Belfast Telegraph

UVF mired in a deadly game of brinkmanship

By Liam Clarke

One thing that can be said about the UVF - it is no friend of the Union. Their disastrous actions at the beginning of the Troubles in the 1960s bear comparison with what they are doing now.

Many among their leadership, now slipping into later middle-age, will remember the early days and, instead of authorising new murals to glorify the past, should be bending their every effort to avoid repeating its mistakes.

In 1966, three years before the Troubles officially started, the UVF was killing and causing instability. In a statement, they declared war on the quiescent republican movement, saying they intended to 'kill IRA men mercilessly'.

The 'merciless' bit was right, but of the 426 people they killed between 1969 and 2001, only 20 were members of republican paramilitaries.

More than twice as many - 42 - were fellow loyalists, six were members of the security forces and the vast majority - 358 - were civilians

These figures are what might be expected from a republican group, but that is before you look at the sectarian headcount: 276 of the dead were Catholics.

The UVF's main role in the early days was to stir up sectarian hatred and stymie attempts at accommodation.

Days after declaring war on the IRA in 1966, the UVF settled for softer targets, killing John Scullion, a Catholic picked at random on the Falls Road after they were unable to find Leo Martin, the aging IRA veteran who was their intended target.

Within a month, they murdered Peter Ward, a Catholic barman. As a result, they were declared illegal and driven underground for some years.

In 1969 they re-emerged to bomb water and electricity installations. They hoped their actions would be blamed on republicans, forcing a security crackdown and a reversal of planned political reforms.

This isn't the place to retell the whole history of the UVF, but the point is that it played a very significant part in stirring up the last Troubles.

By resisting political reforms and carrying out sectarian violence, they helped undermine an IRA ceasefire and peace strategy.

Not only that, but they helped to create the conditions for the emergence of a new, more militant IRA - the Provisionals - which built its early support by posing as defenders of the Catholic community.

That heralded the longest republican campaign in history and the worst period of instability in the state's history.

Wind forward to 2011 and the UVF is repeating its early tactics. The Provisional IRA has ended its campaign; many of its members have become part of the system and seem quite comfortable in their new roles.

Today the main dispute around the Provisionals is about former prisoners, like Mary McArdle, seeking jobs at Stormont.

The place has never been more secure and stable. Yet this is the moment when the UVF takes out the guns to attack Catholics and the police in east Belfast.

It is just what the dissidents need. This is a moment for unionist politicians to warn and persuade the UVF to stop.

It risks igniting a violent chain-reaction which could push us to the edge of the Union and cause untold suffering - just like they did the last time.

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