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Northern Ireland Loyalist Paramilitaries (U.K., extremists)

Updated: November 1, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Who are Northern Ireland’s “loyalists”?

Loyalists want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom , and many are willing to support the use of violence to keep the Protestant-majority province, also known as Ulster , under British rule. They are the adversaries of the Irish Republican Army, and others who seek a united Ireland , in the violent decades-long struggle that the Irish call “the Troubles.” Young Protestant men from Ulster ’s most downtrodden neighborhoods make up the core membership of loyalist paramilitary groups, which are effectively pro-state terrorist organizations.

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How many loyalist paramilitary groups are there?

Historically, there were two main organizations: the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), founded in 1966 (and named for an early twentieth- century organization with the same mission), and the larger Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a network of vigilante groups founded in 1971. UDA members also use the name Ulster Freedom Fighters. The UVF and the UDA cooperated closely through the Combined Loyalist Military Command for much of the 1990s, but this association dissolved amid a violent feud in 2001.

Three hard-line offshoots have emerged from these groups in recent years: the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), in 1996, and the Red Hand Defenders and the Orange Volunteers, in 1998. Authorities believe the last two may simply be cover names used by UDA and LVF members conducting attacks.

In December 2001, the State Department listed four of these Protestant paramilitary organizations as terrorist groups, all except the Ulster Volunteer Force.

What is the conflict in Northern Ireland about?

Following a 1916 uprising and years of guerrilla war led by the legendary Irish nationalist Michael Collins, the British government decided in 1920 to divide Ireland, which it had ruled as a colony for centuries. An independent state, the Republicof Ireland, was created in the island’s predominantly Catholic south, and the six Ulster counties in the north, with a Protestant majority, remained part of the United Kingdom. The conflict is both political and religious: Many Catholic “republicans” in Ulster have complained of being treated as second-class citizens, and they seek to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, but most Protestants wantNorthern Irelandto remain part of theUnited Kingdom. Almost 3,500 people on both sides have died since the Troubles began in 1969.

What attacks have the loyalist paramilitary groups carried out?

Despite accounting for almost thirty percent of the deaths in the Northern Ireland conflict, loyalists’ attacks have generally drawn far less media and international attention than those perpetrated by the IRA. Major loyalist attacks include:

  • The UVF’s 1966 shooting of four Catholics, one fatally, outside a Belfast pub. This attack was the first major act of sectarian violence since Ireland was divided, and it spurred Catholic activism, which soon turned violent.
  • The UVF’s 1969 bombing of a power station near Belfast. Initially attributed to the IRA, this attack also helped trigger the Troubles.
  • The UVF’s 1971 bombing of a Belfastpub, which killed fifteen people.
  • A pair of UVF bombings in Dublin and Monaghan, both in the Republic of Ireland, on May 17, 1974, that killed thirty-three civilians, making this day the deadliest of the conflict.
  • The UDA’s October 1993 machine-gun attack on a bar in the Northern Ireland town of Greysteel, which killed eight civilians.
  • The LVF killing of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ nephew in January 1998.
  • A fierce campaign of intimidation and abuse of Catholic schoolgirls inBelfast between June and October 2001.
  • The murder of fourBelfast residents in the summer of 2005 (marching season). The Independent Monitoring Commission blamed the UVF for the deaths in a special report in September and the group’s ceasefire was declared broken later that month.

Religious violence, harassment, and intimidation typically flare up during the summer “marching season,” when hard-line Protestants don bowlers and orange sashes and parade through Catholic neighborhoods to celebrate centuries-old battlefield victories. Many Catholics see these parades as provocations.

Have the loyalist groups targeted civilians?

Yes—and more frequently than the IRA. Between 1968 and 1998, loyalist paramilitaries killed an estimated 864 civilians (most of them Catholic), compared with an estimated 728 civilians (most of them Protestant) killed by the IRA. Experts say loyalist groups have often acted out of religious hatred, while the IRA has more often targeted British security officers—killing more than 1,000 of them—in an effort to further its political goal of ejecting the British from Northern Ireland .

How big are the loyalist paramilitary groups?

At its peak in the 1970s, the UDA had some 40,000 members, but the UVF and the UDA today are thought to be only several hundred strong. The LVF, the Red Hand Defenders, and the Orange Volunteers count only dozens of members each, possibly with a great deal of overlap.

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