Militant Loyalism And The Hunger Strikes

Dr Aaron Edwards is an author, academic and historian. His book, UVF: Behind the Mask, will be published by Merrion Press in 2017. He argues in the Irish Times that:

The prison protests had a mixed effect on loyalist paramilitaries, driving some towards politics and galvanising others into an even greater killing spree

Reflecting on the republican hunger strikes, loyalist terrorist Billy Wright said in 1995 that he “knew the significance of what was happening and I knew the reality of what I was witnessing... that here was a movement that would inflict on itself so much violence for its own ideology that, what would it not do to other human beings? And I knew that it had to be resisted”

The hunger strikes are remembered for the political effect they had on republicans. Yet, paradoxically, the prison protests also had a mixed effect on militant loyalists, driving some towards politics and galvanising others into an even greater killing spree.

One of the forgotten effects of the republican prison protests of 1980-81 is just how much of an impact they had on the thinking of loyalists. Dr Connal Parr notes in his article for this series that the late PUP leader Hugh Smyth believed that some loyalists “would have secretly admired the courage of the Bobby Sandses of this world”. As Parr suggests, mainstream unionist politicians like Ian Paisley were firmly against it at the time and their voices have tended to drown out alternative perspectives during this extraordinary period in modern Irish history. The truth is that while some loyalists saw it as an opportunity to develop their own political voice, others remained convinced that the only way to put the brakes on physical force republicanism was to respond with violence.

I remember standing at the gates of an H Block, where the blanket protest was taking place… And standing beside me was a blanket protester, whose name I don’t know and can’t remember, and he hadn’t washed in approximately a year. He had jaundice, his eyes were bloodshot and he was physically wrecked. And he was repulsive even to look at. The stench of urine and excrement round him was just in the air. But there was an atmosphere of pure history. And even as a young man I stood in awe and said to myself ‘you’re looking at history’.

These are the words of Billy Wright, one of the UVF’s most feared commanders, speaking about an encounter he had with a republican prisoner at the time of the blanket protest.

Wright was born in 1960 and joined the UVF in 1975, though he was only active for a few weeks before he was arrested and charged with possession of illegal firearms. By 1977 he had become a wing commander in H2, where most of the prisoners were under the age of 21. It was at this time that he claimed to have engaged in debates and discussions with republicans, which helped him draw his “first opinions of the republican movement”.

What is not generally known is that Wright was one of several loyalists who joined the blanket protest to lobby for the return of Special Category Status, which had been introduced in November 1976. They were soon ordered “off the blanket” when outside opinion within wider unionism turned against what was perceived to be a republican-led agenda.

Reflecting on the republican no wash protest and ensuing hunger strike, Wright told an interviewer in 1995 that he:

knew the significance of what was happening and I knew the reality of what I was witnessing. And the reality of what I was witnessing was that here was a movement that would inflict on itself so much violence for its own ideology that, what would it not do to other human beings? And I knew that it had to be resisted. That it was a danger, and that it was a danger to my people. Not even to my way of life but to my people.

Wright later claimed that during the first hunger strike, he came to regard republicanism as a threat.

These people are so ate up with their own emotions and their own hatred that they are quite prepared to do to anything or anyone whatever it takes to have their own way. And that never, ever left me and never has left me. And I think history will bear me out to be correct in that analogy.

From a range of other interviews Wright gave in the early to mid-1990s, we know that he was at pains to legitimise the UVF’s actions, especially since the organisation had clearly targeted Catholic civilians, most of whom had no connection to the Provisional IRA. The construction of elaborate justifications for killing civilians was not confined to the UVF, of course, and was a standard operating procedure within other terrorist groups at the time, including the Provisional IRA, INLA and UDA/UFF.

The hunger strikes served to convince Wright and other militant loyalists that they too had to be prepared to fight – and, in some cases, to die –for what they believed in, even if it meant taking the lives of innocents.

It was in this respect that the hunger strikes provoked a mixed reaction within loyalism. Some of the UVF’s younger members eschewed politics for re-engagement in what they would come to call “armed resistance” whenever they were released from prison. These individuals saw the mobilisation of the Catholic community over the republican prison protests as posing an adjunct threat to their community and in later years would come to use terms like “pan-nationalist front” in an attempt to legitimise their actions.

Some of these men would later become household names thanks to the “sex and Semtex” approach of some Sunday red tops in Ireland. Billy Wright would rise to become the commander of the Mid Ulster UVF. Trevor King, who had also served a prison sentence in the 1970s, would take command of the UVF in its west Belfast heartland, while Frankie Curry, a nephew of UVF figurehead Gusty Spence, became one of the most prolific gunmen for the Red Hand Commando, a UVF-aligned satellite group.

These men may have flirted with the idea of Long Kesh style “university” seminars, organised by Spence in order to develop a political cadre for the UVF, which would later form the nucleus of the PUP. But they saw themselves, first and foremost, as dedicated “military men”, for whom discussion of politics would have to take a back seat until the UVF achieved its military-led policy of “armed resistance”.

By the early 1980s the UVF had entered a period of great turbulence. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was on the verge of applying a new weapon in the counter-terrorism war against paramilitary groups. The supergrass system would eventually become discredited, largely as a result of the failure of the government and judiciary to support it in the face of sustained opposition from loyalists, republicans and Amnesty International. For a few short years, though, it succeeded in removing some of the more dangerous individuals within loyalism and republicanism, with the consequence that violence decreased. Paramilitarism was now on its knees.

With most of the UVF’s top tier in prison and its so-called “Director of Operations” on the run, younger men started to fill glaring holes in the organisation’s command structure. Those with tough reputations, ambition and a predilection for killing were elevated to leadership positions.

A decade on, these men would come to run the UVF’s campaign of terror.

Whereas political thinkers like Gusty Spence, Hugh Smyth, Billy Hutchinson and David Ervine saw republican politicisation during the prison protests as a positive force that would eventually muzzle their violence, others, like Wright, King and Curry, saw it as a posing an even greater threat to the Protestant community. For the remainder of their lives they would continue to advocate physical force as the only real option for removing this threat.

With the absence of a political vehicle to channel this kind of fear, hatred and commitment to violence, politics and militarism would continue to remain dialectical concepts in militant loyalism.

It was to take loyalists another generation before they realised that the real cutting edge of the Provisional movement was its political project. Only then did they move to exchange force for political activism.


  1. Billy Wright was a drug munching murderer who had an ego matched only by his drug intake. He would have ended up in jail wherever he had been born. At least those in the UDR/RUC were savvy enough to know it was all about opportunity and making a few quid. However strongly they felt toward the IRA and RC community, and with justification, the majority of them managed to compartmentalise the issues within the government backed structures available. There was plenty of scope for 'defending' the loyalist people in uniform. Billy was nothing but a nasty wee criminal pill popper. But as we now know almost certainly directed by and on the payroll of the security forces. The very people who wanted him out of the way so he couldn't be writing a much more accurate and devastating book than the one in question here. Many an SB war criminal sleeps easier in their bed knowing Billy is dead. I don't think too many in the UVF other than Irvine actually had what it took to cut-it politically. In the present political climate of Brexit and a push for a border poll I would not be surprised if loyalists crossed the line to violence again. They have form. The false flag attack on Silent Valley and the shooting of the barman Ward in the 1960s when the IRA was dead and burred after the 1950s campaign. With a Tory government what better way to focus the Conservative Party away from Brexit and border polls to the old Prod favourite, 'security'. Or, another option, the dissidents suddenly become spectacularly effective right out of the blue. Ulster under attack. Pump in the money!! By and large fairly predictable. As for the book, little loyalist cheerleaders may be inclined to read it as it will give a certain type of false sophistication to their filthy activities that simply isn't deserved.

  2. Larry,

    He was also a pure scumbag who also held he's own community in fear of him.

    But there is no appetite or desire for violence in the loyalist community. Maybe an odd dickhead will do something stupid but that'd be it.

  3. How's it going Anthony? I recall uear's past, working in Carrick, not macross, where I met, worked with and got on fierce well with a man whom jad done time in the Kesh for loyalist terrorism (so he wasn't an agent) but, je stunned me one evening he as mentioned his deep regard for those who had fought the gaol war, lad's like you and Larryobullfighter, or was that shitter Lawrence?
    This gave me a different way of looking at the slightly less official loyalist terrorists, shortly thereafter I returned to an old job where, as fate had it, I worked with a lot of ex RUC, Brit and Screws, the official loyalist terrorists, therein, the view was wholly degotary on the sacrafice of the men, and women, and supporters, who gave so much.

  4. Menace

    You certainly gravitate towards some questionable sorts.

  5. Lawrence, you could not be more right, albeit, needs must at times.
    Hope you are all good.

  6. Menace

    only seeing that now. All good here. Remember as I said, Hughes aint a title its more of a 'syndrome'