Colin Wallace

  • The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland by Steve Bruce
    Oxford, 326 pp, £25.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 19 215961 5

In a world where people have become almost blasé over the scale of the communal violence in Yugoslavia, the United Kingdom’s internal war in Northern Ireland may at times appear trivial. At plenty of other times, however, it can appear that factional hatreds have locked the Province into a cycle of violence equal in ferocity to anything experienced in Sarajevo. Over the past two decades terrorists have murdered more than three thousand citizens and have provided the British democratic system with one of its most serious challenges. And yet, for all the media coverage they have received, these atrocities have never mobilised the national conscience; nor has the Ulster situation been an issue in any general election since the Seventies.

Steve Bruce says he decided to write The Red Hand because, while there is an extensive literature on the IRA, very little has been written about the Loyalist paramilitaries, who have been responsible for just under half of the civilian deaths caused by terrorism in the Province since 1969. The Government’s recent decision to ban the Ulster Defence Association has done something to restore the balance here by focusing attention on the violence claimed by its perpetrators to be ‘for God and Ulster’. Bruce begins by highlighting the difficulty faced by any writer who tries to research terrorist organisations. As he himself puts it, ‘this is an area of lies, deception and self-deception,’ with the inherent and ever-present personal danger of having to ask too many uncomfortable questions of those whose life’s work is to kill people. I recall a comment made by a member of a Loyalist paramilitary group to a journalist friend of mine when I was with the Army in Ulster in the mid-Seventies: ‘Sure, I’m a terrorist – that’s what they call me. I’ll fight to the death for a Protestant Ulster. I’m a working man, see. I’m not one of those clever fellows that got an education. But you write the wrong thing about me and I’ll get you, I will. That’s not a threat, it’s a promise.’

Bruce’s book is presented as the first comprehensive study of the phenomenon of prostate terrorism, the kind that seeks to maintain, rather than overturn, state power – and the author is a professor of sociology who has spent some thirteen years working at Queen’s University, Belfast: despite this, and despite his claim to have interviewed ‘a large number of Loyalist paramilitaries (retired and still active)’, there is nothing new here. The book reads like a rushed synopsis of press cuttings, and it rates as a poor third to Martin Dillon’s two excellent accounts, Political Murder in Northern Ireland and The Shankill Butchers. There are many irritating factual errors. Bruce refers to off-duty soldiers from the ‘Royal Irish Rifles’ shooting at members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1989: the Royal Irish Rifles ceased to exist as a regiment in 1921.

The OED defines a Loyalist as ‘one who is loyal, one who adheres to his Sovereign or to constituted authority, especially in times of revolt: one who supports the existing form of government’. Most Ulster Protestants would probably agree that this definition described their position until Direct Rule was declared in 1972. Since then, they have shown little enthusiasm for the ‘existing form of government’: their government has not been elected by them, and has not been answerable to them through the normal democratic processes. Bruce seems to have had some difficulty in articulating the complex emotions of a community which sees itself as ‘more British than the British’ – a community prepared to fight and kill to maintain values which disappeared from other parts of the United Kingdom some time before the Second World War. Prejudice is endemic in Ireland as a whole, but the siege mentality at the core of the Ulster Protestant psyche has frequently led to Loyalists being dismissed as the ‘voice of unreason’. A ripe sense of being misrepresented and misunderstood has been a feature of Ulster Protestantism since the Sixties.

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