The Ulster Defence Association emerged from a series of meetings during the middle of 1971 of loyalist "vigilante" groups called "defence associations". The largest of these were the Shankill and Woodvale Defence Associations, with other groups based in East Belfast, the Hammer and Roden Street. The first meeting was chaired by Billy Hull, with Alan Moon as its vice-chair. Moon was quickly replaced by Jim Anderson and had left the organisation by the time of its formal launch in September.
By this point, Charles Harding Smith had become the group's leader, with former British soldier Davy Fogel as his second-in-command, who trained the new recruits in military tactics, the use of guns, and unarmed combat. Its most prominent early spokesperson was Tommy Herron; however, Andy Tyrie would emerge as leader soon after. Its original motto was Cedenta Arma Togae ("Law before violence") and it was a legal organisation until it was banned by the British Government on 10 August 1992.
UDA members marching through Belfast city centre, mid-1972
At its peak of strength it held around forty thousand members, mostly part-time. During this period of legality, the UDA committed a large number of attacks using the name Ulster Freedom Fighters, including the murder of Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) politician Paddy Wilson and his companion Irene Andrews in 1973. The UDA was involved in the successful Ulster Workers Council Strike in 1974, which brought down the Sunningdale Agreement – a power-sharing agreement for Northern Ireland, which some unionists thought conceded too much to nationalist demands. The UDA enforced this general strike through widespread intimidation across Northern Ireland. The strike was led by VUPP Assemblyman and UDA member, Glenn Barr.
The UDA were often referred to by the nickname "Wombles" by their rivals, mainly the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The nickname is derived from the furry fictional children's TV creatures The Wombles, and was given to the UDA because many of its members wore fur-trimmed parkas. Its headquarters is in Gawn Street, off the Newtownards Road in east Belfast, and its current motto is Quis Separabit, which is Latin for "Who will separate [us]?"
The UDA had several women's units, which acted independent of each other. Although they occasionally helped staff roadblocks, the women's units were typically involved in local community work and responsible for the assembly and delivery of food parcels to UDA prisoners. This was a source of pride for the UDA. The first women's unit was founded on the Shankill Road by Wendy "Bucket" Millar, whose sons Herbie and James "Sham" Millar would later become prominent UDA members. The UDA women's department was headed by Jean Moore, who also came from the Shankill Road. She had also served as the president of the women's auxiliary of the Loyalist Association of Workers. Her brother Ingram "Jock" Beckett, one of the UDA's founding members, had been killed in March 1972 by a rival UDA faction in an internal dispute. Moore was succeeded by Hester Dunn of east Belfast, who also ran the public relations and administration section at the UDA headquarters. Wendy Millar's Shankill Road group was a particularly active women's unit, and another was based in Sandy Row, south Belfast, a traditional UDA stronghold. The latter was commanded by Elizabeth "Lily" Douglas. Her teenaged daughter, Elizabeth was one of the members.
The Sandy Row women's UDA unit was disbanded after it carried out a vicious "romper room" punishment beating on 24 July 1974 which left 32-year-old Ann Ogilby dead. The body of Ogilby, a Protestant single mother who had an affair with the husband of one of the unit's members, was found in a ditch five days later. The day of the fatal beating Ogilby was abducted and forced upstairs to the first floor of a disused bakery in Sandy Row that had been converted into a UDA club. Two teenage girls, Henrietta Cowan and Christine Smith, acting under Elizabeth Douglas' orders to give Ogilby a "good rompering", punched, kicked, then battered her to death with bricks and sticks; the autopsy later revealed that Ogilby had suffered 24 blows to the head and body. The killing, which was carried out within earshot of Ogilby's six-year-old daughter, caused widespread revulsion throughout Northern Ireland and was condemned by the UDA prisoners serving inside the Maze Prison. None of the other UDA women's units had consented to or been aware of the fatal punishment beating until it was reported in the news. Douglas, Cowan, and Smith were convicted of the murder and sentenced to imprisonment at Armagh Women's Jail. Seven other members of the women's unit and a UDA man were also convicted for their part in the murder. The UDA "romper rooms", named after the children's television programme, were places where victims were beaten and tortured prior to being killed. This was known as a "rompering". The "romper rooms" were normally located in disused buildings, lock-up garages, warehouses, and rooms above pubs and drinking clubs. The use of the "romper rooms" was a more common practice among male members of the UDA than their female counterparts.
The flag of the "Ulster Freedom Fighters" with a clenched fist representing the Red Hand of Ulster
and the Latin motto Feriens tego
, meaning "striking I defend"
Starting in 1972 the UDA along with the other main Loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force, undertook an armed campaign against the Catholic population of Northern Ireland that would last until the end of the troubles. In May 1972, the UDA's pressured leader Tommy Herron decided that responsibility for acts of violence committed by the UDA would be claimed by the "UFF". Its first public statements came one month later.
The UDA's official position during the Troubles was that if the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provisional IRA) called off its campaign of violence, then it would do the same. However, if the British government announced that it was withdrawing from Northern Ireland, then the UDA would act as "the IRA in reverse."
Active throughout the Troubles, its armed campaign gained prominence in the early 1990s through Johnny Adair's ruthless leadership of the Lower Shankill 2nd Battalion, C. Company, which resulted in a greater degree of tactical independence for individual brigades. C. Company's hit squad, led by Stephen McKeag, became notorious for a campaign of random murders of Catholic civilians in the first half of the 1990s.
They benefited, along with the Ulster Volunteer Force, and a group called Ulster Resistance (set up by the Democratic Unionist Party), from a shipment of arms imported from Lebanon in 1988. The weapons landed included rocket launchers, 200 rifles, 90 pistols and over 400 grenades. Although almost two–thirds of these weapons were later recovered by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), they enabled the UDA to launch an assassination campaign against their perceived enemies.
A UFF mural in the Sandy Row
area of South Belfast
North Belfast UDA brigadier Davy Payne was arrested after his "scout" car had been stopped at a RUC checkpoint and large caches of the weaponry were discovered in the boots of his associates' cars. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
In 1992 Brian Nelson, a prominent UDA member convicted of sectarian killings, revealed that he was also a British Army agent. This led to allegations that the British Army and RUC were helping the UDA to target Irish republican activists. UDA members have since confirmed that they received intelligence files on republicans from British Army and RUC intelligence sources.
One of the most high-profile UDA attacks came in October 1993, when three masked men attacked a restaurant called the Rising Sun in the predominantly Catholic village of Greysteel, County Londonderry, where two hundred people were celebrating Halloween. The two men entered and opened fire. Eight people, including six Catholics and two Protestants were killed and nineteen wounded in what became known as the Greysteel massacre. The "UFF" claimed the attack was in retaliation to the IRA's Shankill Road bombing, which killed nine people seven days earlier.
According to the Sutton database of deaths at the University of Ulster's CAIN project, the UDA was responsible for 259 killings during the Troubles. 208 of its victims were civilians (predominantly Catholics), 12 were civilian political activists (mainly members of Sinn Féin), 37 were other loyalist paramilitaries (including 30 of its own members), three were members of the security forces and 11 were republican paramilitaries. A number of these attacks were carried out with the assistance or complicity of the British Army, the RUC, or both, according to the Stevens Enquiry, although the exact number of people killed as a result of collusion has not been revealed. The preferred modus operandi of the UDA was individual killings of civilian targets in nationalist areas, rather than large-scale bomb or mortar attacks.
The UDA employed various codewords whenever they claimed their attacks. These included: "The Crucible", "Titanic", "Ulster Troubles" and "Captain Black".
Its ceasefire was welcomed by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde.
A UDA/UFF mural in Belfast
A UFF flag in Finvoy, a rural area of County Antrim
Since the ceasefire, the UDA has been accused of taking vigilante action against alleged drug dealers, including tarring and feathering a man on the Taughmonagh estate in south Belfast. It has also been involved in several feuds with the UVF, which led to many killings. The UDA has also been riddled by its own internecine warfare, with self-styled "brigadiers" and former figures of power and influence, such as Johnny Adair and Jim Gray (themselves bitter rivals), falling rapidly in and out of favour with the rest of the leadership. Gray and John Gregg are amongst those to have been killed during the internal strife. On 22 February 2003, the UDA announced a "12-month period of military inactivity". It said it would review its ceasefire every three months. The UPRG's Frankie Gallagher has since taken a leading role in ending the association between the UDA and drug dealing.
Following an August 2005 Sunday World article that poked fun at the gambling losses of one of its leaders, the UDA banned the sale of the newspaper from shops in areas it controls. Shops that defy the ban have suffered arson attacks, and at least one newsagent was threatened with death. The Police Service of Northern Ireland began accompanying the paper's delivery vans. The UDA was also considered to have played an instrumental role in loyalist riots in Belfast in September 2005.
On 13 November 2005 the UDA announced that it would "consider its future", in the wake of the standing down of the Provisional IRA and Loyalist Volunteer Force.
In February 2006, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) reported UDA involvement in organised crime, drug trafficking, counterfeiting, extortion, money laundering and robbery.
A UDA/UFF mural in Bangor
On 20 June 2006, the UDA expelled Andre Shoukri and his brother Ihab, two of its senior members who were heavily involved in organised crime. Some saw this as a sign that the UDA was slowly coming away from crime. The move did see the southeast Antrim brigade of the UDA, which had been at loggerheads with the leadership for some time, support Shoukri and break away under former UPRG spokesman Tommy Kirkham. Other senior members met with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for talks on 13 July in the same year.
On 11 November 2007 the UDA announced that the Ulster Freedom Fighters would be stood down from midnight of the same day, with its weapons "being put beyond use" although it stressed that these would not be decommissioned.
Although the group expressed a willingness to move from criminal activity to "community development," the IMC said it saw little evidence of this move because of the views of its members and the lack of coherence in the group's leadership as a result of its decentralised structure. While the report indicated the leadership intends to move towards its stated goals, factionalism hindered this change and was the strongest hindrance to progress. Although most loyalist actions were curtailed since the IMC's previous report, most of loyalist paramilitary activity was coming from the UDA.
The IMC report concluded that the leadership's willingness to change has resulted in community tension and the group would continue to be monitored, although "the mainstream UDA still has some way to go." Furthermore, the IMC warned the group to "recognise that the organisation's time as a paramilitary group has passed and that decommissioning is inevitable." Decommissioning was said to be the "biggest outstanding issue for loyalist leaders, although not the only one."
A UDA/UFF South-East Antrim Brigade mural in Newtownabbey
On 6 January 2010, the UDA announced that it had put its weapons "verifiably beyond use". The decommissioning was completed five weeks before a government amnesty deadline beyond which any weapons found could have been used as evidence for a prosecution. The decommissioning was confirmed by Canadian General John de Chastelain, chairman of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, as well as Lord Eames, former Archbishop of Armagh and Sir George Quigley, former top civil servant.
Chastelain stated that the decommissioning included arms, ammunition, explosives and explosive devices and the UDA stated that the arms "constitute the totality of those under their control". Following the decommissioning the Ulster Political Research Group, the UDA's political representatives, stated that the "Ulster Defence Association was formed to defend our communities; we state quite clearly and categorically that this responsibility now rests with the Government and its institutions where legitimacy resides". UDA representative Frankie Gallagher also stated that the group now regretted being responsible for the killing of more than 400 people.
Shaun Woodward, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stated that this "is a major act of leadership by the UDA and further comprehensive evidence of the success of politics over violence in Northern Ireland" and the act was also welcomed by Sinn Féin and DUP politicians. The President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese, described the decommissioning as "a very positive milestone on the journey of peace". US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also welcomed the move as a step towards lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
South East Antrim group
This area naturally also continues to use the "UDA" title in its name, although it too expressed willingness to move towards "community development." Although serious crime is not prevalent among its members, some who were arrested for illegal drug sales and "extortion" were exiled by the Brigade. A clear distinction between the factions was not available in the 20th IMC report, as this was the first report to differentiate between the two.