Loyalist paramilitaries:
An overview

In the Troubles loyalists killed 990 people; 708 simply because they were Catholics.1 The question is “Why?”

UFF mural on a gable end in Sandy Row, Belfast

UFF mural on a gable end in Sandy Row, Belfast

Main Groupings

The two most important and longest-established loyalist terrorist groups are:

Ulster Volunteer Force
founded in 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, and so named after the pre-war UVF.
Ulster Defence Assocation
founded in 1971 as an umbrella organisation for loyalist various vigilante groups.

Both groups used cover names for some of their activities:

Protestant Action Force
used occasionally by the UVF
Red Hand Commando
strictly speaking not a cover name but a subsidiary group that from 1972 took its orders from the UVF leadership.
Ulster Freedom Fighters
claiming responsibility using this name allowed the UDA to remain a legal organisation until 1992.

More recently, the following groups formed:

Loyalist Volunteer Force
a UVF splinter group opposed to the ceasefire and formed out of the Mid-Ulster Brigade by its leader Billy Wright2 in 1996.
Red Hand Defenders
emerged in 1998, opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and thought to be made up of dissident members of the LVF, UDA and UFF.
Orange Volunteers
share the ideas, aims and to a certain extent members of the RHD.


In Northern Ireland is sometimes hard to draw a line between — on the one hand — spontaneous sectarian rioting and intimidation and — on the other — more deliberate and calculated anti-Catholic actions. However, there is no doubt that the one feeds into the other. Loyalist paramilitary organisations emerged in 1960s and early 1970s as a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement (which was perceived by many — if not most — unionists at the time as a republican front).

The original target of the UVF was Northern Irish PM O’Neill’s reformist agenda. The group launched attacks on Catholics in order to increase sectarian divisions. Their ‘plan’ was that the IRA would retaliate, provoking a strong response from the security forces, and as a result of this conflict the old status quo of ‘loyal’ Protestants and ‘treacherous’ Catholics would be re-established. (The idea that Catholics could be reconciled or integrated into Northern Ireland was not even considered.)

To increase the pressure on O’Neill, in March-April 1969 loyalists carried out a series of bombings, including one that cut off Belfast’s water supply, which were made to look like the work of the IRA. The apparent seriousness of the Republican threat helped Unionist hardliners to force O’Neill out of office.

Meanwhile, intimidation forced many families to leave mixed neighbourhoods, intensifying the ghettoisation that was already a feature of Northern Ireland’s political and religious geography.

The 1970s and early 1980s

Loyalist paramilitaries were extremely active throughout the period when they felt Northern Ireland was most at threat: the Direct Rule crisis, the Sunningdale Agreement, and the subsequent constitutional uncertainty. (The name Ulster Defence Association indicates its priority.) The participation of loyalist muscle was a key factor in the success of the UWC strike which brought down the power-sharing executive: moderate Unionists were turned away from their workplaces by armed, masked men.

Republicans and nationalists complained — sometimes justifiably — that loyalist terrorists received softer treatment from the police and army than the IRA. Arming the ‘loyal’ element is a tactic that the Stormont regime often used in times of crisis, but there was no official policy of using loyalist terrorists to fight the IRA, even though there was collusion at times between paramilitaries and individuals within the security forces. The RUC was unwilling to fight a war on two fronts and the loyalist paramilitaries often claimed their violence was only a reaction to the IRA’s activities. It therefore made more sense to go after Republican terrorists.

Loyalist terrorists were noted for their brutality: attacks were often carried out at random, and were intended to cause maximum disgust and fear. The ‘rationale’ (if one can call it that) was two-fold:

  1. to terrify the Catholic community to such an extent that it would put pressure on the IRA to call off its armed campaign,

  2. to demonstrate to the world that giving in to the Republicans’ demands would only result in even more violence (see graphic).

Detail of mural in Tiger’s Bay, Belfast. (Photo source http://cain. ulst.ac.uk/mccormick/album.htm)

Detail of mural in Tiger’s Bay, Belfast. (Photo source http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/mccormick/album.htm)

A possible taste of what could happen in a united Ireland was given on 17th May 1974, when three bombs exploded in the middle of the rush hour in Dublin and a fourth in the town of Monaghan, killing 33 people in total. No organisation claimed responsibility but all the evidence pointed to Ulster loyalists.3

The Pre-Ceasefire Period

By the late 1980s loyalist paramilitaries were attacking Republican activists (IRA and Sinn Féin members) with increasing effectiveness, while continuing to kill many innocent Catholics. The IRA, which had pretensions towards being a ‘legitimate army’, would have preferred to fight the RUC and the British Army. IRA killings of civilians (such as the Teebane landmine attack)4 only damaged its image, and an attempt to assassinate the UDA and UFF leadership, who were meeting above a fish and chip shop on the Shankill Road, failed when the bomb exploded prematurely, killing nine people and one of the two bombers. Within the next two weeks the UDA/UFF killed seventeen people (all but one of whom were Catholics) in retaliation.

From the 1990s to the Present Day

In October 1994 (six weeks after the IRA called its ceasefire), the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) declared a ceasefire on behalf of all loyalist paramilitary groups. Their political representatives (the PUP and UDP) took part in the negotiations that followed. However, the commitment of their armed wings to peaceful politics has often been in doubt:

  1. Loyalist paramilitaries took part in the demonstrations and violence that occurred at the stand-offs at Drumcree church,
  2. There have been splits, such as that which led to the formation of the LVF,
  3. There was a bloody turf war between elements within the UDA and UVF from approximately 2000-2005.

The cause for the last of these was believed to be competition for the proceeds of organised crime (such as drug-dealing).


As part of the Good Friday agreement, the representatives of the paramilitary groups on both sides agreed that their stocks of weapons would be put “beyond use”. After much prevarication and delaying, the UVF’s decommissioning in 2009 and the UDA’s in 2010 were witnessed by independent observers. Nevertheless, loyalist paramilitaries are still capable of violence, as numerous shooting incidents carried out by UVF members in recent years show.5

  1. Figures cited in Marc Mulholland, Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP, 2003, p. 76. 
  2. Later assassinated inside the Maze Prison by three INLA prisoners. 
  3. The UVF eventually admitted in 1994 that it had carried out the attacks, though there remains considerable suspicion that it had help from British or Northern Irish intelligence agencies. 
  4. In January 1992 the IRA detonated a landmine under a minibus carrying construction workers. Eight died and six were severely injured. 
  5. See <http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/jun/04/northernireland-northernireland?intcmp=239> 
Loyalist paramilitaries by