The views and opinions expressed in this page and documentaries are soley intended to educate and provide background information to those interested in the Troubles of Northern Ireland.
They in no way reflect my own opinions and I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or factual errors.
The UVF emblem, with the Red Hand of Ulster and the motto “For God and Ulster
The UVF flag
|Active||May 1966 – present (on ceasefire since October 1994; officially ended armed campaign in May 2007)|
|Area of operations||Northern Ireland (mostly)
Republic of Ireland
|Allies||Red Hand Commando|
|Opponents||Provisional Irish Republican Army
Other Irish nationalist paramilitary groups
Rival loyalist groups
The UVF were responsible for Approximately 428 deaths during The Troubles
The UVF and RHC were responsible for Approximatley 428 deaths during The Troubles :
Of those killed by the UVF and RHC:
- 414 (~85%) were civilians, 11 of whom were civilian political activists
- 21 (~4%) were members or former members of republican paramilitary groups
- 44 (~9%) were members or former members of loyalist paramilitary groups
- 6 (~1%) were members of the British security forces
There were also 66 UVF/RHC members and four former members killed in the conflict.
The original Ulster Volunteer Force organisation of the 1910s
Ulster Volunteer Force Fernhill House
Sir Edward Carson – The Ulster Volunteer Force
The Ulster Volunteers were a unionist militia founded in 1912 to block self-government (or Home Rule) for Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom. The Ulster Volunteers were based in the northern province of Ulster, the part of Ireland where unionists and Ulster Protestants were the majority. Many Ulster Protestants feared being governed by a Catholic-dominated parliament in Dublin and losing their local supremacy and strong links with Britain. In 1913, the militias were organised into the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and vowed to resist any attempts by the British Government to ‘impose’ Home Rule on Ulster. Later that year, Irish nationalists formed a rival militia, the Irish Volunteers, to safeguard Home Rule. In April 1914, the UVF smuggled 25,000 rifles into Ulster. The crisis was halted by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. Many UVF members enlisted with the British Army‘s 36th (Ulster) Division and went to fight on the Western Front.
After World War I, the British Government agreed to set up two self-governing regions in Ireland: Northern Ireland (made up of four Ulster counties with Protestant/unionist majorities and two others), and Southern Ireland. However, by 1920 the Irish War of Independence was raging and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the army of the self-declared Irish Republic, was launching attacks on British forces in Ireland. As a response to these attacks, the UVF was revived. However, this revival was largely unsuccessful and the UVF was absorbed into the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), the reserve police force of the Northern Ireland Government.
A unionist paramilitary group calling itself the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1966. It claims to be a direct descendant of the older organisation and uses the same logo, but there are no organisational links between the two.[
Before World War
By 1912, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), an Irish nationalist party which sought devolution (Home Rule) for Ireland, held the balance of power in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. In April 1912, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith introduced the third Home Rule Bill. Previous Home Rule Bills had fallen because of the veto power of the Tory-dominated House of Lords, however since the crisis caused by the Lords’ rejection of the “People’s Budget” of 1909 and the subsequent passing of the Parliament Act, the House of Lords had seen their powers to block legislation diminished and so it could be expected that this Bill would (eventually) become law. Home Rule was popular in all of Ireland apart from the northeast of Ulster. While Catholics were the majority in most of Ireland, Protestants were the majority in Ulster and in Britain. Many Ulster Protestants feared being governed by a Catholic-dominated parliament in Dublin and losing their local supremacy and strong links with Britain.
The two key figures in the creation of the Ulster Volunteers were Edward Carson (leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance) and James Craig, supported sub rosa by figures such as Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations at the British War Office. At the start of 1912, leading unionists and members of the Orange Order (a Protestant fraternity) began forming small local militias and drilling. On 9 April Carson and Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party, reviewed 100,000 ‘Ulster Volunteers’ marching in columns. On 28 September, 218,206 men signed the Ulster Covenant, vowing to use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland”, with the support of 234,046 women.
On 13 January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formally established by the Ulster Unionist Council. Recruitment was to be limited to 100,000 men aged from 17 to 65 who had signed the Covenant, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir George Richardson KCB. William GIbson was the first commander of the 3rd East Belfast Regiment of the Ulster Volunteers.
The Ulster Unionists enjoyed the wholehearted support of the British Conservative Party, even when threatening rebellion against the British government. On 23 September 1913, the 500 delegates of the Ulster Unionist Council met to discuss the practicalities of setting up a provisional government for Ulster, should Home Rule be implemented.
In March 1914, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief in Ireland was ordered to move troops into Ulster to protect arms depots from the UVF. However, 57 of the 70 officers at the Army’s headquarters in Ireland chose to resign rather than enforce Home Rule or take on the UVF. The following month, the UVF smuggled 20,000 German rifles with 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition into the port of Larne. This became known as the Larne gunrunning.
The Ulster Volunteers were a continuation of what has been described as the “Protestant volunteering tradition, in Ireland”, which since 1666 spans the various Irish Protestant militias founded to defend Ireland from foreign threat. References to the most prominent of these militias, the Irish Volunteers, was frequently made, and there were also attempts to link the activities of the two.
World War I
The third Home Rule Bill was eventually passed despite the objections of the House of Lords, whose power of veto had been abolished under the Parliament Act 1911. While Carson had hoped to have the whole of Ulster excluded, he felt a good case could be made for the six Ulster counties with unionist (or only slight nationalist) majorities. However, in August 1914 the Home Rule issue was temporarily suspended by the outbreak of World War I and Ireland’s involvement in it. Many UVF men enlisted in the British Army, mostly with the 36th (Ulster) Division of the ‘New Army‘. Others joined Irish regiments of the United Kingdom’s 10th and 16th (Irish) Divisions. By the summer of 1916, only the Ulster and 16th divisions remained, the 10th amalgamated into both following severe losses in the Battle of Gallipoli. Both of the remaining divisions suffered heavy casualties in July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme and were largely wiped out in 1918 during the German Spring Offensive.
Although many UVF officers left to join the British Army during the war, the unionist leadership wanted to preserve the UVF as a viable force, aware that the issue of Home Rule and partition would be revisited when the war ended. There were also fears of a German naval raid on Ulster and so much of the UVF was recast as a home defence force.
World War I ended in November 1918. On 1 May 1919, the UVF was ‘demobilised’ when Richardson stood down as its General Officer Commanding. In Richardson’s last orders to the UVF, he stated:
Existing conditions call for the demobilisation of the Ulster Volunteers. The Force was organised, to protect the interests of the Province of Ulster, at a time when trouble threatened. The success of the organisation speaks for itself, as a page of history, in the records of Ulster that will never fade.
After World War I
In the December 1918 general election, Sinn Féin—an Irish republican party who sought full independence for Ireland—won an overwhelming majority of the seats in Ireland. Its members refused to take their seats in the British Parliament and instead set up their own parliament and declared independence for Ireland. The Irish Volunteers became the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the army of this self-declared Irish Republic. The Irish War of Independence began, fought between the IRA and the forces of the United Kingdom (which included the British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary, RIC). The Government of Ireland Act 1920 provided for two Home Rule parliaments: one for Northern Ireland and one for Southern Ireland. The Unionist dominated Parliament of Northern Ireland chose to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
As a response to IRA attacks within Ulster, the Ulster Unionist Council officially revived the UVF on 25 June 1920. In early July, the UUC appointed lieutenant colonel Wilfrid Spender as the UVF’s Officer Commanding. At the same time, announcements were printed in unionist newspapers calling on all former UVF members to report for duty. However, this call met with limited success; for example, each Belfast battalion drew little more than 100 men each and they were left mostly unarmed. The UVF’s revival also met with little backing from unionists in Great Britain.
During the conflict, loyalists set up small independent “vigilance groups” in many parts of Ulster. Most of these groups would patrol their areas and report anything untoward to the police (the RIC). Some of them, however, were armed with UVF rifles from 1914. There were also a number of small loyalist paramilitaries. The most notable of these was the Ulster Imperial Guards, who may have overreached the UVF in terms of membership. Historian Peter Hart wrote the following of these groups:
Also occasionally targeted [by the IRA] were Ulster Protestants who saw the republican guerrilla campaign as an invasion of their territory, where they formed the majority. Loyalist activists responded by forming vigilante groups, which soon acquired official status as part of the Ulster Special Constabulary. These men spearheaded the wave of anti-Catholic violence that began in July 1920 and continued for two years. This onslaught was part of an Ulster Unionist counter-revolution, whose gunmen operated almost exclusively as ethnic cleansers and avengers.
The sluggish recruitment to the UVF and its failure to stop IRA activities in Ulster prompted James Craig to call for the formation of a new special constabulary. In October 1920, the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) was set up. This was an armed reserve police force whose main role, during 1920–1922, was to bolster the RIC and fight the IRA. Spender encouraged UVF members to join it, and although many did so, the USC did not engulf the UVF (and other loyalist paramilitaries) until early 1922. Craig hoped to “neutralise” the loyalist paramilitaries by enrolling them in the C Division of the USC; a move that was backed by the British government. Historian Michael Hopkinson wrote that the USC, “amounted to an officially approved UVF”. The USC was almost wholly Protestant and was greatly mistrusted by Irish Catholics and Irish nationalists. Following IRA attacks, its members sometimes carried-out revenge killings and reprisals against Catholic civilians during the conflict.
In his book Carson’s Army: the Ulster Volunteer Force 1910–22, Timothy Bowman gave the following as his last thought on the UVF during this period:
It is questionable the extent to which the UVF did actually reform in 1920. Possibly the UVF proper amounted to little more than 3,000 men in this period and it is noticeable that the UVF never had a formal disbandment … possibly so that attention would not be drawn to the extent to which the formation of 1920–22 was such a pale shadow of that of 1913–14.
The Modern Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
The modern UVF of East Belfast
The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is an Ulster loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. It emerged in 1966 and is named after the original UVF of the early 20th century. Its first leader was Gusty Spence, a former British soldier. The group undertook an armed campaign of almost thirty years during the Troubles. It declared a ceasefire in 1994 and officially ended its campaign in 2007, although some of its members have continued to engage in violence. The group is classified as a terrorist organization by the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and United States.
Until recent years, it was noted for secrecy and a policy of limited, selective membership. The UVF’s declared goals were to combat Irish republicanism – particularly the Irish Republican Army – and to maintain Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom. It was responsible for at least 500 deaths, the vast majority (more than two-thirds) of whom were Irish Catholic civilians. During the conflict, its deadliest attack in Northern Ireland was the 1971 McGurk’s Bar bombing, which killed fifteen civilians. The group also carried out attacks in the Republic of Ireland from 1969 onward. The biggest of these was the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which killed 33 civilians, making it the deadliest terrorist attack of the conflict. The no-warning car bombings had been carried out by units from the Belfast and Mid-Ulster brigades. The Mid-Ulster Brigade was also responsible for the 1975 Miami Showband killings, in which three members of the popular Irish cabaret band were shot dead at a bogus military checkpoint by gunmen in British Army uniforms. Two UVF men were accidentally blown up in this attack.
The UVF’s last major attack was the 1994 Loughinisland massacre, in which its members shot dead six Catholic civilians in a rural pub.
Since the ceasefire, the UVF has been involved in rioting, organized crime, vigilantism and feuds with other loyalist groups. Some members have also been orchestrating a series of racist attacks.
Aim and strategy
The UVF’s stated goal was to combat Irish republicanism – particularly the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) – and maintain Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom. The vast majority of its victims were Irish Catholic civilians, who were often killed at random. Whenever it claimed responsibility for its attacks, the UVF usually claimed that those targeted were IRA members or were giving help to the IRA. Other times, attacks on Catholic civilians were claimed as “retaliation” for IRA actions, since the IRA drew most of its support from the Catholic community. Such retaliation was seen as both collective punishment and an attempt to weaken the IRA’s support; it was thought that terrorizing the Catholic community and inflicting such a death toll on it would force the IRA to end its campaign. Many retaliatory attacks on Catholics were claimed using the covername “Protestant Action Force” (PAF), which first appeared in Autumn 1974. They always signed their statements with the fictitious name “Captain William Johnston”.
Like the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the UVF’s modus operandi involved assassinations, mass shootings, bombings and kidnappings. It used sub machine-guns, assault rifles, pistols, grenades (including homemade grenades), incendiary bombs, booby trap bombs and car bombs. Referring to its activity in the early and mid-1970s, journalist Ed Moloney described no-warning pub bombings as the UVF’s “forte”. Members were trained in bomb-making and it developed home-made explosives. In the late summer and autumn of 1973 the UVF detonated more bombs than the UDA and IRA combined, and by the time of the group’s temporary ceasefire in late November it had been responsible for over 200 explosions that year. However, from 1977 bombs largely disappeared from the UVF’s arsenal owing to a lack of explosives and bomb-makers, plus a conscious decision to abandon their use in favour of more contained methods. The UVF did not return to regular bombings until the early 1990s when it obtained a quantity of the mining explosive Powergel
Since 1964, there had been a growing civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland. The civil rights movement sought to end discrimination against Catholics by the Protestant and Unionist-dominated government of Northern Ireland. In March and April 1966, Irish republicans held parades throughout Ireland to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. On 8 March, a group of ex-Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers planted a bomb that destroyed Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin. At the time, the IRA was weak and not engaged in armed action, but some unionists and loyalists warned that it was about to be revived and launch another campaign against Northern Ireland. In April, loyalists led by Ian Paisley, a Protestant fundamentalist preacher, founded the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC). It set up a paramilitary-style wing called the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV). The ‘Paisleyites’ set out to stymie the civil rights movement and oust Terence O’Neill, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Although O’Neill was a unionist, they saw him as being too ‘soft’ on the civil rights movement and too friendly with the Republic of Ireland. There was much overlap in membership between the UCDC/UPV and the UVF.
On 7 May, loyalists petrol bombed a Catholic-owned pub in the loyalist Shankill area of Belfast. Fire engulfed the house next door, badly burning the elderly Protestant widow who lived there. She died of her injuries on 27 June. The group called itself the “Ulster Volunteer Force” (UVF), after the original UVF of the early 20th century. It was led by Gusty Spence, a former British soldier. Spence claimed that he was approached in 1965 by two men, one of whom was an Ulster Unionist Party MP, who told him that the UVF was to be re-established and that he was to have responsibility for the Shankill. On 21 May, the group issued a statement:
From this day, we declare war against the Irish Republican Army and its splinter groups. Known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation. Less extreme measures will be taken against anyone sheltering or helping them, but if they persist in giving them aid, then more extreme methods will be adopted… we solemnly warn the authorities to make no more speeches of appeasement. We are heavily armed Protestants dedicated to this cause.
On 27 May, Spence sent four UVF members to kill IRA volunteer Leo Martin, who lived in Belfast. Unable to find their target, the men drove around the Falls district in search of a Catholic. They shot John Scullion, a Catholic civilian, as he walked home. He died of his wounds on 11 June. Spence later wrote “At the time, the attitude was that if you couldn’t get an IRA man you should shoot a Taig, he’s your last resort”.
On 26 June, the group shot dead a Catholic civilian and wounded two others as they left a pub on Malvern Street, Belfast. Two days later, the Government of Northern Ireland declared the UVF illegal. The shootings led to Spence being arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommended minimum sentence of twenty years. Spence appointed Samuel McClelland as UVF Chief of Staff in his stead.
By 1969, the Catholic civil rights movement had escalted its protest campaign, and O’Neill had promised them some concessions. In March and April that year, UVF and UPV members bombed water and electricity installations in Northern Ireland, blaming them on the dormant IRA and elements of the civil rights movement. Some of them left much of Belfast without power and water. The loyalists “intended to force a crisis which would so undermine confidence in O’Neill’s ability to maintain law and order that he would be obliged to resign”. There were bombings on 30 March, 4 April, 20 April, 24 April and 26 April. All were widely blamed on the IRA, and British soldiers were sent to guard installations. Unionist support for O’Neill waned, and on 28 April he resigned as Prime Minister.
On 12 August 1969, the “Battle of the Bogside” began in Derry. This was a large, three-day riot between Irish nationalists and the police (RUC). In response to events in Derry, nationalists held protests throughout Northern Ireland, some of which became violent. In Belfast, loyalists responded by attacking nationalist districts. Eight people were shot dead and hundreds were injured. Scores of houses and businesses were burnt-out, most of them owned by Catholics. The British Army were deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland. The Irish Army also set up field hospitals near the border. Thousands of families, mostly Catholics, were forced to flee their homes and refugee camps were set up in the Republic of Ireland.
On 12 October, a loyalist protest in the Shankill became violent. During the riot, UVF members shot dead RUC officer Victor Arbuckle. He was the first RUC officer to be killed during the Troubles.
The UVF had launched its first attack in the Republic of Ireland on 5 August 1969, when it bombed the RTÉ Television Centre in Dublin. There were further attacks in the Republic between October and December 1969. In October, UVF and UPV member Thomas McDowell was killed by the bomb he was planting at Ballyshannon power station. The UVF stated that the attempted attack was a protest against the Irish Army units “still massed on the border in County Donegal“. In December the UVF detonated a car bomb near the Garda central detective bureau and telephone exchange headquarters in Dublin.
The early to mid-1970s
In January 1970, the UVF began bombing Catholic-owned businesses in Protestant areas of Belfast. It issued a statement vowing to “remove republican elements from loyalist areas” and stop them “reaping financial benefit therefrom”. During 1970, 42 Catholic-owned licensed premises in Protestant areas were bombed. Catholic churches were also attacked. In February it began to target critics of militant loyalism – the homes of MPs Austin Currie, Sheelagh Murnaghan, Richard Ferguson and Anne Dickson were attacked with improvised bombs. It also continued its attacks in the Republic of Ireland, bombing the Dublin-Belfast railway line, an electricity substation, a radio mast, and Irish nationalist monuments.
In December 1969 the IRA had split into the Provisional IRA and Official IRA. In early 1971 they began a concerted campaign against the British Army and RUC. The first British soldier to die in the conflict was killed by the Provisional IRA in February 1971. That year, a string of tit-for-tat pub bombings began in Belfast. This came to a climax on 4 December, when the UVF bombed McGurk’s Bar, a Catholic-owned pub in Belfast. Fifteen Catholic civilians were killed and seventeen wounded. It was the UVF’s deadliest attack in Northern Ireland, and the deadliest attack in Belfast during the Troubles.
The following year, 1972, was the most violent of the Troubles. Along with the newly formed Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the UVF began carrying out gun attacks on random Catholic civilians and using car bombs to attack Catholic-owned pubs. It would continue these tactics for the rest of its campaign. On 23 October 1972, the UVF carried out an armed raid against King’s Park camp, a UDR/Territorial Army depot in Lurgan. They managed to procure a large cache of weapons and ammunition including self-loading rifles, Browning pistols, and Sterling submachine guns. Twenty tons of ammonium nitrate was also stolen from the Belfast docks.
The UVF launched further attacks in the Republic of Ireland during December 1972 and January 1973, when it detonated three car bombs in Dublin and one in Belturbet, killing five civilians. It would attack the Republic again in May 1974, during the two-week Ulster Workers’ Council strike. This was a general strike in protest against the Sunningdale Agreement, which meant sharing political power with Irish nationalists and the Republic having more involvement in Northern Ireland. Along with the UDA, it helped to enforce the strike by blocking roads, intimidating workers, and shutting any businesses that opened. On 17 May, two UVF units from the Belfast and Mid-Ulster brigades detonated four car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan. Thirty-three people were killed and almost 300 injured. It was the deadliest attack of the Troubles. There are various credible allegations that elements of the British security forces colluded with the UVF in the bombings. The Irish parliament‘s Joint Committee on Justice called the bombings an act of “international terrorism” involving the British security forces. Both the UVF and the British Government have denied the claims.
The UVF’s Mid-Ulster Brigade was founded in 1972 in Lurgan by Billy Hanna, a sergeant in the UDR and a member of the Brigade Staff, who served as the brigade’s commander until his shooting death in July 1975. From that time until the early 1990s, the Mid-Ulster Brigade was led by Robin “the Jackal” Jackson, who then passed the leadership to Billy Wright. Hanna and Jackson have both been implicated by journalist Joe Tiernan, and RUC Special Patrol Group (SPG) officer John Weir as having led one of the units that bombed Dublin. Jackson was allegedly the hitman who shot Hanna dead outside his home in Lurgan, and subsequently took over his command.
The brigade formed part of the Glenanne gang, a loose alliance of loyalist assassins which the Pat Finucane Centre has linked to 87 killings in the 1970s. The gang comprised, in addition to the UVF, rogue elements of the UDR, RUC, SPG, and the regular Army, all acting allegedly under the direction of British Military Intelligence and/or RUC Special Branch.
Mid to late-1970s
In 1974, hardliners staged a coup and took over the Brigade Staff. This resulted in a lethal upsweep of sectarian killings and internecine feuding with both the UDA and within the UVF itself. Some of the new Brigade Staff members bore nicknames such as “Big Dog” and “Smudger”. Beginning in 1975, recruitment to the UVF, which until then had been solely by invitation, was now left to the discretion of local units.
The UVF’s Mid-Ulster Brigade carried out further attacks during this same period. These included the Miami Showband killings of 31 July 1975 – when three members of the popular showband from the Republic of Ireland were killed having been stopped at a fake British Army checkpoint outside of Newry in County Down. Two members of the group survived the attack and later testified against those responsible. Two UVF members, Harris Boyle and Wesley Somerville, were accidentally killed by their own bomb while carrying out this attack. Two of those later convicted (James McDowell and Thomas Crozier) were also serving members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), a part-time, locally recruited regiment of the British Army.
The Shankill Butchers
From late 1975 to mid-1977, a unit of the UVF dubbed the Shankill Butchers (a group of UVF men based on Belfast’s Shankill Road) carried out a series of sectarian murders of Catholic civilians. Six of the victims were abducted at random, then beaten and tortured before having their throats slashed. This gang was led by Lenny Murphy. He was shot dead by the IRA in November 1982, four months after his release from the Maze Prison.
The group had been proscribed in July 1966, but this ban was lifted on 4 April 1974 by Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in an effort to bring the UVF into the democratic process. A political wing was formed in June 1974, the Volunteer Political Party led by UVF Chief of Staff Ken Gibson, which contested West Belfast in the October 1974 General Election, polling 2,690 votes (6%). The UVF spurned the government efforts however and continued killing. Colin Wallace, part of the intelligence apparatus of the British Army, asserted in an internal memo in 1975 that MI6 and RUC Special Branch formed a pseudo-gang within the UVF, designed to engage in violence and to subvert moves of the UVF towards the political process. Captain Robert Nairac of 14 Intelligence Company was alleged to have been involved in many acts of UVF violence. The UVF was banned again on 3 October 1975 and two days later twenty-six suspected UVF members were arrested in a series of raids. The men were tried and in March 1977 were sentenced to an average of twenty-five years each.
In October 1975, after staging a counter-coup, the Brigade Staff acquired a new leadership of moderates with Tommy West serving as the Chief of Staff. These men had overthrown the “hawkish” officers, who had called for a “big push”, which meant an increase in violent attacks, earlier in the same month. In fact, the UVF was behind the deaths of seven civilians in a series of attacks on 2 October. The hawks had been ousted by those in the UVF who were unhappy with their political and military strategy. The new Brigade Staff’s aim was to carry out attacks against known republicans rather than Catholic civilians. This had been thoroughly endorsed by Gusty Spence who issued a statement asking all UVF volunteers to support the new regime. The UVF’s activities in the last years of the decade were increasingly being curtailed by the number of UVF members who were sent to prison. Indeed, the number of killings in Northern Ireland had decreased from 300 per year during the period between 1973 and 1976 to just under 100 in the years 1977–1981. In 1976, Tommy West was replaced with “Mr. F” who is alleged to be John “Bunter” Graham and remains the incumbent Chief of Staff to date. West died in 1980.
On 17 February 1979, the UVF carried out its only major attack in Scotland, when its members bombed two pubs in Glasgow frequented by Catholics. Both pubs were wrecked and a number of people were wounded. It claimed the pubs were used for republican fundraising. In June, nine UVF members were convicted of the attacks.
The early to mid-1980s
In the 1980s, the UVF was greatly reduced by a series of police informers. The damage from security service informers started in 1983 with “supergrass” Joseph Bennett’s information which led to the arrest of fourteen senior figures. In 1984, they attempted to kill the northern editor of the Sunday World, Jim Campbell after he had exposed the paramilitary activities of Mid-Ulster brigadier Robin Jackson. By the mid-1980s, a Loyalist paramilitary-style organisation called Ulster Resistance was formed on 10 November 1986. The initial aim of Ulster Resistance was to bring an end to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Loyalists were successful in importing arms into Northern Ireland. The weapons were Palestine Liberation Organisation arms captured by the Israelis, sold to Armscor, the South African state-owned company which, in defiance of the 1977 United Nations arms embargo, set about making South Africa self-sufficient in military hardware. The arms were divided between the UVF, the UDA (the largest loyalist group) and Ulster Resistance.
The arms are thought to have consisted of:
- 200 Czechoslovak Sa vz. 58 assault rifles,
- 90 Browning pistols,
- 500 RGD-5 fragmentation grenades,
- 30,000 rounds of ammunition and
- 12 RPG-7 rocket launchers and 150 warheads.
The UVF used this new infusion of arms to escalate their campaign of sectarian assassinations. This era also saw a more widespread targeting on the UVF’s part of IRA and Sinn Féin members, beginning with the killing of senior IRA member Larry Marley and a failed attempt on the life of a leading republican which left three Catholic civilians dead.
The late 1980s and early 1990
The UVF also attacked republican paramilitaries and their political activists. These attacks were stepped up in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The largest death toll was on 3 March 1991 when the UVF killed IRA members John Quinn, Dwayne O’Donnell and Malcolm Nugent, and civilian Thomas Armstrong in the car park next to Boyle’s Bar, Cappagh. Republicans had responded to the attacks by assassinating UVF leaders, including John Bingham, William “Frenchie” Marchant, Trevor King and, allegedly, Leslie Dallas. The UVF also killed republicans James Burns, Liam Ryan and Larry Marley. According to Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN), the UVF killed 17 active and four former republican paramilitaries. CAIN also states that Republicans killed 13 UVF members.
According to journalist and author Ed Moloney the UVF campaign in Mid Ulster in this period “indisputably shattered Republican morale”, and put the leadership of the republican movement under intense pressure to “do something”.
In 1990 the UVF joined the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) and indicated its acceptance of moves towards peace. However, the year leading up to the loyalist ceasefire, which took place shortly after the Provisional IRA ceasefire, saw some of the worst sectarian killings carried out by loyalists during the Troubles. On 18 June 1994, UVF members machine-gunned a pub in Loughinisland, County Down on the basis that its customers were watching the Republic of Ireland national football team playing in the World Cup on television and were therefore assumed to be Catholics. The gunmen shot dead six people and injured five.
The UVF agreed to a ceasefire in October 1994.
More militant members of the UVF, led by Billy Wright who disagreed with the ceasefire, broke away to form the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). This development came soon after the UVF’s Brigade Staff in Belfast had stood down Wright and the Portadown unit of the Mid-Ulster Brigade, on 2 August 1996, for the killing of a Catholic taxi driver near Lurgan during Drumcree disturbances.
There followed years of violence between the two organisations. In January 2000 UVF Mid-Ulster brigadier Richard Jameson was shot dead by a LVF gunman which led to an escalation of the UVF/LVF feud. The UVF was also clashing with the UDA in the summer of 2000. The feud with the UDA ended in December following seven deaths. Veteran anti-UVF campaigner Raymond McCord, whose son, Raymond Jr., a Protestant, was beaten to death by UVF men in 1997, estimates the UVF has killed more than thirty people since its 1994 ceasefire, most of them Protestants. The feud between the UVF and the LVF erupted again in the summer of 2005. The UVF killed four men in Belfast and trouble ended only when the LVF announced that it was disbanding in October of that year.
On 14 September 2005, following serious loyalist rioting during which dozens of shots were fired at riot police, the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain announced that the British government no longer recognised the UVF ceasefire.
On 2 September 2006, BBC News reported the UVF may be intending to re-enter dialogue with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, with a view to decommissioning of their weapons. This move comes as the organisation holds high level discussions about their future.
On 3 May 2007, following recent negotiations between the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and with Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, the UVF made a statement that they would transform to a “non-military, civilianised” organisation. This was to take effect from midnight. They also stated that they would retain their weaponry but put them beyond reach of normal volunteers. Their weapons stock-piles are to be retained under the watch of the UVF leadership.
In 2008, a loyalist splinter group calling itself the “Real UVF” emerged briefly to make threats against Sinn Féin in Co. Fermanagh.
In the twentieth IMC report, the group was said to be continuing to put its weapons “beyond reach”, (in the group’s own words) to downsize, and reduce the criminality of the group. The report added that individuals, some current and some former members, in the group have, without the orders from above, continued to “localised recruitment”, and although some continued to try and acquire weapons, including a senior member, most forms of crime had fallen, including shootings and assaults. The group concluded a general acceptance of the need to decommission, though there was no conclusive proof of moves towards this end.
In June 2009 the UVF formally decommissioned their weapons in front of independent witnesses as a formal statement of decommissioning was read by Dawn Purvis and Billy Hutchinson. The IICD confirmed that “substantial quantities of firearms, ammunition, explosives and explosive devices” had been decommissioned and that for the UVF and RHC, decommissioning had been completed. On 30 May 2010, however, the UVF was believed to have carried out the shotgun killing of expelled RHC member Bobby Moffett on the Shankill Road in broad daylight. The shooting raised questions over the future of the PUP.
On 28 May 2010, the UVF was severely criticised over the murder of Moffett. The Independent Monitoring Commission was highly critical of the leadership for having condoned and even sanctioned the attack, in contrast to praise bestowed on the Brigade Staff for a moderating influence during the marching season. The Progressive Unionist Party‘s condemnation, and Dawn Purvis and other leaders’ resignations as a response to the Moffett shooting, were also noted. Eleven months later, a 40-year-old man was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of the UVF’s alleged second-in-command Harry Stockman, described by the media as a “senior Loyalist figure”. Fifty-year-old Stockman was stabbed more than 15 times in a supermarket in the Greater Shankill area; the attack was believed to have been linked to the Moffett killing. However, public opinion suggests that the stabbing was a personal vendetta and any connection being made to the Moffett case was simply a fictitious tale of revenge.
On the night of 20 June 2011, riots involving 500 people erupted in the Short Strand area of East Belfast. They were blamed by the PSNI on members of the UVF, who also said UVF guns had been used to try to kill police officers. The UVF leader in East Belfast, who is popularly known as the “Beast of the East” and “Ugly Doris” also known as by real name Stephen Matthews, ordered the attack on Catholic homes and a church in the Catholic enclave of the Short Strand. This was in retaliation for attacks on Loyalist homes the previous weekend and after a young girl was hit in the face with a brick by Republicans. A dissident Republican was arrested for “the attempted murder of police officers in east Belfast” after shots were fired upon the police.
During the Belfast City Hall flag protests of 2012 – 2013, senior UVF members were confirmed to have actively been involved in orchestrating violence and rioting against the PSNI and the Alliance Party throughout Northern Ireland during the weeks of disorder. Much of the UVF’s orchestration was carried out by its senior members in East Belfast, where many attacks on the PSNI and on residents of the Short Strand enclave took place. There were also reports that UVF members fired shots at police lines during a protest. The high levels of orchestration by the leadership of the East Belfast UVF, and the alleged ignored orders from the main leaders of the UVF to stop the violence has led to fears that the East Belfast UVF has now become a separate loyalist paramilitary grouping which doesn’t abide by the UVF ceasefire or the Northern Ireland Peace Process.
In October 2013, the policing board announced that the UVF was still heavily involved in gangsterism despite its ceasefire. Assistant chief constable Drew Harris in a statement said “The UVF are subject to an organized crime investigation as an organized crime group. The UVF very clearly have involvement in drug dealing, all forms of gangsterism, serious assaults, intimidation of the community.” 
In November 2013, after a series of shootings and acts of intimidation by the UVF. Police Federation Chairman, Terry Spence declared that the UVF ceasefire was no longer active. Spence told Radio Ulster that the UVF had been “engaged in murder, attempted murder of civilians, attempted murder of police officers. They have been engaged in orchestrating violence on our streets, and it’s very clear to me that they are engaged in an array of mafia-style activities.”They are holding local communities to ransom. On the basis of that, we as a federation have called for the respecification of the UVF [stating that its ceasefire is over].”
The UVF’s leadership is based in Belfast and known as the Brigade Staff. It comprises high-ranking officers under a Chief of Staff or Brigadier-General. With a few exceptions, such as Mid-Ulster brigadier Billy Hanna (a native of Lurgan), the Brigade Staff members have been from the Shankill Road or the neighbouring Woodvale area to the west. The Brigade Staff’s former headquarters were situated in rooms above “The Eagle” chip shop located on the Shankill Road at its junction with Spier’s Place. The chip shop has since been closed down.
In 1972, the UVF’s imprisoned leader Gusty Spence was at liberty for four months following a staged kidnapping by UVF volunteers. During this time he restructured the organisation into brigades, battalions, companies, platoons and sections. These were all subordinate to the Brigade Staff. The incumbent Chief of Staff, is alleged to be John “Bunter” Graham, referred to by Martin Dillon as “Mr. F”. Graham has held the position since he assumed office in 1976.
The UVF’s nickname is “Blacknecks”, derived from their uniform of black polo neck jumper, black trousers, black leather jacket, black forage cap, along with the UVF badge and belt. This uniform, based on those of the original UVF, was introduced in the early 1970s.
Chiefs of Staff
- Gusty Spence (1966–1966). Whilst remaining de jure UVF leader after he was jailed for murder, he no longer acted as the Chief of Staff
- Sam “Bo” McClelland (1966–1973) Described as a “tough disciplinarian”, he was personally appointed by Spence to succeed him as Chief of Staff, due to his having served in the Korean War with Spence’s former regiment, the Royal Ulster Rifles. He was interned in late 1973, although by that stage the de facto Chief of Staff was his successor, Jim Hanna.
- Jim Hanna (1973 – April 1974) Hanna was allegedly shot dead by the UVF as a suspected informer.
- Ken Gibson (1974) Gibson was the Chief of Staff during the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike in May 1974.
- Unnamed Chief of Staff (1974 – October 1975). Leader of the Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV), the youth wing of the UVF. Assumed command after a coup by hardliners in 1974. He, along with the other hawkish Brigade Staff members were overthrown by Tommy West and a new Brigade Staff of “moderates” in a counter-coup supported by Gusty Spence. He left Northern Ireland after his removal from power.
- Tommy West (October 1975 – 1976) A former British Army soldier, West was already the Chief of Staff at the time UVF volunteer Noel “Nogi” Shaw was killed by Lenny Murphy in November 1975 as part of an internal feud.
- John “Bunter” Graham, also referred to as “Mr. F” (1976–present)
Strength, finance and support
The strength of the UVF is uncertain. The first Independent Monitoring Commission report in April 2004 described the UVF/RHC as “relatively small” with “a few hundred” active members “based mainly in the Belfast and immediately adjacent areas”. Historically, the number of active UVF members in July 1971 was stated by one source to be no more than 20. Later, in September 1972, Gusty Spence said in an interview that the organisation had a strength of 1,500. A British Army report released in 2006 estimated a peak membership of 1,000. Information regarding the role of women in the UVF is limited. One study focusing in part on female members of the UVF and Red Hand Commando noted that it “seem[ed] to have been reasonably unusual” for women to be officially asked to join the UVF. Another estimates that over a 30-year period women accounted for just 2% of UVF membership at most.
Prior to and after the onset of the Troubles the UVF carried out armed robberies. This activity has been described as its preferred source of funds in the early 1970s, and it continued into the 2000s with the UVF in Co Londonderry being active. Members were disciplined after they carried out an unsanctioned theft of £8 million of paintings from an estate in Co Wicklow in April 1974. Like the IRA, the UVF also operated black taxi services, a scheme believed to have generated £100,000 annually for the organisation. The UVF has also been involved in the extortion of legitimate businesses, although to a lesser extent than the UDA, and was described in the fifth IMC report as being involved in organised crime. In 2002 the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee estimated the UVF’s annual running costs at £1–2 million per year, against an annual fundraising capability of £1.5 million.
In contrast to the IRA, overseas support for loyalist paramilitaries including the UVF has been limited. Its main benefactors have been in central Scotland, Liverpool, Preston and the Toronto area of Canada. Supporters in Scotland have helped supply explosives and guns. Although Scottish support for loyalist paramilitaries has been hindered by the strong disapproval of the mainstream Orange Order in that country, it is estimated that the UVF nevertheless received hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations to its Loyalist Prisoners Welfare Association.
The UVF have been implicated in drug dealing in areas from where they draw their support. Recently it has emerged from the Police Ombudsman that senior North Belfast UVF member and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Special Branch informant Mark Haddock has been involved in drug dealing. According to the Belfast Telegraph, “…70 separate police intelligence reports implicating the north Belfast UVF man in dealing cannabis, Ecstasy, amphetamines and cocaine.”
According to Alan McQuillan, the assistant director of the Assets Recovery Agency in 2005, “In the loyalist community, drug dealing is run by the paramilitaries and it is generally run for personal gain by a large number of people.” When the Assets Recovery Agency won a High Court order to seize luxury homes belonging to ex-policeman Colin Robert Armstrong and his partner Geraldine Mallon in 2005, Alan McQuillan said “We have further alleged Armstrong has had links with the UVF and then the LVF following the split between those organisations.” It was alleged that Colin Armstrong had links to both drugs and loyalist terrorists.
Billy Wright, the commander of the UVF Mid-Ulster Brigade, is believed to have started dealing drugs in 1991  as a lucrative sideline to paramilitary murder. Wright is believed to have dealt mainly in Ecstasy tablets in the early 90s. It was around this time that Sunday World journalists Martin O’Hagan and Jim Campbell coined the term “rat pack” for the UVF’s murderous mid-Ulster unit and, unable to identify Wright by name for legal reasons, they christened him “King Rat.” An article published by the newspaper fingered Wright as a drug lord and sectarian murderer. Wright was apparently enraged by the nickname and made numerous threats to O’Hagan and Campbell. The Sunday World’s offices were also firebombed. Mark Davenport from the BBC has stated that he spoke to a drug dealer who told him that he paid Billy Wright protection money. Loyalists in Portadown such as Bobby Jameson have stated that the LVF (the Mid-Ulster Brigade that broke away from the main UVF – and led by Billy Wright) was not a ‘loyalist organisation but a drugs organisation causing misery in Portadown.’
The UVF’s satellite organisation, the Red Hand Commando, was described by the IMC in 2004 as “heavily involved” in drug dealing.
- The Red Hand Commando (RHC) is an organisation that was established in 1972 and is closely linked with the UVF.
- The Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV) is the youth section of the UVF. It was initially a youth group akin to the Scouts, but became the youth wing of the UVF during the Home Rule crisis.
- The Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) is the political wing of the UVF. In June 2010 their sole member in the Northern Ireland Assembly, their party leader Dawn Purvis, resigned from the PUP over the UVF being accused of involvement in the Moffett murder.
- The Protestant Action Force and, much less commonly, the Protestant Action Group were cover names used by the UVF to avoid directly claiming responsibility for killings and other acts of violence. The names were first used during the early 1970s.
Deaths as a result of activities
The UVF has killed more people than any other loyalist paramilitary group. According to the University of Ulster‘s Sutton database, the UVF and RHC was responsible for at least 485 killings during the Troubles, between 1969 and 2001. This includes killings claimed by the “Protestant Action Force” and “Protestant Action Group”. There are a further 250 loyalist killings where it is not yet certain which group was responsible.
Of those killed by the UVF and RHC:
- 414 (~85%) were civilians, 11 of whom were civilian political activists
- 21 (~4%) were members or former members of republican paramilitary groups
- 44 (~9%) were members or former members of loyalist paramilitary groups
- 6 (~1%) were members of the British security forces
There were also 66 UVF/RHC members and four former members killed in the conflict.
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