Loyalist paramilitaries: the UVF and UDA

loyalist paramilitaries

A parade of Loyalist paramilitary volunteers in Derry

The Provisional IRA, the Official IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army were not the only paramilitary groups active during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Loyalists also formed paramilitary groups, determined to resist Irish republicanism and protect their own communities. Like the IRA, Ulster Unionists had a history of taking up arms for political causes that went back to the early 20th century. Loyalists paramilitaries reemerged in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement, growing unrest and sporadic Nationalist violence. The best known Loyalist paramilitaries were the Ulster Volunteer Force, formed in 1966, and the Ulster Defence Association, formed 1971. For three decades these groups engaged in a running battle with Republican groups, Catholic communities and occasionally with each other. Loyalist paramilitaries used similar methods to the IRA and their members displayed similar levels of fanaticism and secrecy. And just as with the IRA, the victims of Loyalist violence were often innocents who were caught in the crossfire or in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The origins of militant Loyalism date back to 1912 and the introduction of the Home Rule Bill into the British parliament. Fearing a Dublin-based government dominated by Catholics and Nationalists, Protestants in the six northern counties began organising their own civilian militias. In 1913 these militias were combined to form the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which threatened to initiate a civil war if Home Rule was introduced. With the assistance of the German government the UVF smuggled thousands of rifles into Ireland. But the threat of civil war was averted by the outbreak of World War I. Home Rule was set aside, while thousands of UVF volunteers instead enlisted for military service in Europe. The UVF was temporary revived during the Irish War of Independence (1919-22) but faded away soon after. Partition enabled Ulster’s Unionists to maintain their position through control of the government, while many former UVF members joined the ‘Special Bs’, the notorious police reserve.

Gusty Spence, the UVF's charismatic military commander in the 1960s

Gusty Spence, the UVF’s charismatic military commander in the 1960s

The onset of the civil rights movement in the mid 1960s produced a revival in militant Loyalism. Two Loyalist paramilitaries were formed in 1966: the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The UPV was a short-lived group led by the Reverend Ian Paisley and other fundamentalist Protestants. It was best known for bombing power stations and water supplies in March and April 1969, as a protest against the Northern Ireland government’s moderate policies. Of greater significance was the UVF, which took its name from the anti-Home Rule militia of the 1910s. The catalyst for the formation of the UVF was the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which generated an increase in Nationalist sentiment, celebrations and marches. The UVF’s first military commander was Gusty Spence, a Shankill Road hard man who had served in the British Army as a sergeant. Under Spence, the group began its campaign in the spring of 1966. In April UVF members petrol-bombed a Catholic primary school in Belfast. The following month the UVF also attacked a Catholic pub in Belfast, the ensuing fire leading to the death of an elderly woman. On May 21st UVF leaders issued a statement:

“From this day, we declare war against the Irish Republican Army and its splinter groups. Known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation. Less extreme measures will be taken against anyone sheltering or helping them, but if they persist in giving them aid, then more extreme methods will be adopted. We solemnly warn the authorities to make no more speeches of appeasement. We are heavily armed Protestants dedicated to this cause.”

A week later, UVF members were sent to assassinate a Belfast IRA volunteer, Leo Martin. When Martin could not be found they shot dead a Catholic civilian, a young man named John Scullion, as he walked home from a night out. In June the UVF gunned down three men leaving a Catholic pub in Belfast, killing one. These killings defined the UVF’s campaign of sectarian violence, which all too frequently failed to differentiate between Republican paramilitaries and civilians. Like John Scullion, many victims were selected at random, simply because they were Catholic or in Catholic areas. In June 1966 the Northern Ireland government declared the UVF an illegal organisation and arrested Gusty Spence and three others. Spence was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He remained there until 1984, bar a four month period in 1972 where he escaped. Meanwhile, the UVF rebooted its military activities in early 1969, supporting the UPV with its bombing campaign and working to undermine the O’Neill government, which Loyalists considered to weak and conciliatory to defend Ulster from Catholics and Nationalists. The UVF and other Loyalist groups were active during the unrest and violence of August 1969, attacking Catholic communities and destroying property. In October a Loyalist gunman shot dead a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer. Between August and December the UVF also organised a wave of attacks in the Republic of Ireland, bombing a television studio, a police station and infrastructure. Some of the deadlier and more significant actions of the UVF during the Troubles include:

loyalist paramilitaries

Victims are helped from the ruins of McGurk’s Bar after it was bombed by the UVF

McGurk’s Bar Bombing. Just after 8.30pm on December 4th 1971, a bomb wrapped in brown paper was placed near the doorway to McGurk’s Bar, a Catholic pub in central Belfast. It exploded shortly after, weakening the building’s foundations and causing it to collapse. The blast and falling debris killed 15 people and injured 17 others, all of them Catholic. Among the fatalities, were the wife and teenage daughter of the bar owner, Patrick McGurk, who later pleaded for Republican paramilitary groups not to retaliate. It later emerged that the bombers targeted McGurk’s Bar after failing to gain access to an IRA pub, their original target. The attack on McGurk’s bar came at a time of severe unrest and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland; there were more than 50 bombings in December 1971 alone. The initial police investigation found the blast was the accidental detonation of a Provisional IRA bomb inside the bar; this was vehemently denied by the IRA and later found to be incorrect. In 1977 Robert Campbell, a UVF member, was charged and convicted of the bombing and sentenced to life in prison.

Click to hear a BBC Radio news report on the McGurk’s Bar bombing


loyalist paramilitaries

The Miami Showband

The Miami Showband Massacre. On July 31st 1975 UVF members committed one of the most notorious acts of violence of the Troubles, when it attacked a minibus near Buskhill, County Down. Inside the minibus was a cabaret band, the Miami Showband, who were en route to Dublin following a show in Banbridge. The minibus was stopped at a fake checkpoint set up by UVF members and those inside were forced to stand on the roadside as ‘military personnel’ checked their vehicle. Those examining the minibus were in fact planting a bomb – but the device was not correctly timed and exploded, killing both UVF members. The surviving Loyalists opened fire on the band members, instantly killing three. The Miami Showband was not a Catholic group (it had both Catholic and Protestant members) and had no connection to the Troubles. Historian Martin Dillon has asserted that while all the gunmen were UVF members, at least three also belonged to the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).

The Shankill Butchers. The Shankill Butchers were a contingent of serial killers active in Belfast in the 1970s. Though not an official UVF unit, the Butchers were nevertheless staunch Loyalists and many of their members were UVF members. The group was recruited and organised by Lenny Murphy, probably in 1975. Murphy was a petty criminal and notorious thug from the Shankill Road area of Belfast. Raised to hate Catholics, sectarianism provided Murphy with an excuse for senseless violence and murder. Under his leadership the Butchers shot four Catholic bar workers in 1975 and were probably responsible for other killings and acts of violence. In November 1975 they snatched 34-year-old Francis Crossen off the street, drove him back to Shankill, beat him then cut his throat. Between late 1975 and 1979 the gang murdered at least 30 people: mostly random Catholics and Republican paramilitaries, but also Protestants they considered to have betrayed or undermined the Loyalist cause. Murphy himself was murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1982, not far from where the bodies of several of his victims were dumped.

loyalist paramilitaries

A mural commemorating the Red Hand Commando

The Red Hand Commando. The Red Hand Commando (RHC) was a UVF satellite group, which existed separately from the UVF but often carried out missions on its behalf. Its founder, Johnny McKeague, was a notorious Catholic-hater, once aligned with Ian Paisley. Notoriously erratic and secretly homosexual, McKeague recruited young Loyalists from East Belfast and formed the RHC, which derived its name from the heraldic symbol for Ulster. From early 1972 the RHC carried out bombings and drive-by shootings in Catholic areas. Officially the RHC was responsible for 13 deaths, though the true number is undoubtedly higher. Most of its victims were civilians. In October 1976 RHC volunteers entered a Belfast hospital dressed as doctors and assassinated former Sinn Fein politician Maire Drumm, shooting her as she lay in her hospital bed. The RHC was also responsible for murdering several members of rival Loyalist groups.

The Ulster Defence Association

The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was formed several years after the UVF but became just as deadly. The origins of the UDA can be traced back to a group of pigeon breeders from the Shankill Road area. Angry at growing Nationalist violence and the disbanding of the ‘B Specials’ in 1970, these men decided to form a local ‘defence association’. By late 1971 a number of these associations had merged to form the UDA, under the command of Charles Harding Smith, a former British Army soldier. The group grew quickly and by 1972 claimed to have around 30,000 members. The UDA itself presented as a legitimate organisation, dedicated to lawful action (its motto was ‘Law before violence’), however there were scores of active paramilitary volunteers among its ranks. In 1973 the UDA formed a Loyalist paramilitary group called the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). Ostensibly a separate group, the UFF was in reality a cover for UDA members when conducting military or terrorist operations. The UDA or UFF was responsible for many brutal incidents during the Troubles, including:

Benny's Bar after the attack that killed two young girls

Benny’s Bar after the attack that killed two young girls

Benny’s Bar bombing. On October 31st (Halloween) 1972, UDA volunteers exploded a car bomb outside Benny’s Bar, a Catholic-owned pub in Sailortown, the non-sectarian docklands area of Belfast. The car was loaded with 45 kilograms of explosive and parked outside the bar, then detonated in the early evening. The blast killed two Catholic girls, four-year-old Clare Hughes and six-year-old Paula Strong, who were dressed as witches and trick-or-treating along Ship Street. A further 12 people were badly injured, including other children playing nearby. The bomb also destroyed much of the pub and damaged several houses along the street. The death of two innocent children caused horror and outrage, however the UDA continued to attack Catholic pubs and businesses. Only three days after the Benny’s Bar attack, UDA members crossed the border into the Republic of Ireland and bombed a pub there. On December 20th UDA gunmen attacked another Catholic-owned pub, this time in Derry, and shot dead five civilians.

Mourners duck for cover during the Milltown Cemetery grenade attack

Mourners duck for cover during the Milltown Cemetery attack

“The UDA was formed out of the various local associations in the summer of 1971 and grew rapidly, so that it could soon turn three or four thousand uniformed and marching men on to the streets. Although its public leaders maintained that the UDA was defensive, there were from the start members who thought the best form of defence was attack. The thinking was simple. The ‘Taigs’ had already got three-quarters of the island in 1920 and they were not going to get Ulster. The IRA is killing ‘Prods’; we will kill Republicans; if we cannot find Republicans we will kill Catholics.”
Steve Bruce, historian

The Milltown Cemetery attack. In March 1988 three Provisional IRA volunteers were killed by British commandos in Gibraltar, while planning a bomb attack. A funeral for the three ‘Provos’ was held in Belfast eight days later. With tensions already high, hundreds of mourners – including prominent Republican leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – followed the funeral cortege to Milltown Cemetery in Belfast’s Falls Road district. As the coffins were being lowered, two grenades were thrown into the crowd by Michael Stone, a UDA member who had infiltrated the funeral. Stone fled towards a nearby motorway, pursued by a group of mourners; as he ran Stone hurled grenades and fired bullets at his pursuers, killing three. The crowd eventually caught Stone and beat him unconscious, before RUC officers arrived and arrested him. Stone was convicted of the Milltown killings and three other murders and sentenced to 684 years in prison. There has been much debate about whether Stone, a trusted and successful operator, carried out the Milltown attack as a ‘free agent’ or with the backing of the UDA. Three days later, two British Army corporals were captured, beaten and murdered by the Provisional IRA – after they mistakenly drove into the funeral cortege of one of the Milltown Cemetery victims.

According to statistics compiled by Malcolm Sutton, Loyalist paramilitary groups were responsible for more than 740 deaths during the three decades of the Troubles. The UVF was the deadliest of these groups, carrying out 481 killings, while the UDA/UFF was responsible for 260 deaths.

northern ireland
1. The formation of Loyalist paramilitary groups dates back to the anti-Home Rule movement in the 1910s.
2. Loyalist paramilitaries reemerged in the mid 1960s in response to the civil rights movement and rising nationalism.
3. The first significant group was the Ulster Volunteer Force, which formed in 1966 and began attacking Catholics.
4. The Ulster Defence Association and its military wing, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, emerged in the early 1970s.
5. For three decades these groups attacked suspected Republican paramilitaries, prominent Nationalists, critics of Loyalism, randomly chosen Catholic civilians, and occasionally each other. They used similar methods to the Provisional IRA and often engaged in sporadic, spontaneous violence against randomly chosen Catholic civilians. In sum, Loyalist paramilitary groups killed more than 740 people during the Troubles.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “Loyalist paramilitaries: the UVF and UDA”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/northernireland/loyalist-paramilitaries/.