The Red Hand of Ulster (Irish: Lámh Dhearg Uladh) is an Irish Gaelic symbol used in heraldry to denote the Irish province of Ulster. It is shown in two forms, as a dexter (right) hand (used as a symbol in Ulster) and a hand baring a blue or red sinister looking cross (used in the coats of arms of baronets). It is an open hand coloured red, with the fingers pointing upwards, the thumb held parallel to the fingers, and the palm facing forward. It is less commonly known as the Red Hand of O’Neill.
Its origins are said to be attributed to the mythical Irish figure Labraid Lámh Dhearg of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology (Red Hand Labraid), and appear in other mythical tales passed down from generation to generation in the oral tradition. The symbol is rooted in Irish Gaelic culture and is particularly associated with the Uí Néillclan of Ulster
The form in common use in Ulster today is an open right hand coloured red, with the fingers pointing upwards, the thumb held parallel to the fingers, and the palm facing forward.
The form used on a canton or escutcheon within the coat of arms of a baronet of England, Ireland, Great Britain or the United Kingdom, is blazoned as follows: A hand sinister couped at the wrist extended in pale gules.
King James I of England established the hereditary Order of Baronets in England on 22 May 1611, in the words of Collins (1741):
“for the plantation and protection of the whole Kingdom of Ireland, but more especially for the defence and security of the Province of Ulster, and therefore for their distinction those of this order and their descendants may bear (the Red Hand of Ulster) in their coats of arms either in a canton or an escutcheon at their election”
Such baronets may also display the Red Hand of Ulster on its own as a badge, suspended by a ribbon below the shield of arms. Baronets of Nova Scotia, unlike other baronets, do not use the Red Hand of Ulster, but have their own badge showing the Saltire of St Andrew. It must also be noted that the left hand version of the symbol has been used by the Irish National Foresters, the Irish republican Irish Citizen Army and the Federated Workers Union of Ireland.
It is generally accepted that this Irish Gaelic symbol originated in pagan times and was first associated with the mythical figure Labraid Lámh Dhearg or Labraid Lámderg (Labraid of the Red Hand) of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.
According to one myth, the kingdom of Ulster had at one time no rightful heir. Because of this it was agreed that a boat race should take place and that “whosoever’s hand is the first to touch the shore of Ireland, so shall he be made the king”.
One potential king so desired the kingship that, upon seeing that he was losing the race, he cut off his hand and threw it to the shore—thus winning the kingship. The hand is most likely red to represent the fact that it would have been covered in blood. According to some versions of the story, the king who cut off his hand belonged to the Uí Néill clan, which apparently explains its association with them. Another variation of this story concludes that it was none other than Niall of the Nine Hostages who severed his own hand in order to win his crown from his brother.
A different myth tells of two giants who engaged in battle. One had his hand cut off by the other, and a red imprint of the hand was left on the rocks.
Coat of Arms of Monaghan
The Red Hand symbol is believed to have been used by the Uí Néill clan during its Nine Years’ War (1594–1603) against the spread of English control. The war cryLámh Dhearg Abú! (Red Hand to victory!) was also associated with the Uí Néill.
Coats of arms used by those whose surnames are of Uí Néill descent – Ó Donnghaile, Ó Cathain, Mac Aodha, Ó Dálaigh, Ó Máeilsheáchlainn and Ó Catharnaigh, to name just a few – all feature the Red Hand in some form, recalling their common descent. On the Ó Néill coat of arms featuring the Red Hand, the motto is Lámh Dhearg Éireann (Red Hand of Ireland).
The arms of the chiefs of the Scottish Clan MacNeil (of Barra) contain the Red Hand; the clan has traditionally claimed descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages. Many other families have used the Red Hand to highlight an Ulster ancestry. The head of the Guinness family, the Earl of Iveagh, has three Red Hands on his arms granted as recently as 1891.
Arms of de Burgh: Or, a cross gules
After Walter de Burgh became Earl of Ulster in 1243 the de Burgh cross was combined with the Red Hand to create a flag that represented the Earldom of Ulster and later became the modern Flag of Ulster. During the plantation of Ulster it was part of the arms of The Irish Society; sales of baronetcies originally helped fund the plantation so baronets of England and of Ireland and later baronets of Great Britain and of the United Kingdom were allowed to augment their arms with a “hand gules”.
The Ulster Defence Association emerged from a series of meetings during the summer of 1971 of loyalist “vigilante” groups called “defence associations”. The largest of these were the Shankill and Woodvale Defence Associations, with other groups based in East Belfast, the Hammer and Roden Street. The first meeting was chaired by Billy Hull, with Alan Moon as its vice-chair. Moon was quickly replaced by Jim Anderson and had left the organisation by the time of its formal launch in September.
By this point, Charles Harding Smith had become the group’s leader, with former British soldier Davy Fogel as his second-in-command, who trained the new recruits in military tactics, the use of guns, and unarmed combat. Its most prominent early spokesperson was Tommy Herron, however Andy Tyrie would emerge as leader soon after. Its original motto was Cedenta Arma Togae (“Law before violence”) and it was a legal organisation until it was banned by the British Government on 10 August 1992.
UDA members marching through Belfast city centre in a massive show of strength, summer 1972
The UDA were often referred to as “Wombles” by their rivals, mainly the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The name is derived from the furry fictional creatures The Wombles, and was given to the UDA because many of its members wore fur-trimmed parkas. Its headquarters is in Gawn Street, off the Newtownards Road in east Belfast, and its current motto is Quis Separabit, which is Latin for “Who will separate us?”
The UDA had several women’s units, which acted independent of each other. Although they occasionally helped man roadblocks, the women’s units were typically involved in local community work and responsible for the assembly and delivery of food parcels to UDA prisoners. This was a source of pride for the UDA. The first women’s unit was founded on the Shankill Road by Wendy “Bucket” Millar, whose sons Herbie and James “Sham” Millar would later become prominent UDA members. The UDA women’s department was headed by Jean Moore, who also came from the Shankill Road. She had also served as the president of the women’s auxiliary of the Loyalist Association of Workers. Her brother Ingram “Jock” Beckett, one of the UDA’s founding members, had been killed in March 1972 by a rival UDA faction in an internal dispute. Moore was succeeded by Hester Dunn of east Belfast, who also ran the public relations and administration section at the UDA headquarters. Wendy Millar’s Shankill Road group was a particularly active women’s unit, and another was based in Sandy Row, south Belfast, a traditional UDA stronghold. The latter was commanded by Elizabeth “Lily” Douglas. Her teenaged daughter, Elizabeth was one of the members.
The Sandy Row women’s UDA unit was disbanded after it carried out a vicious “romper room” punishment beating on 24 July 1974 which left 32-year-old Ann Ogilby dead. The body of Ogilby, a Protestant single mother who had an affair with the husband of one of the unit’s members, was found in a ditch five days later. The day of the fatal beating Ogilby was abducted and forced upstairs to the first floor of a disused bakery in Sandy Row that had been converted into a UDA club. Two teenage girls, Henrietta Cowan and Christine Smith, acting under Elizabeth Douglas’ orders to give Ogilby a “good rompering”, punched, kicked, then battered her to death with bricks and sticks; the autopsy later revealed that Ogilby had suffered 24 blows to the head and body. The killing, which was carried out within earshot of Ogilby’s six-year-old daughter, caused widespread revulsion throughout Northern Ireland and was condemned by the UDA prisoners serving inside the Maze Prison. None of the other UDA women’s units had consented to or been aware of the fatal punishment beating until it was reported in the news. Douglas, Cowan, and Smith were convicted of the murder and sentenced to imprisonment at Armagh Women’s Jail. Seven other members of the women’s unit and a UDA man were also convicted for their part in the murder. The UDA “romper rooms”, named after the children’s television programme, were places where victims were beaten and tortured prior to being killed. This was known as a “rompering”. The “romper rooms” were normally located in disused buildings, lock-up garages, warehouses, and rooms above pubs and drinking clubs. The use of the “romper rooms” was a more common practise among male members of the UDA than their female counterparts.
Masked and armed UDA/UFF members at a show of strength in Belfast
The flag of the “Ulster Freedom Fighters” with a clenched fist representing the Red Hand of Ulster and the Latin motto Feriens tego, meaning “striking I defend”
Throughout the majority of its period of legality, the UDA’s attacks were carried out under the name “Ulster Freedom Fighters” (UFF). The UDA’s campaign of violence began in 1972. In May of that year, the UDA’s pressured leader Tommy Herron decided that responsibility for acts of violence committed by the UDA would be claimed by the “UFF”. Its first public statements came one month later.
The UDA’s official position during the Troubles was that if the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provisional IRA) called off its campaign of violence, then it would do the same. However, if the British government announced that it was withdrawing from Northern Ireland, then the UDA would act as “the IRA in reverse.”
Ulster Defence Association – Hunting The IRA (Documentary)
Active throughout the Troubles, its armed campaign gained prominence in the early 1990s through Johnny Adair‘s ruthless leadership of the Lower Shankill 2nd Battalion, C. Company, which resulted in a greater degree of tactical independence for the UFF. C. Company’s hit squad, led by Stephen McKeag, became notorious for a campaign of random murders of Catholic civilians in the first half of the 1990s.
They benefited, along with the Ulster Volunteer Force, and a group called Ulster Resistance (set up by the Democratic Unionist Party), from a shipment of arms imported from Lebanon in 1988. The weapons landed included rocket launchers, 200 rifles, 90 pistols and over 400 grenades. Although almost two–thirds of these weapons were later recovered by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), they enabled the UDA to launch an assassination campaign against their perceived enemies.
A UFF mural in the Sandy Row area of South Belfast
North Belfast UDA brigadier Davy Payne was arrested after his “scout” car had been stopped at a RUC checkpoint and large caches of the weaponry were discovered in the boots of his associates’ cars. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
In 1992 Brian Nelson, a prominent UDA member convicted of sectarian killings, revealed that he was also a British Army agent. This led to allegations that the British Army and RUC were helping the UDA to target Irish republican activists. UDA members have since confirmed that they received intelligence files on republicans from British Army and RUC intelligence sources.
One of the most high profile UDA attacks came in October 1993, when three masked men attacked a restaurant called the Rising Sun in the predominantly Catholic village of Greysteel, County Londonderry, where two hundred people were celebrating Halloween. The two men entered and opened fire. Eight people, including six Catholics and two Protestants were killed and nineteen wounded in what became known as the Greysteel massacre. The UFF claimed the attack was in retaliation to the IRA’sShankill Road bombing which killed nine, seven days earlier.
The Shankill Bombing
The Greysteel shootings
According to the Sutton database of deaths at the University of Ulster‘s CAIN project, the UDA/UFF was responsible for 259 killings during the Troubles. 208 of its victims were civilians (predominantly Catholics), 12 were civilian political activists (mainly members of Sinn Fein), 37 were other loyalist paramilitaries (including 30 of its own members), three were members of the security forces and 11 were republican paramilitaries. A number of these attacks were carried out with the assistance or complicity of the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, or both, according to the Stevens Enquiry, although the exact number of people killed as a result of collusion has not been revealed. The preferred modus operandi of the UDA was individual killings of select civilian targets in nationalist areas, rather than large-scale bomb or mortar attacks.
The UDA employed various codewords whenever they claimed their attacks. These included: “The Crucible”, “Titanic”, and “Ulster Troubles”. The UFF used the codename of “Captain Black”.
A UFF flag in Finvoy,a rural area of County Antrim
Since the ceasefire, the UDA has been accused of taking vigilante action against alleged drug dealers, including tarring and feathering a man on the Taughmonagh estate in south Belfast. It has also been involved in several feuds with the UVF, which led to many killings. The UDA has also been riddled by its own internecine warfare, with self-styled “brigadiers” and former figures of power and influence, such as Johnny Adair and Jim Gray (themselves bitter rivals), falling rapidly in and out of favour with the rest of the leadership. Gray and John Gregg are amongst those to have been killed during the internal strife. On 22 February 2003, the UDA announced a “12-month period of military inactivity”. It said it would review its ceasefire every three months. The UPRG’s Frankie Gallagher has since taken a leading role in ending the association between the UDA and drug dealing.
Following an August 2005 Sunday World article that poked fun at the gambling losses of one of its leaders, the UDA banned the sale of the newspaper from shops in areas it controls. Shops that defy the ban have suffered arson attacks, and at least one newsagent was threatened with death. The Police Service of Northern Ireland began accompanying the paper’s delivery vans. The UDA was also considered to have played an instrumental role in loyalist riots in Belfast in September 2005.
On 13 November 2005 the UDA announced that it would “consider its future”, in the wake of the standing down of the Provisional IRA and Loyalist Volunteer Force.
On 20 June 2006, the UDA expelled Andre Shoukri and his brother Ihab, two of its senior members who were heavily involved in crime. Some see this as a sign that the UDA is slowly coming away from crime. The move did see the southeast Antrim brigade of the UDA, which had been at loggerheads with the leadership for some time, support Shoukri and break away under former UPRG spokesman Tommy Kirkham. Other senior members met with TaoiseachBertie Ahern for talks on 13 July in the same year.
On 11 November 2007 the UDA announced that the Ulster Freedom Fighters would be stood down from midnight of the same day, with its weapons “being put beyond use” although it stressed that these would not be decommissioned.
Although the group expressed a willingness to move from criminal activity to “community development,” the IMC said it saw little evidence of this move because of the views of its members and the lack of coherence in the group’s leadership as a result of a loose structure. While the report indicated the leadership intends to follow on its stated goals, factionalism hindered this change. Factionalism was, in fact, said to be the strongest hindrance to progress. The report also said the main non-splintered faction remained active, though it was considerably smaller than the resulting party. Individuals within the group, however, took their own initiative to criminal activity. Although loyalist actions were curtailed, most of the loyalist activity did come from the UDA.
The IMC report concluded that the leadership’s willingness to change has resulted in community tension and the group would continue to be monitored, although “the mainstream UDA still has some way to go.” Furthermore, the IMC warned the group to “recognise that the organisation’s time as a paramilitary group has passed and that decommissioning is inevitable.” Decommissioning was said to be the “biggest outstanding issue for loyalist leaders, although not the only one.”
A UDA/UFF South-East Antrim Brigade mural in Newtownabbey
Chastelain stated that the decommissioning included arms, ammunition, explosives and explosive devices and the UDA stated that the arms “constitute the totality of those under their control”. Following the decommissioning the Ulster Political Research Group, the UDA’s political representatives, stated that the “Ulster Defence Association was formed to defend our communities; we state quite clearly and categorically that this responsibility now rests with the Government and its institutions where legitimacy resides”. UDA representative Frankie Gallagher also stated that the group now regretted being responsible for the killing of more than 400 people.
Shaun Woodward, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stated that this “is a major act of leadership by the UDA and further comprehensive evidence of the success of politics over violence in Northern Ireland” and the act was also welcomed by Sinn Féin and DUP politicians. The President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese, described the decommissioning as “a very positive milestone on the journey of peace”. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also welcomed the move as a step towards lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
The breakaway faction continues to use the “UDA” title in its name, although it too expressed willingness to move towards “community development.” Though serious crime is not prevalent among the members, some who were arrested for drug peddling and extortion were exiled by the Brigade. Although a clear distinction between the factions was not available in the 20th IMC report, as this was the first report to differentiate between the two, future reports would tackle the differences.
Some UDA leaders supported an independent Northern Ireland in the mid–late 1970s
In 1987, the UDA’s deputy commander John McMichael (who was then the leader of the UFF) promoted a document titled “Common Sense”, which promoted a consensual end to the conflict in Northern Ireland, while maintaining the Union. The document advocated a power sharing assembly, involving both Nationalists and Unionists, an agreed constitution and new Bill of Rights. It is not clear however, whether this programme was adopted by the UDA as their official policy. However the killing of McMichael that same year and the subsequent removal of Tyrie from the leadership and his replacement with an Inner Council saw the UDA concentrate on stockpiling weapons rather than political ideas.
In 1989, the ULDP changed its name to the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) and finally dissolved itself in 2001 following very limited electoral success. Gary McMichael, son of John McMichael, was the last leader of the UDP, which supported the signing of the Good Friday Agreement but had poor electoral success and internal difficulties. The Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) was subsequently formed to give political analysis to the UDA and act as community workers in loyalist areas. It is currently represented on the Belfast City Council.
In early January 1994, the UDA released a document calling for ethnic cleansing and repartition, with the goal of making Northern Ireland wholly Protestant. The plan was to be implemented should the British Army withdraw from Northern Ireland. The vastly Catholic and nationalist areas would be handed over to the Republic, and those left stranded in the “Protestant state” would be “expelled, nullified, or interned”. The story was printed in The Sunday Independent newspaper on 16 January. The “doomsday plan” was based on the work of Dr Liam Kennedy, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. In 1986 he had published a book called Two Ulsters: A Case for Repartition; though it did not call for ethnic cleansing. The UDP’s Raymond Smallwoods said “I wasn’t consulted but the scenario set out is a perfectly plausible one”. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson stated that the plan “shows that some loyalist paramilitaries are looking ahead and contemplating what needs to be done to maintain our separate Ulster identity”.
Links with other groups
In his book Black Sun, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke claimed that the UDA had links with Neo-Nazi groups in Britain—specifically Combat 18 (formed in 1991) and the British National Socialist Movement (formed in 1985). He claims that members of these groups helped to smuggle weapons for the UDA/UFF. Ian S Wood‘s book Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA claims that the UDA has received backing from Combat 18, the British National Front and the British National Party. In 2006, the BBC also reported that the group has links with Combat 18. It is unknown whether these links still exist. The links may not have been politically motivated, but mutually beneficial arms deals. On one occasion the UDA sent Louis Scott, one of a few black members of the UDA, to make the transaction.
The Red Hand Defenders is a cover name used by breakaway factions of the UDA/UFF and the LVF. The term was originally coined in 1997 when members of the LVF carried out attacks on behalf of Johnny Adair‘s “UFF 2nd Battalion, ‘C’ Company (Shankill Road)” and vice versa. The relationship between the UDA/UFF (specifically Adair’s unit, not the wider leadership of the UDA) was initially formed after the death of Billy Wright, the previous leader of the LVF, and Adair’s personal friendship with Mark ‘Swinger’ Fulton, the organisations new chief.
The necessity for a cover name resulted from the need to avoid tensions between the UDA and the UVF, the organisation from which the LVF had broken away. It was perceived that any open co-operation between the UDA and the LVF would anger the UVF, something which proved to be the case in following years and resulted in the infamous ‘Loyalist Feud’. There has been debate as to whether or not the Red Hand Defenders have become an entity in their own right made up of dissident factions from both the UDA and the LVF (both of which have now declared ceasefires whilst the RHD has not), though much intelligence has been based on the claims of responsibility which, as has been suggested, are frequently misleading.
Structure and leadership
The UDA is made up of:
the Inner Council
the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF)—whose role was to carry out attacks on republican and nationalist targets. However, many regard the UFF as merely a covername used when the UDA wished to claim responsibility for attacks.
the Ulster Defence Force (UDF)—whose role was to give “specialist military training” to a select group of UDA members. The UDF was initiated by John McMichael (the then UDA/UFF commander) in 1985 as a response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The UDF operated training camps in rural parts of Northern Ireland that young loyalists such as Johnny Adair claim to have attended. One reported ‘survival’ training technique was to leave trainees stranded in Dublin with only £1. Some of the training was given by former British Army soldiers and officers. It was described by the UDA as “the nucleus of a new loyalist army at the ready”.
The UDA operated a devolved structure of leadership, each with a brigadier representing one of its six “brigade areas”. Currently, it is not entirely clear whether or not this structure has been maintained in the UDA’s post cease-fire state. The UDA’s six “brigade areas” were:
South Belfast, the UDA’s largest brigade area, covering all of South Belfast down to Lisburn and operating as far away as South County Down, Lurgan and Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh.
A wall sign in Dervock showing support for the North Antrim and Londonderry brigade.
In addition to these six core brigades two others may have existed. A seventh Mid-Ulster Brigade is mentioned by Steve Bruce as having existed for part of the UDA’s history although Henry McDonald and Jim Cusack characterise this as a “battalion” rather than a brigade and suggest that its rural location prevented it from fully developing. In the late 1970s a Scottish Brigade was established under the command of Roddy McDonald but this proved short-lived. The security forces infiltrated this brigade almost immediately and in 1979 arrested almost its entire membership, ninety people in all. Six members received particularly lengthy prison sentences for their involvement in UDA activities in Perth and the Scottish Brigade quietly disappeared.
South Belfast (~1980s-present) Resident of the Taughmonagh estate in South Belfast. McDonald was a cautious supporter of the UDA’s ceasefire and a harsh critic of Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair during his final years of membership of the organisation. McDonald remains the only brigadier who did not have a commonly used nickname.
Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair—West Belfast (1990–2002) An active figure in the UDA/UFF, Adair rose to notoriety in the early 1990s when he led the 2nd Battalion, C Company unit in West Belfast which was responsible for one of the bloodiest killing sprees of the Troubles.
North Belfast (2002–2005) Initially a close ally of Johnny Adair, Shoukri and his brother Ihab became involved with the UDA in his native North Belfast. The son of an Egyptian father and a Northern Irish mother, he was expelled from the UDA in 2005 following allegations of criminality.
South East Antrim (c.1993–2003) John ‘Grug’ Gregg was a man with a fearsome reputation within the loyalist movement, known as a “Hawk” in loyalist circles, and controlled the streets of south east Antrim. On 14 March 1984, he severely wounded Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams in an assassination attempt for which he was jailed. When asked by the BBC in prison if he regretted anything about the shooting, his reply was “only that I didn’t succeed.” He was killed on Belfast’s Nelson Street, along with another UDA member (Rab Carson), while travelling in a taxi from the docks in 2003, and the murder was blamed on supporters of Johnny Adair, who had recently been expelled from the UDA in 2002.
Deaths as a result of activity
UDA South Belfast Brigade memorial plaque in Sandy Row
According to Malcolm Sutton’s Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland (part of the CAIN database), the UDA/UFF was responsible for at least 260 killings during the Troubles, between 1969 and 2001. There are a further 250 loyalist killings where it is not yet certain which group was responsible.