Ulster loyalism is a political ideology found primarily among the working class Ulster Protestant community in Northern Ireland. 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 and "a variation of British nationalism".
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 or who tacitly support such violence. Loyalists are also described as being loyal primarily to the Protestant British monarchy rather than to the British government and institutions. Garret FitzGerald argued that loyalists are loyal primarily to 'Ulster' rather than to 'the Union'. 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).
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%).
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).
The following parties are usually described as loyalist:
- Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
- Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV)
- Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), which was linked to the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA)
- Ulster Protestant League (UPL)
- Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party (VUPP) aka Ulster Vanguard
- Volunteer Political Party (VPP)
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 (who registered to stand in Northern Ireland) and the British People's Party.
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.
Paramilitary and vigilante groups
Loyalist paramilitary and vigilante groups were active during The Troubles and, to a lesser extent, the Irish War of Independence (1919–22). 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. However, most of their victims were Irish Catholic civilians, who were often chosen at random. Whenever they claimed responsibility for their attacks, loyalists usually claimed that those targeted were IRA members or IRA sympathizers. M. L. R. Smith wrote that "From the outset, the loyalist paramilitaries tended to regard all Catholics as potential rebels". 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 'fear of retaliation' among Catholics would cause the republicans among them to stop backing the IRA and to rein them in.
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. 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.
The UDA and LVF have had links with Neo-Nazi groups in Britain, including Combat 18, the British National Socialist Movement, and the British National Front. 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. A report published in 2006 revealed that of all reported racist attacks in the previous 2 years, 90% occurred in loyalist areas. In 2013 a sign in public appeared in the loyalist village of Moygashel warning landlords not to rent local properties to foreign nationals.
In the table below, "operational" refers to the period when the group waged its paramilitary/vigilante campaign.
|Ulster Protestant Association||UPA||1920–1922|
|Ulster Protestant Action||UPA||1956–1966|
|Ulster Protestant Volunteers||UPV||1966–1969|
|Ulster Volunteer Force
Red Hand Commando
Young Citizen Volunteers
|Ulster Defence Association
Ulster Freedom Fighters
Ulster Young Militants
Ulster Defence Force
|Ulster Special Constabulary Association||USCA||1970–c.1975|
|Down Orange Welfare||DOW||1972–?|
|Ulster Volunteer Service Corps||UVSC||1972–1974|
|Ulster Service Corps||USC||1976–?|
|Loyalist Volunteer Force||LVF||1997–2005|
|Red Hand Defenders||RHD||1998–|
|Real Ulster Freedom Fighters||Real UFF||2007–|
- Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC) – 1966–1969
- Ulster Army Council (UAC) – 1973–1974
- Ulster Loyalist Central Co-ordinating Committee (ULCCC) – 1974–1976
- Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) – 1991–1998
- 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
Collusion with the security forces
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.
Due to a number of factors, the locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was 97% Protestant from late 1972 onward. Despite the vetting process, some members of paramilitary groups managed to enlist; mainly to obtain weapons, training and intelligence. 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, which was a legal organisation until 1992. The report stated that the UDR was the main source of weapons for those groups, although by 1973 UDR weapons losses had dropped by up to 75%, partly due to stricter controls. 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.
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. 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. The investigation was halted after a senior UDR officer claimed it was harming morale. Details of the investigation were discovered in 2011.
Initially, the Army allowed its soldiers to join the UDA. 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. By the end of 1975, 171 soldiers with links to the UDA had been discharged.
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". 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, with one, RUC officer John Weir, claiming that his superiors knew of the collusion but allowed it to continue. 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. It said some senior officers knew of the crimes but did nothing to prevent, investigate or punish. 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).
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. Members of the security forces tried to obstruct the Stevens investigation. It revealed the existence of the Force Research Unit (FRU), a covert British Army intelligence unit that used double agents to infiltrate paramilitary groups. FRU recruited Brian Nelson and helped him become the UDA's chief intelligence officer. In 1988, weapons were shipped to loyalists from South Africa under Nelson's supervision. 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. They say if someone was under threat, agents like Nelson were to inform FRU, who were then to alert the police. Gordon Kerr, who ran FRU from 1987 to 1991, claimed Nelson and FRU saved over 200 lives in this way. However, the Stevens Inquiries found evidence that only two lives were saved and said many loyalist attacks could have been prevented. 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. 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. From 1992 to 1994, loyalists were responsible for more deaths than republicans.
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. UVF brigadier Robin 'the Jackal' Jackson has been linked to between 50 and 100 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. According to the Irish Government's Barron Report, he was also "reliably said to have had relationships with British Intelligence".
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
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", have long been associated with unionism and loyalism. 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 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.
- Third Force
- Loyalist Association of Workers
- Ulster Workers' Council
- Ulster Political Research Group
- Tara (Northern Ireland)
- Glenanne gang
- Shankill Butchers
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- Progressive Unionist Party
- Beyond Conflict – A South-East Antrim organisation linked with the Ulster Defence Association
- Loyalist, Unionist and Protestant Resources
- English Loyalists
- Scottish Loyalists
- British Ulster Alliance