If one were to believe the historical revisionism of Irish nationalists, one would come to the conclusion that Loyalist paramilitary groups were armed, trained, financed, directed & controlled by the British state. That is patently untrue. It is a spurious myth that is easily disproven. The Irish nationalist myth makers do not stop there however, because they would also have the world believe that despite such external aid, that Loyalism was incapable of taking the war to their enemies & that republican groups, such as the Provisional IRA, received no outside aid from any source, nor at any time colluded with any third party. The motivation for such irresolute lies is not difficult to understand. Irish nationalism, especially the more extreme varieties, likes to portray the Northern Ireland conflict in a very simple, black & white, way. In the Irish nationalist/republican narrative it is always simply a matter of ‘native Irish gael’ versus the ‘evil Brit occupier’. Loyalists & Unionists do not figure in this fable because republicanism has always insisted that Loyalism & Unionism doesn’t count. Indeed, many Irish nationalists still cling to the ludicrous notion that in the event of a ‘united Ireland’, NI’s pro-Union population will simply throw up their arms, realise the error of their ways & somehow become enthusiastic little Irish men & women, virtually overnight! To concede the fact that Loyalist groups were effective & sophisticated, to concede the fact that they were not controlled, nor armed, trained or funded, by the British state, means by default, conceding that Loyalism was/is a major player within Northern Ireland, undermines some fairly basic republican ideological tenets & complicates the simplistic ‘native vs occupier’ narrative so oft repeated by organisations like INLA/IRSP, PSF & now the multitudinous ‘dissident’ groups which seem to be popping up like mushrooms. Don’t just take my word for it though. Let’s examine the facts, then you can decide for yourself
“TIS WELL THAT WAR IS SO TERRIBLE…”
Those Irish nationalists & republicans that uncritically digest the propaganda spoon-fed to them by their socio-political leaders, often demonstrate their pitiful knowledge of ‘The Troubles’ by alleging that the UVF & Ulster Freedom Fighters killed only a mere handful of active republicans during the long years of conflict. It’s a claim so imbecilic that I usually deem it unworthy of reply. In the interests of historical accuracy however, I will quickly expose this pernicious lie (whilst trying not to laugh)
It is claimed that Loyalist groups only ever managed to kill “a handful” of republicans, others claim they killed only 40 republicans throughout the entire conflict (& often cite the deeply flawed CAIN website to back this up) So let’s look at the facts-
Off the top of my head I can name, err, probably ten or twelve very senior republicans killed by the UVF or UFF. But let’s go back to the beginning, to the start of the erroneously titled ‘Troubles’. In August, 1969, Gerard McCauley, an IRA gunman (this of course is prior to the Official/Provisional split, hence McCauley is classified simply as ‘IRA’) was shot dead by a Loyalist sniper during a gunbattle in the Bombay Street area, off the Falls Road in west Belfast. During 1971 & 72 Loyalists killed another five republican terrorists/paramilitaries. Four members of the Provisional IRA & one member of the paramilitary Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, which is now almost completely forgotten. The CEA was an Irish nationalist organisation set up in 1971, with the stated aim of “protecting Catholic areas”. It’s founding member was Phil Curran who, in common with other members, had previous military training. The CEA was paramilitary in nature. At its most active, in 1972, it had a claimed membership of 8,000. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the CEA was also extensively involved in training both major factions of the IRA (Official & Provisional) at that time, & that some CEA members actively engaged in ‘offensive actions’ against the Loyalist/Unionist community (despite their claim to be merely ‘defending’ Catholic neighbourhoods) with the CEA accused of carrying out bomb & gun attacks which were later claimed to be the work of either the OIRA or PIRA. In 1973 Loyalists killed another four Irish nationalist/republican ‘footsoldiers’, 2 members of PIRA/SF, one Official IRA man & one senior CEA member. In 1974 another four, 2 PIRA/SF, 1 OIRA & 1 CEA. In 1975 & 1976 ten more republicans, of all ranks, were killed by the UFF, UVF & RHC, including senior PSF activist Colm Mulgrew & PSF Vice-President Máire Drumm, shot dead in a joint UFF/UVF operation as she recovered from a minor operation in the Mater Hospital in Belfast. Six more republicans, including OIRA ‘Chief of Staff’, Joe McKee, were killed by Loyalist groups in the last years of the 1970s, bringing to 30 the total number killed between 1969 & 1979. There are of course other dubious or contested instances, where it cannot be proven conclusively that deceased individual was, as claimed, a member of OIRA, PIRA, CEA, INLA etc, but where there is some evidence to support such claims. Of course it was republican policy not to ‘claim’ members who had meet a violent death at the hands of the UVF or Ulster Freedom Fighters, in instances where the dead individual could not be positively tied to the republican movement (an example of ‘plausible deniability). This was done for three reasons. Firstly, groups such as PIRA, INLA etc did not wish to appear vulnerable to Loyalist attack. Secondly, there was the issue of compensation to the victim’s family (NIO compensation would not be paid out to the families of proven terrorists) Thirdly, it is much easier to illicit public & political sympathy for an ‘innocent man’ coldly executed by Loyalist gunmen, rather than a dedicated terrorist, who ‘lived by the gun’ & consequently died by that same instrument.
During the 1980s, the level of Loyalist paramilitary activity decreased, due in part to the fact that the Security Forces seemed to finally be making inroads against Irish nationalist terror gangs, but Irish nationalist/republican activists were still being targeted & killed with some regularity. In the opening years of that decade, there were the UFF ‘shopping list’ killings, were the Ulster Freedom Fighters targeted & eliminated the leadership of the INLA/IRSP & the ‘Anti H-Blocks/Armagh Committee’. In 1980 & 81 Loyalists killed six republican activists, including the INLA terrorist godfathers ( & godmother?), Bunting, Lyttle & Daly. In 1981 the UVF executed James ‘Skipper’ Burns, the most senior member of the Provos to be killed during the conflict. The so-called quartermaster of PIRA’s ‘Northern Command’ was killed as he lay sleeping. His killer, armed with a 9mm pistol & silencer, shot Burns dead & escaped without waking Burns’ girlfriend, who lay sleeping beside him & did not realise he was dead until she woke in the morning. The rest of the decade saw a further 13 Irish nationalist/republican activists, including senior Provos such as Brendan ‘Ruby’ Davidson & Lawrence Marley, killed by the UVF, UFF, PAF & RHC.
A TIME TO KILL
The 1990s (up until the CLMC ceasefire in October ’94) saw an escalation of Loyalist violence. The UFF & UVF began to strike at the very heart of violent republicanism, again & again. In 1990, five members of PIRA/SF were killed, three of whom were convicted terrorists. In 1991, nine members of PIRA/SF & the IPLO were killed, including such ‘luminaries’ as Pádraig ‘Paddy’ O’Seanacháin, a senior member of PIRA/SF in West Tyrone, Tommy Donaghy, a senior ‘officer’ in the Provos ‘South Derry Brigade’ & IPLO ‘Chief of Staff’ Martin ‘Rook’ O’Prey, both of whom were shot on the same day, the 16th of August, in separate UFF & UVF operations in South Londonderry & West Belfast. On the 3rd of March that year, half of a local PIRA Active Service Unit, 3 men (Quinn, O’Donnell & Nugent), were shot & killed by Mid-Ulster UVF outside Boyle’s Bar in the republican stronghold of Cappagh, Co Tyrone.The UVF later released a statement claiming responsibility & stating: “This was not a sectarian attack on the Catholic community, but was an operation directed at the very roots of the Provisional IRA command structure in the Armagh–Tyrone area”. The statement concluded that “if the Provisional IRA were to cease its campaign of terror, the Ulster Volunteer Force would no longer deem it necessary to continue with such military operations”. 1992 saw another six republicans killed by Loyalists, with 4 more killed in 1993, including senior ‘South Derry’ Provo, James Kelly, whose death lead one UFF spokesman to quip- “For the Provos in South Londonderry to lose one CO could be seen as unfortunate, but to lose two in the space of 18 months just smacks of carelessness”. In the ten months of 1994 prior to the Loyalist ceasefire, three more republicans lost their lives at the hands of Loyalist paramilitary units, bringing the total number killed to 27, in less than five years. Again there are those whom Loyalists would consider to have been legitimate targets that republicans would maintain were ‘innocent men’. Indeed, this category may well run to at least 40 or 50 names, if not more. Men like James Kerr, shot dead by the Red Hand Commando in 1972. Kerr is listed by CAIN as a “Catholic civilian” but the republican National Graves Association maintains his final resting place & in one of their publications, ‘Republican Belfast Graves’, Kerr is named as a member of the Provisional IRA. Such muddying of the waters reminds me of an incident in 1991. A notorious republican & self confessed Provo had just been killed by the UFF, the media was on the scene & the family was being interviewed. The dead man’s widow was asked why he was killed, between sobs she stated “They shot him because he was a Catholic. Our ___ wasn’t involved in nothing political, he was an innocent man”. A few hours later, that “innocent man” was ‘claimed’ by the local PIRA as being one of their ‘volunteers’ (something they probably felt they couldn’t avoid, given the man’s notoriety). Someone was clearly out of the loop on that one! Either the dead man’s wife did not know he was a republican terrorist, or more probably, had been told that, in the event of anything happening to him, she was to deny everything, & being a good little republican, she did as she was told, not realising that it would backfire rather spectacularly & make all concerned look both dishonest & incompetent. There is also the issue of those categorised as ‘innocent civilians’ who were, nonetheless, regarded as legitimate targets by Loyalist paramilitary groups. Members of the GAA for instance, which provided financial & moral support to Irish nationalism & republicanism throughout the conflict, were often targeted & killed. Members of the West Belfast Taxi Association too were regarded as legitimate targets, since that organisation was widely perceived as being a front for the Provisional IRA. The SDLP & Workers Party have also lost members to Loyalist actions. Though it is interesting to note that only one such organisation, PIRA/SF, complains about alleged collusion & seems unable to accept the conflict related deaths of their comrades.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE, WHO NEEDS ENEMIES?
Of course, when confronted with the facts, most Irish nationalists & republicans will simply shrug their shoulders & dismiss anything which does not fit with their skewed version of events, but some will no doubt concede that, yes, Loyalists could & did strike at the very heart of the republican war machine, but of course they will tell anyone fool enough to listen, that was only because the UFF, UVF & RHC were acting as proxies for the British state. That claim would be a hell of a lot more plausible if were not for a few inconvenient facts. Like why did the ‘Brits’ spend so much time & energy trying to prevent Loyalist groups obtaining arms? For instance, the massive UVF arms shipment intercepted by the Security Services (MI5) at Teesport, England, in November of 1993. Surely the British state, if they were the benefactors & backers of organisations like the UVF, would welcome their purchase of 300 assault rifles, dozens of handguns & well over two tonnes of plastic explosive? Why, if republican claims have any veracity, would the security apparatus of the UK move to prevent such a restocking of the UVF’s arsenal? A few years earlier, in 1988, the Security Forces had also moved against the UFF in similar fashion, seizing part of a Lebanese arms shipment consisting of 30 handguns, 61 AK-47 assault rifles, 150 grenades & more than 11,000 rounds of ammunition.
And what of the Loyalists killed by the Security Forces within Northern Ireland? Or the thousands who were locked away for years in the nissen huts, & then the H-blocks, of Long Kesh? Were the female UVF & UFF volunteers incarcerated in Armagh gaol, ‘proxies of the British state’? Was Billy Wright a puppet of the ‘Brits’ when they colluded with the INLA/IRSP to facilitate his murder? What of the homes of suspected Loyalist activists, trashed as thoroughly by the RUC & Army, as any home in the Bogside or South Armagh? Do Irish nationalists really believe that UVF & UFF volunteers held at Castlereagh Holding Centre, were treated any less inhumanely or threatened any less frequently than INLA, IPLO or PIRA men? If Loyalists were in cahoots with the Security Forces, the RUC & Army seem to have been very dubious friends indeed! The inconvenient truth is, the state would have, given the opportunity, smashed Loyalism into the ground, then concentrated on Irish nationalism. Indeed, the fact that a new offence of “Directing Terrorism” was put on the statute books, just to take Johnny Adair off the streets of West Belfast, speaks volumes about the relationship between Loyalism & the Establishment. The state could have armed, organised & trained their own proxy force, recruited from ex-Army personnel within the Loyalist/Unionist community, had they so wished, & turned them loose on republicans. They could have ‘adopted’ one of the Loyalist paramilitary groups as their own. Removed senior people & put their own stooges in their place, then directed & controlled that group as they saw fit. They didn’t & that leaves one asking- why didn’t they? The only logical answer is, they preferred not to take sides & wiping Irish nationalism off the face of the Earth would not have been advantageous to them. Better to simply give a ‘nudge’ or two when required & keep both sides more or less equal in capacity. Successive UK governments did not want a Loyalist victory in Northern Ireland, they wanted a long-term political solution and/or a Security Force victory. The government & Security Service had equal disdain for both sides in the Ulster conflict, although to quote one former agent of the state “I always preferred the Orangies, because unlike the Provos, they recognised that if they wanted to play with the big boys, then it was big boys rules!”
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH
The truth is always more complex than propaganda. There is no black & white in history, especially very recent history. There are only shades of grey. Did individual members of the Security Forces pass information to Loyalists? Yes, they did. Sometimes. UDR & (less frequently) RUC personnel became so disillusioned, so disgusted at the nihilistic violence & indiscriminate bombing of republican gangs, that yes they gave snippets of information to known UFF, UVF & RHC members. UDR & RUC personnel also engaged in careless talk, in bars, in clubs, at football matches etc. Loyalists have ears (they’re just below our horns!) & loose talk is almost always overheard by someone (hence the name ‘loose talk’) There were also times when information came from higher up. There were times when it suited the Security Services to get certain people ‘out of the way’ (permanently). MI5 have a way of getting what they want (RUC Special Branch too) But that went for both sides. Did the Security Services also sometimes steer republican groups towards a certain target? Yes, undoubtedly. The truth is that ‘The Troubles’ was a dirty, grubby war. Both sides, Loyalist & republican, were sometimes played off each other. Republicans took information they were given about Loyalists, despite their professed hatred of the ‘Brits’. Loyalists took information given to them about republicans, despite the fact that all such information should have been treated as deeply suspect. Were the UFF, UVF, RHC & other Loyalist organisations mere puppets of MI5, the UK government, RUC SB or a combination of all three? No, they were not. Were Loyalist groups funded, armed, directed, trained and/or controlled by the British state? No, they were not. Had they been, to put it crudely, there would not have been enough Irish nationalists/republicans left to complain about it!
TO BE CONTINUED…
The history of collusion is not just about alleged collusion between the state & Loyalist forces. Nor about collusion between ‘dark forces’ within the security apparatus & players on both sides of the divide. There was some institutional collusion between state & armed groups, but the state in question was not the British state, it was the Irish state. In the next part we will look at how the Dublin government of the time, funded, armed & helped to organise the Provisional IRA & how organs of that state (most notably elements within An Garda Síochána) colluded with PIRA/SF in the murder of British citizens. To be continued…