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4 August 2005 Edition

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Bloody history of Britain's loyalist militias

The RIR - Britain's Orange militia

The RIR - Britain's Orange militia

The announcement that the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) is to be effectively disbanded over a two-year period came one day after the 30th anniversary of the Miami Showband Massacre in which three members of the popular band were murdered in a sectarian attack. It was a poignant coincidence because three members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) — the predecessors of the RIR — were convicted of involvement in the massacre, a prime example of how the loyalist militia operated hand-in-glove with unofficial unionist paramilitaries.

Ironically the unveiling of a mural to two UVF men killed in the Miami attack, on Saturday 30 July, in the Killicomaine Estate in Portadown threw further focus on the involvement of the RIR/UDR.

The mural is in memory of Wesley Somerville and Harris Boyle both of whom were killed when they tried to wipe out members of the well-known Irish band. Three members of the band, Fran O'Toole, Brian McCoy and Anthony Geraghty died.

Somerville, described as a lieutenant in the UVF, was a serving member of the UDR when he was killed.

The UVF gang, dressed in UDR uniforms, stopped the bands minibus and were intending to place a bomb in the vehicle which would have wiped the band out. However, the device exploded prematurely killing Harris and Somerville.

The other gang members then shot O'Toole, McCoy and Geraghty.

As well as Somerville, who also shot dead Catholic man Patrick Campbell in Banbridge in 1973, other gang members were also serving UDR men.

Among the most vociferous of the unionist voices calling for the RIR to be retained are those of the DUP.

And with the 1974 killing of Independent Nationalist Councillor Patsy Kelly in the media spotlight it was revealed that former UDR member David Jordan confessed to friends that he was a member of a UDR patrol that killed Kelly and named other members of his patrol.

Kelly, from Trillick in County Tyrone, disappeared in July 1974. His weighted down body was recovered from Lough Eyes in Fermanagh a number of weeks later.

Among those named by Jordan, who has since died, was Oliver Gibson, a former DUP Assembly member who served in the UDR at the time.

Gibson, however has denied involvement in the killing.

And while the killing of solicitor of Pat Finucane has highlighted the role of RIC Special Branch, the one point that has been largely overlooked is that Steven Fletcher, who served in the UDR, was convicted of supplying the weapon used by Finucane's UDA killers.

Fletcher is said to have, 'stolen', the pistol from Palace Barracks in Holywood, County Down.

The truth is that the lines between the official loyalist militias and unofficial sectarian murder gangs were always blurred. From the time of the United Irishmen the British Government recruited militia forces locally from Irish loyalists to make 'croppies lie down'. When the Six-County state was established in 1920 the Ulster Volunteer Force was subsumed into a new force — the Ulster Special Constabulary. Later known as the B Specials, this force was the cutting edge of the Orange state. From the murder of the McMahon family in 1922 until the Battle of the Bogside and the Belfast pogroms of 1969, the Specials, and the regular RUC, carried on a reign of terror against nationalists.

Because their depredations came under the gaze of a world audience for the first time, the pressure mounted for the disbandment of the B Specials in 1969. This was duly done but the British Tory Government of the late Edward Heath moved quickly to fill the gap. The Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was established by Act of Parliament and came into being on 1 January 1970, becoming operational on 1 April.

Of the 2,440 recruits accepted into the newly-formed regiment 1,420 were serving or former B Specials. In some areas whole platoons of B Specials simply changed uniform and became the UDR. From the start the UDR carried on with the sectarian tradition of the B Specials while becoming integrated with the re-organised loyalist paramilitaries — the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and later the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

It is estimated that over 200 members of the UDR were convicted of offences in the courts in the North during the first decade of the regiment. The UDR was mainly part-time and members were allowed to patrol in their home areas — thus heightening the sectarianism of the force. A full-time battalion was set up and numbers in the UDR overall were allowed to reach 10,000. A pattern quickly emerged whereby UDR members charged with offences resigned from the force and so appeared in court as private citizens, masking their real role.

But some of their deeds were so outrageous that even the British state could not protect them. In August 1975 UDR soldier Thomas Leonard was charged and later convicted of the murder of two members of the Devlin family in Edendork, County Tyrone the previous year. Leonard was in UDR uniform when he cold-bloodedly shot civilians Mr and Mrs Devlin in their car after stopping them on the roadside.

Space does not permit even a partial review of the sectarian record of the UDR from 1970 to 1991. Brigadier David Millar, former Commandant of 5 UDR based around South Derry, admitted that if he sacked a member just because he belonged to an illegal loyalist paramilitary group, he would be left without a regiment.

By 1991 when the amalgamation of the UDR with the Royal Irish Rangers to form the Royal Irish Regiment was announced, the UDR had become as notorious nationally and internationally as the B Specials had been. So much so, that even the conservative nationalist Irish News commented that the UDR were "yobs with guns who, in a more civilised society might expect to be in prison or a mental institution".

The RIR officially dates from the merger of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) with the Royal Irish Rangers in July 1992 as a consequence of the UDR's increasingly discredited reputation .

When the UDR (by far the biggest element) moved en masse to the RIR in July 1992, the British GOC re-assured the unionist political establishment by saying "vetting regulations will remain unchanged", meaning that the close relationship between the UDR and unofficial unionist paramilitaries would be subject to no scrutiny.

The litany of abuse continued with the RIR proving that the name change was nothing more than a shambolic cosmetic exercise. RIR members continued to leak British intelligence files, containing the details of nationalists and republicans, to the death squads. Nationalists of all shades were continuously threatened, targeted, assaulted and murdered by RIR personnel.

Quite apart from its treatment of northern nationalists RIR members have been embroiled in all kinds of criminal activity including drug dealing, common assault, sexual assault, rape, theft, etc.

The unionist death squads that effectively operated with impunity in the early 1990s owed much to using weapons 'stolen' from RIR arsenals.

There has been a litany of other incidents such as common assault against civilians as evidenced by a student hospitalised with a brain haemorrhage for a year by a drunken RIR soldier coming home from a disco in Ballymoney in March 2004.

During October 1997, RIR soldiers in separate incidents in Lurgan attacked two nationalist teenagers and local republican Colin Duffy.

In 2001 RIR soldier William Thompson from Hamiltons-bawn, County Armagh was convicted of possessing weapons belonging to unionist paramilitaries. When the RUC raided Thompson's home they found material produced by the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group. When originally arrested Thompson was questioned about the 1999 killing of Lurgan human rights solicitor Rosemary Nelson. Thompson who joined the UDR in 1989 was said to be a friend of LVF leader Billy Wright and Mark Fulton.

Within the RIR itself, a culture of bullying is endemic and in one case, a young private Paul Cochrane aged 18 committed suicide apparently by shooting himself in the mouth while talking to his father on a mobile phone in 2001. His family claimed that the RIR "have a ten-year history of physical, sexual, verbal and mental abuse". His cousin Julie Clarke who formed Families United support group stated: "There were 17 cases being investigated at Drumadd Barracks at the time Paul died, and the very night of his funeral a soldier in his battalion was raped by another higher ranking soldier. Just a few weeks ago, another soldier at Drumadd hanged himself. For a long time we thought we were the only ones."

A young nationalist, Patrick Murphy from Andersonstown in West Belfast who joined the RIR was advised to change his name by his recruiting officer so that it would sound 'less Catholic'. He even changed his religious categorisation, but when it was discovered that he was of Catholic background, he was severely bullied to the extent that he attempted suicide. He eventually left the RIR and sued the British MoD for discrimination.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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