Tommy McKearney ­čöľ UDR Declassified by Miche├íl Smith is, without doubt, one of the most important studies dealing with the recent Northern Irish conflict. 


While it explores in detail the record of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), this book is much more than an account of one of the most controversial units in the British army. Providing detailed evidence of grave misconduct by many members of the regiment over the decades of its existence, the reader is nevertheless left in little doubt that real responsibility for the ‘UDR issue’ lay with its master, the British government.

Established in 1970 to replace the Ulster Special Constabulary (B-Specials) the regiment never achieved, nor was it ever likely to achieve, the level of cross community support promised at its formation by Westminster. Even the dimmest of British administrators had to be aware at the time that a British army regiment containing a large number of former B-Specials was unlikely to be attractive to the nationalist community. The fact that all seven of the original battalions were commanded by former B-Special county commandants was more than enough to dissuade any republican and all but the most foolhardy nationalist from enlisting.

Building a cross community force was never a priority for the British government. From the outset it viewed the conflict in Northern Ireland, not as a democratic/civil rights issue but rather in a colonial context and treated it as such. Moreover, London was unwilling to alienate the unionist population and risk UDI at a time when the Cold War was still a reality. As a consequence, Britain adhered in practice to a pro-Unionist position in order to safeguard its immediate strategic needs.

Soon after the regular British Army was assigned to the Six-Counties, armed resistance to Orange violence and by extension the Orange state had become organised and evident. This in turn led the British Army to adopt procedures and thinking that it had acquired and practised during decades of retreat from empire.

Central to this strategy was the recruitment and deployment of a locally based militia, in this case the UDR. The policy had both a political and military logic that cared little for local cultural sensitivities. On one hand it helped assuage Unionist fears of betrayal by Westminster and thus maintain the geopolitical status quo. At the same time it provided the regular army with access to local knowledge and manpower.

However expedient this policy was from the British state’s point of view, it had a decisive and detrimental impact that is felt to the present day. At a stroke, Britain had armed one section of a divided society and authorised it to police the other. A fundamental defect exacerbated by the mid-1970s policy of Ulsterisation. That factor alone would have been enough to condemn the concept as fatally flawed. The problem didn’t end there though. The ease with which loyalist paramilitaries were able to join, access military training and intelligence while siphoning off weapons and ammunition was a well known and disturbing fact. That serving members of the regiment had actively taken part in sectarian murders and colluded in others was and is a matter of record and therefore a major cause of alienation.

To their shame, this situation was well known to the British government and its military advisors. To support his work, Miche├íl Smith has carried out extensive research in the UK’s National Archives uncovering files from 10 Downing Street, the MoD and the NIO. Among the multitude of documents researched by the author, one will serve to illustrate this point. Entitled ‘Subversion in the UDR’ this unpublished report was compiled in 1973 by military intelligence personnel for the Joint Intelligence Committee which reports directly to the Prime Minister.

Among many startling findings in the document is one that states:

. . .  It seems likely that a significant proportion (perhaps 5% - in some areas as high as 15%) of UDR soldiers will also be members of the UDA, Vanguard service Corps, Orange volunteers or UVF.

Notwithstanding this devastating critique, the British government continued to deploy the UDR for a further two decades. This, in spite of the fact that its reputation had scarcely improved. Two decades after the ‘Subversion in the UDR’ report, Metropolitan Police Commissioner John Stevens found reason to order, in October 1989, the arrest of 28 full-time or part-time members of the regiment suspected of involvement with loyalist death squads.

Some readers of this excellent book will undoubtedly view it purely as an indictment of the UDR and its members. Doing so would be a mistake since it overlooks the fact that many thousands served in the firm belief they were upholding the law and defending their communities. It would also ignore the grief and loss suffered by so many members in the course of this service.

What Micheál Smith clearly illustrates in his book, though, is the cynicism of the British state. Arming one section of the Northern Irish community to police the other, no matter the circumstance, was always guaranteed to cause alienation. To compound the error by tolerating an ambivalent relationship with loyalist paramilitaries was inexcusable. Worst of all may turn out to be the callous exploitation by the British state of the UDR itself, as London sought to control its final retreat from empire.

In summary, UDR Declassified makes an invaluable contribution towards a deeper understanding of our troubled history and thus deserves the wisest circulation.

Miche├íl Smith, 2022, UDR Declassified. Merrion Press. ISBN-10: 1785374273 / ISBN-13: 978-1785374272

Tommy McKearney is a left wing and trade union activist. 
Follow on Twitter @Tommymckearney 

UDR Declassified

Tommy McKearney ­čöľ UDR Declassified by Miche├íl Smith is, without doubt, one of the most important studies dealing with the recent Northern Irish conflict. 


While it explores in detail the record of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), this book is much more than an account of one of the most controversial units in the British army. Providing detailed evidence of grave misconduct by many members of the regiment over the decades of its existence, the reader is nevertheless left in little doubt that real responsibility for the ‘UDR issue’ lay with its master, the British government.

Established in 1970 to replace the Ulster Special Constabulary (B-Specials) the regiment never achieved, nor was it ever likely to achieve, the level of cross community support promised at its formation by Westminster. Even the dimmest of British administrators had to be aware at the time that a British army regiment containing a large number of former B-Specials was unlikely to be attractive to the nationalist community. The fact that all seven of the original battalions were commanded by former B-Special county commandants was more than enough to dissuade any republican and all but the most foolhardy nationalist from enlisting.

Building a cross community force was never a priority for the British government. From the outset it viewed the conflict in Northern Ireland, not as a democratic/civil rights issue but rather in a colonial context and treated it as such. Moreover, London was unwilling to alienate the unionist population and risk UDI at a time when the Cold War was still a reality. As a consequence, Britain adhered in practice to a pro-Unionist position in order to safeguard its immediate strategic needs.

Soon after the regular British Army was assigned to the Six-Counties, armed resistance to Orange violence and by extension the Orange state had become organised and evident. This in turn led the British Army to adopt procedures and thinking that it had acquired and practised during decades of retreat from empire.

Central to this strategy was the recruitment and deployment of a locally based militia, in this case the UDR. The policy had both a political and military logic that cared little for local cultural sensitivities. On one hand it helped assuage Unionist fears of betrayal by Westminster and thus maintain the geopolitical status quo. At the same time it provided the regular army with access to local knowledge and manpower.

However expedient this policy was from the British state’s point of view, it had a decisive and detrimental impact that is felt to the present day. At a stroke, Britain had armed one section of a divided society and authorised it to police the other. A fundamental defect exacerbated by the mid-1970s policy of Ulsterisation. That factor alone would have been enough to condemn the concept as fatally flawed. The problem didn’t end there though. The ease with which loyalist paramilitaries were able to join, access military training and intelligence while siphoning off weapons and ammunition was a well known and disturbing fact. That serving members of the regiment had actively taken part in sectarian murders and colluded in others was and is a matter of record and therefore a major cause of alienation.

To their shame, this situation was well known to the British government and its military advisors. To support his work, Miche├íl Smith has carried out extensive research in the UK’s National Archives uncovering files from 10 Downing Street, the MoD and the NIO. Among the multitude of documents researched by the author, one will serve to illustrate this point. Entitled ‘Subversion in the UDR’ this unpublished report was compiled in 1973 by military intelligence personnel for the Joint Intelligence Committee which reports directly to the Prime Minister.

Among many startling findings in the document is one that states:

. . .  It seems likely that a significant proportion (perhaps 5% - in some areas as high as 15%) of UDR soldiers will also be members of the UDA, Vanguard service Corps, Orange volunteers or UVF.

Notwithstanding this devastating critique, the British government continued to deploy the UDR for a further two decades. This, in spite of the fact that its reputation had scarcely improved. Two decades after the ‘Subversion in the UDR’ report, Metropolitan Police Commissioner John Stevens found reason to order, in October 1989, the arrest of 28 full-time or part-time members of the regiment suspected of involvement with loyalist death squads.

Some readers of this excellent book will undoubtedly view it purely as an indictment of the UDR and its members. Doing so would be a mistake since it overlooks the fact that many thousands served in the firm belief they were upholding the law and defending their communities. It would also ignore the grief and loss suffered by so many members in the course of this service.

What Micheál Smith clearly illustrates in his book, though, is the cynicism of the British state. Arming one section of the Northern Irish community to police the other, no matter the circumstance, was always guaranteed to cause alienation. To compound the error by tolerating an ambivalent relationship with loyalist paramilitaries was inexcusable. Worst of all may turn out to be the callous exploitation by the British state of the UDR itself, as London sought to control its final retreat from empire.

In summary, UDR Declassified makes an invaluable contribution towards a deeper understanding of our troubled history and thus deserves the wisest circulation.

Miche├íl Smith, 2022, UDR Declassified. Merrion Press. ISBN-10: 1785374273 / ISBN-13: 978-1785374272

Tommy McKearney is a left wing and trade union activist. 
Follow on Twitter @Tommymckearney 

12 comments:

  1. Great review Tommy - seems to be a must read

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  2. This review seems to be catching the interest if page views are how we might measure it. Tommy spots what so often goes missed - that as much as we might have hated the UDR, many of them did believe they were doing nothing more than defending their community and upholding law and order. I hope Peter Anderson, who writes here weekly and is a former member of the Regiment, at some point reads the book and shares his thoughts on it.

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  3. Though psychologically healthy people must navigate their way through life betwixt remembering and forgetting, who would have countenanced finding Tommie McKearney amongst the rabble for rampant rapprochement!

    "That the UDR served a vital function for the British state is evidenced by its tolerance of rampant criminality within its ranks. Between 1985 and 1989, UDR members were twice as likely to commit a crime as the general public. The UDR crime rate was 10 times that for police officers in the RUC and about four times the British army rate..
    (Micheál Smith: IT April 9th '22)

    And that's not the full story;

    "There is mounting evidence that the NIO, the RUC and the prosecution service colluded in a consistent policy of withholding the UDR identity of soldiers who were being prosecuted for serious crimes. In several such incidences, documents from the NIO’s Law & Order Division state that “the Police will not be referring to his membership of the security forces”.

    This was not just a kind of ad hoc, case-by-case decision, taken at a junior level, which one might expect to result from the odd “bad apple” in the ranks.


    To avoid concluding that the UDR, both of itself and as part of a whole, was systemically malign and corrupt is misguided in the extreme. As with all systemic dysfunction, complicity extends further than those 'caught in the act'.

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    1. Henry Joy - I am struggling to find the disconnect between your view of the UDR and Tommy's. I can't find in the review the bad apple thesis, the opposite in fact which emphasizes the structural rather than attitudinal and which is invariably damning of the more psychologist explanations that focus on the individual. There is nothing within the review that would suggest Tommy is part of the "rabble for rampant rapprochement." To be able to speak truth to power we need to speak truth about power. Tommy identifies where the power resides here - within the British state rather than the guy at the checkpoint. I would be interested in your own view on the book as I wondered how you would feel about the extent to which it addresses facts on the ground as you experienced them in your neck of the woods.

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    2. AM, though I did read Micheál Smith's piece in the IT yesterday, the chance of me reading his book are slim to nil. I grew up with the humiliation of being stopped by armed, arrogant neighbours; firstly in the guise of B-Men and subsequently as UDR men. I viewed them then as armed supremacists and largely retain that position.

      Tommy says:
      "Some readers of this excellent book will undoubtedly view it purely as an indictment of the UDR and its members. Doing so would be a mistake since it overlooks the fact that many thousands served in the firm belief they were upholding the law and defending their communities."

      Well, I'm happy to declare myself firmly in Tommy's first category and I don't believe myself making any mistake in doing so.

      'many thousands served in the firm belief they were upholding the law and defending their communities'

      Politically correct saccharine acquiescence, ffs!
      There were, and probably still are, many thousand Klansmen in the US deep south telling themselves similar porkie pies.

      The UDR, like the B-Specials before them, were nothing more than a colonialist militia enforcing their law rather than managing 'the law'.

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    3. Henry Joy,

      I thought you might have found the book useful given that it appears to be a serious critique of the British state, which it should be in my view: what is called vicarious liability.

      Tommy makes the point that to think the book is an indictment of the UDR and its members, which he feels it isn't. He might have phrased that differently as the book seems very much an indictment of the UDR but not all its members.
      The UDR members probably told themselves no more lies than everybody else in the conflict. Ideology works in such a way as to make us think we are right. If it was reason alone that shaped us we would expect to find lots of Protestant's in the IRA and Catholics in the UVF or RUC. We went with what we grew up with. However, I think it is easier to argue a case for the RUC member than the UDR one.
      You have been accused yourself of politically correct saccharine acquiescence because of your embrace of the SDLP. It seems as wrong a characterisation of yourself as it is of those you level it against.
      I think your closing paragraph is spot on but again ideology universalises what is in effect much more narrow. That's what makes it so effective.

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    4. If you do read it HJ, a review would be more than welcome.

      Delete
  4. There exists within republicanism a perspective that does not allow for the RUC and/or the UDR to have been staffed by people who did not act out in sectarian ways.

    Were Catholics and nationalists persecuted by the UDR? Of course they were. Did all UDR members participate, or support, this persecution? No, I don't believe that they did. The UDR, particularly in Border regions, offered weapons and training to communities who, rightly or wrongly, perceived themselves as being under existential threat from the IRA.

    Could anyone blame a Protestant civilian from, say, Whitecross for joining the UDR as a defensive measure?

    Like the RUC, the UDR paid a heavy, heavy price in deaths, injuries, and stress. I believe that when criticising the RUC and/or UDR, it is important to accept that this toll was exacted from these organisations.

    This is a controversial opinion, but I believe that the ferocity of the attacks against the RUC and UDR facilitate, and should encourage, a more objective analysis of the respective organisations.

    I have a copy of Conspicuous Gallantry, by Anthony Leask, which is an oral history of 8 UDR. I bought it to review for TPQ, but got derailed by other books. This is from the draft review:

    "Former RUC officer, Sam Thompson (author of the novel Nights in Armour), was asked about the UDR on the Shared Ireland podcast. He spoke of a UVF unit comprised of UDR members in Armagh, and of how an RUC unit, including him, were called to a violent incident involving this UVF/UDR unit outside a pub in the early 1980s. RUC batons were drawn and, coincidently, an on-duty 4-man UDR patrol arrived and started assisting the UVF/UDR members in getting away from the RUC.

    Ken Maginness’s UDR career is discussed. He recruited soldiers from the ranks of those he taught whilst a schoolteacher. Maginness survived 11 attempts on his life, and is clearly hugely proud of the UDR and its role in the conflict:

    “While the UDR became, by the time PIRA was defeated in 1996, the epitome of efficiency in fighting terrorism that was not always the case.”

    This sentiment is not shared by former RUC officer Sam Thompson, who made the point that the UDR did not have the same capacity for attrition as the RUC, and that they took significant casualties without being able to investigate, arrest or convict those responsible. That being said, one of the first testimonies details a UDR operation which saw two IRA men captured in the act of attacking the UDR patrol. Interestingly, two of the IRA members were personally known to at least one of the UDR members."

    8 UDR lost 44 members to republicans. What came first: the sectarian brutality of the UDR, or the frequent, efficient and merciless killing of UDR members?

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    1. Brandon - I think black and white analysis reinforce prejudice and propaganda. It goes against the grain of the colour of the world that lies right before our eyes. Seeing the world through binary black/white bifocals runs contrary to the multifocals and how they see compromise - something else which like colour is so rooted in our daily existence, that it comes almost natural to most people.

      I do think that the UDR having such a preponderance of former B Specials could only lead to one thing: a violent response. Not that every B Special was a Catholic hating bigot on a personal level - but the structural positioning of the institution meant one outcome.

      A book I would highly recommend to anyone interested because of the nuance, layers, colour is An Army Of Tribes by Edward Burke. I spoke to Henry Joy before about that one. Don't know if he ever got around to reading it.

      I think when everybody reflects and thinks about the past with age which makes us glad to be no longer young enough to have all the answers but none of the questions, we will conclude that on our own side (whatever it was) there were too many bastards for them all to have been on the other side.

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  5. @ AM

    A significant problem affecting the UDR (and the RUC and, arguably, the IRA, as well as many other armed entitries) is that the bigotry and criminality perpetrated by sections of the organisations was not robustly challenged by others.

    "I do think that the UDR having such a preponderance of former B Specials could only lead to one thing: a violent response."

    I think this is entirely correct. And I would not challenge someone who sought to justify that violent response. I think that the violent response should be kept in mind when criticising the UDR (and RUC).

    Army of Tribes is a fantastic book; insightful, gripping. I am meeting an historian next week to, among other things, discuss the Argyll's.

    I listened to James English (not a favourite interviewer) talking with Sam Millar. Millar was robustly unapologetic about the targeting of prison officers and scathing of them as a bloc. He said he would like to have seen hundreds of them killed. He said he did not feel that way about British soldiers. I think this is relevant to Sam Thompson's point about attrition - prison officers could and did brutalise members of an organisation killing them on the outside. The UDR couldn't investigate and convict the organisation killing them, so they acted out in different ways. A substantial number would have acted out anyway, for sectarian reasons (and because of the flawed personality types often drawn to uniform).

    I really must finish that review of Conspicuous Gallantry

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    1. Sam has a wholly uncompromising and unforgiving line on the screws. He experienced their hostility from the outset which he details in his book On the Brinks - a brilliant read.
      I don't share his perspective on that although at the time I wouldn't have shed too many tears. I remember one of the blanket screws walking me to a visit (he was never anything but civil) and he asked me what I thought of staff getting killed. I told him I was fine with it. He seemed amazed and I explained to him that the way they treated us left me feeling nothing else. He didn't run back to the blocks and tell his buddies. I knew he wouldn't.
      Bear in mind that the violence in the prison was ongoing and not a response to IRA killings of staff although in the immediate wake of such killings the violence could spike. The worst of the violence took place when staff were not being killed. Much of it was determined by the people in charge of the block or wing. Two of those killed years after the protest were central figures to brutality.
      I remember two post blanket prison staff whose brother was killed by the IRA in 1988. He was called Norman McKeown. The brothers were Billy and Keith. I said to Billy when I met him shortly after it that I was sorry about his loss. They were two very civil, courteous men. Not an instance of spite from them after it even though they would still work the republican wings. I never heard a bad word about either. I knew Billy better than Keith as I used to chat to him quite a bit when he was on our wing prior to the killing. I thought at the time the IRA explanation for killing their brother was pretty poor.
      Look forward to the review.

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  6. I'll give Sam's book a read some time.

    The killing of Norman McKeown seems spiteful, brutal, and lethally pointless.

    There's an account of it in this excellent article:

    https://thedublinreview.com/article/robinson-country/

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