Ireland’s Wars: The Ulster Volunteer Force

For the last while, when it comes to the military history of Northern Ireland, we have been very focused on the IRA, its spin-offs and the cause of militant republicanism. It’s perhaps only natural, given that in the time period discussed it was these entities and movements that played the roles of agitators and rebels, and were willing to enact violent action tot achieve their aims. But as we come to the fateful year of 1969 and the beginnings of what we know as the Troubles, it seems a proper time to cast an eye on the other side of the paramilitary divide, and to take a moment to consider those unionist entities, outside of the state’s remit, that sought to arm themselves and achieve their goals through the use of force. Today’s entry will be on arguably the best known of those entities, on how it came to be and how it operated in its earliest years.

There was, as noted previously, a history of unionists forming armed militia groups within the territory of Northern Ireland, with the Ulster Volunteers of 1913 just the most standout example. That grouping had helped in the formation of the existing state of partition on the island of Ireland, even if they had never engaged their supposed nationalist enemies in combat. Now, over 50 years later, conditions in Northern Ireland were allowing for a new form of such militias to come into being. The widespread dissatisfaction of Catholics and nationalists, whose civil rights movement was in the midst of a popular movement of protests and marches that were rocking Northern Ireland’s stability, was running smack into a renewed unionist doggedness to maintain the de facto Protestant Ascendency that existed in the country. There were plenty of people willing to back that doggedness up with force, and with offensive action when the time came.

Ian Paisley, introduced to this series in the previous entry, was among the first to form such a grouping, in direct response to Catholic/nationalist entities like the Campaign for Social Justice. His Ulster Constitution Defence Committee followed Ulster Protestant Action, that we discussed previously, in setting up its own paramilitary wing in the form of the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, which was involved in several incidents not long after their founding in the Summer of 1966. A primary school in Ardoyne, meant to be the host for talks on ecumenical togetherness, was bombed by the UPV that Summer, thankfully out of hours, before the entity was responsible for the mistaken killing of an elderly Protestant woman in the Shankill area of Belfast, she unfortunately mistaken for the actual Catholic living next door.

That last act has also been credited to the entity that forms our main focus today, with which the UPV had plenty of crossover: the Ulster Volunteer Force. This UVF, which from its very beginning disavowed any connection to the Ulster Volunteers of yesteryear, was led by a unionists named Augustus “Gusty” Spence, then a 32-year-old resident of the Shankill area. The son of a member of the previous Ulster Volunteers, Spencer was a well-known member of the local loyalist community, being a British Army veteran (with experience serving in Cyprus), a member of various unionist organisations including the Orange Order and a well-noted member of the Belfast docklands labour force. Already a veteran of several street fighting incidents, in 1965 Spencer claims he was approached by an unnamed member of the Ulster Unionist Party and appointed as the commander of a reformed unit of the UVF, to be based in the Shankill. Spence, “sworn” in to the organisation in a secret ceremony that probably bore the hallmarks of previous secret societies, was given command of around a dozen men, who operated out of the Standard Bar on the Shankill Road.

The petrol bombing where the elderly woman was unintentionally killed is often taken as the UVF’s first, botched, operation, but it was followed soon after by more targeted killings. It was a few weeks after that first attack that the organisation issued a grandiose statement, a declaration of war “against the Irish Republican Army and its splinter groups” which were to “be executed mercilessly and without hesitation”. The Belfast government was in their sights also: “we solemnly warn the authorities to make no more speeches of appeasement”. Within days of that statement being made Spence sent men under his command to kill a known IRA Volunteer in the Falls Road area of Belfast: when they were unable to locate him, the group simply drove around until they found a Catholic, a man named John Scullion, who was shot dead. Spence, speaking much later, would explain that in the absence of a “legitimate” target, the killing of any random “Taig” (a pejorative term for Catholic Irish for those unfamiliar, taken from the Irish name “Tadhg”, similar in some ways to the use of “Mick” or “Paddy” in such a context) was more than acceptable. The randomness of this violence, where substitute victims were casually used in place of the intended targets, marked a rapid escalation in the sectarian conflict.

Spence wasn’t done, though his actions had already gone way too far for Terence O’Neill’s government to take no notice. On the 7th June 1966 members of the UVF opened fire on a group of Catholics leaving a pub in the Shankill, killing one and wounding two others; it was later claimed that these Ulster Volunteers had only been able to do so after consuming copious amounts of alcohol beforehand. Within days Belfast had used the Special Powers Act to declare the UVF illegal – a notable moment, as it essentially equated the UVF with the IRA in a legal sense – and Spence and several other members of the organisation were arrested. Spence would insist he was not personally involved in the last attack but was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment shortly after. It’s a measure of how extreme Spence’s actions were that he was subsequently rejected from his Orange Order lodge, with even Paisley repudiating the killings that had taken place (though Paisley himself has been accused of privately encouraging the UVF’s recruitment, and even bankrolling part of the organisation in this period).

Spence’s successor as leadership of the UVF was Samuel “Bo” McClelland, another British Army veteran, but in reality Spence remained a de facto commander, with McClelland’s authority stymied by his constant need to go to Spence for instructions. Despite making a large splash early in its history the UVF did not expand much in the following time, with both Spence and McClelland committed to maintaining a tightly-knit well-disciplined unit of limited number, as opposed to something larger and inherently more unruly: after several splits in the larger unionist movement between hardliners and those of a more conciliatory nature, the two seemed to be conscious of the need to avoid competing for men and resources with other loyalist entities, such as that which later coalesced into the Ulster Defence Association in the early 1970s. By virtue of its actions taken thus far, and its banning by the Belfast government, the UVF remained at thee forefront of the many unionist vigilante groups coming into being at that time, but it was not until the Spring of 1969 that they would undertake their next serious operation.

On New Years Day that year the UVF gave a taste of what could be expected, when they used a small explosive to damage a republican monument in Co Antrim. A few months later, just as Terence O’Neill was wavering at the summit of Northern Ireland’s politics, a much bigger string of bombings occurred, with the targets being key infrastructure in Belfast itself. On the 30th March it was an electricity substation, causing blackouts across much of the city for a time; a few days later a vital water pipeline in Antrim, which was attacked in a similar manner again a few weeks after; then a reservoir in Armagh; an finally a different pipeline in Co Down. The effects of these attacks was to severely disrupt a number of vital public services in Belfast, causing a general uproar.

At the time the bombings were blamed on the IRA, but it has become clear since – and was suspected by many at the time, but they were largely drowned out – that the UVF was responsible. Not unlike some of the attacks of the IRA during the Border Campaign, the bombings caused a large impact for very little in the way of actual destruction, and they also came without fatalities or injuries. Instead, the major impact was political: in the face of the chaos caused by these explosions, O’Neill was pushed closer and closer to resignation. This indeed had been the UVF’s goal, creating the ideal conditions for the hated O’Neill to be ousted, so in that they achieved a very notable success, out of all proportion to their actual numbers and resources.

There was one last operation involving the UVF that I will cover in this entry, which occurred in the early hours of the 5th August. That night, a small explosive was detonated against the wall of one of the studios at RTE’s headquarters in Donnybrook, Dublin, with one security guard suffering minor wounds. At the time investigators thought it might have been the work of republicans angry with RTE coverage of their cause, but it was later revealed to be the work of the UVF, who tied the attack into a protest against the massing of Irish Army units on the border as things devolved in Northern Ireland. The attack is notable not for its destruction, but for the fact that it happened at all: the first example of a unionist group bombing a target in the Republic in this period, but far from the last.

There were other unionist vigilante groups and other unionist paramilitary organisations soon to come into being, but I choose to focus this entry on the UVF because I believe they were the first such entity to claim a high level of notoriety and, through their bombings and operations on the southern side of the border, demonstrated a capability that marked them out. It is also impotent to give time and space to such things on the unionist side of the divide, after we have spent a great deal of words focused exclusively on the IRA. The Troubles was shaping up to be an especially brutal conflict because of the existence of entitles like the UVF: not just a civil conflict between a government and separatists, but between a government, separatists and non-state actors determined to fight the separatists tooth and nail all of their own accord. Entitles like the UVF had the men, the experience, the means and the capability of carrying through their words with action, and there would be plenty of opportunity for them to do so in the final months of the 1960s and beyond. It is to the latter half of 1969 that we go next, to the moment when many believe the Troubles really began: in the Bogside area of Derry, where government over-reaction to protests would produce a disaster.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Ulster Volunteer Force

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The St Matthews Shoot-Out And The Falls Curfew | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: 1972 Campaigns And Ceasefires | Never Felt Better

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