The myth of loyalist socialism

Issue: 156

Mike Milotte

A review of Aaron Edwards, UVF: Behind the Mask (Merrion Press, 2017), £14.99

UVF: Behind the Mask is a vast if somewhat episodic account of the killings, feuds and internal factionalism of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force written by a lecturer at Sandhurst, the British Army’s officer training college. It would barely merit mention in this journal were it not for its underlying, yet never fully argued thesis that Ulster loyalism is a genuine expression of Protestant working class discontent, while the violent conflict in Northern Ireland in which the UVF played such a significant part, was an “ethnic civil war”.

The author, Aaron Edwards, comes from an area of Belfast where the UVF was particularly active. During the “peace process” he befriended several leading UVF figures, one of whom persuaded him to write this book. While he rejects UVF violence, the book itself is permeated with a sense of Edwards’s high opinion of some of its worst perpetrators.

Edwards expresses sympathy for the views of former UVF men who have declared themselves to be socialists, but his key formulations are clearly at odds with the view of most left wing activists and writers for whom working class loyalism is a form of false consciousness manifested in sectarianism, while the conflict itself was no ethnic civil war but an anti-imperialist struggle waged, however imperfectly, by republicans against the British state, with reactionary loyalist gangs such as the UVF rowing in behind the latter.

Since it came on the scene in 1966 (four years before the Provisional IRA), the UVF has killed nearly 600 people, the great majority of them ordinary Catholics going about their everyday lives. But these loyalist killers had help. The evidence of persistent collusion between elements of the security apparatus, MI5/Special Branch in particular, and the UVF—in sourcing weapons, providing intelligence, pinpointing targets, concealing evidence and protecting key operatives from investigation and arrest—is now overwhelming.1 But such evidence undermines Edwards’s “ethnic civil war” theory—central to his account of the UVF as a genuine Protestant working class response to the IRA—and it is hardly surprising that he seeks to downplay it, even to the point of dismissing it as propaganda.2 In his book key episodes of collusion are ignored and others relegated to footnotes, while the word itself isn’t even indexed other than under “A” for “alleged”.

Something else Edwards virtually ignores is the fundamental sectarianism that underpins the UVF in particular and loyalism in general. The UVF’s founder, Gusty Spence, told his men that if they couldn’t find a republican to kill, “any Taig” would do. Many of its victims were sadistically tortured and mutilated before being killed. The UVF may have thought that killing Catholics was the best way to defend the Northern Ireland state, which for Edwards made their actions “political”, but the state itself was a fundamentally sectarian entity, built on anti-Catholic discrimination—an elementary fact that Edwards pays no heed to.

The flip side of discrimination—preferential treatment for Protestant workers in employment and housing—gave working class loyalism some material basis, but by ignoring the structural sectarianism that the UVF was defending, Edwards is able to downplay sectarianism itself as the driving force behind UVF murders. In fact, he tells us, the only way to understand UVF killings is to look at individual motivations, and in doing so, he gives sectarianism no more weight that any number of random factors such as “umbrage being taken”, “peer ­pressure”, “hunger for revenge”, “the thrill of the kill” and so forth.

As well as viewing loyalism as ineluctably sectarian, the left have traditionally criticised it as essentially class collaborationist—helping bind Protestant workers to their Unionist bosses against the perceived common enemy: Catholics. Far from being a genuine expression of Protestant working class interests, loyalism seriously curtails the ability of Protestant workers to fight for their class interests. Historically this has meant that, despite the crumbs they got from the bosses’ table, Protestant workers actually lost more than they ever gained. Yet loyalists are frequently quite proud of their class collaborationist history.

Edwards usefully reminds us that today’s UVF derives its “lineage and legitimacy” from the organisation of the same name set up in 1912 to resist Irish Home Rule. The original UVF, however, was entirely the creature of big-house unionism, controlled by men like coal importer Samuel Kelly, factory boss Fred Crawford and linen baron Frederick Rodgers. These men sought to defend their share of imperial wealth from encroaching Irish independence by mobilising voiceless loyalist workers as potential canon fodder. And, true to form, these same leaders reappeared during the British General Strike of 1926 at the head of the Unionist government’s secret strike-breaking apparatus. Fred Crawford CBE, the UVF’s gun-running hero, was in charge of recruiting scabs. Sir Sam Kelly was charged with breaking the strike should it spread to Belfast, while Rodgers was to run a scab transport system. “It was essential to obtain for these positions men whose names and public life would command the respect and support of all loyal citizens”, said commerce minister J M Barbour, acknowledging yet again that loyalism and class collaboration were flip sides of the same coin.3

In the 1970s it seemed to some observers that these loyalist attitudes might be changing. Many UVF men, led by Spence, had come to the view that while they were doing all the “dirty work” it was middle class Unionists—especially Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party—who were reaping all the rewards, advancing their own political careers on the back of UVF bloodshed.

The result of the UVF “going political” was the Progressive Unionist Party which Edwards describes, with considerable empathy, as “a liberal, left-leaning and working class alternative to mainstream unionism”. Indeed, he argues, it is the natural heir to the old Northern Ireland Labour Party.4

On its website the PUP does indeed describe itself as “a working class party”, but it also says that its policies “mirror the political philosophy [of] the framers of the Ulster Covenant”.5 The Covenant was a pledge, signed in 1912 by half a million loyalists, to use force to prevent Ireland (population four and a half million) from achieving any degree of independence. Its “framers” were profoundly anti-democratic and no friends of the working class. At their apex stood Charles Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart, otherwise Lord Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, the 7th Marquis of Londonderry, grandson of the 19th Earl of Shrewsbury, Eton and Sandhurst educated and owner of coal mines, huge tracts of land and a Park Lane mansion staffed by 44 servants. A notorious Nazi sympathiser in later life, Londonderry displayed on his mantelpiece a statuette of an SS stormtrooper, a gift from his friend, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister.6 Another key “framer”, Sir James Craig, later Viscount Craigavon, was a phenomenally wealthy stockbroker who pocketed £6 million (in today’s money) on the death of his millionaire father. As prime minister of Northern Ireland, Craigavon ensured continuing class collaboration by promising loyalist workers “a Protestant government for a Protestant people” under which anti-Catholic discrimination would be regarded as “patriotic”.

When they look to the likes of Londonderry, Craig, Crawford, Rodgers and Kelly for their inspiration, the modern-day UVF/PUP see them first and foremost as fellow loyalists, and never as class enemies. In this way their professed loyalism itself acts as a barrier to the development of a genuine working class consciousness. And when UVF and PUP loyalists were hitting out at middle class Unionists in the past, it was often because they felt betrayed by people they considered their natural allies. This is a very different thing from workers recognising irreconcilable antagonisms between themselves, as workers, and their upper class fellow Unionists. This deep gulf between working class loyalism and working class interests remains every bit as pronounced today.

On the one hand, the PUP holds some progressive positions: supporting the NHS, opposing privatisation and zero-hours contracts for example, and favouring the legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage—all of which should put it on the opposite side of the fence from the unashamedly right wing DUP.

The actual practice of the PUP, however, would at least put a question mark over its commitment to left wing causes. It purports to back the public sector, for example, but recently supported the outsourcing of Belfast leisure centres. And when a motion was raised in Belfast City Council against the closure of mental health and learning disability centres, the PUP opposed it, citing the need for “rationalisation”, a euphemism for austerity measures in the NHS. The party also has a poor record in matters of global progress. When, in 2013, the world’s leaders gathered in the North of Ireland for the G8 summit, and a demonstration was called against them by the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the PUP stayed away, with its leader Billy Hutchinson describing the TU-led demo as “anti-British” because republicans had participated.

This reveals another profound weakness with the PUP. Unlike the old NILP (with its many faults) the PUP has no organic links to the organised working class but is, rather, a community-based organisation. Community politics are not the same as class politics. Communities comprise elements of different classes brought together only by common territory, and community-based organisations, by their nature, are open to influence from many interests, by no means all of them pursuing a working class agenda. This is mirrored in the PUP’s distinctly “pro-enterprise” stance, designed no doubt to appeal to small business interests within the communities where it operates. In fact, several of those now running the PUP, Hutchinson included, are employed as senior community managers, commanding huge state budgets designed in the first instance to sidetrack working class discontent.

But even if we were to accept the PUP’s left credentials on economic issues, there is still the matter of the party’s belief that it can fight these battles while still defending the state and professing loyalty to the Crown. The consequences of this have been dire. When Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the Union Jack would fly over city hall, the PUP suddenly forgot class and joined ranks with the DUP to take to the streets in violent protest. And when, after the death of Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness, the PUP’s press officer Sophie Long offered condolences to his comrades, a grassroots PUP revolt forced her out of the party. Now Hutchinson is calling for greater “Unionist unity”, for “addressing in partnership the complex issues that affect our most disadvantaged communities”.7 Class collaboration, however, is no way to address disadvantage.

There is another fundamental problem at work here. Even with its best leftist rhetoric, the PUP has only ever sought to represent Protestant workers—a sectionalist approach that is not only a recipe for further weakening the working class, but can also, and easily lead to the dangerous illusion that Protestant working class grievances are a result of Catholics getting “more than their share”. There are many right wing bigots touting this as an explanation for the widespread deprivation affecting Protestant working class communities. The peace process and the power sharing Belfast Agreement, they argue, have benefitted only Catholics. At its worst this feeds into feelings that for Protestants to regain what they have lost, Catholics will have to be put back in their place.

And attitudes like this are still motivating young loyalists to join the ranks of the UVF, which, unlike the IRA, remains a substantial force—although mostly engaged now in racketeering and drug dealing. In the face of all this, the PUP seems at best equivocal, at worst unconcerned.

The reality, of course, is that Catholic workers have seen no significant material advance either from the peace process. They face the exact same problems and issues today as Protestant workers. The power sharing regime of the DUP and Sinn Féin, as well as institutionalising sectarianism, and thereby strengthening it, has failed to address deprivation—whether Catholic or Protestant—because it is wedded to the very neoliberal economics that inflict hardship on all workers.

For either section of the working class to fight back successfully, unity, not division, is essential. With its dyed in the wool sectionalism the PUP is actually an obstacle to any such development. Nor does Sinn Féin have anything to offer that could bring workers together in struggle.

Yet, none of this should lead us to Edwards’s bleak conclusion that division is inevitable, that “it should not be forgotten that Unionists and Nationalists have always been divided”.8 This simply isn’t true. The 20th century is replete with examples of Protestant (Unionist) and Catholic (Nationalist) workers uniting to fight for their common interests as workers: the 1907 dock workers’ strike that even saw the Orange Order split and the police mutiny; the mass engineering workers’ strike of 1919 that terrified the ruling class; the Outdoor Relief Workers’ strike of 1932 that saw Catholic and Protestant workers stand together to fight the (all-Protestant) police force;9 the 1944 general strike in Belfast where a mostly Protestant workforce was led by a predominantly Catholic strike committee. In more recent times there has been united class action over pensions, in defence of the NHS, and against cuts and other austerity measures.

The tragedy is that, more often than not, workers’ unity has been shattered by Unionist bosses playing the loyalist card: telling Protestant workers that they have more in common with those who exploit them than they have with their fellow workers. The lesson is an old one, but as relevant today as at any time in history. The sectarian divide between workers can be broken through common struggle for mutual class interests, led by a working class party fully committed to uprooting all the relics of imperialism, sectarianism included. In that process, there can be no accommodation with loyalism which Protestant workers themselves will have to disown along with all the reactionary baggage that comes with it.

Mike Milotte was a founding member of the Socialist Workers’ Movement in Belfast in 1972 and is author of Communism in Modern Ireland: The Pursuit of the Workers’ Republic Since 1916.


1 Cadwallader, 2013; Urwin, 2016.

2 Edwards, 2017, pxxii.

3 Milotte, 1976.

4 Edwards, 2017, p148.

5 PUP website, go to

6 Kershaw, 2004.

7 Go to

8 Edwards, 2017, p323.

9 Mitchell, 2017.


Cadwallader, Anne, 2013, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland (Mercier Press).

Edwards, Aaron, 2017, UVF: Behind the Mask (Merrion Press).

Kershaw, Ian, 2004, Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road to War (Allen Lane).

Milotte, Mike, 1976, “Ireland and the Great Strike”, Irish Times (10 May).

Mitchell, Seán, 2017, Struggle or Starve: Working-Class Unity in Belfast’s 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots (Haymarket).

Urwin, Margaret, 2016, A State in Denial: British Collaboration with Loyalist Paramilitaries (Mercier Press).