Book review: UDR Declassified – A damning exposé of how a sectarian organisation was encouraged by the authorities

10 April 2022

Micheál Smith’s meticulously researched book reveals just how much the British government knew about the UDR’s links with loyalist paramilitaries

John Hume is rightly revered as a peacemaker who usually avoided speaking harsh words about his opponents. When it came to the Ulster Defence Regiment, however, he made an exception. "[It's like] a group of Rangers supporters put in uniform," the late SDLP leader once complained, "supplied with weapons and given the job of policing where Celtic supporters live."

According to Micheál Smith's expertly researched and coolly damning new exposé, Hume was pretty much on the money. As its name suggests, UDR Declassified is based on newly released files from 10 Downing Street, the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office. They point clearly to one conclusion - this was an inherently sectarian organisation with links to loyalist killers that successive British governments not only tolerated, but encouraged.

Smith is a former diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs who now works as an advocacy case worker with the Pat Finucane Centre in Belfast. His book is not so much a history as a polemic, clearly written from a nationalist perspective. He puts this story in a wider historical context, presenting it as a typical example of how British colonialism worked and why it caused so much suffering.

Anti-Catholicism within the North's security forces, of course, was around long before the UDR. "Papish blood is sweet," someone chalked on a Belfast wall after five members and an employee of the McMahon business family were murdered by RUC B Specials in 1922. British prime minister Harold Wilson was one of many who regarded this reserve force as a unionist private militia.

When the Troubles broke out, however, Britain could not afford to be choosy about where its footsoldiers came from. The UDR started out in 1970 as a part-time volunteer force, but soon developed into the army's largest regiment with a membership of around 6,000.

Smith quotes a revealing memo from Oliver Wright, London's liaison with the Stormont government, which suggests why so many farmers, mechanics and unemployed unionists were willing to take up arms. "They fear not only the loss of political power within (their) own community, but [their] absorption into the larger society of Southern Ireland, alien in smell, backward in development and inferior in politics."

As early as 1973, an internal army report made what Smith rightly calls "a stunning admission": "It seems likely that a significant pro portion (perhaps 5 per cent - in some areas as high as 15 per cent) of UDR soldiers will also be members of the UDA, Vanguard service corps, Orange Volunteers or the UVE This document also admitted that the UDR was "leaking" guns and helping to train "Protestant extremist groups. In other words, Britain knew full well that the line between state forces and terrorists had been well and truly crossed The UDR was allowed to continue anyway, mainly because its members had valuable local knowledge that English, Scottish and Welsh squaddies did not.

They were also twice as likely to commit a crime as the general public, but Smith shows how the North's legal powers colluded to cover up their identities during trials. Downing Street's attitude was effectively what the Irish-born Duke of Wellington once said about his troops: "I don't know what they will do to the enemy, but by God they frighten me."

One of the UDR's most common duties was patrolling traffic, which gave them regular opportunities to abuse their power Walton Empey, a Church of Ireland bishop, was once mistaken for a Catholic priest at a roadblock and endured what he called "an extremely unpleasant experience.

UDR men also helped to set up a bogus checkpoint and then shoot three members of the Miami Showband dead in 1975. An investigation by a Historical Enquiries Team found that the only real motive for such attacks was to "frighten (victims] friends, other Catholics and supporters of the nationalist agenda".

Smith acknowledges that UDR members had their fair share of suffering too, with around 250 killed by the IRA. Fundamentally, however, his research project demolishes the "few bad apples theory usually trotted out by UDR apologists Like many books about the Troubles, this one often feels like a litany of atrocities and is not an uplifting read, but it's certainly a valuable reminder of how many skeletons are still waiting to fall out of the North's closet.