Hands Across the Sea: Paramilitary Loyalism in England and Scotland

By James Bright

The existence of Ulster loyalism as a political and cultural phenomenon beyond Northern Ireland remains largely unacknowledged in the relevant literature.  A story that remains obscure is the mobilisation of English and Scottish volunteers in locally recruited branches of the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association during ‘the Troubles’.

UVF and UDA mobilisation across Northern Ireland was localised around the perceived defence of Protestant enclaves, and based upon tight networks of kinship and friendship. It is in these localised identities that Richard Reed sees the essence of Ulster loyalism.[1] A similar point can be made with respect to Scotland and England, where sometimes interlocking subcultures of Orangeism, far-right politics, and football generated pockets of support for the UVF and UDA. Exploring loyalism in Great Britain allows one to focus on broader questions of identity and socio-cultural life amongst loyalists; questions that have been neglected in homogenised academic and popular portrayals. Moreover, this topic chimes with the growing interest in demotic loyalism as part of the conflict’s social history, as explored by Gareth Mulvenna.[2]

Loyalism’s historic strongholds in Britain are found in west central Scotland and north-west England, areas shaped by Irish immigration and the influence of the Orange Order during the 19th Century. UVF units had been formed in Glasgow, Liverpool and beyond during the 1912-1914 Home Rule crisis, but the First World War halted prospects of civil war in Ireland. With the outbreak of ‘the Troubles’ in the late 1960s, the revived UVF and newly formed UDA relied upon these existing networks of mainland support. UVF and UDA branches in Britain were primarily back-up bodies for their parent organisations, concerned with fundraising for their attached prisoners’ welfare bodies and the procurement of arms.

A 1976 report from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs stated that in England the UDA was strongest in Manchester, Liverpool, Preston, Accrington, and Blackburn, as well as having active units in Luton, London, and Southampton. The UVF was less well-represented in England, but concentrated mostly in Liverpool and the north-west.[3] In Scotland, the UVF and UDA were found largely in the west and central belt: principally in Glasgow, but also with units across Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Stirlingshire and the Lothians.

Thousands of pounds flowed into the UVF and UDA from bingo sessions, raffles, concerts, dances, and social evenings across England and Scotland.[4] Officially this money was used to support the families of prisoners, but court cases revealed that the purchase and smuggling of weapons to Ulster was a major priority. West Central Scotland’s coal industry was a highly useful source for stolen explosives smuggled back to Northern Ireland and the availability of sodium chlorate – a weed killer banned in Northern Ireland for its use in creating explosives – was another area of interest.[5]

In rare cases, the organisations on the mainland undertook more militant action. A Daily Telegraph article from 1974 stated that certain UDA volunteers in England received weapon training and instruction in bomb-making, with an interviewee describing how volunteers visited Belfast for attachment to units ‘in the field’.[6] The paramilitaries carried out three bombings of Catholic-owned pubs in Britain – one by the UDA in London in December 1975 and two UVF bombs in Glasgow on the same night in February 1979. The representatives of the paramilitaries in Britain talked up their militant credentials, suggesting a self-image of themselves as the last line of defence in the event of an Ulster doomsday scenario rather than mere auxiliaries. The spokesman of the ‘First Lancashire Volunteers of the UDA’ stated in a 1974 Daily Mail article that volunteers had been assigned operational areas of Northern Ireland if a civil war broke out.[7]

Producing and selling supportive literature was a major means of fundraising, and the magazines of the UVF’s and UDA’s respective Scottish prisoners welfare groups offer insight into the mind-set of the British volunteer. The UVF-linked Red Hand was particularly militant, with a vitriolic tone that celebrated republican deaths.[8] Scottish Freedom Fighter was more reflective of loyalism’s fractures, supportive of progressive political elements within the UDA as the peace process dawned but also praising Johnny Adair, the icon of loyalism’s revanchist tendency.[9]

Yet what was it that motivated men in Britain, so far removed from the conflict’s epicentre, to volunteer themselves for the UVF and UDA? The enduring centrality of the Orange Order to working class life in Scottish towns generated a religious and cultural commitment to Ulster. Mostly manifested in a culture of ‘parade Protestantism’, the emergence of the UVF and UDA steered some hard-line Orange elements towards paramilitarism.

Scottish Orangeism during the conflict was defined by a tension between rank-and-file members who were pro-paramilitary and a cautious leadership concerned with respectability (much like in Northern Ireland). This was played out on the pages of the paramilitary-linked magazines, with one typical Red Hand editorial describing ordinary Orangemen as ‘lions led by sheep’.[10] In 1989, the Pride of Midlothian Lodge in Edinburgh had its warrant withdrawn by the Grand Orange Lodge after members were seen collecting for the UDA.[11] Ex-soldier Roddy MacDonald was expelled from his Orange Lodge some years earlier when exposed as the UDA’s Scottish commander.[12] While more significant historically in Scotland, Orangeism also influenced loyalist paramilitary involvement in England. An Irish Department of Foreign Affairs document noted how all of the Northern English loyalists convicted in recent court cases had Orange Order membership in common.[13]

Loyalist mobilisation in England was particularly influenced by involvement in the far-right. The concentration of support for parties like the National Front and BNP in England’s north-west, where the experience of deindustrialisation provoked a defenderist mind-set, overlapped with support for loyalism there. Loyalism’s politics of siege and contestation chimed with far-right fears of cultural dissolution facilitated by immigration and state treachery. PIRA violence in Britain was a potent symbol of this perceived existential threat. NF and BNP publications idealised Ulster as an outlier of a British fighting spirit that had elsewhere acquiesced, and shared with loyalists a self-image of themselves as defending their embattled communities.[14] Crossover support between loyalists and NF members on the ground at rallies belied the hostile reaction from Ulster’s paramilitary leaderships to the far-right.[15] Bruce thus describes connections between the far-right and loyalist paramilitaries as exaggerated by leftist republican sympathisers, but the role of the NF and BNP in solidifying sympathy for militant loyalism cannot be discounted. [16] Hard-line individual members, who no doubt saw Ulster’s fight as an outlet to strike back against the perceived downfall of the UK more broadly, became involved in the UVF and UDA.[17]

Examples include John Gadd, Liverpool NF activist and alleged deputy commander of the UDA in Britain, jailed in 1974 for his role in running guns from Canada to Southampton[18] and Frank Portinari, NF Camden organiser and London UDA leader, jailed in 1994 for another gun-running bid.[19] The UDA, with its looser structures and more populist outlook, accommodated individuals from this background more than the UVF. The British far-right’s own attempted paramilitarisation in the 1990s with the overtly neo-Nazi Combat 18 saw these links continue, but they were limited beyond a small subset on loyalism’s dissident fringes.

Having written a memoir – extremely rare even among Ulster’s loyalists – Frank Portinari is the most visible figure in the world of mainland loyalism. Portinari is clear that the majority of his brigade came from a right wing background, their involvement an extension of their British nationalism.[20] England’s comparative secularism meant religion was less significant to mobilisation there, indeed Portinari was of Italian Catholic and Irish Catholic descent. Propaganda originating from the far-right emphasised the IRA’s leftism rather than its presumed Catholicism.[21]

The role of football fan culture in England and Scotland is worth mentioning as a point of access to loyalist networks in Britain. While the majority would merely be ‘ninety minute loyalists’, sections of support sought affiliations with loyalism as well as the far-right. Influenced by his experience of what the NF’s Martin Webster called the ‘sublimated patriotism’ of football hooliganism,[22] Portinari’s story is emblematic of this nexus. His account of hopping between terrace brawls and paramilitary plotting in pub backrooms may seem a distinctively English form of loyalism, though it is not far from Belfast’s own subcultures of sport, street fighting, and political mobilisation as explored by Mulvenna.[23] Certain Rangers FC supporters clubs in Glasgow and associated flute bands were reliable fundraising sources for the UVF and UDA, as were sections of support for Heart of Midlothian FC.[24]

In the end, police pressure on mainland loyalist operations was strong and the support of UVF and UDA men in England and Scotland was more useful to the paramilitaries as a morale booster than practically. By providing a brief overview of this neglected topic, my intention was to demonstrate the remaining lacunae in the academic record of paramilitary loyalism, and how these areas can connect to broader themes. In this instance, studying the UVF and UDA in Britain provides another avenue to assess the dynamics of these organisations and the facets that made up their complex personalities more broadly.

[1] Richard Reed, Paramilitary Loyalism: Identity and Change (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), p. 213.

[2] Gareth Mulvenna, Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016).

[3] National Archives of Ireland, Department of Foreign Affairs, 2006/131/1432 – ‘Activities of Loyalist Sympathisers in England’ (1976).

[4] Ibid. It has been estimated that £100,000 a year was raised in Scotland alone. See Steve Bruce, The Red Hand (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 165.

[5]Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald, UVF: The Endgame (Dublin: Poolbeg, 2008), p. 197.

[6] Department of Foreign Affairs, ‘Activities of Loyalist Sympathisers in England’.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Loyalist Prisoners Welfare Association, The Red Hand, vol. 1, no. 1, 1989.

[9] Loyalist Prisoners Aid, Scottish Freedom Fighter, vol. 1, no. 1, 1995; vol. 1, no. 5, 1996.

[10] The Red Hand, vol. 1, no. 1, 1989.

[11] Ian S. Wood, Crimes of Loyalty (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 333.

[12] Ibid., p. 330.

[13] Department of Foreign Affairs, ‘Activities of Loyalist Sympathisers in England’.

[14] Martin Durham, ‘The British Extreme Right and Northern Ireland’, Contemporary British History, vol. 26, no. 2, 2012, pp. 196-197.  

[15] In September 1974 the UDA had officially proscribed the National Front on the urging of leader Andy Tyrie, who regarded them as a ‘neo-Nazi movement’. See Martin Walker, The National Front (London: Fontana, 1978), p. 159.

[16] Bruce, The Red Hand, p. 151.

[17] Durham, ‘The British Extreme Right and Northern Ireland’, p. 200.

[18] Ibid., p. 151; Department of Foreign Affairs, ‘Activities of Loyalist Sympathisers in England’.

[19] Frank Portinari, Left-Right-Loyalist: From One Extreme to Another (London: Troubadour, 2015).

[20] Portinari, Left-Right-Loyalist, p. 70.

[21] Durham, ‘The British Extreme Right and Northern Ireland’, pp. 197-198.

[22] Walker, The National Front, p. 234.

[23] Mulvenna, Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries.

[24] Wood, Crimes of Loyalty, p. 198.

(Image: Burns Library, Boston College Flickr)

James is completing a PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. Provisionally, his thesis is entitled, ‘Loyalty in Captivity: Ideas and Identity among Ulster Loyalist paramilitary prisoners, 1968-1998’. His project aims to explore the role played by the loyalist prison experience in shaping ideological development and identity formation within the UVF and UDA.

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