Ulster loyalism

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The Union Flag, Ulster Banner and Orange Order flags are often flown by loyalists in Northern Ireland
A loyalist flag bearing the Red Hand of Ulster and the loyalist slogan "For God and Ulster"

Ulster loyalism is a political ideology found primarily among the working class Ulster Protestant community in Northern Ireland.[1][2] Loyalists are loyal to the monarchy of the United Kingdom, support the preservation of the Northern Ireland polity and oppose a united Ireland. Ulster loyalism has been described as a kind of ethnic nationalism[3] and "a variation of British nationalism".[4]

Loyalism emerged in the 19th century, as a response to the Irish self-government and Irish independence movements. While most of Ireland was Catholic, in the province of Ulster Protestants were in the majority. Loyalism began as a self-determination movement among Ulster Protestants who did not want to become part of an autonomous Ireland. This led to the partition of Ireland in 1921. Most of Ireland became independent, while about two-thirds of Ulster remained within the United Kingdom as a self-governing territory called Northern Ireland. Loyalists often use 'Ulster' as an alternative name for Northern Ireland.

Since partition, most loyalists have supported upholding Northern Ireland's status as a part of the United Kingdom (i.e. unionism). However, over the past few decades, a distinction between 'unionists' and 'loyalists' is made more often. The term 'loyalist' is now usually used to describe working class unionists who are willing to use non-state violence to defend 'the Union' with Great Britain[5][6] or who tacitly support such violence.[7] Loyalists are also described as being loyal primarily to the Protestant British monarchy rather than to the British government and institutions.[8] Garret FitzGerald argued that loyalists are loyal primarily to 'Ulster' rather than to 'the Union'.[9] Some loyalists have called for an independent Ulster Protestant state, believing that they cannot rely on the British government to prevent Irish reunification (see Ulster nationalism).


Upon the partition of Ireland in 1921, six of the nine counties in the province of Ulster were excluded from the independent Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland).

These counties remained a part of the United Kingdom. Academically cited records from 1926 indicate that at that stage 33.5% of the Northern Ireland population was Roman Catholic, with 62.2% belonging to the three major Protestant denominations (Presbyterian 31.3%, Church of Ireland 27%, Methodist 3.0%).[10]

Tensions between Northern Ireland's Irish nationalist/Catholic population (which mostly supports Irish reunification) and its Protestant/unionist population (which mostly supports remaining part of the UK) led to a long-running bloody conflict known as The Troubles (late 1960s to late 1990s).

Political parties[edit]

The following parties are usually described as loyalist:

Loyalist graffiti and banner on a building in a side street off the Shankill Road, Belfast (1970)

In Great Britain, a number of small far-right parties have and still do express support for loyalist paramilitaries, and loyalism in general. This includes the British National Front[11] (who registered to stand in Northern Ireland) and the British People's Party.[12]

Bigger and more moderate right-wing unionist parties like the Ulster Unionists (UUP) or Democratic Unionists (DUP) have actively sought to distance themselves from loyalist paramilitary activity. However, Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party have been involved with Ulster Resistance and worked alongside loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association in the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council Strikes and the 1977 Loyalist Association of Workers strike.[13]

Paramilitary and vigilante groups[edit]

A UVF mural in Belfast
A UDA mural in Bangor

Loyalist paramilitary and vigilante groups have been active since the Irish War of Independence (1919–22), and more prominently during The Troubles (1960s–1998), with small cells and remnants that currently continue to struggle against the Dissident Irish Republican campaign(1998–present).

The biggest and most active paramilitaries were the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), who also used the covername "Ulster Freedom Fighters" (UFF).

During the Troubles, their goals were to combat Irish republicanism – particularly the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) – and defend Protestant loyalist areas from attack.[14][15] However, most of their victims were Irish Catholic civilians, who were often chosen at random.[16] Whenever they claimed responsibility for their attacks, loyalists usually claimed that those targeted were IRA members or IRA sympathizers.[17] M. L. R. Smith wrote that "From the outset, the loyalist paramilitaries tended to regard all Catholics as potential rebels".[18] 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.[14][16][19] Such retaliation was seen as both collective punishment and an attempt to weaken the IRA's support; it was thought that 'fear of retaliation' among Catholics would cause the republicans among them to stop backing the IRA and to rein them in.[18][20]

The modus operandi of loyalist paramilitaries involved assassinations, mass shootings, bombings and kidnappings. They used sub machine-guns, assault rifles, pistols, grenades (including homemade grenades), incendiary bombs, booby trap bombs and car bombs. Bomb attacks were usually made without warning. However, most of their operations involved gun attacks rather than bombings.[20] In January 1994, the UDA drew up a 'doomsday plan', to be implemented should the British Army withdraw from Northern Ireland. It called for ethnic cleansing and re-partition, with the goal of making Northern Ireland wholly Protestant.[21]

The UDA and LVF have had links with Neo-Nazi groups in Britain, including Combat 18,[22][23] the British National Socialist Movement,[24] and the British National Front.[25] Since the 1990s, loyalist paramilitaries have been accused of racist attacks in loyalist areas, leading to accusations of widespread racism within loyalism. It has been speculated that rogue loyalist militants with far right beliefs may be carrying out the attacks.[26] A report published in 2006 revealed that of all reported racist attacks in the previous 2 years, 90% occurred in loyalist areas.[27] In 2013 a sign in public appeared in the loyalist village of Moygashel warning landlords not to rent local properties to foreign nationals.[28]

In the table below, "operational" refers to the period when the group waged its paramilitary/vigilante campaign.

Name Initials Operational Status
Ulster Protestant Association UPA 1920–1922 Inactive
Ulster Protestant Action UPA 1956–1966 Inactive
Ulster Protestant Volunteers UPV 1966–1969 Inactive
Ulster Volunteer Force UVF 1966–2007 Inactive
Red Hand Commando RHC 1972–2007 Inactive
Young Citizen Volunteers YCV 1972–2007 Inactive
Ulster Defence Association UDA 1971–2007 Inactive
Ulster Freedom Fighters UFF 1972–2007 Inactive
Ulster Young Militants UYM 1974–2007 Inactive
Ulster Defence Force UDF 1985–? -
Ulster Special Constabulary Association USCA 1970–c.1975 Inactive
Down Orange Welfare DOW 1972–? -
Orange Volunteers OV 1972–1980s Inactive
Ulster Volunteer Service Corps UVSC 1972–1974 Inactive
Ulster Service Corps USC 1976–? -
Ulster Resistance UR 1986–? -
Loyalist Volunteer Force LVF 1997–2005 Inactive
Orange Volunteers (Orange Volunteer Force) OV 1998–present Active
Red Hand Defenders RHD 1998–present Active
Real Ulster Freedom Fighters Real UFF 2007–present Active

Umbrella groups


  • Protestant Action Force (PAF) – commonly used by the UVF
  • Protestant Action Group (PAG) – briefly used by the UVF in the 1970s
  • Loyalist Retaliation and Defence Group (LRDG) – briefly used by the UVF in the 1990s
A republican mural in Belfast with the slogan "Collusion Is Not An Illusion"

Collusion with the security forces[edit]

In their efforts to defeat the Provisional IRA, there were incidents of collusion between the state security forces (the British Army and RUC) and loyalist paramilitaries. This included soldiers and policemen taking part in loyalist attacks while off-duty, giving weapons and intelligence to loyalists, not taking action against them, and hindering police investigations. Some of the soldiers and policemen involved were members of loyalist paramilitaries while others were not. The security forces also had double agents and informers within loyalist groups who (in some cases) organised attacks on the orders of, or with the knowledge of, their handlers. The De Silva report found that, during the 1980s, 85% of the intelligence that loyalists used to target people came from the security forces.[29]

Due to a number of factors, the locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was 97% Protestant from late 1972 onward.[30][31] Despite the vetting process, some members of paramilitary groups managed to enlist; mainly to obtain weapons, training and intelligence.[32] A 1973 British Government document (uncovered in 2004), named "Subversion in the UDR", speculated that 5–15% of UDR soldiers in 1972 were members of loyalist paramilitaries such as the UDA,[32][33] which was a legal organisation until 1992. The report stated that the UDR was the main source of weapons for those groups,[32] although by 1973 UDR weapons losses had dropped by up to 75%, partly due to stricter controls.[34] This modus operandi was not confined to loyalist groups but as the number of Catholics in the regiment decreased, so too did the threat of collusion with the IRA.[32]

In 1977, the Army investigated D and G companies of 10 UDR based at Girdwood Barracks, Belfast. The investigation concluded that 70 soldiers had links to the UVF. Following this, two were dismissed on security grounds.[35] It found that thirty NCOs from D Company had fraudulently diverted between £30,000 and £47,000 to the UVF. It was also alleged that UVF members socialised with soldiers in their mess.[35] The investigation was halted after a senior UDR officer claimed it was harming morale.[35] Details of the investigation were discovered in 2011.[35]

Initially, the Army allowed its soldiers to join the UDA.[36] On 29 November 1972 the Army issued an order that a soldier should be discharged if his sympathy for a paramilitary group affects his performance, loyalty or impartiality.[37] By the end of 1975, 171 soldiers with links to the UDA had been discharged.[38]

During the 1970s, the Glenanne gang—a secret group consisting of loyalist militants, British soldiers and RUC officers—carried out a string of attacks against Catholics and Irish nationalists in an area of Northern Ireland that became known as the "murder triangle".[39][40] It also carried out some attacks in the Republic of Ireland. Members of the gang have alleged that it was commanded by British Military Intelligence and RUC Special Branch,[40][41] with one, RUC officer John Weir, claiming that his superiors knew of the collusion but allowed it to continue.[42] According to the Cassel Report, the group was responsible for at least 76 murders and there is evidence that soldiers and RUC officers were involved in 74 of those.[43] It said some senior officers knew of the crimes but did nothing to prevent, investigate or punish.[43] Attacks attributed to the Glenanne gang include the Dublin and Monaghan bombings (1974), the Miami Showband killings (1975) and the Reavey and O'Dowd killings (1976).[40][44]

The Stevens Inquiries concluded that the conflict had been intensified and prolonged by a core of army and police officers who helped loyalists to kill people, including civilians.[45][46] Members of the security forces tried to obstruct the Stevens investigation.[46][47] It revealed the existence of the Force Research Unit (FRU), a covert British Army intelligence unit that used double agents to infiltrate paramilitary groups.[48] FRU recruited Brian Nelson and helped him become the UDA's chief intelligence officer.[49] In 1988, weapons were shipped to loyalists from South Africa under Nelson's supervision.[49] Through Nelson, FRU helped the UDA to target people for assassination. FRU commanders say their plan was to make the UDA "more professional" by helping it to target republican activists and prevent it from killing uninvolved Catholic civilians.[48] They say if someone was under threat, agents like Nelson were to inform FRU, who were then to alert the police.[48] Gordon Kerr, who ran FRU from 1987 to 1991, claimed Nelson and FRU saved over 200 lives in this way.[45][48] However, the Stevens Inquiries found evidence that only two lives were saved and said many loyalist attacks could have been prevented.[45] The Stevens team believes that Nelson was responsible for at least 30 murders and many other attacks, and that many of the victims were uninvolved civilians.[45] One of the most prominent victims was solicitor Pat Finucane. Although Nelson was imprisoned in 1992, FRU's intelligence continued to help the UDA and other loyalist groups.[50][51] From 1992 to 1994, loyalists were responsible for more deaths than republicans.[52]

A report released by the Police Ombudsman in 2007 revealed that UVF members had committed a string of serious crimes, including murder, while working as informers for RUC Special Branch. It found that Special Branch knew of this but had given the informers "immunity". It ensured that they weren't caught, helped them during police interviews, made false notes and blocked searches for UVF weapons.[53] UVF brigadier Robin 'the Jackal' Jackson has been linked to between 50[54][55] and 100[40] killings in Northern Ireland, although he was never convicted of any and never served any lengthy prison terms. It has been alleged by many people, including members of the security forces, that Jackson was an RUC agent.[56] According to the Irish Government's Barron Report, he was also "reliably said to have had relationships with British Intelligence".[57]

Other incidents of alleged collusion between loyalists and the security forces include the McGurk's Bar bombing, the 1972 and 1973 Dublin bombings, the Milltown Cemetery attack, the Cappagh killings, the Sean Graham bookmakers' shooting, the Loughinisland massacre, and the murders of Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson, and Eddie Fullerton.

Fraternities and marching bands[edit]

In Northern Ireland there are a number of Protestant fraternities and marching bands who hold yearly parades. They include the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys of Derry. These fraternities, often described as the "Loyal Orders",[7] have long been associated with unionism and loyalism.[58] There are also hundreds of Protestant marching bands in Northern Ireland, many of whom hold loyalist views and use loyalist symbols. Yearly events such as the Eleventh Night (11 July) bonfires[59] and The Twelfth (12 July) parades have also been associated with loyalism.A report published in 2013 estimated there were at least 640 marching bands in Northern Ireland combining a total membership of around 30000 which is believed to be figures of an all time high.[60]

Other groups[edit]



  1. ^ Miller, David W.. Queen's Rebels: Ulster loyalism in historical perspective. Gill and Macmillan, 1978. ISBN 0064948293
  2. ^ Taylor, Peter. Loyalists. Bloomsbury, 2000. ISBN 0747545197.
  3. ^ Ignatieff, Michael. Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism. Vintage, 1994. p.184.
  4. ^ John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary. Explaining Northern Ireland. Wiley, 1995. pp.92–93.
  5. ^ Bruce, Steve. The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Oxford University Press, 1992. p.15.
  6. ^ Alan F. Parkinson (1998). Ulster loyalism and the British media. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 1-85182-367-0
  7. ^ a b Glossary of terms on the Northern Ireland conflict. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)
  8. ^ Alison, Miranda. Women and Political Violence. Routledge, 2009. p.67.
  9. ^ Cochrane, Fergal. Unionist Politics and the Politics of Unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Cork University Press, 2001. p.39.
  10. ^ CAIN: Background Information on Northern Ireland Society – Religion
  11. ^ National Front policies. Official National Front (UK) website.
  12. ^ "Stand by Loyal Ulster!" – British People's Party leaflet. Official British People's Party website.
  13. ^ Peter Taylor, Loyalists, 2000
  14. ^ a b Doherty, Barry. Northern Ireland since c.1960. Heinemann, 2001. p15
  15. ^ "A history of the UDA". BBC News. 6 January 2010. Retrieved 28 March 2010. 
  16. ^ a b David McKittrick (12 March 2009). "Will loyalists seek bloody revenge?". The Independent. Retrieved 21 June 2011. 
  17. ^ Kentucky New Era, 14 April 1992
  18. ^ a b Smith, M L R. Fighting for Ireland?. Psychology Press, 1997. p.118
  19. ^ Tonge, Jonathan. Northern Ireland. Polity, 2006. p.157
  20. ^ a b Mitchell, Thomas G (2000). "Chapter 7 subsection: The Loyalist terrorists of Ulster, 1969–94". Native vs. Settler. Greenwood Press. pp. 154–165. 
  21. ^ Wood, Ian S. Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA. Edinburgh University Press, 2006. pp.184–185.
  22. ^ Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. NYU Press, 2003. p.45.
  23. ^ McDonald, Henry (2 July 2000). "English fascists to join loyalists at Drumcree". London: The Observer. Retrieved 30 December 2010. 
  24. ^ Goodrick-Clarke, pp.40–41.
  25. ^ Wood, Ian S.Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA. Edinburgh University Press, 2006. pp.339–40.
  26. ^ "Racist war of the loyalist street gangs". The Guardian, 10 January 2004. Retrieved 21 October 2012.
  27. ^ "Loyalists linked to 90 per cent of race crime" The Guardian 22 October 2006
  28. ^ "Locals outraged by menacing sign from racist thugs" Belfast Telegraph
  29. ^ "Pat Finucane murder: 'Shocking state collusion', says PM". BBC News, 12 December 2012. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
  30. ^ Thomas G. Mitchell, Native Vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, p. 55
  31. ^ Brett Bowden, Michael T. Davis, eds, Terror: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism, p. 234
  32. ^ a b c d "Subversion in the UDR". Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)
  33. ^ "Collusion – Subversion in the UDR". Irish News, 3 May 2006.
  34. ^ http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/publicrecords/1973/subversion_in_the_udr.htm
  35. ^ a b c d "British army 'covered up' UDR units links to UVF". The Detail, 31 July 2011.
  36. ^ Wood, Ian S. Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA. Edinburgh University Press, 2006. pp.107–8
  37. ^ CAIN: New Year Releases 2003 – Public Records of 1972
  38. ^ Potter, John Furniss. A Testimony to Courage – the Regimental History of the Ulster Defence Regiment 1969–1992. Pen & Sword Books, 2001. p.376
  39. ^ The Cassel Report (2006), pp. 8, 14, 21, 25, 51, 56, 58–65.
  40. ^ a b c d [http://www.patfinucanecentre.org/sarmagh/sarmagh.html "Collusion in the South Armagh/Mid Ulster Area in the mid-1970s". Pat Finucane Centre. Retrieved 2 January 2011.
  41. ^ The Cassel Report (2006), pp. 6, 13
  42. ^ The Cassel Report (2006), p.63
  43. ^ a b The Cassel Report (2006), p.4
  44. ^ The Cassel Report (2006), p.8
  45. ^ a b c d "Scandal of Ulster’s secret war". The Guardian. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  46. ^ a b "Security forces aided loyalist murders". BBC News. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  47. ^ Stevens Enquiry 3: Overview & Recommendations. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  48. ^ a b c d "Stevens Inquiry: Key people". BBC News. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013. 
  49. ^ a b "Obituary: Brian Nelson". The Guardian. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013. 
  50. ^ “Deadly Intelligence: State Involvement in Loyalist Murder in Northern Ireland – Summary”. British Irish Rights Watch, February 1999.
  51. ^ Human Rights in Northern Ireland: Hearing before the Committee on International Relations of the United States House of Representatives, 24 June 1997. US Government Printing Office, 1997.
  52. ^ Clayton, Pamela (1996). Enemies and Passing Friends: Settler ideologies in twentieth-century Ulster. Pluto Press. p. 156. "More recently, the resurgence in loyalist violence that led to their carrying out more killings than republicans from the beginning of 1992 until their ceasefire (a fact widely reported in Northern Ireland) was still described as following 'the IRA's well-tested tactic of trying to usurp the political process by violence'…" 
  53. ^ "NI police colluded with killers". BBC News, 22 January 2007.
  54. ^ McKittrick, David. Lost Lives. Mainstream Publishing, 1999. p.724
  55. ^ "Killing Fields". New Statesman. Stephen Howe. 14 February 2000. Retrieved 2 February 2011
  56. ^ The Cassel Report (2006), p.68
  57. ^ Houses of the Oireachtas, Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights (2003). "The Barron Report" (PDF). Oireachtas. p. 135. 
  58. ^ Tonge, Johnathan. Northern Ireland. Polity, 2006. pages 24, 171, 172, 173.
  59. ^ Mark Simpson (10 July 2009). "Turning hotspot into friendly fire". BBC News. Retrieved 13 July 2009. 
  60. ^ "Loyalist band numbers at new high" The Newsletter

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