Although the genre is broadening a bit the UVF, like its main rival within loyalism, the UDA, has not attracted the volume of intellectual interest that the IRA has pulled. In 1973 when books on the North’s militias were just appearing on the shelves David Boulton was a front runner with his own work on the UVF, which covered the then seven year history of the loyalist group. Books on the IRA continued to be churned out over the years but there was a considerable hiatus before the UVF again pricked the interest and only then because of the murder by butchery campaign one of its ‘soldiers’, Lennie Murphy, waged against innocent and defenceless nationalists. More recently some prominent members of the UVF have had books written about them such as Gusty Spence or David Ervine. And someone with the drive and charisma of the late Billy Wright will always find a taker in the literary world.
Even in terms of writing about itself the UVF seems not to have risen to the cultural level of the IRA. Although a number of its former or then serving members helped put out the Other View magazine, the group has produced very few writers in the way that republicanism has. There is no UVF equivalent of Laurence McKeown, Pat Magee or Richard O’Rawe. Billy Mitchell alone stood out as someone who would think deeply and then commit his thoughts to paper.
It is unfortunate that more has not been written about the UVF. Grounded analysis of the relationship between the state and one of its proxies is an area that would prove very fertile were it to be tilled with abundant research. It would be regrettable if the reason for the lack of material is because writers and researchers alike prefer mining a genuine social phenomenon rather than a contrived proxy of the British state.
What makes the UVF a current object of interest is not the standard shooting of a rival or a punishment beating meted out to someone who has crossed the path of a self-important NCO, but the fact that the organisation’s leaders have promised to finally abandon all such activity.
UVF leaders may have leafed through the Sinn Fein manual on stalling tactics prior to releasing their recent statement in which the group they commanded announced an ostensible end to the organisation’s military status. The statement has been the culmination of a three year review in which the late Billy Mitchell was reported to be centrally involved at the time of his death last year. While the document was being prepared at least some of those involved in drafting it were still ordering armed activity including murder. The PUP in particular gave it cover, euphemistically described as time and room in which to deliberate, while its promises were always outnumbered by its prevarications.
Despite the positive content of the UVF statement there are many who will fear that in the absence of effective disarmament coupled to disbandment the announcement amounts to a declaration of intent by the organisation to do little different from what it has been doing for years. In exchange for an end to its more overt activities, the British government may be inclined to regard covert as invisible. Intimidation within its own community by the UVF as a means to accruing social power and establishing local control may be viewed in London as a price worth paying in pursuit of the bigger prize. There is nothing in the way in which the government parleys with the UDA that would suggest the emergence of a much more assertive stance towards the UVF currently being drafted by NIO strategists.
Insofar as the UVF are closing shop, it is a decision based on the organisation’s belief that ‘the principle of consent has been firmly established and thus … the union remains safe … we accept as significant, support by the mainstream republican movement of the constitutional status quo.’ This stated basis for the UVF initiative is both far removed from, and sounds vastly more plausible than the position described by one senior Sinn Fein figure who sees in Ian Paisley being installed as first minister ‘a gigantic step towards Irish unity.’ A much more sober assessment came from one of the driving forces behind the UVF document prior to his death in January this year, David Ervine:
The endgame was always going to shake up the republican movement and its supporters. It is, after all, the final acceptance by republicans of Northern Ireland as a viable and integral part of the UK. It is also the final acceptance by republicans that no authority other than state authority is either practicable or tolerable.
That said, no matter how satisfied the UVF leadership is with the outcome of the Northern conflict, it is difficult to dispel the notion that its decision to vacate the field was taken outside the room where those leaders met ostensibly to decide the organisation’s future. British intelligence agencies have been so involved in running the UVF that it is inconceivable that the statement was not largely devised by those senior British officials who handle many of the organisation’s key personnel.
The recent Nuala O’Loan report left little room for doubt that had the UVF never existed RUC special branch would have invented it. It all made uncomfortable reading for the British intelligence community. As a consequence the latter felt the heat increase to the point where the logical step was to get out of the UVF kitchen. The Provisional IRA against whom the UVF had been deployed, had been effectively defeated. There were other fish to fry such as those from the Islamic world against whom the UVF would be pretty useless. The situational logic was pretty overwhelming. Time to bugle retreat.
The discourse used by the UVF throughout its statement was remarkably similar to what has appeared in IRA statements over the years. Replace the name that signed off on it, William Johnston, with P O’Neill and remove the references to the constitutional question, and there is really not a lot to choose between. The language employed seemed deliberately chosen to suggest that the loyalist organisation mirrored the IRA in that it was a community driven entity. IRA and UVF members when interviewed frequently point to some atrocity perpetrated by ‘the other side’ as the tipping point which led to them joining some clandestine military grouping. Republicans talk about events like Bloody Sunday or August 1969; loyalists select the bombing of the Shankill furniture shop or Bloody Friday.
No doubt such factors did figure in the motivation for people joining organisations. But something else was needed to sustain the bodies joined. While few would dispute that the IRA was much more extensively penetrated than it ever cared to admit, the community in which it moved did bring into being and sustained the IRA throughout its campaign. The UVF, like loyalist organisations in general by contrast seemed to have little support within its own community. The mains that kept its bulb glowing had to be located extraneously, for the most part within the security apparatuses of the British state.
There have been accounts of the UVF published up to now which purport to tell the whole story. How definitive they actually are may only be judged when someone from RUC special branch lifts the lid, adopts the maxim publish and be damned, and gives a true participant-observer account of the strategic rationale behind one of the North’s most prolific death squads.
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