There is an old joke from the UK-administered north-east of Ireland, one that has a great deal of truth behind it. During the so-called Troubles, the thirty years of insurgency and counterinsurgency in the contested region, those fighting against the United Kingdom were the “terrorists” while those fighting for the United Kingdom were the “paramilitaries”. At least that is how the government of Britain invariably labelled such bodies in its official pronouncements and the press in London and its offshoots followed suit. The “terrorists” of Irish republicanism “murdered”, the “paramilitaries” of British loyalism “killed”. There is hardly a person on this island who is unfamiliar with the duplicitous narrative concocted in the corridors of power in Whitehall and repeated by the denizens of Fleet Street and Broadcasting House from the 1970s to the present post-war day.
The history of the Ulster Defence Association illustrates this hypocrisy. The UDA was and still is the largest terror faction in Europe, with several hundred members (and some 40,000 at its height). Since its establishment in 1971 the grouping has carried out many acts of violence in Ireland, and in particular the Six Counties. As of 2017, these actions have left nearly five hundred men, women and children dead. The latest was just two days ago with the murder of Colin Horner, gunned down in a car park in County Down. Throughout most of its existence the faction held a unique position in the United Kingdom, and one with almost no equal anywhere else in the Western democratic world. The Ulster Defence Association was a legal terrorist organisation. Despite demands and pressure from successive governments in Dublin and Washington the authorities in London refused to ban it, glossing over its decades’ long record of gun and bomb attacks. In fact it took the Irish-British peace process of the 1990s and reciprocal gestures during negotiations between the UK and the Republican Movement for the UDA to be “proscribed” in 1992.
The Ulster Defence Association remains an illegal terrorist organisation to the present day. It is still on the proscribed terror lists of the United Kingdom, Ireland, the European Union and the United States of America. Yet below is a picture of Theresa Villiers, the Conservative Party’s then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, posing with Dee Stitt and Jimmy Birch, two UDA leaders. To be clear, this is a government minister of the UK meeting the chiefs of a terrorist faction in full public view. Given the frenzied press attacks in Britain on Jeremy Corbyn for meeting members of Sinn Féin, a never proscribed political party with elected councillors, MPs, TDanna and MEPs, what message does this send to the world? And to the people of Ireland in particular?
We know that for twenty years the Ulster Defence Association, which numbered former and serving British soldiers and police officers among its membership, was used as the cutting edge of the United Kingdom’s counterinsurgency war in Ireland. Acting as the UDA-UFF, the group almost exclusively targeted the civilian population of this country, along with its cohorts in the Red Hand Commando, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Loyalist Volunteer Force. Yet all knowledge of this seems to be absent from Britain’s understanding of the conflict, either out of ignorance or deliberate oversight. Forty-six years into the formation of the UDA as a British terror faction we are still waiting for the mainstream British press and political class to admit its role in perpetuating Europe’s longest-running and apparently still quasi-legal terrorist organisation.