Category: Archive

To be or not to be? A loyalist quandary

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Last week’s statement from the Ulster Freedom Fighters warning the Red Hand Defenders that they had to “disband” (because they had just killed a Catholic postman, Daniel McColgan, and threatened Catholic school teachers) has afforded us a glimpse (yet again) into the Alice in Wonderland world of loyalist paramilitary politics.

That is, here we had one non-existent organization threatening another non-existent organization to “stand down,” as the UFF statement put it in the pseudo military language so beloved by loyalists.

It came as no surprise to anyone when the Red Hand Defenders dutifully announced that it was “standing down,” in obedience to the UFF’s command. What else could it do, since to all intents and purposes it was made up of the same people, all of whom are, incidentally, members of neither the UFF nor the Red Hand Defenders, but of the Ulster Defense Association.

It reminded me of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. ‘”Have some wine,” said the March Hare in an encouraging tone. Alice looked round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.

“I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.

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“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.’

Substitute “Red Hand Defenders” for “wine” in the above and one gets some idea of this Mad Hatter’s Tea Party world where organizations disappear down rabbit holes into some sort of parallel universe in which the definition of what constitutes the thing we call “organization” keeps changing.

To begin a history of a non-existent organization: the Red Hand Defenders popped up for the first time in 1998 in the North Armagh area, when it claimed responsibility for the murder of Constable Frank O’Reilly, a Catholic RUC man who was fatally injured by a blast bomb during the confrontation on Garvaghy Road, near Portadown. At the time, informed opinion saw the organization as a cover for the Loyalist Volunteer Force, outlawed in 1996, itself a split away from the Ulster Volunteer Force. However, in Belfast and Southeast Antrim, where it has been most active, it is a cover for the UFF, which itself is a cover for the UDA.

Its genesis was rather like that of the UFF, which emerged from the rabbit hole of the loyalist paramilitary underworld in June 1973, a product of the imagination of a leading UDA hit man who was eager for the organization to claim “credit” for the murders it was committing but wanted to avoid its being outlawed.

Over the years, the authorities in Northern Ireland have proven to be amazingly cooperative in helping to sustain this fantasy world. They banned the UFF in July 1973, and, a couple of decades later, did the same to the Red Hand Defenders. (The latter has even gotten on to the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.) The Northern Ireland office left the UDA to continue as a perfectly legal organization, with an office on the Shankill Road in West Belfast and a headquarters on the Newtownards Road in the east of the city. In the meantime, its men were busy conducting one of the most murderous sectarian campaigns in the history of Northern Ireland, in the 20 years from 1972 to 1992 claiming just under 400 victims, the vast majority of them inocent Catholics.

During most of that period, a reporter could saunter into the Belfast headquarters for a cup of tea, a chocolate biscuit and a chat with the UDA’s supreme chairman, Andy Tyrie. The UDA was so confident that its ruse was working that it even used to store weapons in the Newtownards Road building. In fact, on one occasion a fire broke out there and it was suspected that it was caused by an incendiary device that had been kept in a cupboard and had gone off accidentally.

It gets curiouser and curiouser.

The UDA used other tricks over the years to deceive the authorities. In 1973, it faked a leadership coup to make it seem that Tommy Herron, the vice-chairman, had been kidnapped by “young militants.” He appeared at a press conference surrounded by hooded men in an attempt to convince people that he was the moderate leader doing his best to keep control of the “mad-dogs” of the organization. His point was, Don’t arrest me or these guys will take over. At the time, he was trying to avoid being interned.

He succeeded.

The UDA was encouraged to carry on in the same vein over the years for the good reason that it worked. This meant that the UDA did not join the list of proscribed organizations for another 19 years, until August 1992.

However, the UDA’s new outlaw status did not remove its need to deceive. The invention of the Red Hand Defenders was an attempt to dissuade the authorities from declaring that the UDA/UFF cease-fire, declared in October 1994, had effectively ended, which would leave UDA men (released under the terms of the Good Friday agreement) liable to end up back in jail.

At the most recent Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility for the murder of McColgan, the postman. This was followed by a claim from the UDA itself, which said it had killed the postman. Then came the UFF statement, threatening the Red Hand Defenders.

What is most unusual about this is the fact that the UDA spoke in its own voice for the first time in many years. Last week, I mistakenly reported that the last time the UDA had claimed responsibility for any act of violence was in December 1972, after it bombed a pub and a soft drinks factory in Donegal. In fact, three years later, on Nov. 29 1975, it claimed responsibility for a bomb attack at Dublin Airport that killed a janitor, John Hayes. Gerry Fitt, then the leader of the SDLP, said that it was “crazy that the UDA was still a fully legalized organization.”

Crazy, or convenient for somebody? At first, the authorities may have accepted the UFF fiction in order to avoid confronting the UDA, which in the early 1970s had as many as 20,000 members. But it later weakened considerably. By then, however, the British may have operated on the principle that the still-legal UDA gave them some idea as to who was in the illegal UFF — the way Sinn Fein allows them to catch a glimpse of who’s who in the IRA.

Meanwhile, the authorities’ willingness to go down the rabbit hole and join the UDA in paramilitary wonderland seems undiminished.

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