Aaron Edwards delves into the violent world of the loyalist terror group in his new book
By 1990, those teenagers who had joined the UVF in west Belfast in the wake of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement were now being blooded into military teams.
One of those who had joined the UVF's 'B' Company said he was ordered to carry out surveillance on Tom Hartley, a high-ranking member of Sinn Fein.
"Matthew" recalled the specifics of the reconnaissance mission. "I had to walk past his house 10 times in a morning. I hadn't a gun. I was s******g myself. What the f*** was I meant to do if somebody came out? We were wee lads from the Shankill."
Other UVF sources claim that the organisation was actively targeting Martin McGuinness at that time, too, one of the Provisional IRA's most senior commanders.
They suggest that the UVF had put an elaborate plan into operation to target McGuinness as he drove out of Derry City along the Glenshane Pass, where his vehicle would be specifically attacked by small arms and explosives.
For whatever reason, the plan was never put into operation.
But one of McGuinness' former associates, 37-year-old Roger Joseph Bradley, a recently-released Provisional IRA prisoner, was not so lucky.
UVF sources claim he was a key member of the Provisional IRA team responsible for the Claudy atrocity on July 31, 1972.
A few days after the Claudy attack, a farmhouse near Bradley's home in Craigavole, Swatragh, a small village in Co Londonderry, was raided by the RUC and troops, who discovered 200lb of homemade explosives, two 100lbs primed bombs, detonators and other bomb-making materials, as well as a Thompson sub-machine-gun, a .45 pistol, 400 rounds of ammunition and a crossbow.
A car found at the scene, containing a combat jacket was one of two stolen from the Loop, Magherafelt. The other stolen car was one of three used in the Claudy bomb.
Bradley was later arrested along with two other men and charged with the attempted murder of soldiers in Kilrea. They were subsequently jailed by a special court sitting in Coleraine, along with another man, who was charged with causing an explosion.
UVF sources further claim that Bradley was specifically targeted when it became known that he had been released from prison after his lengthy sentence.
The UVF shot Bradley dead as he took a lunch break while working on house renovations for the Housing Executive in Rathcoole estate on April 4, 1990.
A day after Roger Bradley's murder, the Provisionals news-sheet, An Phoblacht, issued a statement claiming that the victim was "singled out because he was a Catholic by the two gunmen who shot him dead".
Interestingly, the IRA's roll of honour does not carry Bradley's name, despite him serving a long sentence as a political prisoner.
Despite the Belfast UVF's success in targeting republicans, the same, however, could not be said of its teams in other parts of Northern Ireland.
In Mid Ulster, Billy Wright, who had undergone a brief religious conversion in prison in the early 1980s, had become a key member of the Mid Ulster UVF command staff.
His unit was busy planning a new offensive primarily aimed at Catholic civilians with no connection to physical force republicanism.
Trevor (not his real name) had just turned 17 when he started to venture down from Turf Lodge into the city centre to attend discos.
Young Catholics, he said, were always very wary of being beaten up by Tartan gangs, who roamed the streets late at night, looking for victims.
"You had to have your wits about you because, around about then, I mean, there was always assassinations and stuff like that, you were always wary of people driving cars," he recalls. "It was then that you recognised there was a serious atmosphere in the city and that you had to be on-guard all the time.
"Because we were under age, we went to places where they didn't know us and one of the places that we went to for a drink was the New Lodge.
"We used to have to get a black taxi into town. You couldn't walk across Millfield, so you would have walked across Union Street out into Donegall Street, opposite the Irish News, and then up Donegall Street and across North Queen Street, past the police station and into the New Lodge."
By 1977, this route home was considered to be one of the most dangerous in the entire city, especially as news emerged of how the throat-cutting murderers had actually come into contact with their victims.
"You were avoiding the Shankill, so, if you were walking across Millfield, there was always the opportunity that a gang would come running out of Brown Square, so, at night, you avoided walking across Millfield, especially if you were on your own."
Having this kind of local knowledge certainly helped young Catholic men and women navigate the city's political geography in such a way as to avoid coming into contact with "the other side" - yet it wasn't full-proof, especially at night.
That evening, Trevor was conscious of a black taxi following him as he walked along the street.
The taxi got closer, then stopped. Several men jumped out.
"From my memory, it would have been very, very spontaneous. It wouldn't have been 'Right, we're going to get (Trevor) on Friday night at 7 o'clock'.
"They would have known that was the route that Catholics would have used and that's why Union Street was a particular favourite place for them, because a lot of Catholics there would have been drunk and staggering home at night.
As more adrenalin was released into his body, he knew the situation was life-threatening and, rather than freeze, he took flight and ran away as fast as he could. But it was not the last time Trevor would encounter the UVF.
On the afternoon of April 10, 1977, as he walked along Beechmount Avenue to watch the annual Easter Rising commemorative parade, he was caught in an explosion that blew him off his feet.
Trevor was thrown into a doorway by the force of the blast. He had not been far from the seat of the explosion and was lucky to have been sheltered by the brickwork of the doorway.
Trevor recalls: “I was passing the wee bakery shop that’s now closed down. I heard a loud bang. I don’t remember anything else.
“Then a man came up to me and lifted me up off the ground and put me in the ambulance. I was taken to the big Royal Hospital. I had my right leg off from just under my knee.
“Some metal went into my tummy and I had to have some stitches. I was in hospital for six or seven weeks.”
Panic ensued in the aftermath of the explosion, as the two wings of the IRA — Official and Provisional — blamed each other for the bomb.
Further along the parade, at Milltown Cemetery, guns were produced by the two factions and one man was killed in the gun battle that followed.
The UVF team responsible for the bombing, nevertheless, were safely back in the Shankill, where they contemplated their next move.
Despite the RUC’s best efforts, loyalist paramilitaries cranked up their terror campaign in the early-1990s. In 1990–1993, loyalist paramilitaries killed 21 republican paramilitaries, or ex-paramilitaries, and 13 Sinn Fein activists. Only 10 Sinn Fein activists had been killed by loyalists in the previous 16 years.
Two of the most active units behind these operations were Billy Wright’s Mid Ulster UVF, based in Portadown, and Johnny Adair’s “C” Company of the UFF, based on the Lower Shankill.
For the first time ever, it can now be revealed that the two units forged a close working partnership, despite being from rival paramilitary organisations.
It was a relationship that centred around the two charismatic figures of Wright and Adair. They first encountered each other sometime in the early-1990s.
Adair recalls: “When I got introduced to Billy, the main soul of his relationship with me was he respected what we were doing. He realised that we were very, very active. And he realised that every bit of help you could get was crucial. And, when I met him, that was the basis of our (relationship).
“He says: ‘Look, listen, I respect what youse are doing. You’re doing a brilliant job, same as the boys in Mid Ulster.’ He says: ‘I’m UVF, but I’m not like that.’ He says: ‘Johnny. It’s the Red Hand of Ulster I’m interested in. The letters don’t mean much to me.’ He says: ‘We’re all one. It’s the Red Hand of Ulster.’
“And Billy says: ‘There’ll come a time where we might be able to help you, in terms of cars, or assistance, or whatever and vice-versa.’ And that’s what we done. We assisted each other. We had mutual respect for each other.”
Adair also revealed that Wright’s unit did “a lot of work” in Belfast at this time, which would indicate that they had a network of allies and sympathisers in other UVF brigade areas throughout Northern Ireland.
Similarly, “C” Company had shown they were prepared to venture outside Belfast if a target opportunity arose, perhaps best illustrated in their assassination of popular Sinn Fein councillor Eddie Fullerton in Buncrana, Donegal, on May 25, 1991.
Unsurprisingly, Adair began to emulate Wright’s leadership style. He says: “From what I knew of Billy, Billy’s life just revolved around loyalism. Now, obviously, he’d family, but I didn’t know that side of him. I didn’t really know his family that well, so I can’t give an opinion.
“I don’t know what his private life was like. Did he have hobbies? Did he have interests? Anytime I seen, or dealt with, Billy, it was business. Did he come across to me as a wealthy person? No, he did not. You could just tell that money was not Billy’s God.”
What surprised Adair most during these years of a “working partnership” (or what Adair called “the other CLMC” — Combined Loyalist Military Command) was the lengths UVF brigade staff appeared to go to curtail the Mid Ulster brigadier.
Adair recalls: “I remember one specific meeting one day (on the Shankill) where they had asked them for the lend of a pistol, a Browning, and Big Kingo (Trevor King) says, ‘You’re not getting it.’
“And I was shocked. ‘Billy Wright? They should be giving youse (whatever you were asking for)’. I think they just played about with a couple of AKs, one or two handguns.”
It is likely that King and the brigade staff were wary of Wright for a number of reasons, particularly after Cappagh, when Wright’s unit counter-balanced the UVF “good-news story” of a “hit” on what the brigade staff would have considered a “legitimate target” with a nakedly sectarian attack a few days later.
Despite its internal logistical setbacks, the Mid Ulster UVF continued to work alongside “C” Company. Adair was philosophical about the challenges this secret alliance posed:
“But you’ve got to remember, see, when you’re operating like that, you’ll get casualties.
“You’ll lose men and you will lose weapons. ‘Cos, when you’re operating the way Billy did and we did, see, it’s the clean-up after an operation. (Special) Branch, if you get away Scot-free, they’ll come down hard. They’ll blatter houses. They’ll try and turn up guns.”
There is no disputing that the loyalist paramilitary kill-rate reached an extraordinary tempo at this time, but they were also assassinating people who had absolutely no connection with republican paramilitaries.
Nevertheless, for the first time, loyalist gunmen were outgunning the IRA.
Adair was of the opinion that, without the leadership he and Wright provided, the terror campaigns would not have been as successful.
“You see, loyalism, in my opinion, is all about leadership. You could have a hundred good men below you, right. But you could have a leader and he has the first and last say.
“And when we were under (UDA brigadier) Tommy Lyttle, there were very, very few operations getting conducted. Maybe a couple a year. He was stopping them at the behest of the Special Branch. ‘No, don’t let them go. Let them go out and extort wee shops, but don’t be killing. We want these killings to stop.’
“And that’s why, under his leadership, there were very few killings. There were one or two operations a year. But then, when (other) people came across, it was just like the IRA. 24/7. Boom, boom, boom, boom.
“If a target arose, it was targeted. It wasn’t like this here, ‘Let’s get drunk and wait another six months.’ It was: ‘Let’s fight these b*******. Let’s smoke them out. Let’s keep doing it. We’ve got the men. We’ve got the weapons.’
“And for people like me, Billy was a shining light. It drew people into the ranks of the Ulster Young Militants.”
Inevitably, Adair and Wright became firm comrades.
“Most of these UDA, or UVF, leaders have no personalities. They’re grumpy-looking old men. Look at me and Billy. We were happy-go-lucky. We went onto the ground with the men. Not only did we go onto the ground with the men, but we went into the battlefield with the men.”
By the autumn of 1993, there was little feeling in the ranks of these hardcore loyalist paramilitary units that an end to the violence was on the horizon.
As far as they were concerned, their campaign would continue.
The Shankill Butchers — many of whose members belonged to the UVF — were responsible for 24 murders between 1975 and 1982. The gang’s leader was Lenny Murphy, but author Aaron Edwards reveals it was Murphy’s brother, John, who was the real ‘Master Butcher’...
Shankill Road, Belfast, late-1970s
“I can’t sleep at night. I have to sleep during the day because of all the things I’ve done.” So said John Murphy in conversation with a woman who claimed she let the Shankill Butchers use her house for meetings.
The Butchers were alleged to have had three safe houses — one in Wimbledon Street, a second in Matchett Street and a third in Snugville Street.
“I didn’t know what they were up to,” she said emphatically. “It’s only years later that you find out.
“I do remember one of them talking about a dispute. ‘I’ll cut his f*****g throat,’ the fella said. That was the only time I heard anything like that.
“I would have sat here and had a drink with them. (Billy) Moore was never in my house. I wouldn’t have him anywhere near me. He gave me the creeps.
“Big Benny (‘Pretty Boy’ Edwards) was happily married — I think he just got caught up in it all. (Sam) McAllister, (Robert ‘Basher’) Bates and Moore all had it in them, like. They seemed to be scared of John Murphy. He was the leader of the pack.
“They used to come and rap me up in the early hours of the morning. They would stay and have a cup of tea. They were just ordinary guys.
“You would never think in a million years what they were up to and you wouldn’t have known to look at them.”
Did the woman believe Lenny Murphy was guilty of all of the crimes attributed to him by other members of his gang?
“As I say, they used to blame Lenny. They tried to say he gave the orders.
“But he was in jail most of the time. They were that frightened of John.”
According to the woman, there is little doubt that John Murphy played a key role in sustaining the Shankill Butchers’ campaign of terror.
“He got his comeuppance when he hit a roundabout and went through the car windscreen.
“Some people are just evil. There’s an evilness there.”
Being the UVF’s political spokesman didn’t prevent Hugh Smyth being a target of Lenny Murphy.
Hughie Smyth was elected to Belfast Corporation in 1972, the ill-fated Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973 and to the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention in May 1975.
An associate of UVF leader Gusty Spence and members of the UVF Brigade Staff on the Shankill, Smyth was also part of a small network of friends, including Shankill UVF men Dessie Balmer Snr, Norman Sayers and Harry Stockman Snr.
Smyth always accepted he was a prime target for the Provisional IRA, which had tried to murder him twice, including a machine-gun attack on his parents’ home at Ainsworth Drive, after his election to the Convention.
What he didn’t expect was for volunteers within the ranks of the UVF to seek him out for assassination.
After knocking on the door of Smyth’s flat on the West Circular Road, Lenny Murphy pulled out his pistol. Just before Smyth answered the door, Murphy cocked the weapon and took aim.
As Smyth opened the door, Murphy squeezed the trigger, but nothing happened. The gun had jammed. Murphy quickly rushed the door, but Smyth pushed against him, catching Murphy’s arm in the door.
Smyth believed that, had he not managed to close the door, there was every chance that he would have died that night.
Those close to Smyth believe Murphy targeted him for no other reason than he was close to Balmer’s son, Dessie Jnr, who figured on Murphy’s hit-list.
Serious trouble had been brewing in Portadown for most of 1995. Concerns had been raised by the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Group about the “traditional route” Orangemen proposed to use to make the journey from Carleton Street Orange Hall, under the railway bridge and along Obins Street to Drumcree Parish Church and back down the Garvaghy Road.
Although it was a route they had walked every year since 1807, changing demographics meant that the Garvaghy Road had become almost exclusively Catholic.
The Rector of Drumcree Church, the Rev John Pickering, did not believe it was an unreasonable request. At 11.30am, as Orange brethren gathered for their annual Sunday morning service at Drumcree, he was upbeat, hoping that cool heads would agree to the Orangemen’s request. Some of those listening outside were members of the Mid Ulster UVF, including the unit’s commander, Billy Wright.
As Orangemen began to make their way from Drumcree church to the Garvaghy Road, they were stopped by RUC Land Rovers. Meanwhile, residents left their homes to try and block the route.
Just after 7pm on the Monday evening, the tensions quickly came to a boil. As Orangemen and their bands made their way towards police lines to register their protest, the atmosphere became fraught. Violence ensued.
Police in riot gear responded by discharging scores of plastic bullets at the protesters. It was the most serious rioting seen in Portadown for a decade.
One officer, who was in the command meeting between the police and military at Drumcree, recalls how the RUC were unprepared to resist the tens of thousands of Orangemen and their supporters in the event of Wright and the Mid Ulster UVF forcing their way through the security force lines.
“In later Drumcrees, we always had a ‘Plan A’ and a ‘Plan B’. That year, there was no ‘Plan B’,” he said. “Had the march not gone ahead, it would have been a bloodbath.”
The RUC officer said that the police knew they would lose the nationalist community by forcing the marchers down the Garvaghy Road, but the alternative to resist the Orangemen and their paramilitary supporters would have been much worse.
From the UVF perspective, one senior loyalist, who had travelled from Belfast to advise Wright, recalled advocating a change in tactics, where the protesters would bring 5,000 men up to police lines and simply march forward. “The idea originally came from India in 1947,” he said. “They (the police) would have been overwhelmed. The good Protestant people would not have stood for loyalist paramilitaries shooting at the police. But if we triggered a violent response from the security forces, that might have swung things in a different direction. They (the Mid Ulster UVF) never went for it.”
What they did go for was to have the threat of armed force in reserve, should it be required. A series of crisis meetings were held between Wright and Orange Order representatives.
Although preferring to move in the shadows, Wright now came to play a leading role in providing paramilitary muscle.
He immersed himself in every detail surrounding the acts of violence his unit carried out. In this respect, it surprised very few of his comrades that he would step into the centre of the situation at Drumcree.
The more the RUC refused to back down and the more the Garvaghy Road residents disabused themselves of the notion of compromise, the more Wright found people looked to him for leadership. His involvement threatened to bring an explosive and increasingly toxic mix of jingoism, stubbornness and stoicism to proceedings.
It soon dawned on the RUC that, with Wright and the Mid Ulster UVF now backing the Orange Order, a solution to the impasse had to be found — and quickly.
RUC Chief Constable Sir Hugh Annesley ordered his Gold Commander, Freddie Hall, to permit the Orange Order to complete their march. Loyalists were jubilant; Garvaghy Road residents were not.
It left nationalist protesters frustrated and angry. Rubbing salt into their wounds, Ian Paisley and David Trimble accompanied the marchers and even joined hands to dance a jig upon their arrival at Carleton Street.
In the shadows, Billy Wright looked on, pleased. The politicians might represent the power of the people at the ballot box, but he knew he represented the real power behind the throne.