Angry men at an Ulster crossroads

Last week the UVF was forced to disband its rebellious Portadown unit. Steve Bruce questions whether the loyalist ceasefire can hold
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Against a background of disputed Orange marches and widespread rioting, political talks that are going nowhere and a resumed IRA bombing campaign, last week's decision by the Ulster Volunteer Force to disband its notorious Portadown unit offers a powerful insight into the chances of the loyalist cease-fire holding.

To grasp the significance of this expulsion, we must trace the history of the relationship between violence and politics, between the "military" core of the UVF (the smaller but potentially more dangerous of the two loyalist organisations) and its political expression in the Progressive Unionist Party.

The PUP, led by David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson, and a former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Hughie Smyth, was formed in the early 1980s, but it only came to national attention in 1994 when the possibility of an end to violence gave us all a reason to listen to the public spokesmen for the UVF.

The modern UVF was formed in 1966 by working-class Unionists fearful that the tentative reforms of the prime minister, Terence O'Neill, would stimulate Irish nationalism in the north and concerned that republicans would mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising with an insurrection in Belfast. The leading figure was Augustus "Gusty" Spence, a shipyard worker and former soldier whose family were active in the west Belfast branch of the Unionist party. Spence's small band drilled, collected weapons, fund-raised by robbery, and murdered three people, all innocent victims of unfocused aggression. In a matter of months, Spence was in prison serving a life sentence for his part in the murder of a young Catholic barman.

Serving a life sentence was an education for many loyalists, as they came to terms with the irony of their position: apprehended, charged, sentenced and guarded by the agents of the very state they wanted to defend. In the unpromising surroundings of an old army camp hastily commissioned to hold the internees and sentenced prisoners, Gusty Spence found his mission. To maintain morale and group solidarity, he initiated a firm regime of military discipline, with drills, guard rotas, and kit inspections. Prisoners were only allowed to consult the prison doctor with the permission of the "Officer Commanding", and any prescribed drugs were held by the OC and carefully dispensed. Spence also began classes in which he taught his young charges their history.

The UVF inside the Maze exemplified the military structure and discipline so patently lacking in the organisation on the streets, where, in addition to the centrally sanctioned bombings, republican terror was matched by the ruthless cruelty of small gangs murdering randomly selected civilians and inflicting as much damage on their own people as on the nationalists who were supposedly their enemies.

On the gable walls of the Shankill Road, Spence was portrayed as a hero: square jaw, dark glasses, commando cap. In the Maze, the real Spence became increasingly critical of Unionism. He readily asserted that the Protestant working class had been as much victims of 50 years of Unionist misrule as had northern nationalists, and he began to demand a liberal Unionism that tried to incorporate northern Catholics in its vision.

However, Spence's socialist rhetoric fell on deaf ears. The UVF outside was too deeply embedded in the day-to-day world of murder, retaliation, and racketeering to care much what Spence thought. The then Chief of Staff memorably tore up one of Spence's letters from prison. Another senior figure mocked his military bearing by calling him a "cunt in a cravat".

Disillusioned by the sectarian violence, Spence resigned from leadership of the UVF prisoners. But his influence continued. Billy Hutchinson, now a leading figure in the PUP, succeeded Spence as Officer Commanding the UVF prisoners. Outside, a coup replaced Brigade Staff with men who had been close to Spence in the early days. As the overall levels of violence declined, the incidence of random sectarian murders went down and the interest in providing a distinctive political direction went up. On his release from prison in 1985, Spence talked and wrote and, in stressing that violence without political direction is worse than pointless, promoted the cause of the PUP to the UVF.

The first tangible benefit of the UVF's thinking came in 1991, with a loyalist cease-fire called to give the party politicians a chance to make progress in the round of talks initiated by Peter Brooke, the then Northern Ireland Secretary. But the increasing politicisation of the UVF was muted by pressure from the Unionist frustration that had been building since the Anglo-Irish accord was signed in 1985. While constitutional politicians led marches, boycotted ministers, held by-elections, disrupted local council business, and completely failed to move the Government - and the IRA pursued a highly effective and apparently unstoppable campaign of blowing the guts out of Ulster towns - loyalist terrorists responded in traditional style. In 1985, loyalists killed only two people. The next year it was 16, then 17, building in 1993 to 47 victims. Most of this was the work of another paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association, but a lot of it was the UVF, and in particular the Mid-Ulster UVF.

The IRA cease-fire of 31 August 1994 caused many Unionists to fear that it had been bought by a covert British promise of a united Ireland, but it also created the conditions that allowed the politicians within the UVF to take the initiative. On 13 October, Gusty Spence read out a statement from the Combined Loyalist Military Command, apologising for the violence perpetrated by loyalists and announcing a cease-fire that was conditional on only two things: the continued cessation of republican violence and the understanding that the Union itself was not in danger.

The UVF had come full circle. Spence had started it and Spence had, many hoped, finished it.

Since the IRA's resumption of bombing in February of this year, the loyalist cease-fire has been under increased pressure, and one symptom of that is the sabre-rattling from the Mid-Ulster branch of the UVF. Last week, after further easing its way out of the organisation by announcing that it was no longer following the political direction of the Progressive Unionist Party, it was formally disbanded by the central leadership. In the most serious charge that can be made in Loyalist world, it had denounced the PUP for aligning itself with "the pan-nationalist agenda" and accused David Ervine of being a traitor to the Protestant people.

The Mid-Ulster UVF has always operated at a remove from the Belfast Brigade Staff. It has also been one of the most active units. The 1974 car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan Town, which killed 33 people, were its work.

The present leading figure, Billy Wright, comes from a very different background to the Belfast leaders (almost all of whom grew up on the Shankhill Road). His family are rural Protestants and he was raised in an evangelical culture that sees republicanism as the armed wing of Roman Catholicism, doing the Pope's work by destroying the last stronghold of the gospel in Europe. Involved in the early 1970s, Wright dropped out of the UVF. He spent time as a lay preacher of the gospel and then rejoined the UVF, because the Anglo-Irish accord of 1985 had convinced him that the only thing the British government responded to was violence.

Wright has always been closer to Ian Paisley's evangelical vision than to the secular liberal Unionism of the UVF. He shares the general loyalist disdain for politicians who make militant noises and then denounce those who act militantly, but he has considerable sympathy for the Paisleyite view that nationalists are not serious about reaching an accommodation, that London and Dublin are slowly pushing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, and that compromise will be seen as weakness. Where Ervine and Hutchinson base their Unionism on the citizenship rights of the people of Northern Ireland, Wright thinks in the religio-ethnic language of "the Protestant people". Although Paisley wants the return of the death penalty for loyalist as well as republican murderers, Wright clearly believes that Paisley's pessimism is more justified than the Progressive Unionists' desire to negotiate.

The Drumcree demonstrations showed the fault lines. The Belfast UVF men do not much care about Orange Order parades. Once the battle was joined, they supported the rights of Orangemen against what they saw as politically directed RUC action, but they would rather it had not been an issue. Wright, however, was in the thick of this year's disturbances and the minor version last year. His influence there explains why David Trimble, the leader of the largest constitutional party, could refuse to meet the ex-IRA man who represents the Garvaghy Road residents but felt obliged to talk to Wright and his supporters.

The record of the Mid-Ulster UVF shows that its threats need to be taken seriously: it has killed a lot of people and can do so again. However, though it is callous to treat any murder as insignificant, the occasional assassination has only slight potential for destabilising the province. The large danger lies in the main UVF, which is reportedly now very well equipped with commercial explosives. In the 18 months before the cease- fire, the UVF set off a number of bombs, with varying but increasing efficiency.

Within the councils of the UVF, Mid-Ulster has had little influence. Many of his comrades view Wright as a self-aggrandising publicity-seeker. The danger is not that Mid-Ulster will persuade the rest of the UVF to break its cease-fire, or even that Mid-Ulster murders will stimulate the IRA to become more active and thus increase pressure for the loyalists to retaliate. The real danger lies in the political uncertainty that, in a form more extreme than in the rest of the organisation, is being reflected in Mid-Ulster.

Though their tactics are different, loyalist paramilitaries are motivated by the same considerations as other Unionists. If one plots loyalist killing rates for the past 30 years, a simple pattern emerges. When either republican violence or British government initiatives (or worse, both together) suggest that the Union is in danger, Unionists become fearful for their position and the murder rate goes up.

The part of the UVF most influenced by Spence is accommodating and liberal. It will accept power-sharing with within Northern Ireland. It proposes a Bill of Rights to safeguard the interests of all citizens. It will accept cross-border agencies on small matters of mutual interest with the Irish Republic. But it remains Unionist. Despite Mid-Ulster's charge of treachery, and the more vociferous criticism from Paisley's Democratic Unionists, the Progressive Unionist Party still means the second word in its title. Its representatives at the party talks will continue to be at odds with the Paisleyites because they will stick to the UVF script on de-commissioning: no weapons will be handed over until there is a plausible final settlement.

The expulsion of the Mid-Ulster unit shows that the PUP retains the confidence of the UVF; but, in the brutally honest self-assessment of one PUP activist: "No one should make the mistake of thinking that the UVF will swallow massive and bitter pills just to keep Davie [Ervine] and Hughie [Smyth] in the talks".

The mature Gusty Spence believes that he was wrong in 1966 to use violence to defend the Stormont regime of the Unionist party, but the organisation he created based its 1994 cease-fire on two conditions: an IRA cease-fire and the maintenance of the Union. The first has fallen. If, in order to restore it, London gives too much to Dublin and northern nationalists, the second condition will fall, and with it, if we are to believe the UVF's assessment of its capability, any chance of peace.

Steve Bruce is the author of 'The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland'.