Ulster loyalism

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The Union Flag, Ulster Banner and Orange Order flags are often flown by loyalists in Northern Ireland
A loyalist flag bearing the Red Hand of Ulster and the loyalist slogan "For God and Ulster"

Ulster loyalism is a political ideology found primarily among working class Ulster Protestants in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom.[1][2] Most Ulster Protestants are descendants of migrants from Scotland and England in the early 17th Century. Like other unionists, loyalists are attached to the monarchy of the United Kingdom, support Northern Ireland remaining within the UK, and oppose a united Ireland. Ulster loyalism has been described as a kind of ethnic nationalism[3] and "a variation of British nationalism".[4] It is strongly associated with paramilitarism.

Ulster loyalism emerged in the late 19th century, as a response to the Irish Home Rule movement, and the rise of Catholic Irish nationalism. Ulster, unlike other parts of Ireland, had been somewhat industrialised since the eighteenth century, and Belfast developed into a major industrial city and was heavily dependent on trade with the rest of the UK. Although most of Ireland was Catholic, in the province of Ulster, Protestants were the majority. Loyalism began as a self-determination movement among Ulster Protestants who did not want to become part of an autonomous Ireland. While some Irish Catholics were also unionist, loyalism emphasized a Protestant and British heritage. The independence movement led to the partition of Ireland in 1921; most of Ireland left the UK to become a separate independent state, while about two-thirds of Ulster remained within the United Kingdom as a self-governing territory called Northern Ireland. Loyalists (and others) often use 'Ulster' as an alternative name for Northern Ireland.

Since partition, most loyalists have supported upholding Northern Ireland's status as a country of the United Kingdom, i.e. unionism. Historically, the terms 'unionist' and 'loyalist' were often used interchangeably; however, since the resurgence of loyalist paramilitarism in the 1960s, a distinction between the two is made more often. The term 'loyalist' is now usually used to describe working class unionists who are willing to use, or tacitly support, paramilitary violence to defend the Union with Great Britain.[5][6][7] Loyalists are also described as being loyal primarily to the Protestant British monarchy rather than to the British government and institutions.[8] Garret FitzGerald argued that loyalists are loyal primarily to 'Ulster' rather than to 'the Union'.[9] A small minority of 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).

In Northern Ireland there is a long tradition of militaristic loyalist Protestant marching bands. There are hundreds of such bands who hold numerous parades each year. The yearly Eleventh Night (11 July) bonfires and The Twelfth (12 July) parades are strongly associated with loyalism.


The term loyalist was first used in Irish politics in the 1790s to refer to Protestants who opposed Catholic Emancipation and Irish independence from Great Britain.[10]

Upon the partition of Ireland in 1921, six of the nine counties in the province of Ulster didn't join the new independent Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) and 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 30.0%).[11]

Tensions between Northern Ireland's Catholic population (which mostly supported Irish reunification) and its Protestant population (which mostly supported remaining part of the UK) led to a long-running bloody conflict known as the Troubles from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.

Political parties

Loyalist graffiti and banner on a building in a side street off the Shankill Road, Belfast (1970)
Active parties
Former parties

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[12] (who registered to stand in Northern Ireland), the British People's Party[13] and Britain First.

Bigger and more moderate right-wing unionist parties like the Ulster Unionists (UUP) or Democratic Unionists (DUP) usually seek 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.[14]

Paramilitary and vigilante groups

A UVF mural in Belfast
Red Hand Commando Mural, Rathcoole
A UDA/UFF mural in Bangor, County Down

Loyalist paramilitary and vigilante groups have been active since the early 20th century. In 1912, the original Ulster Volunteer Force was formed to stop the British Government granting self-rule to Ireland, or to exclude Ulster from it. This led to the Home Rule Crisis, which was defused by the onset of World War I. Loyalist paramilitaries were again active in Ulster during the Irish War of Independence (1919–22), and more prominently during the Troubles (late 1960s–1998). The biggest and most active paramilitary groups existed during the Troubles, and were the reconstituted Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA)/Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). They, and most other loyalist paramilitaries, are classified as terrorist organizations.

During the Troubles, their stated goals were to combat Irish republicanism – particularly the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) – and to defend Protestant loyalist areas.[15][16] However, most of their victims were Irish Catholic civilians, who were often killed at random[17] in sectarian attacks.[15] Whenever they claimed responsibility for their attacks, loyalists usually claimed that those targeted were IRA members or were giving help to the IRA.[18] M. L. R. Smith wrote that "From the outset, the loyalist paramilitaries tended to regard all Catholics as potential rebels".[19] 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.[15][17][20] Such retaliation was seen as both collective punishment and an attempt to weaken the IRA's support; it was thought that terrorizing the Catholic community and inflicting such a death toll on it would force the IRA to end its campaign.[19][21]

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, gun attacks were more common than bombings.[21] 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.[22]

Some loyalist paramilitaries have had links with far-right and Neo-Nazi groups in Britain, including Combat 18,[23][24] the British National Socialist Movement,[25] and the British National Front.[26] Since the 1990s, loyalist paramilitaries have been responsible for numerous racist attacks in loyalist areas.[27] A 2006 report revealed that of all reported racist attacks in the previous two years, 90% occurred in loyalist areas.[28]

In the 1990s, the main loyalist paramilitaries called ceasefires. Following this, small breakaway groups continued to wage violent campaigns for a number of years, and members of loyalist groups have continued to engage in sporadic violence.

Name Initials Operational Status
Ulster Volunteers UVF 1912-1922 Disbanded
Ulster Protestant Association UPA 1920–1922 Disbanded
Ulster Imperial Guards UIG 1921-1922 Disbanded
Ulster Protestant Volunteers UPV 1966–1969 Disbanded
Ulster Volunteer Force
Red Hand Commando
Young Citizen Volunteers (youth wing)
Officially on ceasefire since 1994
Officially ended campaign in 2007
Ulster Defence Association
Ulster Freedom Fighters
Ulster Young Militants (youth wing)
Officially on ceasefire since 1994
Officially ended campaign in 2007
Ulster Resistance UR 1986–? Disbanded
Loyalist Volunteer Force LVF 1997–present Officially on ceasefire since 1998
Officially ended campaign in 2005
Orange Volunteers OV 1998–present Uncertain since 2009[29]
Red Hand Defenders RHD 1998–present Active[30]
Real Ulster Freedom Fighters Real UFF 2007–present Active[31]
Other paramilitary-style groups
Umbrella groups

The name Protestant Action Force (PAF) was also occasionally used by loyalists during the Troubles. It has been suggested that PAF was a covername used by a semi-independent group (or groups) within the UVF who were carrying out attacks on their own initiative or without the sanction of the UVF leadership.

A republican mural in Belfast with the slogan "Collusion Is Not An Illusion"

Collusion with the security forces

In their efforts to defeat the 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 paramilitary groups while others were not. The security forces also had double agents and informers within loyalist groups who 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 loyalists used to target people came from the security forces.[32]

Due to a number of factors, the locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was 97% Protestant from late 1972 onward.[33][34] Despite the vetting process, some members of paramilitary groups managed to enlist; mainly to obtain weapons, training and intelligence.[35] A 1973 British Government document (uncovered in 2004), "Subversion in the UDR", suggested that 5–15% of UDR soldiers then were members of loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UDA,[35][36] which was a legal organisation until 1992. The report said the UDR was the main source of weapons for those groups,[35] although by 1973 UDR weapons losses had dropped by up to 75%, partly due to stricter controls.[37]

In 1977, the Army investigated two 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.[38] It found that thirty Non-commissioned officers (NCOs) had fraudulently diverted up to £47,000 to the UVF. It was also alleged that UVF members socialised with soldiers in their mess.[38] The investigation was halted after a senior officer claimed it was harming morale.[38] Details of it were discovered in 2011.[38]

Initially, the Army allowed soldiers to join the UDA.[39] In November 1972 the Army ordered that a soldier should be discharged if his sympathy for a paramilitary group affects his performance, loyalty or impartiality.[40] By the end of 1975, 171 soldiers with UDA links had been discharged.[41]

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 known as the "murder triangle".[42][43] It also carried out some attacks in the Republic of Ireland. Members of the group allege it was commanded by the British Intelligence Corps and RUC Special Branch,[43][44] with one, RUC officer John Weir, claiming that his superiors knew of the collusion but allowed it to continue.[45] 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.[46] It said some senior officers knew of the crimes but did nothing to prevent, investigate or punish.[46] Attacks attributed to the group include the Dublin and Monaghan bombings (1974), the Miami Showband killings (1975) and the Reavey and O'Dowd killings (1976).[43][47]

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.[48][49] Members of the security forces tried to obstruct the Stevens investigation.[49][50] It revealed the existence of the Force Research Unit (FRU), a covert British Army intelligence unit that used double agents to infiltrate paramilitary groups.[51] FRU recruited Brian Nelson and helped him become the UDA's chief intelligence officer.[52] In 1988, weapons were shipped to loyalists from South Africa under Nelson's supervision.[52] Through Nelson, FRU helped the UDA 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 killing uninvolved Catholic civilians.[51] The Stevens Inquiries found evidence only two lives were saved and that Nelson was responsible for at least 30 murders and many other attacks – many of the victims uninvolved civilians.[48] 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.[53][54] From 1992 to 1994, loyalists were responsible for more deaths than republicans.[55]

A 2007 Police Ombudsman report 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 they weren't caught, helped them during police interviews, made false notes and blocked searches for UVF weapons.[56] UVF brigadier Robin 'the Jackal' Jackson has been linked to between 50[57][58] and 100[43] 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.[59] According to the Irish Government's Barron Report, he was also "reliably said to have had relationships with British Intelligence".[60]

A loyalist marching band on 12 July 2011 in Belfast

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",[7] have long been associated with unionism, and loyalism in particular.[61] 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[62] and The Twelfth (12 July) parades are strongly associated with loyalism. A report published in 2013 estimated there were at least 640 marching bands in Northern Ireland with a total membership of around 30,000, an all-time high.[63]

Other groups



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  2. Taylor, Peter. Loyalists. Bloomsbury, 2000. ISBN 0747545197.
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