When I mentioned to a friend that I was reviewing UVF: Behind The Mask, he said; “Why are you giving publicity to a book about those gangsters?”
It was a very instructive response, because it summed up what many within the pro-Union community think of the UVF.
They do regard them as criminals first as foremost; rather than as one-time and honoured defenders in the frontline against the IRA.
And it’s that continuing perception of them which has made it extraordinarily difficult for the PUP – their political wing – to make electoral progress.
Twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement and they have no MLAs, just four councillors (out of 462) and around 2% of the total vote.
I think it’s important to know our own history: and that means understanding why the UVF re-emerged in the mid-1960s and why, 50 years on, it remains on the fringes and still exercises a pull on some loyalist communities and within broader unionism.
Its modern roots lie in the perceived liberalism of Terence O’Neill (who became Prime Minister in 1963); the increasingly bellicose speeches and protests from Ian Paisley (still very much a minor irritant back then); the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising (which was becoming a ‘big thing’ for republicans in Northern Ireland); and the rise of the civil rights movement (which key unionists in O’Neill’s government tried to portray as an IRA front).
Unionists were worried back then and became increasingly worried as Westminster seemed reluctant to support them.
At that particular moment, before the arrival of the army and the emergence of PIRA, the UVF really did believe that it was their task to take on the ‘enemies of Ulster.’
As a unionist I found some of Aaron Edwards’s book uncomfortable reading – particularly the stuff about the Shankill Butchers. This is certainly not a hagiography of the UVF and nor does it try and defend either their outlook or their actions.
But it does try and explain – mostly successfully – how young men found themselves sucked into a paramilitary organisation in the 1970s and then committing some of the most brutal murders of the Troubles.
Many of those young men joined the UVF in response to the IRA’s detonation of 22 bombs in Belfast on July 21, 1972.
As Kevin Myers noted: ‘The figures do not begin to capture the horror of that long-lost era. Nothing can.
What did stick in the minds of most people who watched the drama unfold on television screens across the world were the pictures of firemen shovelling bits of bodies into bin bags.
It was imagery that became seared in the memory of the teenage David Ervine.’
And it was imagery which determined the UVF to ‘hit back’ at the IRA.
I wasn’t aware that a number of community leaders, including former members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, were linked to the ‘welfare component’ of the UVF at that time and were trying to encourage them to ‘think in terms of bread and butter politics as well as the constitutional issue...respond to republicanism through non-violence and dialogue.’
But the time wasn’t right. And, as the book makes clear, the time was rarely ever right for that sort of political rather than paramilitary activity: in other words, there was never really a moment when all of the component parts of the UVF were on the same page at the same time.
The other problem for the UVF – particularly after the Good Friday Agreement – was its failure to convince enough loyalists that the PUP could offer something which wasn’t already on offer from the DUP and UUP.
Instead, it tended to focus on the negative; claiming that loyalism was being left behind; that no one provided an ‘authentic’ voice for the working class loyalist; and that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there was still some sort of role for the organisation.
A PSNI/MI5 assessment published in 2015 stated: ‘A large number of members, including some senior figures, are extensively involved in organised crime including drug dealing, extortion, and smuggling.
Members of the UVF are involved in conducting paramilitary-style assaults on those they accuse of anti-social behaviour.
These activities have a significant impact on the local community.’
Given the bluntness of that assessment it’s no wonder that Edwards concludes: ‘the full and unequivocal transition of the UVF towards full civilianisation...will require assistance from people beyond loyalist paramilitary ranks.
That means the descendants of the Unionist Party politicians who had a hand in rejuvenating the UVF in the mid-1960s should put their shoulder to the wheel as much as the community who sustained the UVF for many years.
Every willing hand will be required to come together to assist the group in completing its process of transition.’
Loyalist paramilitarism is not like the IRA.
It doesn’t have that sort of discipline or command structure; and it doesn’t have the sort of link which the IRA had/has with Sinn Fein.
So whatever the UVF was hoping to achieve from 1965 onwards, or whatever it is hoping to achieve now, strike me as unclear.
And while this book is a fascinating and forensic insight into the ‘modern’ UVF, with some important reflections on the PUP, it doesn’t really bring clarity to what the UVF regards as the end goal.
That said, this remains a very valuable contribution to Troubles literature: a well-written, thoughtful and occasionally uncomfortable look at what was once a key player within loyalism.
• UVF: Behind The Mask By Aaron Edwards; Published by Merrion Press