Book review: Resisting the republic

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IRISH REPUBLICANS used to believe that their enemy was the British state. Drive the Brits out and Ulster Protestants would realise that they were really Irish and everyone would live happily ever after in an all- Ireland socialist republic. Peter Taylor's book is about the people who proved the republicans wrong.

Three times this century, Ulster Protestants have become vigilantes. The first Ulster Volunteer Force, formed in 1912 to resist home rule, was a genuine mass movement. Led by the Ulster aristocracy, it recruited 90,000 men and bought a ship-load of guns. Rebellion was averted by the outbreak of war in 1914: the UVF was incorporated into the British Army as the 36th Division. In the unrest that followed the partition of the island, the UVF was again mobilised and again co-opted by the state, this time as the Ulster Special Constabulary.

The third UVF was different. It was formed by a very small group of working- class ultra-Unionists who were persuaded, despite the lack of an active IRA, that republicans were planning to mark the 50th anniversary of the Dublin Easter Rising by launching a coup in Belfast in 1966. They protected the state by ineptly murdering three people who had nothing at all to do with the IRA.

When the real Troubles began four years later, the UVF's leader, Gusty Spence, was languishing in Crumlin Road prison. Skipping jail while out on parole for his daughter's wedding, Spence spent four months of 1972 at liberty on the Shankhill Road, in which time the UVF recruited, armed itself and set about a campaign of brutal retaliation for IRA attacks. At the same time, thousands of young men joined the vigilante groups that became the Ulster Defence Association.

In this well-informed companion to his BBC television series, Peter Taylor details the subsequent history of the UVF and UDA as they combined naked sectarian murder with occasionally well-targeted attacks on leading republicans (made easier in the Eighties by the rise of Sinn Fein as a political force). The most remarkable feature of that history is the emergence of a clear political vision from a culture of knee-jerk retaliation. Inspired by Spence's appreciation that if Northern Ireland were to have any future, it would have to accommodate the nationalist population, the UVF played a significant role in bringing about the ceasefires of 1994.

The world that produced Lenny Murphy and the Shankhill Butchers also produced David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson - the only two Unionist leaders who really believed in the Good Friday agreement. While Ian Paisley was denouncing the deal and most Ulster Unionists were fatalistically endorsing it as better than it might have been, the UVF's Progressive Unionist Party was positively promoting it as the way to a decent and fair society.

However precarious the Good Friday deal, that it is alive at all owes much to the refusal of the paramilitary leadership to endorse the martial rhetoric of some Unionist politicians. Small numbers of dissidents may try to derail the settlement, but the UVF and UDA will not again, as they did in the 1974 strike, provide the muscle for the politicians.

Taylor's book is readable and sensible in its assessment of sensitive issues. Although he concludes that Paisley sailed close to the wind in the Sixties, Taylor exonerates him from personal involvement in vigilante violence. He accepts evidence of limited security-force collusion in some loyalist activities but rejects the nationalist claim that the British security forces, rather than the UVF, bombed Dublin and Monaghan in 1974.

However, although Taylor's reporting is of the highest quality, in the end it disappoints because it fails to explain. Each facet of the paramilitaries - victim selection, organisation, political evolution, racketeering - is reasonably accurately described, but the links between them are not explored. Big, background questions are left unanswered.

For example, Portadown appears a number of times. It was the home of some of the "premature" paramilitaries of 1966 and of the UVF unit that bombed Dublin and Monaghan in 1974. Ulster Resistance, an Eighties movement that brought together the paramilitaries and the fringes of the rural evangelical world, was strongest there. It was the base of Billy "King Rat" Wright and the site of the annual Drumcree event. Why are Portadown Protestants so much more militant than, say, their Londonderry counterparts? Why do evangelical Protestantism and terrorism overlap in Portadown, when in Belfast those two constituencies are completely separate? Taylor reports, describes and illustrates the situation with revealing quotations from the key players; but he does not explain.

One final complaint: considering the profits the publisher must expect, the book's production is poor. It is littered with niggling errors. For instance, the Taoiseach is rendered "Taoisach" and named Bertie "Aherne" (as in Caroline, Mrs Merton), and the account of Drumcree 1998 is rendered baffling by the sentence "The Orangemen were now allowed down the Garvaghy Road"; the fourth word should be "not"! Despite that, Taylor has performed an important function in illuminating a neglected aspect of the Northern Ireland conflict which deserves to be widely read.

Steve Bruce

The reviewer is professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen