The Seeds Of The Northern War
We’ve seen a lot of outraged (and outrageous) speeches in recent days from politicians representing the British unionist minority in the north-east of the country demanding an “apology” from the Irish state for its alleged role in the ideological divisions which led to the establishment of the breakaway Provisional Army Council in December of 1969. Some pro-union leaders claim that the creation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) was the direct result of government policies in Dublin, an attempt to arm and direct a growing insurgency in the United Kingdom-administered Six Counties between 1969 and 1970.
In fact, the conflict had begun many years earlier in 1966 when attacks by pro-UK or Loyalist terrorist factions on nationalist communities across the northern part of Ireland led to several deaths and injuries. The oldest victim was 74 year old Matilda Gould, a Protestant grandmother murdered by “mistake”, while the youngest was Peter Ward, an 18 year old teenage boy gunned down with two others on the streets of Belfast. The violence was the work of the Ulster Volunteer Force or UVF , led by several ex-members of the British Armed Forces.
These men had been active with a local anti-Catholic grouping founded in 1956 called the Ulster Protestant Association. That organisation’s most famous figure was the Reverend Ian Paisley, a firebrand fundamentalist preacher who founded his own Christian sect, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, in 1951. Elements of his militant congregation were to play a background role in the next four decades of political and sectarian strife.
The Formation Of The Ulster Resistance
Following 15 years of violence in the Six Counties the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom, alarmed by the growing political power of the Republican Movement, signed an international treaty to normalise relations and facilitate progress towards a peaceful settlement in the region. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 15th 1985 saw London tacitly secede a portion of its sovereignty over the contested territory to Dublin by accepting the latter’s input into its administration as the “guarantor” of the nationalist community. From then on Irish civil servants would have an advisory role in the north-east through various inter-state bodies and a permanent secretariat based outside of Belfast.
This attempt by both governments to lay the groundwork for eventual peace caused outrage amongst many in the local unionist population. Some responded with a year-long series of protests, and a renewed campaign of murder by the Loyalist terror gangs. The frayed relationships between the police in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the RUC , and the militant extreme of pro-union opinion were patched up and given a new momentum as they jointly expressed their opposition to the Anglo-Irish détente. Similarly Britain’s Intelligence services, principally the Security Service (better known by the acronym MI5) and its various military equivalents stepped up their support for Loyalism, equally outraged at a perceived “surrender” to terrorism.
On the 10th of November 1986 many of these opposition forces came together in the Ulster Hall in Belfast where 3000 delegates attended an invite-only meeting. Among those organising the gathering were the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party (or DUP), including the Reverend Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Reverend Ivan Foster (all members or clergymen of Paisley’s self-styled Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster). The DUP boss and Foster had been founders in 1981 of a previous unionist militia, the Third Force, and the latter had a long history as a pastoral figure in the Free Presbyterian congregation, presiding at the funerals of several slain gunmen.
Earlier in the year Peter Robinson had established his militant credentials when he led 500 members of the Third Force in an “invasion” of the small village of Clontibret in County Monaghan, across the border, on the 7th of August 1986. During the incursion, which terrified the inhabitants, the local station of the Gardaí (the unarmed, Irish civilian police service) was attacked, two gardaí were surrounded and beaten, and a military parade was held on the main street. The takeover was repulsed when Garda reinforcements arrived, the gangs fleeing back across the border as a number of shots rang out. These actions made Robinson a folk-hero to some and he remained a central figure in militant unionism in the following years. Another leading attendee in the Ulster Hall was Alan Wright, the Chairman of the Ulster Clubs, a quasi-paramilitary faction founded in November 1985, one which shared considerable cross-membership with the Third Force.
During the gathering a new organisation was unveiled by Paisley, the Ulster Resistance (UR), a paramilitary army to oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement and any further attempts to resolve the northern conflict through negotiations. Paisley and his deputy, Peter Robinson, were later photographed in the distinctive UR red berets and the latter in camouflage fatigues as well. The Resistance quickly subsumed any previous groupings, including the Third Force and Ulster Clubs, forming itself into nine battalions, while establishing informal links with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the larger Ulster Defence Association or UDA.
(This grouping, which also used the title of the Ulster Freedom Fighters or UFF , was a legal body under British law and was able to organise, recruit, train and finance itself throughout the United Kingdom. Despite the demands of the international community the British government did not ban the faction until August 1992, after some 22 years of terrorist activities.)
Arms Smuggling From Lebanon
In June of 1987 the UVF staged an armed robbery at the Northern Bank in Portadown which netted the organisation in excess of £300,000 pounds sterling. The money was added to funds gathered by the UDA and Ulster Resistance from various criminal activities and donations from unionist businessmen to purchase arms from a black-market weapons-dealer in the Middle East. These arrived at Belfast docks in December 1987 in crates marked as ceramic tiles after a long sea voyage from the Lebanon. Though the exact quantity and types of weapons imported are unknown sources give the following minimum estimates:
- Over 200 Czech-made VZ.58 automatic assault rifles
- 94 Browning 9mm automatic pistols
- 12 or more RPG-7 anti-armour rocket launchers and between 60 – 150 warheads
- 400 – 500 RGD-5 fragmentation grenades
- Over 30,000 rounds of assorted ammunition
The masterminds behind this arms smuggling operation were not the leaders of violent Loyalism in Ireland. Instead the inspiration came from Brian Nelson, a former soldier turned senior UDA-UFF terrorist who was also an agent for the Force Research Unit, a secret group operating within the British Army’s Intelligence Corps. Co-operating with the Security Service (SS/MI5) both organisations sought to derail the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the increasingly friendly relations between Dublin and London by strengthening the counter-insurgency campaign of their paramilitary proxies.
Through Nelson the Security Service had facilitated the UDA-UFF contacts with arms-smuggling networks in the Middle East, which up to then had been quite beyond their capabilities (and ever since). These included organising meetings between the UDA-UFF and the Apartheid-era South African National Intelligence Service (NIS) and its associate in the region, the American-born arms-dealer Douglas Berndhart. Berndhart, who also worked for the SA arms industry, organised the supply of the weapons for the militants through a Lebanese gunrunner named Joe Fawzi. The arms came from PLO stocks that had been captured by the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militias when the Palestinian guerrillas had been expelled from south Lebanon in 1982, following the Israeli invasion.
Berndhart was in close contact with the Israeli intelligence services, whose allies were the Christian militias, at a time when South Africa and Israel regularly traded arms and security information. In fact much of the smuggled weapons had been sold on to South Africa by the Israelis for use in its border wars with its neighbours. This has led to the obvious conclusion that the Tel Aviv administration must have given the go-ahead for the shipments despite deteriorating relations between the two countries at a governmental level in the late ‘80s.
The munitions imported from Lebanon were transported to a rural location between Armagh and Portadown to be stored and later distributed to the UVF, UDA-UFF and UR. On the 8th of January 1988 part of the UDA’s share was unexpectedly intercepted by a Royal Ulster Constabulary checkpoint during transport from Portadown to Belfast in a convoy of three cars. 61 assault rifles, 30 handguns, 150 grenades and over 11,000 rounds of ammunition were seized and three men arrested. Davy Payne, the UDA’s North Belfast leader and another former British soldier (a paratrooper), was later sentenced to 19 years in prison and the two others to 14 years each. An Ulster Resistance member, Noel Little, a former soldier (in the notorious Ulster Defence Regiment or UDR) and the Armagh chairman of the Ulster Clubs was arrested in connection with the find but later released without charges.
Subsequently rumours circulated in Loyalist circles that the three car-loads of weapons had been “sacrificed” in order to allow larger consignments to get through, a deliberate act of misdirection to distract those RUC factions who disagreed with the rearming of unionism’s extremist fringe. Others pointed towards long-standing rivalries within the British Intelligence community over government policy in Ireland, and the possibility that the UK Secret Intelligence Service (commonly known as SIS or MI6) had leaked what they knew of the smuggling operation to contacts within the RUC. Certainly it later emerged that the British navy had been tracking the smuggling vessel in the Mediterranean but had somehow mysteriously “lost” it en route in circumstances which have yet to be explained.
In February of 1988 another part of the UDA’s weapons store was uncovered in North Belfast with the recovery of an RPG7 rocket launcher and 26 warheads, 38 assault rifles, 15 handguns, 100 grenades and an unprecedented 40,000 rounds of ammunition by the RUC. A part of the Ulster Resistance’s share of the munitions was discovered in November of that year by RUC searches at a number of locations in County Armagh. In a large haul of military equipment the RUC found an RPG7 rocket launcher and 5 warheads, 3 assault rifles, an automatic pistol, 10 grenades, 12,000 rounds of ammunition, combat uniforms and other items including UR berets and badges.
Unexpectedly, components of a British-made Javelin surface-to-air missile (SAM) were also found. These had been stolen in October from the Short Brothers factory in Belfast where they were produced, which had an almost exclusively unionist workforce. The parts consisted of a detailed model of the missile’s aiming system facilitating copying by competitors. It quickly emerged that the technology had been stolen by UR activists as part of the “payment” to South Africa for the supply of weapons and ammunition to the Loyalist gangs.
At this time the South Africans were under an international arms embargo over the issue of Apartheid and White Minority rule which had led the country to developing its own indigenous arms industry in the guise of the Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor) which had very close ties to similar companies in Israel. Dick Wright, an employee of Armscor, was an uncle of Alan Wright, the leader of the Ulster Clubs and a co-founder with Ian Paisley of the Ulster Resistance. He had met the leadership of the UDA-UFF in east Belfast during a visit home to Ireland in 1985 and made an offer of arms from South Africa in return for money or British missile technology from the Shorts armaments factory in Belfast. The UDA boss John McMichael instructed Brian Nelson to travel to South Africa in 1985 where he was taken to a warehouse in Johannesburg filled with weaponry that could be supplied to the Loyalists in return for their co-operation in smuggling out of the north weapons’ technology for the Apartheid regime.
A second two-week trip by Nelson in June of 1987, following the fund-raising bank robbery, sealed the deal. During it unionists agreed to use their own money to part-pay for the initial purchase and smuggling of the arms, with stolen missile parts or blueprints paying for the rest. The South Africans agreed to sell the first round of armaments at less than half-price, with an agreement to supply more weapons for free and up to one million pounds sterling to fund an intensified terrorist campaign if all went as planned. Due to the persistent work of dedicated journalists and lawyers it later emerged, incredibly, that the UK Ministry of Defence had paid for Nelson’s flights at the request of Military Intelligence.
During 1988 a technical officer at the South African embassy in Paris, which was now “handling” the UDA-UFF and Ulster Resistance contacts, arranged for three Loyalists to receive arms training in France, including the use of the RPG-7 anti-armour rocket-launchers. During the course of renewed negotiations the South Africans offered to pay several million pounds sterling for access to the newest and most advanced British missile system, Starstreak, as well as more weapons. At least £50,000 pounds was handed over as a down-payment on this.
In early April of 1989 parts of a Blowpipe missile went missing and another was stolen from a British Army base in Newtownards. Subsequently three members of the UDA-UFF, Noel Little, previously arrested in connection with the 1987 importation of arms (and photographed with Peter Robinson in a UR uniform), James King (like Little a member of Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church and DUP party) and Samuel Quinn, a sergeant and weapons’ instructor at the Newtownards military base, were arrested at the Hilton Hotel in Paris on the 21st of April 1989 along with a diplomat, Daniel Storm, and the agent and arms dealer, Douglas Bernhart, by the then French security service DST. French police recovered various missile parts, most of which seemed to be non-functioning.
The three unionists were charged with arms trafficking and associating with criminals involved in terrorism, while several South African embassy officials were expelled by the authorities in Paris. In October 1991 after more than two years on remand the three were convicted though they received suspended sentences and fines following representations on their behalf by UK Intelligence officials to their French counterparts.
In September of 1989 a 33 year old man from Poyntzpass and a 35 year old man from Tandragee were jailed for storing and moving weapons and explosives on behalf of the Ulster Resistance. In January 1990 a 32 year old former British Army soldier (another ex-UDR militiaman) from Richill was jailed for 12 years for possessing UR arms and explosives. Shortly afterwards, as the political pressure mounted on the DUP, Ian Paisley issued a statement claiming that his party had severed links with the Resistance in 1987, news that took many observers by surprise.
The Ulster Resistance – It Hasn’t Gone Away You Know
To this day up to a third of the South African-supplied arms imported by the British Intelligence services into the north-east of Ireland remain unaccounted for. In particular it is thought that the majority of Ulster Resistance weapons and ammunition were turned over to the UDA-UFF and UVF in the early 1990s, when Loyalist killings of civilians reached levels not seen since the early 1970s. Many of these weapons are thought to have been excluded from the so-called Decommissioning Process. There are also strong suspicions that smaller quantities of munitions were smuggled into the Six Counties, the details of which remain unknown.
What is known is that the South Africans were also using pro-union militants in Ireland and the United Kingdom to target European-based anti-Apartheid activists. With their strong links to far right racist and Neo-Nazi groups in Britain, as well as the British state itself, the UDA-UFF and UVF were logical allies for the South African regime. Additionally throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’80s and 1990s much of the unionist minority had remained politically supportive of the White Minority governments in Zimbabwe and South Africa, seeing parallels with their own status in Ireland. Certainly all the main unionist parties opposed economic and military sanctions against South Africa, including the international boycott, and championed various campaigns defending the Apartheid regime. The significant ex-pat unionist population in the country, some of whom served in the SA government or security forces, also created a strong basis for a mutual alliance.
The IRA And The ANC
By the early 1980s the South African Intelligence services were aware of the close relationship between Sinn Féin and the African National Congress (or ANC). In the late 1970s the ANC’s leadership had instructed activists living in Ireland to request Sinn Féin’s help in contacting the Irish Republican Army, seeking military assistance and advice. Eventually it was arranged for two field commanders of the guerilla organisation Umkhonto we Sizwe (better known as MK) to travel to Dublin where they received two weeks of intensive military training from the IRA in a secret camp. These men later travelled back to South Africa where they crossed over the border into Angola to impart their skills to new and existing MK fighters.
In the latter half of 1979 senior members of MK suggested an idea that would eventually become one of the highest profile operations in the struggle against White Minority rule. The plan was to sabotage the massive oil refinery run by the company Sasol which was vital to the economic existence of the Apartheid state. Unsure of the best way to organise such an elaborate attack MK again requested IRA assistance and in 1980 two munitions experts travelled from Ireland to Sasolburg in the ironically named Free State Province to reconnoitre the site. In June of that year the attack took place and though the regime immediately issued statements claiming the resulting damage was minimal few believed it, providing a propaganda boost to both MK and the ANC.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that a fear of continued IRA assistance to MK and the ANC was one of the reasons why the South Africans reached out to the British terror gangs in Ireland. The possibility of causing chaos in the north-east of the country was probably one hoped outcome of the alliance with the UDA-UVF-UR axis, as well as striking back at the anti-Apartheid campaign in Europe.
This latter result can be seen in the attempted assassination of the South African-born Queen’s University lecturer, Dr Adrian Guelke. The 44-year-old academic was shot in the back after UDA-UFF gunmen burst into his south Belfast home at around 4.30am on September 4th, 1991. The lecturer was an outspoken critic of the Apartheid dictatorship and it was later revealed that South African military intelligence had used details from a leaked RUC Special Branch file to make him a target. The file had been supplied by the South African agent, Leon Flores, who flew to Belfast via London in the autumn of 1991, contacted the UDA, and provided its south Belfast brigade with the RUC intelligence report.
Another attack believed by some historians of the period to have Loyalist involvement was the assassination of Dulcie September, a well known anti-Apartheid campaigner and ANC member, murdered by an unknown gunman outside the ANC offices in Paris on the 29th of March 1988.
An apology is certainly due in relation to the decades of politically-motivated pain and suffering the people of Ireland have endured during the course of the Northern War. But it is the leaders of British unionism in Ireland who need to make it. And their allies in Britain.
UPDATE 15.10.2012: The British Guardian newspaper carries yet another media exposé of Britain’s state-sponsored terrorism in Ireland and the South African arms importations.