Chris Bambery looks at the origins of the Democratic Unionist Party and its links to loyalist paramilitary groups
"I am terribly sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley or decided to follow him". Those were the words of a Loyalist gunman, arrested in Belfast in 1966 for shooting dead a Catholic barman and wounding his three companions.
Hugh McClean was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and when asked why he’d joined this murder gang he replied to detectives:
“I was asked did I agree with Paisley and was I prepared to follow him. I said that I was.”
Paisley was the Reverend Ian Paisley, a firebrand evangelical preacher who built a political career out of anti-Catholicism and in opposing any concessions to the nationalist population of Northern Ireland, until finally, in his twilight years, the lure of public office became too great.
Paisley founded the Democratic Unionist Party, on whom Theresa May is now dependent for her slim majority in Parliament. He ran it from top down with little regard for internal democracy. His son continues the political tradition and this week was sharing the message on social media that “the future is Orange, the future is bright.”
It is commonplace to blame the Northern Ireland Troubles that ran from 1968-1969 until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 on the IRA. Yet Loyalist killings, and those of the security forces, predated the IRA’s military campaign. The 1966 UVF killings were in many ways the start.
Paisley helped found the Ulster Protestant Volunteers. In 1969 members were involved, along with the UVF, in exploding a number of bombs they hoped would be blamed on the IRA (who had not begun their bombings), provoking a Protestant backlash and bringing down the Unionist government of Northern Ireland, seen by them and Paisley as having gone soft on Catholics.
A prominent member of Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church was electrocuted while attempting to blow up an electricity sub-station in the Irish Republic.
In 1968 Paisley personally led a crowd of 5000, armed with sticks and other weapons, in occupying the centre of Armagh to prevent a peaceful civil rights march which was supposed to end there with a rally. In January of the following year a mob led by his key lieutenant at the time ambushed a civil rights march on route from Belfast to Derry, causing serious injury to the peaceful marchers.
The Cameron Commission, an official inquiry called into political violence around the civil rights, found Protestant organisations responsible for “inflaming passions and engineering opposition to lawful and what would in all probability otherwise been peaceful demonstrations.”
Sectarianism and poverty
The civil rights marches of 1968 and 1969 brought the reality of the political slum which was Northern Ireland to public attention. To understand Paisley and the DUP you need to grasp a bit of Irish history.
It is common to blame the IRA for bringing the gun into Irish politics, but the truth is that it was never far away. When the state of Northern Ireland was carved out in 1922, on the basis of an artificial border drawn up by civil servants in London, whose prime consideration was to ensure the maximum possible Unionist vote, the police were permanently backed up by an armed Unionist militia.
Until the old Northern Parliament was abolished by Britain in 1972, the country was run as a one party state by the Unionist Party, allied to the sectarian Orange Order. Northern Ireland was scarred by repression, sectarianism and poverty.
In the 1960s the British government was trying to enter the European Union alongside the Irish Republic. The Northern Ireland economy, based on shipbuilding, engineering and textiles, was in decline and its rulers were an embarrassment to London, which pressed for cosmetic changes.
The Unionist leadership obliged, meeting with their counterparts in the Irish Republic and being in the same room as Catholic clergy.
For many Unionists this was too much. Paisley began rallying the dissidents.
First, in 1964, a Republican candidate stood in the Westminster general election, in West Belfast, the mainly Catholic part of the city. He stood no chance of winning but Paisley seized on the fact an Irish flag was on display in the campaign office, something illegal in Northern Ireland. He demanded police remove it or he’d lead a march on the office to take it down. Police smashed their way in and removed it. The worst rioting in three decades ensued.
Two years later Unionists became convinced that the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising could see a nationalist rebellion. Paisley formed the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee, with the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force in the background. Paisley worked with them in opposing the celebrations of the Easter Rising. The UVF would go on to petrol bomb Catholic homes and businesses and then shot four innocent men walking home from a Saturday night drink.
The civil rights marches began in 1968, highlighting gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, the granting of extra votes to businessmen and the rundown of the economy. In 1969 the police tried to escort a sectarian march by Protestant supremacists into the Catholic Bogside of Derry. The population rose up and Unionist government, unable to suppress them, called in British troops to keep order.
Soon they were involved in suppressing nationalist protests and things began to escalate. The IRA’s military campaign was a response to this. Interment without trial in 1971, when only Catholics were taken away, and then the gunning down by paratroopes of 13 civil rights marchers in Derry in January 1972, Bloody Sunday, gave the IRA mass support.
The DUP was formed in 1971 on the basis of hard-line opposition to Unionist politicians seen as too soft on Republicans and Catholics in general. The party was made up of evangelical Christians, hard-line Unionists from rural areas, and more working-class Protestants from areas like East Belfast, where newly formed groups like the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association were strong.
In the wake of Bloody Sunday Britain responded by abolishing the Northern Ireland Parliament and Unionist rule and into entering into talks with the IRA (not with Sinn Fein, as Jeremy Corbyn was castigated for, but with the IRA command who were flown to Chelsea for face to face talks with Tory Cabinet members).
The ceasefire soon broke down. But already loyalist murder gangs had begun a campaign of assassinating any Catholics they could target, with a degree of collusion from the security forces. The Ulster Defence Association was the largest.
The British and Irish governments tried to negotiate the creation of a power-sharing executive and parliament in Northern Ireland, bringing together moderate nationalists and Unionists and giving the Dublin government a very limited role in supervising this.
Paisley and the DUP took to the streets and the Ulster Workers Council called a general strike. The UDA was key to ensuring its success at the beginning, although as it became clear the army and police would do nothing to break the strike it gained in strength. Its victory ended power sharing. Paisley played a key role, literally forcing his way into the strike leadership, and heading up marches with UDA and other loyalist paramiltaries marching behind. At the same time one of these groups carried out two bombings in Dublin and Monaghan aimed at civilians, one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles.
In 1977 Paisley called another strike against what he saw as fresh attempts to revive power sharing. This strike failed but Paisley had worked closely with the UDA. In one march he led through East Belfast he was pictured passing UDA HQ where a masked, uniformed member was standing to salute at the first floor window.
Currently there is an internal feud within the Ulster Defence Association, the main loyalist paramilitary organisation. Last month a prominent member was gunned down in a supermarket car park in front of his three-year-old son. Yet Arlene Foster chose to go ahead with a meeting with a UDA senior commander of the faction believed to have carried out the killing. She did not call on them to disband.
She had good reason not to cancel this meeting. The Loyalist Communities Council, which groups together all loyalist paramilitary groups, including the UDA, had given its backing to three DUP candidates facing tight challenges.
It is worth trying to imagine what the reaction from Tory politicians and the Tory press would have been if former IRA members had carried out such a killing and senior Sinn Fein members were found to have met with their leaders.
A man of peace?
For most people watching the negotiations between Theresa May and the DUP over forming a government at Westminster it came as a shock to discover the Tories were playing footsie with people who denied climate change, opposed same sex marriage and abortion. This, after all, was a party which had previously campaigned against the legalisation of gay sex under the slogan “Save Ulster from Sodomy.”
Yet shocking as these things are, the real horror associated with the DUP is its close relationship with Loyalist murder gangs responsible for butchering hundreds of innocent Catholics. It requires looking back into events just prior to the civil rights marches of 1968 and 1969, when largely Catholic protesters were batoned off the streets and soaked in riot gas before British troops had to be hurried in to retain “order” in August 1969. Further repression by British troops led to the emergence of guerrilla war by the IRA, which until then had been a spent force.
The Democratic Unionist Party was the creation of the Reverend Ian Paisley, who stepped down from the leadership in 2008 prior to his death three years later. He ran the party with little regard for internal democracy.
As First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 2007-2008, working in coalition with Sinn Fein as part of the Good Friday Agreement which had followed an IRA ceasefire, decommissioning of arms and disbandment, Paisley was recast as a man of peace. That certainly did not sit comfortably with his political record prior to that.
Paisley, and the DUP which he founded in 1971, have a long, intimate relationship with loyalist murder gangs which targeted Catholic civilians during the Troubles.
The backlash against internment in August 1971, when the British army only rounded up Catholics, and then Bloody Sunday in Derry 1972, when paratroops gunned down 13 unarmed civilian civil rights marchers, led to the growth of the IRA and its military campaign.
The second big flashpoint was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1986, in many ways one of the key staging posts towards the eventual peace deal. Again this allowed the Dublin government a limited say in Northern Irish affairs and that was sufficient to incense Paisley.
Paisley launched Ulster Resistance at a rally in Belfast’s Ulster Hall, alongside another future party leader, Peter Robinson, and chaired by Sammy Wilson, who is still a DUP MP. Ulster Resistance vowed to “take direct action as and when required” to end the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Paisley led its members onto the streets and by-ways wearing red berets and carrying sticks.
A major arms find in County Armagh in November 1988 recovered Ulster Resistance berets and weapons. Parts of the organisation’s arms, however, delivered in a shipment shared with the UDA and UVF, have never been found.
One of those convicted for a subsequent attempt to import Ulster Resistance weapons was Noel Little, who also wore a red beret at Ulster Resistance rallies. His daughter, Emma Little-Pengelly, is the newly elected DUP MP for South Belfast.
Another UDA leader, Jackie McDonald, clearly blamed Paisley for inciting loyalists to violence and then dropping them:
"I remember him doing an interview when he said, 'If anybody attacks our people, we will kill them'," he said.
"He didn't say we will defend our people or we will chase them, he says we will kill them. And when people did kill them, he disowned them."
Subsequently loyalist paramiltaries denounced Paisley as the Grand Old Duke of York, leading them up to the top of the hill then trying to take them down again. Later a UDA spokesperson stated: If you whip people's feelings up you can't walk away and say, "I'm washing my hands of that. It's nothing to do with me."
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Armoured cars and tanks and guns: the real story of the Irish troubles
- Bye bye Richard Leonard: the decline of Scottish Labour continues
- Ready to die for Ireland one way or another: the rebel Countess
- The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War - book review
- First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy - book review
- Radical Scotland and The Fight for Scottish Democracy - book review
- Tory shambles boosts support for Scottish independence