Review of Ian S. Wood’s ‘A History of the UDA’

This review first appeared in Fortnight magazine, No. 446, September 2006, pp. 28-29, under the title Home Grown Terrorism . I had been lucky enough to be writing for Fortnight since 2003, when Malachi O’Doherty was editor. I contributed reviews and articles on Ulster Loyalism until the magazine sadly closely in 2011. This review reflects my thinking about the UDA and UVF at the time.

Ian S. Wood, Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA (Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

Reviewed by Aaron Edwards

Amidst recent speculation about the nature of ‘home grown terrorism’ it is reassuring to find a study which attempts to place the specific circumstances of the birth of a local variant of political violence in its proper historical context. Astute analysts of Northern Ireland’s own brand of militancy will appreciate that even though few of the armed protagonists have taken refuge behind religious piety as a flag of convenience, competing currents of religious fervour and secularism have helped to explode a potent cocktail. Protean in character and heterogeneous in nature, loyalist terrorist organisations, like the UDA, ‘often do other things’, suggests the sociologist Steve Bruce, ‘but their main point is to kill’. Ian S. Wood’s book furnishes us with an historian’s imaginative insight into what motivated individuals to join and, in many cases, to kill in the name of the UDA.

This is not the first time a book on the UDA has been reviewed in Fortnight, nor do I suspect it will be the last. That the topic has generated keen interest among writers of ‘troubles’ related literature is a sign of how the thirst for violence – retold in popular non-fiction – has been far from quenched. However, while books on the IRA have been many and varied, loyalist paramilitarism is still a minority pursuit for most journalists and academics. As the Rathcoole playwright Gary Mitchell recently remarked in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, traditionally, ‘the only things that sold about Northern Ireland were IRA stories’ (1 August 2006).

Loyalist paramilitants do themselves few favours by attacking those, like Mitchell, who have sought to transmit front-line despatches from the gritty reality of Protestant working class life to a wider audience. Undoubtedly Mitchell’s stage-plays touch on raw nerves; yet they are, above all, excellent Polaroid snap-shots of a community in crisis that beautifully illustrate the siege mentality and unreconstructed militarism afflicting those encamped in working class housing estates across Belfast.

This ‘Alamo-style’ mentality is something brought to the fore in Wood’s book. In a perverse way real life imitates the art of Mitchell’s plays. Though by far the largest paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, the UDA nevertheless remained a second-rate
terrorist organisation that could never quite match the military bearing or
sophistication of its UVF rival, summed up in a remark by PUP leader David Ervine that he would ‘rather have been a private in the UVF than a general in the UDA’ (p. 236).

The UDA suffered too from its inability to articulate a realistic political programme, famously advocating a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) for Northern Ireland (pp. 63, 80-82) without taking the trouble to solve the conundrum posed by the economic logic underpinning the huge British subvention. Nevertheless, the one redeeming feature of the UDA’s forward-thinking politics in the 1980s was captured in the document Common Sense (1987), which advocated integrative power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics. Wood’s ability to piece together the influences on UDA political thinking in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) is one of his great accomplishments (pp. 91-97).

Many readers will no doubt want to know if Wood’s book actually tells us something about the UDA that we didn’t already know. Well, yes and no. Wood is especially good at drawing out the organisation’s role in the 1974 UWC strike which brought down the power-sharing executive, and he aptly explains how the UDP campaign for
a ‘Yes’ vote was staffed by the ‘old guard’, who very quickly became disillusioned when internecine feuding broke out between the UDA and UVF. Wood also reminds us of the senseless killings carried out by the organisation in recent years (pp. 265, 273-277) which contributed to heightened tensions at interface areas, though there is perhaps too much attention given to the inflated chests of self-appointed UDA godfathers.

In this book Wood relies heavily on interview sources to illustrate the UDA’s origins and development. That said Wood has clearly gained excellent access to past and present UDA leaders – Andy Tyrie, John McMichael, Jackie McDonald, Ray Smallwoods, Johnny Adair and John White among others – while providing a superb insight into the political thinking of some of the more serious political analysts within the organisation. The interviews with McMichael and Smallwoods (undertaken shortly before their respective assassinations by the Provos in 1987 and 1994) alert us to the book’s long gestation. Indeed Wood has provided brief pen biographies of his dramatis personae as a useful appendix at the back of the book.

A particularly well researched chapter on the Scottish connection provides an insight into the logistical support given to the UDA by its fundraising supporters in Great Britain. As Wood points out, Scottish UDA units were of limited use during the conflict: ‘Incredibly, one particular package of explosive material was sent by them to Belfast by ordinary mail and with the sender’s name and address on it’ (p. 331). Scottish loyalists, it seems, talked a good fight but rarely had the stomach to take any active role in front-line combat. In Wood’s words ‘Much of the Scottish support for the cause was and remained ‘parade Protestantism’ Scottish bands strutting their stuff on Ulster Twelfth’s and other anniversaries – and of course the high octane fervour of the ‘ninety-minute Loyalists’ who supported Rangers’ (pp. 338-339). The UDA is a complex and multi-layered organisation that attracts individuals from across Protestant working class communities in Northern Ireland, and in some cases, as with the Shoukri brothers, from more exotic backgrounds. For those who think that internecine feuding within militant loyalism is a novel phenomenon then Wood’s book is a welcome reality check (see Chapter 10). From its emergence in 1969 personality clashes and local territorial dynamics have ensured that the UDA would never present a united front (pp. 17-24).

Sobriety confirms that the UDA is actually an ensemble of vociferous groupings brought together in an uneasy coalition of interests. Unlike the UVF, which has a central command structure with an autocratic ethos, UDA commanders have found it difficult to exert control over their personnel (p. 191). The culture of militarism within the UVF is much more pronounced and has meant that individual volunteers holding strong political convictions must move into the non-combatant ranks of the PUP. The UDA on the other hand has had military people masquerading as politicians who rarely performed well at the polls (p. 29).

Politically speaking the UDA has become a ‘busted flush’ since the signing of the Belfast Agreement (1998); when the now defunct UDP attempted to take it down a path a large bulk of its membership was reluctant to travel. It is fast returning to the position it occupied at its formation, minus the threat from physical force republicanism. Yet a question mark still hangs over the UDA’s future. Wood has not addressed the pressing problem facing Protestant working class communities today, i.e. will loyalist paramilitary groupings balkanise into a set of unstable Mafia gangs or community organisations; admittedly few other books about loyalism on offer have attempted to do so either.

Above all Wood’s book is much better than Colin Crawford’s rather awkward offering Inside the UDA (2003) and a more human depiction of UDA volunteers than McDonald and Cusack’s gripping, though forensically detailed, UDA: Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror (2004). It is not without its minor errors (such as the remark that Mark Quail was buried with full UFF honours – Quail was in fact a UVF member, or the misspelling of Newtownabbey). Nevertheless, it is a serious historical treatment by an academic who clearly buys into the ‘ordinary people forced to do extraordinary things’ thesis common in the work of those analysts who enjoy quiet conversations with dubious characters in the backrooms of smoky shebeens. As a seasoned academic historian Wood has written some excellent books on Churchill,
Ireland during the Second World War and God, Guns and Ulster: A History of Loyalist Paramilitaries and this latest offering is equally as accomplished.

While the work of sociologists Steve Bruce and James McAuley gives us a clearer picture of how the broader questions of power, ideology and socio-economic position unfold within loyalist communities, Wood has given his readership a rounded picture
of the human capacity for violent extremism. Thus Crimes of Loyalty is not a bad book, or even a poorly executed treatment of the subject-matter, but a different take on a familiar topic. I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to gain an insightful historical understanding of how loyalists associated with the UDA were propelled into violence.

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About aaronedwards2012

Historian, Writer, Academic. Views all my own.
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