Crimes of loyalty: a history of the UDA

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Reviews, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 16

Crimes of loyalty: a history of the UDA
Ian S. Wood
(Edinburgh University Press, £15.99)
ISBN 9780748624270

Lord, oh lord, what a depressing book! Militant loyalism is one of the truly awful traditions that has blighted this island, and Ian Wood’s history of the Ulster Defence Association illustrates that point in almost all of its c. 400 pages. In the second half of the book the ghastly ‘Mad Dog’ Johnny Adair emerges like some monster whose eventual arrival into the movie’s script had been flagged since the outset. It’s while reading of his exploits and the shocking fact that a man like him could have held a position of leadership in a community that your heart really goes out to the unfortunate residents of working-class Protestant neighbourhoods such as the Lower Shankill.
In the nearby Falls Road there has existed one of the most effective terrorist organisations in the world, while on their own road a Keystone Cops-type terrorist organisation has existed, which, when it’s not engaged in savage, hate-fuelled acts of sadism, is busy selling drugs to local children. Some of the ‘brigadiers’ have used the money raised from drugs sales and extortion to buy blond hair dye, pastel designer sports gear, and steroids to help bulk up their biceps. Here’s Wood telling us of Adair’s exploits in August of 2000:

‘Adair spent much of August in almost perpetual motion, overseeing the completion of new murals and decorations and giving interviews as well as orders to underlings in C Company. Meanwhile blatant drug dealing could be observed barely two minutes walk from his home in Boundary Way, a short street awash with flags. A derelict flat in North Boundary Street was the nerve centre of operations with even 10-year-old children being supplied.’

He quotes a householder who does not want to give his or her name:

‘All we can do is sit and watch as they deal out this poison to children . . . Anybody who stands up to them is taking their life in their hands.’

The book is not an exposé of UDA awfulness or a critique of its failings, but rather sets out to treat its subject with the seriousness with which some loyalist leaders treat themselves and their organisation. But the content of the story told, the savagery, the incompetence and the ugly sectarianism, made this reviewer at least query whether this is a valid approach. Everything recounted in the book—the infighting, the gangsterism, the terrorising of its own people, and the political theorising alongside expressions of nihilistic hatred—begs questions that are not explored. Why the peculiar savagery and sadism that keeps occurring, even when loyalists are killing each other? Why the cultural hostility to education? How can UDA members speak of loyalism when they are killing their neighbours, selling drugs and fighting with everyone?
It is striking how unsuccessful the UDA was at targeting and killing IRA activists. Instead it tended to kill people simply because they were, or appeared to be, Catholics. As often as not, if they had the chance, they gave their targets a particularly grisly end. Here’s Alec Calderwood telling what happened on the night of 3 January 1980. He was seventeen years old, couldn’t read or write, and was a member of the UDA. Having been drinking in a pub, he set out to walk home. On Berlin Street he encountered a crowd who had two young men up against a wall:

‘Someone I knew shouted to me that they were Fenians and had I got a gun on me. He knew I was in the UDA. One of the two they had caught made a run for it but they hung on to the other one. I took him along the street a little way to a derelict garage and there was a loose slab of concrete there. I was a big strong fellow and I picked it up and smashed his skull in with it. I beat him to death and I felt good about it. It wasn’t the drink.’

The victim was a 20-year-old Catholic labourer and father of one, Alexander Reid, also making his way home after a few drinks in a pub. The book is littered with the painful deaths of fellow loyalists at the hands of UDA men and, in one instance, women: eleven women were involved in the beating to death of Ann Ogilby in a UDA drinking club while her young child cried on the other side of the door.
A quote from journalist David McKittrick, whose family came from the Shankill Road, probably explains much:

‘Over the years most of the more ambitious families have done as we did and gone to live in less troubled communities. The loss of potential leaders and useful role models has left a district in which paramilitary groups hold sway. For an under-educated youth in a district where learning is scorned and jobs are few, joining a paramilitary organisation confers instant status, together with a sense of belonging and the possibility of material gain from activities such as selling drugs. The scourges of drugs, unemployment, and above all paramilitarism, mean the Shankill’s deterioration is likely to continue.’

One of the few women quoted in the book has this to say:

‘I’ve seen what a gun can do to a boy with no work. I’ve seen normal decent human beings turning into Hitlers overnight . . . The men are in control, there’s no women’s lib for us—you don’t talk about women’s lib, you’d get run out of the area.’

The only cheering aspect of the story Wood tells is the refusal of the loyalist population to vote in any numbers for the political representatives of the paramilitaries who operate in their neighbourhoods.
The question is raised near the end of the book as to whether UDA violence achieved anything in political terms. The author does not answer that question. But having read his book it seems obvious that the answer is no, and that paramilitarism, whether loyalist or republican, is a noxious tradition that has contributed little other than pain and suffering, and poor leadership, to the communities in which it is embedded. Maybe even to take such a question seriously does a disservice to us all.

Colm Keena is a journalist with the Irish Times and author of A biography of Gerry Adams (Mercier Press, 1990).

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