In many ways the conflict in the north of Ireland, the Long War or the Troubles, call it what you will, began and ended with the Ulster Volunteer Force, the oldest British terrorist organisation on this island nation. From its violent reappearance in the mid-1960s, after decades of nominal absence, to its permanent cessation of hostilities in the mid-to-late 2000s, the grouping was both the oppressor and terroriser of Irish nationalist communities in the north-east and beyond. Beginning with the killing of seventy-four year old Matilda Gould in 1966 and ending with the kidnapping, torture and murder of thirty-seven year old Seán McDermott in 1994 – the year of the UVF’s temporary ceasefire – the organisation and its proxies were responsible for the slaying of some five hundred men, women and children. Over 90% of these victims were non-combatant civilians and their deaths, and the fear it generated, contributed greatly to Britain’s counter-insurgency struggle against the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army and its rivals or off-shoots.
However the UVF’s reign of terror did not cease with its self-declared truce in 1994, or its supposed disbandment as a paramilitary force in 2007. It was merely curtailed. Since the mid-1990s the factional grouping has carried out hundreds of attacks involving the use of guns, bombs, knives and cudgels, attacks which have left over thirty dead and dozens more wounded. Far from ceasing to exist the organisation has expanded its criminal empire to become one of the larger narco-terrorist gangs in western Europe. Not unreasonably one might expect that such a record would place the Ulster Volunteer Force well beyond the bounds of acceptability in most mainstream political quarters. However we are referring here to the UK legacy-colony of “Northern Ireland”, and the UVF, while being terrorists, are British and unionist terrorists. So their crimes, in the eyes of some senior unionist leaders at least, were no real crimes at all. Crudely put, the ideologues of unionism have always found an excuse for those who have gone to war in the name of “Britishness” in Ireland – even if that war involved little more than the killing of defenceless Irish grandparents and their grandchildren.
Hence, when necessary or advantageous to do so, the political representatives of the UVF, the Progressive Unionist Party or PUP, have found seats waiting for them at the table normally reserved for the MPs, MLAs and councillors of establishment unionist parties like the DUP, UUP and TUV, or the followers of the infamous Orange Order. Most recently this convergence of related interests was observed during the so-called “flag protests” by unionist extremists, and the widespread rioting, street-blockades, house-burnings and expulsions which defined them. Throughout this period right-wing unionist politicians maintained close contacts with their militant peers. Indeed at times it seemed that the actions of the one carefully complimented or boosted the actions of the other.
Which brings us to the latest machinations in Belfast, where the minority UUP are threatening to pull out of the dysfunctional Stormont Executive with much self-righteous chest-thumping, while the equally grandstanding majority DUP are threatening to force the expulsion of Sinn Féin from the regional administration. The result of both these actions, if successful, may well be to collapse the finely poised edifice that is the twenty year old peace process. With growing isolationism amongst unionists, increasing domestic opposition to genuine “power-sharing”, and fears of financial scandals lurking in the background, the UUP and DUP are now placing electoral survival before all else. In that at least they have been joined by the opportunists of Fianna Fáil and Labour, two national parties dismayed by SF’s growing attraction to the wavering fringe of their core vote.
Yet what remains clear from all of the above is the utter hypocrisy of mainstream unionism, its ready willingness to embrace and fawn upon the killers of “Catholics” when politic to do so, while rejecting that “terrorism” which exists outside its own control or influence. Simply put, if former or serving activists linked to the UVF or UDA-UFF had carried out a retaliatory killing of a suspected murderer, and their representatives sat in the Stormont administration, every single person reading this piece knows that there would be no question of the DUP, UUP or TUV seeking their expulsion or censure.
Which makes the farce of recent days all the more repugnant.