Britain’s failure to deal with loyalist paramilitaries in the early 1970s has been exposed by recently uncovered British military files which prove that the Crown Forces worked with an extensive database of suspected loyalist paramilitaries.
The papers show some loyalist paramilitaries were openly discussing attacks, firearms training and conflict scenarios with British forces. Names, ages, addresses and records of weapon training were recorded in the files.
The unredacted lists, found by researcher Ciaran Mac Airt in official military archive documents, contain the details of hundreds of loyalists at every level up to the UDA’s top inner council, and include the names of well known leaders such as former chief commander Andy Tyrie.
The files date from the start of internment, when hundreds of Catholics were thrown behind bars amid a campaign of repression while loyalist violence was ignored, including some of the most intense periods of the conflict in 1972.
They help to further disprove British claims that it was unaware that organised loyalist violence existed at that time, or that loyalists used cover names for their violence.
In one file, a mass UDA rally at Woodvale Park in May 1972 was recorded as one where “as many as 2000 uniformed and semi-uniformed men were on parade by Companies with officers and NCOs wearing badges of rank and giving words by command.”
The file then describes the UDA in positive terms as “anti-terrorist” and in possession of “a wide range of weapons”.
That year, the London and Stormont governments not only denied the existence of organised loyalist violence but even blamed loyalist atrocities like the McGurk’s Bar and Kelly’s Bar massacres on Irish republicans.
The UDA remained legal until it was finally outlawed in August 1992. By then it had murdered over 300 people, the majority of them Irish Catholic civilians in random sectarian attacks.
The files show the British Army openly discriminated in favour of Protestants when it came to arrests and detention. “Ministers have judged that the time is not at the moment ripe for an extension of the arrest policy in respect of Protestants,” one file noted.
Mr Mac Airt of Paper Trail said the files record British military intelligence’s developing knowledge and relationships with loyalists across Belfast “including men we now know murdered many civilians during the conflict.
“They are written at a time when Britain denied the existence of organised loyalist violence and only interned Irish Catholics.
“The British Army developed similar files on alleged republicans but they differ as alleged republicans at this time were arrested on sight if identified, interned, tortured, jailed or worse.
“In these files, much of the extensive information comes from the loyalist leaders. It appears they had little to fear from the British state even though the British Army records that these same men were training and arming paramilitaries to murder civilians.”
He wondered how many lives could have been saved if Britain applied the same draconian internment laws to loyalists at this time, outlawed the UDA and detained the hundreds of alleged extremists listed in the files.
“This failure to proscribe loyalist paramilitary groups will feature in many legacy cases against the British state in the years to come. These files will help all of these families in their pursuit of truth and justice.
“As we look at today’s news nearly half a century later, our community is still dealing with the consequences of the relationship between loyalist extremism and the State. This is not solely a legacy issue if these groups exist today.”