Christopher Owens interviews Gareth Mulvenna about his research based understanding of the world of Loyalism.
In the last few years, Dr. Gareth Mulvenna has been the most visible of a new breed of researcher who are actively documenting (and finding new angles around) the loyalist experience in the conflict. His 2016 book, Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries, was a revelation, not only exploring the role the Tartan played, but also exploring the foundation of the Red Hand Commando.
An active presence online, I am very grateful for Dr. Mulvenna to take some time from his schedule to answer these questions. If we want to expand our understanding of our recent history, we need people like Dr. Mulvenna and Iain Turner (Balaclava Street).
GM: In a word, no. But my parents are in no way nationalist. At the beginning of the Alliance Party in the early 1970s my mum and one of my aunts became involved, hoping that it would bring people together. Now, this wasn’t some detached middle-class view; my parents lived off Alliance Avenue and the army were often in their front garden. My mum and dad speak about lying in bed and hearing the gun battles going on in neighbouring streets and districts and being convinced that when they woke up in the morning the streets would be full of dead bodies. My brother was born in August 1972, and my mum remembers being in my aunt’s house in the upper Oldpark Road on Bloody Friday (four weeks before my brother was born) and watching the puffs of smoke and debris emerging into the sky, just as David Ervine had described. She was worried about going into labour early and was assured by a soldier that if she did, they would bring her in a military vehicle. This offer was declined by my mum as she wasn’t keen on being on the receiving end of pot-shots on her way to give birth!
Growing up in north Belfast you can’t really ignore the effects of the Troubles. I remember seeing a lot of loyalist murals when I was younger, and I was always interested in the colours and imagery; even if I didn’t understand it at the time.
My granny did convert to Catholicism when she married my grandfather and for many years my mum asked her would she not thinking of converting back, but my granny became a committed Catholic; but I was always aware of my great grandfather who had been killed in WWI – I was taught the meaning of the poppy symbol and my parents brought my granny and myself to St. Quentin to see her father’s headstone. I was as I am aware, none of her Protestant siblings ever visited the cemetery. So, years later when I heard Gusty Spence speak to Peter Taylor of communities being ‘plunged into mourning’ I understood from the stories my granny told me exactly what that must have felt like; the psychological as well as the physical effect of the war.
I think the best person to extract information about why anyone researches a topic would be a psychiatrist!
Telling people that I write about loyalist paramilitaries – and that the subject is one of my main interests - is one of those things that can either trigger a really interesting conversation, or it can cause people to become frosty toward you.
I think in recent years people have become keener to understand what loyalism is all about; and that is a healthy thing, particularly given how loyalism has been perceived since the beginning of the conflict and more recently in the wake of the ‘peace process’ and so-called flag protests. The more work that emerges to challenge the received view of loyalism and the emergence of loyalist paramilitaries; their motivations and personalities, the better. If I have contributed to that in some tiny way, then I am content that I have done the job I promised I would do for the people I interviewed while writing Tartan Gangs.
CO: For me, Peter Taylor's Loyalists was a turning point in the perception of loyalism, as it dealt with their views of the conflict in a manner which promoted their frankness at what had happened and also approached them in a serious manner. Knowing what you know now, do you think the programme and book stand up?
GM: Absolutely. For me, Peter Taylor’s book and documentary was a turning point in my interest in and understanding of loyalism. I would have been 18 at that stage and most of the books I had read concentrated on the Provos and the Republican ‘struggle’. These were the days before I would have had access to the Internet, so it was more difficult to investigate very broadly, so the only book I had read about loyalism was The Shankill Butchers. I was, probably like many other young Catholics from north Belfast, given a dog-eared copy of the book by a friend who had purloined it from his dad. I remember it was shortly after Basher Bates had been shot dead, and as a 16-year-old I was grimly fascinated that these events had taken place on the very streets that were familiar to me.
However, over the next couple of years I became increasingly curious about the loyalist paramilitary experience and sensed that the Butchers wasn’t the whole story.
In that respect Loyalists confirmed my feelings. I still occasionally refer to the book, but the documentary is something I watch often. The interviews, when compared with the ones Taylor had carried out for Provos, were candid and often horrifying but above all refreshingly honest. They also provided me with an understanding of the formative experiences of young men who would at the start of the Troubles join organisations such as the UVF, UDA and RHC. It soon became apparent that beyond the sensationalism of the tabloids and Martin Dillon’s writing on loyalism that there was a more textured story with nuance, positioning the human experience of people at a certain juncture of Irish history.
Taylor’s interviews with Eddie Kinner, Billy Hutchinson, David Ervine, Billy Mitchell and Jim Light (an interviewee whose description of a killing he had carried out stayed with Taylor long after the documentary) teased out very honest answers about past feelings of sectarianism and revenge.
I attended a signing session that Peter Taylor did for Loyalists in the old Waterstones store in Royal Avenue, Belfast. He talked about the challenges of doing the project and how all interviewees had to agree to be interviewed on camera with the black background; he stated that one of the Butchers had agreed to speak but that he pulled out when it was made clear that his identity would have to be revealed. Last year I was fortunate enough to get chatting to Peter Taylor again when he along with David McKittrick was interviewed by Malachi O’Doherty in the Seamus Heaney Home Place. I handed him a copy of my book, which he asked whether it could be ‘Son of Loyalists’, which was nice. I gave him my email address but I never heard from him. I hope that if he did read it he enjoyed it.
The book and programme do stand up, but I have certainly learned more about loyalist paramilitarism by engaging with the people who were involved. Again, I said previously that there’s only so much Taylor could cover given the nature of the project, but I zoned in on a particular area and era and have consequently learned more about lesser known aspects of loyalist paramilitarism such as the Tartan gang culture, the Red Hand Commando and John McKeague. These were all footnotes or fleeting references in other books. I mean, in the UDA book McDonald and Cusack refer to the RHC as not existing. This neglects the importance of the June 1970 - July 1972 period and sacrifices individuals’ experiences at the altar of bad research.
CO: 'Tartan Gangs...' was universally praised when it came out in 2016, and your positioning of the Tartans as being very much part of the forefront of loyalist action has certainly made people reappraise what they had initially thought of the Tartans as well as the RHC. You mentioned at the end that you could have written another book on the UDA affiliated Tartans. Is that something that could happen at some point?
GM: That is nice to hear. I wanted it to be academically rigorous but also accessible in terms of the way it read and also the pricing. I wanted to avoid the inherent tabloid sensationalism that seems to bleed through most accounts of loyalist paramilitarism.
To answer your question - I think it is possible. Just the other day the Londonderry branch of the Ulster Political Research Group posted on their Facebook page about the Tartan gangs. This led to people posting a variety of recollections and stories about the early-mid 1970s and the Tartan phenomena. Shirley McMichael, the wife of the late John McMichael was talking about the Finaghy Tong which was a Tartan gang from the Taughmonagh estate in south Befast. Then you have the Young Newton whose story could constitute a book in its own right. I have talked to Dee Stitt on a few occasions and he is keen to preserve the stories of that early 1970s period in East Belfast. I also touched on the Ulster Bootboys in my book thanks to Twister McQuiston.
If you remember I covered the Max Hastings documentary on the Woodstock Tartan in my book and the two interviewees in that (‘Harry’ and ‘George’) went on to become UDA members (although ‘Harry’ left to join the UVF). There’s been this sense in much of the previous literature that the Tartans were used solely by the UDA as a recruiting base and that they were at their height during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike. At the book launch in the Harland and Wolff Welders club I was approached by a lady who was friendly with ‘George’. He had read the book and wanted to add information. Later on, ‘George’ phoned me and we spoke for a while, but nothing further came of it.
I had always wanted to concentrate on speaking to former UVF and YCV members; it became apparent very quickly that many of the Tartans graduated into these organisations as well as the RHC, so there is that important strain there that’s been overlooked. It was just an attempt to set the historical record straight and challenge a lazy assumption that the Tartans were only ever UDA-affiliated.
CO: Personally, I think it's quite an exciting time for students of the Troubles due to the variety of tomes being published (Tartan Gangs..., Shinners, Dissos... and An Army of Tribes to give some examples) which are not only (as mentioned above) giving alternative angles to the conflict but are also benefiting from the loosening of tongues as time progresses. Given you have stated that you plan to work on a book about the "unseen armies" of the Troubles (e.g. women volunteers etc), I take it you have plans for many more books along these less explored angles?
GM: I don’t know about many more books, but I am definitely interested in researching and writing another book on loyalism. As you say, its good to see so many alternative takes on the Troubles and related themes. I did start off a project on the propaganda side of loyalism and was aiming to look at the various newssheets and in doing so examine self-perceptions during the loyalist paramilitary campaigns, as well as prisoner welfare issues. I was able to record a brilliant interview with Edward Spence who, along with his father Billy, formed The Orange Cross loyalist prisoner welfare movement and produced the magazine. I am hoping to return to this material, but at the end of last year everything hit the buffers. Having a young daughter and working outside academia doesn’t give me as much time to meet people, research and write as I enjoyed in 2014-15.
Tartan Gangs was researched and written in a relatively short period of time. I had done a few preliminary interviews with Robert Niblock and Eddie Kinner in the summer of 2013, but the project only really took off when I was awarded the contract by Liverpool University Press in March 2014. I submitted the manuscript in August 2015 and, looking back, it still amazes me that I was able to produce a book from scratch in such a short period of time. A lot of people who have doctoral qualifications would use their thesis as a first draft of their first manuscript, but in Tartan Gangs I only relied on a few small sections of my thesis. 99% of the material was completely new.
Suffice to say, there will be another book at some point – Liverpool University Press had approached me, hoping that I will write another – and I have a couple of collaborations in process, one of which will be a pretty significant autobiography.
CO: Before Christmas, you published a scathing article about Aaron Edwards recent book on the UVF. It amazes me that such a book with so many blunders could be published and given high praise in this day and age and I seem to recall (I think) Twister McQuiston saying that this is what loyalists have come to expect from academic researchers. But the likes of yourself and Iain Turner (Balaclava Street) are leading the way for genuine academic interest in loyalism. Do you see the field increasing in the next few years, thanks to the likes of the two of you, Connal Parr, Paul Burgess and Richard Reed making invaluable contributions to the understanding of loyalism?
GM: Well, I am still amazed that the book was so lauded. In my opinion the lack of proper scrutiny of the book among those journalists who called it a ‘definitive’ history demonstrates two things: first of all, there is little will among certain sections of the media and academia to look beyond the sensationalistic accounts of loyalist paramilitaries; and second that it is almost as important who is in your social/professional circle as what is on the pages of your book. As I said in my article (paraphrasing Steve Bruce) criticising someone else’s work can come across as sour grapes, but my piece was based on frustration rather than jealousy. For those of us who have invested a lot of time and effort into speaking to loyalists and attempting to understand their experience…who dare I say it – care – about producing more accurate accounts…it is very frustrating to see the subject treated in such a careless way because it just makes the historiography of loyalist paramilitaries appear inferior and amateurish when compared with the treatments of republicanism.
People with no in-depth knowledge of loyalism will see that book in the airport and other places, read it and think ‘well, this is the definitive history’. So, for anyone else who wants to write an account of the UVF (and there is still plenty to write about) Edwards’s book will have made publishers cynical in that they will be thinking ‘We don’t need another book about the UVF do we?’ I am confident that this attitude will pass and better, less hubristic accounts will emerge that will not pander to the demand for tabloid sensationalism. However, in recent days I have noted that with the UVF openly declaring its role in the Ballymurphy massacre the papers have turned to the author of this book asking him about Tommy West. Of course, there is no mention of Tommy West in this so-called definitive account.
Yes, Twister bemoaned (and I’ll quote directly):
…the laziness of so called journalists and historians when it comes to Loyalism. Can’t be annoyed researching the subject so make up (or repeat someone from the same ilks’ bullshit) …People "in the know" are used to it and indeed have come to expect it.
I have heard people state the same frustration in my meetings, and the UVF book seems to have provoked the same response. Related to this, I was also depressed to see yet another edition of The Shankill Butchers appear in the bookshops recently; more than likely to tie-in with Martin Dillon’s autobiography. How a book with such a weak ‘thesis’ at its core can still be critically acclaimed and reprinted in the year 2018 is beyond comprehension. 29 years have passed since it was first published and the old myth about ‘Murphy the Mick’ (the same with Michael Stone) is being promoted. In a way, Dillon’s obsession with this falsehood allows Murphy off the hook slightly. The reality is that Murphy’s father was a loyalist and is commemorated as a member of the UVF; so where does Dillon get the information about there being suspicions that he was a Catholic who rarely ventured outside? But, people still consume the old shibboleths that get promoted by the media.
Only the most calcified loyalist paramilitary, particularly from that 1970s generation, will expect anyone to write a hagiography of their involvement – no pressure was put on me to glamorize anyone’s experience when I was writing Tartan Gangs; indeed, I recall most people stating that they wanted to get into the mode of how they felt at the time rather than just putting a retrospective gloss on anything. I as the author tried to empathise with rather than sympathise or excuse my interviewees’ stories. I think I balanced the weights well and this was demonstrated by the fact the book, as you say, received good reviews – even from nationalist/republican journalists. I only ever noticed one review that was critical and I think that was a political (in all sense of the word) jab. I can take these things on the chin though; healthy criticism is to be welcomed.
In terms of the other people you mention; Iain Turner is a great example of a brilliant researcher – I mean top class. He has no academic qualifications, as he keeps reminding people in his self-deprecating way, but he is absolutely forensic and incisive in his approach and shows that you don’t have to be either an academic or a journalist to produce excellent research. I don’t think it is any secret that he is currently researching a book on the UVF and that is a work that will hopefully gain the coverage his effort deserves. His blog has been used not only as a source by other researchers, but it has come to be regarded as an authentic and fair account of the loyalist paramilitaries by many ex-members.
My other good friends Paul Burgess and Connal Parr have sought to provide riposte to the cultural orthodoxies about the Protestant working-class (distinct from loyalism) prevalent among many Sinn Fein-orientated republicans. I am half-way through Connal’s book and it is an astounding piece of work, as I knew it would be. I hope lots of people read it and I pray that it will soon be available as a more affordable paperback because it is essential that it is read outside academic circles and in places like the Shankill, inner-east Belfast, Kilcooley, the Fountain and other Protestant working-class areas.
I very much enjoyed Richard Reed’s book, and of course there was The End of Ulster Loyalism? (2012) by Pete Shirlow and Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity by Tony Novosel (2013), both of which went a long way to addressing the deficiencies in our understanding of loyalism, both political and paramilitary.
I have Burke’s book and will get to start it soon; unfortunately, I can’t afford Hoey’s book at the moment, but it is an exciting concept and it thrills me to see genuinely alternative takes on our recent past being produced and I hope authentic and credible accounts of loyalism continue to emerge.
Having said all of this, I am firmly of the belief that loyalists themselves need to tell their own stories. The ‘aul hands’ of the loyalist paramilitaries are dying off, and their experiences are subject to misinterpretation or lazy assumption. Plum Smith made a valiant attempt at putting across the loyalist perspective, but there are others with extremely important stories to tell. I have read a manuscript based on type-written diaries kept by a former UVF/RHC OC during his time spent in Long Kesh during the 1970s and it is an absolutely astounding, informative and above all authentic day by day account of life as a senior loyalist paramilitary. I really hope it is published at some stage, but I can understand people’s reticence to put their heads above the parapet.
CO: Going into a slightly different angle, the punk explosion of the late 70’s in Belfast gave us many bands, Ruefrex being a notable one. It seems to me that they encapsulated and predated what Billy Mitchell would later wrote about in The Blanket: they were a group who were reaching to both sides of the community and discouraging them from joining paramilitary organisations as well as supporting integrated education, but were unashamed of their Protestant heritage. It seems that this diverse approach (among other factors) has seen them eclipsed in retrospectives by the likes of Stiff Little Fingers (whose earnest, and somewhat vague, lyrics were written by their manager) and the Undertones (who initially started off apolitical, and then became more openly political later on, wearing black armbands for Bobby Sands when performing on Top of the Pops), and it’s no surprise that drummer/songwriter Paul Burgess has now become an academic (and a collaborator of yours). Would you agree with Burgess when he talks about how the “oppressed nationalist/Catholic voice” is a much more potent angle for the press to latch onto, as opposed to Ruefrex’s “one, but not the same” angle?
GM: Definitely. I remember by best friend Jamie who I mentioned earlier (from the Shankill) started a band when he was in Cambridge. The band was called The Vichy Government and Jamie wrote songs such as The Protestant Work Ethic II and Orange Disorder, which were probably his way of examining where he came from. The lyrics of TPWE speak to your point:
Protestants are not sexy/Everyone adores the idea of the rebel/The luck of the Irish – Roy Keane, James Joyce, Brad Pitt…us, our churches are plain/We’re the spoil sports/Nailing our objections to the cathedral door…/Spin Fein turned us all into jabbering savages…/Well the Jews may have murdered Jesus Christ, but we murdered Oscar Wilde….
It’s a shame that those songs are buried away in the recesses of the internet now, as I think they chime nicely with a lot of what Paul argues. I’d always been fascinated by Ruefrex since I first heard Mike Edgar play them on Across the Line in about 1999. It was one fleeting track, and I can’t remember which one it was, but I was determined to find out more – and when It Makes You Want to Spit! was published in 2003 I was able to get more information on this incredibly articulate band from north Belfast who, for some reason, never seemed to make the final push into the big time. Six years later I approached Paul to talk at a conference I co-organised at QUB about the period from the UWC strike up and including the 1981 republican hunger strikes. Paul talked eidetically about those days of growing up on the Shankill and never feeling fully part of the punk scene. Paul and myself struck up a good friendship and he is someone I hugely admire; he is somebody who is left-wing but also resolutely proud of where he comes from. He’ll talk openly about his love of Rangers and of having been a side drummer in the Pride of Ardoyne. I admire that attitude, and it gives me some comfort in expressing my own ideas and feeling that I can live the contradictions inherent in my own identity; people like Paul accommodate that, but sadly there are many more people with preconceptions – people who would avowedly label themselves as left-wing and socially liberal who are in actual fact very authoritarian and narrow in their views. I can’t fathom people who inhabit a black and white world.
To get back to your question; its definitely the case. However, that mindset comes with the huge amount of Irish emigration to far-flung parts of the world; but also the cliché that the good old Irish are fun-loving genial rogues while the Ulster Protestants are dour humourless bigots. Because Ruefrex stuck to their guns and wrote songs such as The Fightin’ 36th they were castigated by people like Elvis Costello who called them ‘Orange bastards’; now can you imagine the uproar that would have ensued if someone turned round and called Jim Kerr (Simple Minds) or Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain) ‘taig bastards’? There would have been hell to pay in the music press! The Undertones example is interesting isn’t it? A black arm-band on Top of the Pops for Bobby Sands and people gloss over what is essentially glorification of a terrorist; Ruefrex preach about integrated education – the real spirit of punk in a place like Northern Ireland – and they are run out of town and called ‘Orange bastards’.
That sort of dewy-eyed bollocks about the ‘old country’ that permeated Irish-American middle and upper classes is still a problem, but when Ruefrex wrote The Wild Colonial Boy you had the height of NORAID action and money being sent hand over fist for ‘the cause’. In a way, the song reminds me of Leper Messiah by Metallica. In TWCB it says ‘Eat up all your tv dinners/Open up your wallet wide’, and in LM Metallica sing, ‘Marvel at his tricks, need your Sunday fix/Blind devotion came, rotting your brain…Send me money, send me green/Heaven you will meet/Make a contribution/And you'll get the better seat/Bow to leper messiah’. Now obviously the latter is about evangelical TV preachers in America, but the similarities are stark – people brainwashed into giving money to something they have absolutely no conception of. For the NORAID crowd, they didn’t have to worry about the reality of what the money at their gala dinners etcetera was being used for – people having their brains blown out. Belfast was about as remote to them as heaven was for those donating to the evangelical preachers on TV.
CO: With the recent news of the UVF admitting responsibility in the shootings in Ballymurphy in 1971 (and one major journalist embarrassing themselves by naming the wrong person), it's fascinating to read the various reactions across the board. Bearing in mind one paper talked about loyalist involvement at the time it seems this has been "phased out" of the official narrative. Why, I can only speculate. Based on your knowledge from this period, does this revelation make sense and why do you think the organisation are coming forward about it now?
GM: As you allude to earlier in the question, the UVF involvement in Ballymurphy in 1971 could hardly be described as a revelation in that we knew the UVF were involved prior to the announcement about Tommy West, and contemporary newspaper reports from August 1971 covered the involvement of ‘Protestant extremists’. Remember the newspaper reports of coal lorries travelling from the Shankill to areas in Ardoyne; the now infamous Dexys Midnight Runners album cover featuring Roy Stewart and Basher Bates was from this latter episode. If you also remember the section in my book where a senior former RHC member spoke of being part of a foot patrol in the Torrens area where a small unit exchanged gunshots with encroaching republicans. Loyalist paramilitaries were involved in the milieu surrounding internment, so the idea that the UVF should be involved in firing into republican areas from maisonettes in Springmartin. As Ed Moloney and others have pointed out, August 1971 provided the Provos with ample opportunity to claim their self-appointed crown as defenders of republican areas. While the events of Bombay Street in 1969 are justifiably seared into the republican consciousness, the events at Ballymurphy came in the wake of the widespread intimidation of Protestants from nearby areas such as New Barnsley (indeed many of these Protestants ended up in Springmartin and Highfield). The UVF was probably doing the same thing that the Provos in Ballymurphy would have claimed; defending the people who were under attack from the other side.
What all of this does is establish that there were three protagonists in this particular incident; but it is important to note that despite claims about collusion, the experience at the time for working-class Protestants in the Shankill was mainly negative in relation to the British army. You only have to read accounts in my book about the September 1970 ‘long weekend’ at the Milanda army base in Snugville Street as well as the personal experiences of assault and torture at the hands of soldiers by Bobby Rodgers and Billy Hutchinson.
I understand that when the Coroners Service made an appeal for people with any information on what happened at Ballymurphy to come forward to an event on 1 February 2018 at the Springvale tech, Action for Community Transformation called on loyalists to tell staff preparing for this September’s inquest what happened from their perspective. The Ballymurphy families have had the support of senior Sinn Fein members, so there is probably a strong feeling among loyalists – indeed I know there is – that the past cannot be continually portrayed as republicans being justified in their actions while loyalists and the Crown Forces were the sole antagonisers. If the information is correct it can only add clarity to understanding what was going on during this tumultuous period. Unfortunately, some people are so tied into a fixed narrative that no amount of facts will sway their opinion.
➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212