A Belfast historian has written a book on the UVF which firmly rejects the “popular narrative” of collusion with the UK government .
Aaron Edwards, a senior lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, has just published ‘UVF – Behind The Mask’.
It is based on almost 20 years research and unprecedented access to leading UVF members and documents linked to a group responsible for over 500 murders.
He grew up in the Rathcoole and Carnmoney areas of north Belfast where he saw first hand the impact of the terror group in the Troubles.
“A popular narrative that has been doing the rounds for several years is, everything in Northern Ireland can be reduced to the British state, that the buck stops there,” he said.
“Now when I have challenged people on this basis I find that the people responsible for the 564 deaths of the UVF and RHC – they would say categorically that they were responsible for what they did.”
He finds no evidence the UVF “had their strings pulled”; members consistently say they took up the gun to retaliate to the IRA.
However, UVF commanders did order the infiltration of state forces to acquire essential military training, he said, a situation confirmed by one interviewee; this perspective contradicts the popular understanding of collusion.
Some loyalists – and the IRA – would then pass on their newly acquired military expertise to others in their groups, he said.
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The statistics do not bear out the popular claim of collusion, he said; from 1990-94 loyalists killed 175 Catholics, but only 20% of those murdered were republicans.
“Why is it if they had access to [security force] information that top republicans were not assassinated?” he asked.
A former high-ranking police officer said that in the same period police were arresting loyalists at a ratio of 2:1 compared to republicans.
Loyalist ex-prisoners have also asked him why they were so often arrested when carrying out terror attacks.
“The inference is they were stopped through the presence of agents in the UVF ranks.”
Any collusion that did happen was “tactical” but not part of a global strategy, he finds.
Senior members of the UVF, including Gusty Spence and Billy Mitchell, told him the group was formed in the mid-1960s by elements in the right wing of the unionist party, to bring down Terence O’Neill’s liberal unionist government.
However, the information comes from the UVF only and there is no documentary evidence to support their claims.
“But this doesn’t matter so much. Because Gusty Spence and the UVF units throughout Belfast and East Antrim were essentially self-tasking. They launched the campaign themselves. I don’t think they were directed from the top.”
And long before inflammatory speeches by unionist politicians the UVF “were already doing it [terrorism] for a number of reasons”.
He finds “no firm links” between Ian Paisley and the UVF.
“Most people in the unionist community would not support paramilitary organisations. They are not well liked.”
He acknowledged his book does not detail cases of alleged collusion such as the Miami Showband murders and the so-called Glennane Gang.
Other books give such details but his aim was a compact objective history of the UVF - 50 years in 500 pages.
Terror groups of all shades defend their bloodshed in public, but privately it is a different story, he says.
“There seems to be a corporate [UVF] view on this which is well known, which is that they will not accept that the political reasons they give for what they did were wrong.
“But privately – and this is not just the UVF but this is IRA people as well – people are much more prepared to say that.”
Many people hold that in 2017 such groups should just ‘go away’ but the UVF response, he said, is that they need to be reintegrated into society.
Some people observe that young people are still being recruited, he acknowledged.
“There needs to be a societal response to this and I do believe political leadership is one answer – and setting up a process for these young men and women who feel they need to join and belong.”
They tell him: “It is okay for you – you had educational opportunities, you got out of working-class areas and moved on and we can’t.”
As to the question of whether UVF godfathers are also loth to give up their power and money, he responded that he does not understand why young people choose such role models instead of, for example, any one of today’s widely known sport stars.
“There has been no strategy to deal with these people. There are more gunmen on the walls than ever before. There are groups out there forming up in large numbers.”
Mr Edwards does not hold that the threat from dissident republicans could rekindle UVF violence.
“Well they can’t have it both ways. They say there is no threat to the Union – although the flag protests reopened that question.”
Pressed on what the reaction might be to a united Ireland, he said: “Any loyalists I have spoken to think the DUP is showing strong leadership and they will vote for the DUP – and also the UUP.”