Collusion vs. Infiltration
Exploring the British State-Loyalist Paramilitary Relationship Through a Loyalist Ex-combatant Lens
Dale Pankhurst, Ph.D. Candidate
School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy, and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast
Throughout the recent conflict in Northern Ireland, the relationship between the British State and militant loyalist paramilitary organizations was complex and nuanced. Many studies have examined how the British State interacted with Loyalist paramilitary organizations and often argue that the State colluded with these groups in their counterinsurgency campaign against Irish republican organizations. Yet despite the pro-government/pro-state orientation and outlook of Loyalist paramilitaries, they and the British security forces often targeted each other through acts of violence. For example, the Ulster Volunteer Force shot dead the first RUC officer of the Troubles and the Ulster Defence Association forcibly collapsed the first British Government powersharing initiative in 1974 through the Ulster Workers Council Strike. The security forces also conducted intensive counter-terrorism operations against Loyalist paramilitaries that affected the ability of these groups to function. For example, the RUC and Special Branch had an impact on levels of UVF activity by the late 1970s. In other cases, the State deployed acts of lethal force against Loyalist paramilitaries. In 1989, an undercover British Army unit shot dead a UVF gunman following a gun attack in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast.
Much of the literature that explores the relationships between Loyalist paramilitaries and the British State highlights examples of collusion between individual paramilitary units and members/elements within the low-to-mid levels of the security forces. For example, Anne Cadwallader’s book examines the links between members of the security forces and the Mid-Ulster UVF during the 1970s period and highlights the connections between a local UVF paramilitary unit and elements within the RUC and UDR. Elsewhere, other studies utilize archival analysis to analyze how the State often failed to effectively deal with Loyalist paramilitaries. Margaret Urwin’s book on the relationship between the British State and the UDA argues that despite repeated evidence of UDA involvement in acts of violence against the Irish nationalist community, the State refused to proscribe the organization until 1992.
The literature examining these relationships often tends to analyze these relationships through a principal-agent framework where the State (the principal) delegates power (either overtly or covertly) to the agent (the paramilitary group). These top-down analytical frameworks often unearth or portray the State as a controller and the paramilitary group as a proxy force, and tends to neglect the mutual animosity these state and non-state actors hold for each other. To counteract this, I argue that a better way to conceptualize/visualize these relationships is through analyzing the relationship dynamic from both a state-centric (top-down) approach and a paramilitary opportunist (bottom-up) approach.
In recent research with ex-combatants from both the UVF and UFF/UDA, I posed questions relating to the relationship between their organization and the British State. As a researcher, I have often pondered how Loyalists interpreted policies of imprisonment and criminalization by the State they were technically defending due to their anti-insurgent/anti-Irish Republican Army activities. While some ex-combatants admitted the existence of collusion between the British State and Loyalist paramilitary groups, all respondents questioned the extent and nature of this collusion. In many cases, most if not all ex-combatants detailed how the British State’s counter-terrorism apparatus successfully penetrated and disrupted their organizational capacity to wage violence against Irish republican targets and civilians from the Irish nationalist community.
According to ex-combatants from the UVF and the Red Hand Commando, the organizations had a policy of infiltrating local security force units, primarily after the establishment of the Ulster Defence Regiment. These infiltration operations were often in line with the policy of the paramilitary groups and were specifically designed to reap the material and immaterial benefits of security force membership. In some cases for example, British soldiers were members of the UVF prior to their service commencing within the British Army and were instructed to join the Army to receive basic training in military techniques such as weapons handling and firing. In addition, these paramilitary agents working within the security force system procured intelligence and armaments for their paramilitary units operating on the streets. The training acquired through the Army was then utilised by the paramilitaries to train other units in military techniques.
Inevitably, Loyalist paramilitary infiltration of the British security forces produced acts of violence that could be argued as acts of collusion. For example, the violence perpetrated by the Mid-Ulster UVF during the mid-1970s could be deemed collusion due to the involvement of off-duty UDR or RUC officers in an attack. However, UVF ex-combatants have highlighted these UDR/RUC personnel were perhaps instructed to infiltrate the local security force units to procure additional resources that would benefit the UVF. Potentially, they were members of the UVF acting on orders from their paramilitary organization and not part of a wider state-led conspiracy to target Irish nationalists and republicans through using non-state paramilitary proxies.
The security forces attempted to stop these Loyalist infiltration operations. In some cases, the Army was successful in screening paramilitary members from joining the force. In other cases, the screening proved ineffective. A declassified government file reveals it was recommended that improvements in intelligence gathering and counter-subversion activity by the security forces could help “weed out” those paramilitary elements stealing weapons and intelligence, however the very nature and structure of the UDR made it highly susceptible to infiltration by Loyalists. The structure of Loyalist paramilitary groups meant the security forces had varying degrees of success in countering paramilitary objectives. The clandestine and secretive nature of the UVF made it a more difficult organization to penetrate and glean intelligence on individual members than the much larger mass-mobilized and publicly visible UDA. The UVF-linked RHC paramilitary organization was also successful in preventing state penetration of their organizational capacity and structure, demonstrated by the fact the RHC was the only paramilitary organization not penetrated by state informants during the Supergrass Trials in the early 1980s.
Crucially, understanding the difference between acts of collusion and infiltration is important in contextualizing and examining the British State-Loyalist paramilitary relationship throughout the course of the conflict. The relationships between these conflict actors were complex, nuanced, complicated, and often antagonistic. They also evolved as the Troubles wore on from cooperation in some instances (eg the case of Brian Nelson) to conflict in others (eg violent anti-RUC campaigns during the Anglo-Irish Agreement Loyalist protests and intensive security force activity against Loyalist paramilitary groupings). I intend on exploring these relationships in much greater depth throughout the rest of my Ph.D. thesis.
Dale Pankhurst is an ESRC NINE DTP Ph.D. candidate at Queen's University Belfast. His research investigates the complex relationships between states and pro-government militias. Using Northern Ireland and Colombia as case studies, Dale’s research places these relationships within a broader investigatory framework that examines how the dynamics of conflict and violence influence variation in state-PGM relationships over time. His draft thesis title is “From Conflict to Cooperation: Explaining Variation in State-Pro-Government Militia Relationships in Northern Ireland and Colombia”.