Loyalists and Guns

Iain Turner with a talk he gave at Talk given at East Belfast ACT Initiative Cordner-Long Lecture on 27 February 2015. Iain Turner is a historian who blogs at Balaclava Street.
First of all, I’d like to thank East Belfast ACT Initiative for inviting me to speak today. It’s a privilege for an amateur like myself to be given the opportunity and to be in such company as Gareth and William. I’d also like to say that this is probably the first time I’ve been up on stage since I performed in the school pantomime aged 12, so if I stumble along the way, forgive me!
Now, in July of last year I began researching an article about the history of loyalist paramilitaries and firearms. I’d previously written a similar piece on the history of loyalist bombing campaigns focusing particularly on the UVF campaign of late 1973 and thought that a look at the other part of the loyalist paramilitary arsenal would work as a follow-up.
During research for the article I was lucky to have the co-operation of Greater Shankill ACT, which was of great assistance given the often sensitive nature of the subject I was writing about. They were able to facilitate firstly a Q & A with a knowledgeable individual within the UVF using an intermediary and then later a face-to-face meeting. These were particularly valuable, and I believe that as both a facilitator and gatherer of research ACT has much to offer writers looking into the history of the UVF. Later on West Belfast UPRG granted me an interview into the topic of decommissioning which was similarly useful. In addition I carried out interviews with several other individuals with either UVF or UDA backgrounds.
In spite of the subject matter it actually proved easier getting people from a paramilitary background to talk than it did getting quotes from firearms experts or manufacturers. When I contacted a certain gun manufacturer in the Czech Republic, they said they didn’t want to be associated with terrorism. These are the people who armed the PLO for about ten years during the Cold War!
There were a number of things which brought me to the topic of loyalist weapons, but one of the more important ones was a tweet made by the Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson in February of last year, in which she stated:
All weaponry used by the UDA and the UVF came from the state – either directly or through the shipment of weapons from South Africa
Contrary to her claims I found no evidence to suggest that the UDA and UVF ever received weapons from the British government, either directly or indirectly, and that includes the so-called South African shipment which in reality neither involved South Africa nor Brian Nelson.
What I actually found was that for much of the conflict the UVF and UDA were not particularly well-armed, in fact desperate for arms. In the early 70s they were equipped largely with antiques dating from before the First World War or whatever other relics could be scraped together – remnants from the famed gunrunning exploits of the original Ulster Volunteers. That the loyalist paramilitaries even resorted to stealing from IRA arms dumps is an indication of their logistical shortcomings.
To make up the shortfall, the paramilitaries exploited the manual skills which existed within the Protestant working class and manufactured their own firearms.
More common was the tactic of raiding British Army and RUC bases for arms, but this brought the UVF and UDA into conflict with groups they ostensibly existed to support, groups – the revisionists would have us believe – they were secretly working hand-in-hand with at every turn.
In reality such incidents were at the time deeply embarrassing for the authorities. In March 1973 the UVF broke into the state forensics labs and stole a hundred firearms from under the noses of the security forces. Apart from the loss of so many weapons, the raid caused the collapse of a number of court cases pending against loyalists AND republicans. If there was a hidden hand at work here its motives are mysterious.
It all depends on how you define collusion. If you’re referring to the acts of individuals then collusion undeniably took place. On occasion individual members of the UDR assisted loyalist paramilitaries in raids against army bases. Yet at the same time the UDR was also instrumental in recovering arms stolen from the very same bases, such as after the UVF raid in Lurgan in October 1972. The evidence that exists suggests that what collusion did exist in this regard was low-level, disorganised, and often at odds with the aims of the British government.
Going back to the website article, for reasons of length I did not get to cover the role of women within the UVF and UDA. Women – whether sworn volunteers or unofficial auxiliaries – were active in transporting, storing, and hiding weapons, activities which were absolutely critical to these organisations. In the UVF some of these women were the wives of UVF members who became involved through their husband’s involvement. Such activities were not without risk – in one incident from the early 70s three women transporting weapons for the UVF were wounded when their car became caught in the crossfire during a gun battle between the IRA and the British Army. Women hid rifles inside their coats and in babies prams and crossed army lines during the early 70s when open gun battles between loyalists and republicans took place across the peace lines.
Another thing I did not have the opportunity to detail was the part played by some of the legal paramilitary groups. Groups like the Orange Volunteers, Ulster Special Constabulary Association, and Down Orange Welfare enjoyed a considerable profile during the 1970s but have been somewhat lost to history since then.
Although none of these groups claimed credit for any violent actions during the conflict, some of their members – particularly those with military experience – played a part in giving weapons training to members of the UVF and UDA. In fact, if the security forces can be said to have assisted the loyalist paramilitaries in any way, it was in inadvertently providing a pool of ready-trained instructors in the form of the veterans of the British Army who lived within the loyalist community. Yet at the same time republicans also gained from this, with the now equally obscure Catholic ex-Servicemans Association performing a similar function on the other side of the barricades.
Without the support of Tory mercantile and political classes enjoyed by the original gunrunners of 1914, or a large and affluent diaspora, or state sponsorship from the likes of Libya, the modern loyalist paramilitaries had to make do with what was available.

  • For example, in 1972 Tim Finn – a national organiser of The Ancient Order of Hibernians in the US – claimed they had sent 1 million dollars to the IRA. Whether the figure is correct or not, it gives an indication of the potential support.
Gunrunning took place from Scotland, England, and Canada although it is hard to assess the overall extent of this as the really successful ones are the ones you don’t hear about.
As the conflict progressed methods became more sophisticated as did the type of arms being brought in. By the early 1990s the arsenals of the loyalist paramilitaries could in some respects rival that of the Provisional IRA.
All the while the security forces worked to intercept and limit the flow of arms to loyalist organisations. The statistics for arms seizures and the numbers of those imprisoned attest to that, as do the heavy sentences imposed. Rearmament in the late 80s and early 90s came about in spite, not because, of the security forces.
It would be hard to devise a mechanism more effective at undermining confidence in the peace process than decommissioning as it eventually took shape. It was desired neither by the British government nor a considerable number of the Northern Irish population. It was not demanded of the IRA by the UVF, UDA, and their political representatives or vice versa. And it was constructed in such a way that even if successfully delivered there would be no proof to satisfy those who had demanded it.
Most people know that while some successful in many respects decommissioning was an imperfect process. As illegal organisations the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries had no inventory of the arms they possessed, while the security forces could only record weapons which had been used and not those stored away in bunkers.
We know that republican guns still exist because they’ve been used against the security forces and fired over coffins and so on. Some of these are former Provisional IRA weapons stolen shortly after the formation of the Real IRA. Of course, Micky McKevitt who founded the Real IRA is himself a former Provisional quartermaster-general. Some of them have been brought in in the years since.
I personally don’t agree with the notion that rust is the best form of decommissioning. Any weapons that are hidden away will outlive those that put them there. After all, the first guns used by the UVF and UDA in the early 70s were brought in on the Clyde Valley and were many years older than most of the men who used them.
So regardless of how responsible their present custodians might judge themselves there is no guarantee that their inheritors 20 or 30 or even 40 years hence will be similarly-minded. Firearms are a valuable commodity and the temptation to make a quick profit by selling or even hiring out weapons to criminal gangs may be hard to resist.
To see the consequences of such a situation we only have to look a hundred miles south. Dublin presently has the highest rate of gun crime in western Europe, the result of unchecked feuding between various drug gangs and republican paramilitary remnants. The dozens of killings and scores of woundings have been facilitated by firearms left over from the conflict or brought in since using routes established then. With an average age of 27, most of the victims are young and working class.
It would be a tragedy if such a situation came to pass in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that it will not. Guns are useless without the will to use them, and with every year that passes in the absence of structured violence – notwithstanding the feeble efforts of some to turn the clock back to 1972 – the chances of their reappearance diminish. It will be for the best if they are uncovered only as historical curiosities by amateur treasure seekers or the farmers plough many years from now.
While during the conflict the guns of the UVF and UDA may have offered a sense of security for those within the loyalist community who felt threatened by republican violence, circumstances have changed dramatically. The most potent weapon for the future may be the sense of confidence that comes from education, meaningful employment, and freedom from crime and anti-social behaviour. Thank you.

No comments