A powerful weapon in Britain’s ‘dirty war’ in Northern Ireland

For some, the conflict in Northern Ireland has been characterized by an impenetrable jumble of abbreviations. Amidst the alphabet soup of loyalist paramilitary groups – the UVF, LVF, UDA, etc. – some might mistakenly include the UDR. But the Ulster Defense Regiment was in fact an integral part of the British army.

Praised by Prime Ministers and garlanded by the Royal Family, the UDR was once the largest infantry regiment in the British Army. It has also spent more time on continuous active duty than any other unit in the Army’s long and violent history.

Since its formation on April 1, 1970, the UDR had been a very different type of army regiment. Formed from the ashes of a discredited sectarian force, the notorious B Specials, the UDR was perhaps doomed from the start.

French political scientist Anne Mandeville writes that it represented “a kind of curious paradox: a militia force [the B Specials] dissolves in general opprobrium. What do we choose to succeed in it? Another militia.

An unarmed female soldier from the 3rd Battalion (County Down), UDR manning a vehicle checkpoint in Co Down in March 1976. Photograph: Alex Bowie/Getty Images

She describes the UDR as “a kind of monster”, both “presented as an arm of the state but deeply in solidarity with the Protestant community, ‘integrated’ into the British army but separated from it organically, geographically and by its specificity.

This “specificity” was that it was reserved for use only in Northern Ireland and, tellingly, away from Nationalist or Catholic areas such as West Belfast, Derry City and South Armagh.

It was a classic militia regiment, part of a long tradition of the use of such forces by the British Empire. Elements of the regular army stationed in Northern Ireland referred to the UDR as “native levies” – terminology generally reserved for local troops raised in and for the suppression of “colonies”.

For trade unionists, service in the UDR was a noble act and often a family tradition. Many ordinary and decent people wore a UDR uniform. Thousands of people living in Northern Ireland will have relatives who have done so.

Often brutal

For nationalists, an encounter with the UDR at one of its roadblocks was often hostile, often brutal and sometimes deadly. Many remember approaching the red torch being swung by a soldier in the road and hoping it was the regular army ordering them to stop.

In a notorious incident, the Miami Showband stopped their tour van at what they believed to be a British Army checkpoint. Instead, it was a trap set by members of the Glenanne gang, serving (but off-duty) UDR soldiers who were simultaneously members of the paramilitary loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Three of the band members were murdered that evening and two were seriously injured. The killers were UDR by day, UVF by night.

Declassified British Government and Ministry of Defense records reveal the astonishing extent of collusion between the UDR and loyalist paramilitaries, the penetration of this regiment by loyalist paramilitaries and the extent to which all of this was known, tolerated and encouraged by the British government and military command.

The extent of weapons losses from UDR arsenals or homes of UDR personnel has resulted in a steady flow of military equipment directly into the hands of loyalist gangs.

Official references to collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries can be found in reports dating back to 1971. The reference to the theft of a rifle from the UDR on September 2, 1971 appears in a memo on casualties of arms transmitted, in 1972, to the office of a British under-secretary of state, that is to say at ministerial level. Internal British Army documents throughout the 1970s used the word collusion routinely and repeatedly.

The scale of arms losses from UDR arsenals or the homes of UDR personnel has resulted in a steady flow of modern British Army military equipment directly into the hands of loyalist gangs.

A 1973 military intelligence document, titled Subversion in the UDR, found that 5-15% of UDR members had paramilitary links, with “widespread joint membership in the UDA” – referring to Ulster Defense Paramilitary Association. In fact, in many areas, UDR commanders considered dual membership to be normal.

The same report stated that some soldiers “undoubtedly lived a double life” and that the main loyalty of many of its members was to a concept of “Ulster” rather than to the British government.

It is striking when one examines these official documents from the 1970s to see echoes today in the infiltration by violent far-right groups of the police and military in Britain, United States and elsewhere.

Origin of weapons

More importantly, the Subversion in the UDR report found the UDR to be the “best” source of weapons for loyalist gangs and their “single significant source of modern weapons”.

Files from 1974 reveal that the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) consulted representatives of all loyalist paramilitary groups on the future direction of the UDR, leading to the bizarre situation of loyalist extremists influencing policy British military.

Lest we think such collusion was confined to the past, recall that in early 2021 the NIO was meeting with extremist loyalist groups to discuss UK foreign policy (Brexit).

In 1978, investigations into the Tenth UDR Battalion (10 UDR), the Belfast City Battalion, concluded that two specific companies of 10 UDR were “the supply and financial support elements of the paramilitary organizations local”.

Investigations revealed that at least 15 members of 10 UDRs based at Girdwood Barracks in North Belfast, who had been with the battalion for years, were also members of the loyalist paramilitary UVF.

It is significant that most of the attacks by the Shankill Butchers took place within one square mile of Girdwood Barracks, the base of 10 UDR

At this time, the Belfast UVF included a particular gang of sadistic cult killers, the Shankill Butchers, who fell into infamy even against the backdrop of the terrible 30-year conflict. It is significant that most of the attacks by the Shankill Butchers took place within a square mile of Girdwood Barracks, the base of 10 UDRs. One of Shankill’s butchers, Edward McIlwaine, was a serving UDR soldier.

That the UDR performs a vital function for the British state is evidenced by its tolerance of rampant criminality within its ranks. Between 1985 and 1989, UDR members were twice as likely to commit a crime as the general public. The UDR crime rate was 10 times that of RUC police and about four times that of the British Army.

By the early 1990s, approximately 120 members or former members of the regiment were serving prison sentences for serious crimes and 17 had been convicted of murder.

Identity withholding

There is growing evidence that the NIO, the RUC and the prosecution came together in a consistent policy of withholding the UDR identity of soldiers who were being prosecuted for serious crimes. In several of these incidents, documents from the NIO’s Law and Order Division state that “police will not refer to their membership in the security forces.”

This was not just some sort of ad hoc, case-by-case decision taken at a lower level, which one would expect to result from the strange “rotten apple” in the ranks .

Imagine, in a modern context, if a US state trooper was in court for invading the US Congress and his official identity was deliberately hidden from court by elements of the state. This was the case for many cases of former UDR members who were before the courts.

We are approaching the 30th anniversary of the regiment’s disbandment. And yet truths continue to emerge that reveal closely guarded state secrets about Britain’s “dirty war” in Ireland, including the role of the UDR.

Researching my new book, UDR Declassified, over the past two years I have been able to see and read what 10 Downing Street, the NIO and the UK Ministry of Defense knew (and was saying) about the controversial regiment in more than 200 declassified documents recovered from the British National Archives.

Exposing such truths, using the very words of the authorities, is not “rewriting” history, it is correcting it.

UDR Declassified, by Micheál Smith, is published by Merrion Press.

Comments are closed.