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The Ulster Defence Association

A Short History

(Part I)

Whilst it is possible to trace back the name Ulster Defence to the Ulster Defence Union set up in 1893 in order to resist the Second Home Rule Bill the genesis of the Ulster Defence Association, as it is known today, is very much rooted in the period of the early 1970s. This was a period of great violence and political uncertainty, and the zenith in terms of the level of violence that would come from that phenomenon known euphemistically as “the troubles”. In order to understand the dynamics that were at work in the formation of the modern day Ulster Defence Association we have to place the formation of this organisation within its proper historical context. This means not only looking at wider historical events but also too at Irish Republicanism and its development process.

Historical Context

The IRA Split: The Emergence of the Provos

The period 1969-1971 was one of increasing violence, fuelled by a number of factors. One of which was the split that occurred within the IRA in 1969/70. This split resulted in the creation of two factions: the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA. The reasons for this split were numerous, the main one was however a difference in ideology and attitude towards sectarian violence. The Official IRA was socialist in their thinking whereas the Provisional IRA represented a more “conservative” and “traditional” section of Irish-Republicanism. Peter Taylor in his book, States of Terror, writes:

“…In 1962 the IRA had rejected violence, forsworn the ‘armed struggle’ and embraced the idea of unifying the Catholic and Protestant working class to force a socialist revolution and establish a workers republic. Such Marxist dogma was anathema to traditional IRA supporters who saw it as a betrayal of all the IRA stood for…”

Many within the ranks of the IRA were also unhappy with the leadership of the IRA and their refusal to supply weapons en masse to IRA volunteers in Belfast. People such as Cathal Goulding, chief of staff of the IRA and later the Official IRA, were not prepared to allow weapons to be supplied to Belfast for fear of a sectarian blood bath. As a result of such factors the Provisional IRA were formed, among its membership were men such as Gerry Adams who is reputed to have remarked to another IRA prisoner that he would be prepared "to wade up to my knees in Protestant blood" for a united Ireland.

The split in the IRA laid the way open for those within the Irish Republican movement who favoured a return to armed struggle and who were not squeamish about killing members of the Protestant working-class as unlike their Official IRA counterparts the Provos did not believe in the same Marxist ideology. The Provisional IRA would in time come to be the dominant faction and this process was helped by the Irish state who did not wish to see a left wing IRA come to prevalence within Ireland, with the prospect of it campaigning against the Fianna Fail government over economic and social issues. As a result the Irish state provided financial succour, military training and provided armaments for the Provisional IRA who certain sections of the Irish state regarded as the bastions of “traditional” republicanism. Such financial succour was channeled through other bodies and contacts but ultimately only the most naïve, or deliberately disingenuous, believed that it would end up anywhere else than in the hands of the Provisional IRA. Sean MacStionfain, the first Provisional IRA chief of staff confirmed this in an interview with a journalist:

“Before the split the money was going to somebody who was active in the Goulding wing (that would become the Official IRA) of the movement. Then the money was stopped altogether for a few weeks. When it resumed again it went to somebody who was working with us…The money in Belfast for the Defence Committee was distributed by a person who was one of our leading members.”

Two leading Irish government Ministers, Neil Blaney and Charles Haughey would later be implicated in the gun running scandal that involved Captain Kelly and the attempt to bring in guns from Germany worth £80,000. Both Ministers were sacked and a third government Minister later resigned. The subsequent trial of Haughey and Blaney later collapsed as the actions were deemed “legal” by a jury due to the fact that the Minister of Defence had authorised them.

Provisional IRA Crank up the Sectarian Killings

With the financial succour and military training provided by the Irish state the Provisional IRA were now in a position to crank up the “war” as they saw it. This meant not just attacks against the British security forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary but also the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community. Part of the reason why the Provos became the dominant Irish-Nationalist organisation was that they won more support from the Nationalist-Roman-Catholic population because of their willingness to engage in sectarian murder. Despite the rhetoric of fighting a legitimate war against “occupying forces” the campaign of the Provisional IRA soon degenerated into sectarian murder and the Provos became little more than a sectarian murder gang. On the 27th June 1970 the Provisional IRA embarked on a sectarian killing spree murdering William Kincaid, Daniel Loughlins and Alexander Gould. These three men were shot dead as they stood on a street corner, shortly after Irish-Republicans had rioted on the Crumlin Road in Belfast. Later that evening the Provisional IRA murdered yet more members of the Protestant community in what would become one of the most infamous sectarian incidents of the troubles at St. Mathews Catholic Chapel in East Belfast. The IRA had laid a trap to lure Protestants into the area and once they had them within range opened fire from their vantage point in the Church and its surroundings. Two men, Robert Neill and Robert James McCurrie were killed and many others wounded.

The year 1971 would see yet a further increase in violent attacks by the Provisional IRA. In 1971 some 43 British Soldiers would die at the hands of the IRA. The most brutal and chilling of these murders was the murder of three young Scottish Soldiers who were ambushed in a “honey trap”. This was a method of killing that involved a female Irish-Republican terrorist or those who were sympathetic to the IRA luring off duty soldiers to a given location usually in the mistaken belief that they were going to a party. The victims, Dougald McCaughey and Joseph and John McCaig (both brothers) were encouraged by a well-known Irish-Republican to travel to a public house in the rural area of Ligoniel. As they stood by the side of the road relieving themselves IRA gunmen shot them from behind. This incident is remembered as one of the incidents that that proved to be the key in the descent of society into full-scale violence.

Alongside attacks against the British army the sectarian murder campaign against the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community continued.  On the 9th February 1971 five men, John Aiken, Harry Edgar, George Beck, William Thomas and Malcolm David Henson, were killed when an IRA bomb blew up a BBC land rover on its way to inspect a transmitter. The Provisional IRA claimed that the BBC van had been mistaken for a British Army land rover but such attempts to justify the murder of Protestant civilians were greeted with skepticism as most people viewed the attack as nothing more than sectarian murder aimed at intimidating the Protestant-Unionist community in Co. Tyrone.

Emergence of the Loyalist Resistance

Quis separabit? (Who will set us apart?)  

Such attacks against the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community resulted in the growing demand that something be done to protect the community from Irish-Nationalist sectarian murder gangs. During the early 1970s in direct response to the threat posed to embattled loyalist communities various loyalist vigilante groups were set up in Belfast (such as the Shankill Defence Association) and other areas of Northern Ireland. The vigilante groups took it upon themselves to do what the security forces were not, provide adequate protection to their communities. The groups were not under one umbrella organisation but had their own area or territory and their own autonomy. There was no overarching command and control structure. At this stage such groupings had little or no access to guns and weapons consisted mainly of cudgels and pickaxe handles. In the community in which the given vigilante group operated every able bodied man was expected to play a full part, either patrolling the area in order to stop attacks by Irish-Republican murder gangs or to contribute in some manner to the functioning of the vigilante group. During this period it was truly a case of David versus Goliath as ordinary working class Loyalists were pitched against the full might of Irish-Imperialism financed and trained by the Irish state.

It would not be until 1971 that the Ulster Defence Association would emerge, unifying many of these various vigilante groups under the one command and control structure under the one banner. Men such as Andy Tyrie, Tommy Herron and others realised the need to have all such organisations under the one overarching organisational structure in order to coordinate them. As a result the Ulster Defence Association was created, its organisational structure in the early days was in keeping with the structure of the regular army. There was also the Inner Council of Commanders or Brigadiers representing territorial based divisions of the state of Northern Ireland. Each Brigadier commanded an area; for example in Belfast there would a North, South, East and West division in terms of command and control. And within that area there would be Companies of varying numerical strength depending upon the area in question. At this stage it is estimated that the membership of the U.D.A. was 30,000 (perhaps more according to some estimates) taking into account total membership across Northern Ireland. The U.D.A. was also emerging as a powerful force in other areas such as Londonderry and in Mid-Ulster in areas such as Portadown there was a growing U.D.A. organisation.

One of the first major tests of the resolve of the U.D.A. came on the 30th June 1972 when the U.D.A. decided to erect barricades and create 'no go' areas in many loyalist areas throughout Northern Ireland. This was in part a response to the actions of the IRA who had erected similar ‘no go’ areas in Londonderry and elsewhere but was also a defensive measure in order to protect the loyalist community from further IRA attacks. Many Loyalists also wanted to place pressure on the British security forces to do their duty and protect the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community by taking down barricades in Irish-Republican strongholds as such ‘no go’ areas allowed Irish-Republican murder gangs to act with impunity as the security forces could not operate within such areas. The stand off between the British security forces and the Ulster Defence Association came about at Ainsworth Avenue in Belfast and was sparked by a dispute over where the barricades being erected by the members of the Ulster Defence Association should be placed. The British army wanted the barricade 100 yards further up Ainsworth Avenue. The Ulster Defence Association did not accept this proposal as it would have left many Protestant homes in the area open to attack from sectarian murder gangs from the Irish-Nationalist community in the nearby Springfield Road.

The Ulster Defence Association was is no mood to compromise with the safety of members of their community and the call went out for members of the Ulster Defence Association to assemble in order to confront the British Army. It is estimated that several thousand members of the Ulster Defence Association heeded the call and assembled in the Ainsworth Avenue area, the issue had become a point of principle, the principle being the safety and security of Protestant families. The British army Commander of Land Forces General Ford spoke to senior representatives of the Ulster Defence Association who were led in their delegation by Andy Tyrie. The result was that a tense situation was defused with the Army promising to ensure the safety of vulnerable Protestant families against attack from Irish-Republican sectarian murder gangs. The next great test of the Ulster Defence Association, and for many the zenith of its political influence, was to come in 1974 with the Ulster Workers Strike.


The Emergence of the Ulster Freedom Fighters

Feriens Tego – (Striking, I defend)

Throughout 1972 the Provisional IRA continued to intensify its campaign, and as a result the incidents of bombings and shootings increased. The death toll for 1972 was higher than for any other year of the troubles with 279 deaths resulting from Irish-Republican terrorism, most of which was the work of the P.I.R.A. This maelstrom of violence was accompanied by political turmoil and the two fed off each other in a destructive cycle. For the Unionist-Loyalist community this uncertainty was felt all the more acutely when the Heath government shut down Stormont, the Northern Ireland government, and imposed direct rule on Northern Ireland. On the streets of Belfast and of towns across Northern Ireland there were shootings and bombings. It seemed to many that this was the “last push” by the IRA and indeed there was talk within Irish-Republicanism of victory in 72. There were also rumours, that proved later to have foundation in fact, that the British government was engaged in secret talks with the P.I.R.A. Such was the level of violence against not just the security forces but also the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community that it appeared that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was under threat as was the very existence of the Loyalist people. The relatively blunt instrument of the Ulster Defence Association needed to be refined.

Whilst the Ulster Defence Association was a more broad based community organisation, involved in various community initiatives as well as in the defensive capacity of seeking to ensure the safety of vulnerable Loyalist communities against sectarian attack, the Ulster Freedom Fighters were to be the military wing. The operational stance of the U.F.F. is reflected in its motto of, “Striking I defend”, with the rationale behind the organisation being to directly engage the sectarian murder gang known as the P.I.R.A. and Irish Republicanism. Unfortunately there were numerous innocent members of the Roman-Catholic community killed as the U.F.F. sought to engage the enemy, an enemy it should be remembered that hid within the midst of the Roman-Catholic community and whom a section of the Irish-Nationalist/Roman Catholic community either actively or passively helped to maintain. It would of course be untruthful to try to justify the proposition that sectarian murder was not carried out under the organisational structure of the U.F.F. but such murders were often reactive in nature. That is, they were a response to the P.I.R.A. killing innocent members of the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community. There was, however, the growing rationale that if the Irish-Nationalist community were prepared to shelter and hide those who were terrorising the Protestant community then for every attack there would be a counter attack. To put it simply, the serve was to be returned and the pain that the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community felt when a member of their community was indiscriminately murdered by the P.I.R.A. was to be “paid back”.

Another aspect behind the rationale of the formation of the U.F.F. was that many within the U.D.A. command and control structure, those who were in charge of the Active Service Units, saw the military side of the U.D.A. being hampered or held back by the Inner Council as they were unable to concentrate solely on military matters. Again this was due in part to the innovative structure and policy orientation of the U.D.A. who were engaged in various community-based schemes. Andy Tyrie promoted community action by means of the Ulster Community Action Group, which helped to establish cooperatives credit unions and the concept and practice of self-help within the loyalist community. This created a contradiction within the movement, in short, there were two fronts of operation and they were to a great extent not compatible. In order better to engage the enemy it was necessary to specialize and so the U.F.F. was to be the military wing of the U.D.A, dedicated to solely military operations against Irish Nationalist terrorists and their active and passive supporters.