the UVF enjoyed incredible support among Ulster's Protestants. As many as 500,000 people signed the "Ulster Covenant"—a petition opposing an independent Ireland—and the UVF claimed up to 100,000 members. Two shipments, consisting of 20,000 rifles and four million rounds of ammunition, were smuggled into Larne from Germany in April 1914, but the outbreak of World War I four months later put the independence issue on hold. During that conflict, many UVF members signed up for the 36th (Ulster) Division of the British Army, which would suffer horrendous losses in the Battle of the Somme. When peace came in 1918 and the Irish Free State emerged two years later—with Northern Ireland still part of the British union—many Ulster Protestants saw it as reward for their loyalty during the Great War. Even today, those who died on the Somme are immortalized in unionist lore.

The UVF thereafter disappeared from view for nearly half a century. It reincarnated in the summer of 1966, although it was a far cry from the mass movement that had preceded it. Formed by at most a dozen men in the pubs around the Shankhill Road district of Belfast, it was conceived to combat a practically non-existent IRA. Its principles were "serving Ulster," rather than fighting a religious war, although some Protestants would have regarded these principles indivisible.

The nascent UVF carried out a number of attacks that summer, claiming three lives, but these mostly seemed to be drunken escapades that had assumed a murderous complexion. Its first victim was a seventy-seven-year-old Protestant widow killed in a fire at a Catholic bar the UVF had petrol bombed; the second was a Catholic man returning home from a pub heard singing "Up the republic! Up the rebels!"; the third, a Catholic barman who had dared stray into a pub on the Protestant side of Belfast's divide.

Most of Ulster's population treated such attacks with barely suppressed horror, but as the Republican civil rights movement grew and intensified its efforts to gain political recognition in the late 1960s, so too did the efforts of the UVF to curtail them. In winter 1969, the UVF bombed a number of water and electricity utilities to unsettle the government of the Northern Irish Prime Minister, Terence O'Neill, which had promised limited reforms in favor of Ulster's Catholics, and in the (initially correct) expectation that they would be blamed on the IRA.

Violence within Northern Ireland increased inexorably over the following three years, during which the UVF maintained a quiet, but occasionally deadly presence. However, on December 4, 1971, they fully announced their arrival into Northern Ireland's emergent conflict when a bomb in the hallway of Belfast's McGurk's bar exploded without warning, destroying the entire building and killing 15 people, and injuring dozens more.

The following year, 1972—the most deadly of Northern Ireland's troubles—the UVF killed twenty-seven people, all civilians, in sectarian shootings and bombings. Nevertheless, it had been by far usurped as the preeminent loyalist party—in terms of ability to carry out acts of violence and above all in mainstream popularity—by the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), a populist movement that had emerged in 1971 in response to IRA attacks.

Although outlawed by the British government in 1966, the UVF's ban was lifted in 1974 in an attempt to engage the UVF in the political process. This failed miserably. On May 17, 1974, a series of bombs went off in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 33 people. These incidents would be shrouded in mystery for a number of years, leading to claims that the British intelligence unit MI5 was complicit in the bombings; in actuality, Irish Garda botched the investigation, and in 1993, the UVF admitted responsibility for the attacks.

Quickly, the UVF was marking a reputation as the most notorious of all of Northern Ireland's paramilitary organizations. This was secured in July 1975 with an attack on the Miami Showband, one of Ireland's most popular live bands. Returning from a performance in Banbridge, their minibus was flagged down by UVF men posing in British army uniforms. Band members were ordered to line up in a ditch while UVF paramilitaries attempted to plant a bomb inside the minibus, which they hoped would explode as the musicians headed home to Dublin. However, the bomb exploded prematurely, killing two of the UVF men, whereupon the remaining paramilitaries opened fire on the band, killing three of its members. Three months later, on a single day—October 2, 1975—the UVF was responsible for eight sectarian civilian murders, as well as the deaths of four of its own (after a bomb exploded prematurely on the way to another mission). In total, thirteen bombs were detonated by the UVF on that day.

Worse came with the onset of killings by the so-called "Shankhill Butchers" faction of the UVF, who were notorious for torturing and disemboweling Catholics, purely on sectarian grounds. Many of the gang were jailed in a large-scale trial in 1979, in which eleven UVF members were sentenced on more than 100 charges, with sentences totaling more than 2,000 years.

The UVF was further weakened by the wide-scale British infiltration in the early 1980s, although it continued to carry out a string of attacks, mostly against civilians. It resurfaced towards the end of the decade with the emergence of Billy Wright, dubbed "King Rat," one of the most controversial and violent individuals associated with Northern Ireland's Troubles. Wright has been linked with the murders of more than forty Catholics in the Portadown area of Ulster, most of whom were civilians and without connection to paramilitary activity. His notoriety brought him both minor fame and a loyal backing, but came at a time when the UVF was tentatively seeking to enter the peace process. Yet, Wright sought a more powerful role within the organization's leadership, ambitions, which, when stunted, would bring him into conflict with its hierarchy. After he broke a UVF ceasefire in 1996, he was expelled from the group and formed the rival Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), with which the UVF instantly assumed a deadly feud.

Despite backing the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, UVF violence since its 1994 ceasefire has centered more on fratricidal disputes than the sectarian killings that have characterized most of its history. In particular, it came into repeated conflict with the LVF—with whom it has also an historic grudge—and the Ulster Defense Association over the spoils of Northern Ireland's drugs, prostitution, and extortion rackets. In 2000, the LVF killed Richard Jameson, the UVF's alleged leader. Loyalist paramilitaries in the early twenty-first century have more in common with criminal gangs than paramilitary forces.

It has, nevertheless, returned to its sectarian roots on occasion, most usually around the time of the Orange Lodge's marching season. In September 2005, it was blamed for causing large-scale rioting and for firing upon police when a march was diverted from its usual route. Within days, the British Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, announced that the government no longer recognized its long-standing ceasefire.


The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is a loyalist paramilitary organization committed to the maintenance of the British union and to exorcise all possibility of a united Ireland.



David Ervine is chief spokesman for the Progressive Union Party (PUP), which acts as the political wing of the UVF. A former UVF member who served a five-year jail sentence at the Maze Prison in the mid 1970s, having been found in possession of a bomb, Ervine is a Belfast City Councillor and Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Against the wishes of many Unionists—he has received death threats from both the IRA and his own community—he led the PUP and UVF to back the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This seemingly marked the completion of Ervine's transition from killer to peacemaker, and he is one of the few unionist politicians to back the agreement. Speaking to a BBC documentary team a year after the Good Friday Agreement, he was asked about his paramilitary past: "Were you prepared to kill?" Irvine replied: "Without question … totally. My decision and made by me and me alone."

During the height of the Troubles, the UVF carried out more than 400 killings, 80% of which were Catholic civilians. Like other loyalist paramilitary groups, it found it easier to carry out sectarian killings against noncombatants than the Republican paramilitaries against which it had been established to defend. Most of its attack were shootings and bombings, although it is most notorious for its "Shankhill Butchers" faction, which carried out horrific knife attacks in the late 1970s. It agreed to a peace deal in 1994, which held until September 2005 when it was implicated in large-scale rioting following an Orange Lodge march.

As with all three main loyalist paramilitary groups, the end of the Troubles and sectarian murders have seen the reinvention of the UVF as a criminal gang. Notwithstanding its influence at the time of Orange Lodge marches, most of its violence is now directed at its own community and rival loyalist groups in defense of its criminal networks.

Over the years, the UVF has been accused of collusion with a myriad of ideologies. According to David Boulton, the original incarnation of the UVF in 1912 was an armed mobilization of Ulster's working class to protect the threatened economic interests of its bosses. As such, "It was Europe's first distinctly fascist movement." In the 1970s, they were accused by rivals of being communists. They have also been strongly linked to the far right on the British mainland, particularly the British National Party and Combat 18. At the same time, however, they have a long-standing alliance to the Progressive Unionist Party, which is politically orientated to the left.


In September 2005, the UVF orchestrated the worst rioting seen in Northern Ireland for years. At the root of it was an Orange Lodge march, which had been diverted, but the Economist believed that the reasons were more deep-seated: "In a rudimentary sense, the riots were … and not about a march at all. Unionists enraged by the idea that their Republican opponents are getting an easy ride from politicians in London and Dublin talked of grievances unaddressed by the authorities, 'a cry of desperation,' said the Orange Order Grand Master … Even if they were its victims, the poorer districts at first approved of the rioting. People told reporters that violence was the only way to get Mr Blair's attention: 'It's all concessions to the IRA—nationalists get everything they want,' one said.


UVF forms as a loyalist paramilitary force, taking the name of Sir Edward Carson's old militia.
Bombing of Belfast utilities contributes to the fall of the Northern Ireland government.
Bombing of McGurk's Bar kills fifteen.
Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
Miami Showband massacre.
Emergence of Shankhill Butchers.
UVF agrees to ceasefire as part of emergent peace process.
Expulsion of Billy "King Rat" Wright for breaking the ceasefire; Wright forms the rival Loyalist Volunteer Force.
UVF/PUP back the Good Friday Agreement.
Murder of alleged UVF leader, Richard Jameson.
Following severe rioting instigated by UVF members, British government refuses to acknowledge UVF ceasefire.

"Poverty and the politics of victimhood are aggravated by a criminal feud between Ulster's loyalist paramilitaries. In a murky underworld, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) has always been seen as more political than the larger Ulster Defence Association (UDA)—less steeped in "ordinary" criminality (a relative judgment, of course). In a depressing twist to today's violence, the UVF has been largely blamed for the rioting and for the four deaths in months of fighting with the splinter Loyalist Volunteer Force, a group that now appears entirely devoted to drug-dealing and gangsterism. These groups, recruited from Ulster's working-class Protestants, are divided from unionist politicians by social class and political rivalry. Their efforts a few years ago to form political parties, following the lead of Sinn Fein, collapsed amid rows about drug dealing and racketeering. For them, riots are just about the only way to make a noise."

The riots, which brought an end to British recognition of the UVF ceasefire, were the inevitable consequence of the British government's misplaced strategy for peace in the province, argued Jenny McCarthy in the Daily Telegraph. "The birth of the 'peace process' was the decision by the British Government to come to an arrangement with the IRA that would end the IRA's 'spectacular' bombing campaigns in England," she wrote. "As part of the pay-off, all IRA prisoners were released, and—to 'balance' this folly—the loyalist paramilitaries were let out of jail too. Thus a large group of people who had persistently shown the most heinous disregard for human life were unleashed once more, and returned to the welcoming embrace of the IRA, UVF and UDA: groups whose structures and aims remained fully intact. The RUC—the most effective opponent of the paramilitaries—was disbanded, and the media profile of Sinn Fein politicians boosted at every turn, as was that of the political representatives of the loyalist terrorists.

"Since then, the unspoken but insidious policy of the British Government in Northern Ireland has been 'don't upset the paramilitaries'. For who exactly were those masked men orchestrating the rioting in Northern Ireland last week, with the help of roving bands of disaffected teenage yobs? They were members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, who had stockpiled weapons for use against the police. These are the very gentlemen whom the late Mo Mowlam once described as 'the unsung heroes of the peace process.' They—like the IRA—have long been left virtually unchallenged by the authorities, free to pursue extortion, drug-pushing and intimidation in 'their' areas. The decision by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, to declare the UVF ceasefire at an end is the equivalent of sending a bunch of adult psychopaths to Super-nanny's naughty step."


As with many former paramilitary groups, the UVF now exists primarily as a criminal gang, and has turned the sectarian bloodshed of yesteryear on its own community and rival gangs. However, its culpability in the September 2005 riots, which saw the British government end recognition of its longstanding ceasefire, shows that it still has the potential to engage in largescale violence.



Dill, Martin. The Shankhill Butchers: A Case Study of Mass Murder. London: Hutchinson, 1989.

McKittrick, David, and David McVeigh. Making Sense of the Troubles. London: Penguin, 2003.

Taylor, Peter. Loyalists. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.


Loyalist Volunteer Force