Perhaps one of the most repulsive acts of barbarism from The Troubles came from the Loyalist Shankhill Butchers. These murders stand apart for the barbarism they demonstrated. Innocent Catholics were abducted, tortured, killed, and cut up into pieces. It was a set of crimes that hardened UDA and UVF men in the Maze found repulsive. It was blatant Sectarian hatred unleashed. How did the situation in Northern Ireland deteriorate so badly? And why were men committing such acts as a tactical approach?
As we saw in the previous article, the British State had taken a series of actions intended to placate the unrest from the Catholic community, an attempt to spear off Republican passions. However, this placation had a dire consequence – it sparked great fear in the hearts of those the State was meant to represent most. The hallmark of the following years was one in which Loyalists felt utter betrayal by their leaders and by Westminster. Their populist leaders encouraged direct action to make their voices heard and bloody direct action was what came about. Many of these populist politicians deny the impact their speeches had but for many young men in loyalist communities it seemed tacit approval by the old men.
When McGurks bar in Belfast was bombed and 15 innocents lost their lives, it sparked a cycle of tit-for-tat violence. Why did the UVF escalate the war in this manner? Loyalists in Northern Ireland identified strongly with the British State and fundamentally the Crown. They are utterly loyal to the Crown and they are utterly loyal to their community. When the IRA, and the Republican cause, embarked upon their campaign of direct violence they had clear targets. State apparatus and State actors. Military, Police, Government officials. Yet that Military, Police, and Government was staffed by largely Protestant Loyalists. The Loyalists were effectively the State. This meant the IRA never had to attack innocents to provoke the escalation, they only had to attack the State. An attack on one is an attack on all mentality broke out in the Loyalist communities. They became afraid and the response was always to hit back at their Catholic countrymen.
Loyalist Paramilitary targeting seems insane to the outsider viewer. The UVF and UDA were perfectly happy to assassinate, at random, innocent Catholic civilians. In some cases, their own workmates and friends. If you listen to the men who committed these crimes they did this because they felt they had to defend their community. The Catholic community became a target because they were seen as hosting the Republicans and sympathetic to Republican aims. Many Loyalists believed they were targeting IRA locations with their attacks, however, others openly said any Catholic would do. The Loyalists, in identifying with the State the IRA were attacking, made the logical leap to wanton terrorist acts against any Catholics as being justified. The enemy became the outsider and this fed the sectarian mindset. Hence we move to the tit-for-tat violence spiral that saw the IRA begin to deliberately target Loyalist communities, but, it didn’t start out that way.
It should be noted, some within the Loyalist paramilitaries, like John McMichael of the UFF attempted to target Republican terrorists explicitly. The infamous ‘shopping list’ his South Belfast Brigade used for many of their attacks came from State security documents. This was the beginning of a realization that collusion between the State and the Loyalist paramilitaries was happening on a wide-scale basis. Again, with what we know of how the security services were arranged, this isn’t really a surprise. The State could not directly carry out violent retribution* but the Loyalist Paramilitaries could and there were enough backdoor ways to provide intelligence. Of course much of this intelligence was bunk, the human intelligence game of the Troubles is mired in double agents and super grasses. Of the many Loyalist paramilitaries, there is only one who was purported to never had an informant or supergrass as a member.
Collusion was a reality and it fed into the cycle of violence. Human intelligence is hard to trust and many of the informants the British State worked with from both sides were dubious characters. Allegations of IRA supergrasses being allowed to torture and commit murder of their political rivals whilst in service to the State are common, and the evidence seems to suggest this being true. The end result of the dubious human intel leaked was that it seems likely many attacks made by the Loyalist paramilitaries on Republican targets were faulty. A Republican may have visited that pub once or twice but that did not make it a known hangout, yet that was all the justification needed by the Loyalist keen to strike back. What remains speculative is any idea that the collusion that happened had a direct overarching strategic goal. The majority of the collusion was likely revenge orientated in nature – but it fed into the tactical approach the Loyalists had taken.
That tactical approach was to let the IRA and the Republican movement know they could never win. It was a strategy to show they would forever shed blood in defiance and that the majority population of Northern Ireland would never accept a peace that saw a united Ireland. It encompassed revenge attacks in their own cities, it grew to direct terror carried out in the Republic of Ireland. The Loyalist violence was also a direct message to Westminster that they would not accept back-door dealings or a surrender to the Republic of Ireland. Loyalist violence was rarely directed against the State they defended but they did help bring it to its knees through intimidation during a strike to make sure the Sunningdale deal died.
Loyalist Paramilitaries were of course subject to the force of the law. They went to jail in large numbers and maintained their military organizational structure behind bars. The jailing of leaders and people who took action gave a legitimacy to them. These men were in prison for the right reasons and could continue to direct Loyalist actions behind bars. When peace became more likely, the men in jail held considerable sway and at one point threatened to derail the peace process, end cease-fires and return to conflict. The fact the Northern Ireland secretary visited these Loyalists leaders in prison to assure them no back-door deals were being done shows the strength and effectiveness the Loyalist tactics had had on ensuring they got their way.
We may sit here, far removed, and judge these bloody tactics as dishonorable acts of murder. Yet they were at least in part responsible for ensuring the peace that was delivered was one that favored the Loyalists, and kept the Union. The violence also did show the IRA that they were not able to simply fight against the State, they were fighting against a significant portion of the population who would not go quietly. The final installment of this series will seek to comparatively analyze the tactics and what if any lessons can be applied to the uncertain future America faces.
*The British Army did actively run a clandestine military unit called the MRF. The MRF were basically tasked to track and harass the IRA. Former members have testified they performed assassination style hits on IRA roadblocks on numerous occasions. But this group was disbanded after not too long. Likely the plausible deniability of using Loyalist groups was the better option.