The Loyalist Backlash: An Anatomy - A ne ...

The Loyalist Backlash: An Anatomy - A new book project

Oct 08, 2021

Criticism, whether fair or unjustified, almost always has a motivational effect on writers. When my first book Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash was published in 2016 a not insignificant number of people criticised me for the using the term ‘backlash’ in the subtitle. It had never been my intention to use the term; it was a suggestion by an anonymous referee of the working text – one which the publisher agreed with. People who had never read the book nor intended to attacked me online. ‘The UVF started killing Catholics in 1966 before the IRA existed’, ‘A backlash against what? Equal rights for Irish nationalists?’, ‘What is this apologia for loyalist terrorism?’ are a few examples of criticisms of my book which I faced, based on the title alone. In Northern Ireland semantics are a crucial part of everyday discourse. When it comes to history words have the power to evoke and provoke strong emotions. ‘Backlash’ or more specifically the term ‘Protestant backlash’ was not of my publisher’s making. It was a phrase which was used regularly in the Irish and British press throughout 1971 and 1972. There are quite literally hundreds of references to the ‘Protestant backlash’ in the various local newspaper archives from the era. Belfast Telegraph, Newsletter, Irish News all talked about the Protestant backlash, asking when it would come and what form it would take.

The fears and passions surrounding a possible violent backlash were there months before the eruption of the Troubles in 1969. Despite the UVF having seemingly all but disappeared in the aftermath of 1966 some observers felt that the events of August 1969 when Protestants and Catholics clashed at interfaces in Belfast after trouble had erupted in Derry would prove to be the spark for ominous times ahead. Arriving at an event in the United States Dr Frank Gogarty, chairman of NICRA, told reporters at John F. Kennedy airport in August 1969 that he predicted an oncoming ‘Protestant backlash’ which would bring violence to Northern Ireland in the coming months:

We are entering a new phase of the struggle which will be vicious and dirty. The coming dark nights of autumn lends itself to assassinations and house burnings. [Belfast Telegraph, 1 Sept. 1969, p.5]

Gogarty’s dire prediction would be proven correct, although loyalists would not actually kill their first Catholic victims until over two years later. A month after Gogarty’s claim the Irish Press published a letter written by a Bette Darby from ‘Dublin 4’ who wrote:

Ivan Cooper and Austin Currie, Northern Ireland M.P.s, link themselves with Marxist revolutionaries when they travel to Dublin to address a civil rights meeting … “there will undoubtedly be a Protestant backlash to the reforms promised by in Stormont”; “militant protestants are reportedly drilling in armed groups”. Words that are bullets of fear, stilettoes of power. [Irish Press, 1 October 1969, p.9]

Ten days later on Saturday 11 October a police constable named Victor Arbuckle lay dead on the Shankill Road. Arbuckle had been shot by the UVF during disturbances in protest at the publication of the Hunt Report which recommended the disarming of the RUC and the dissolution of the B-Specials. In the aftermath of the trouble, which also saw the shooting of two Protestants by the army, Bill Craig - the former Minister for Home Affairs - balefully recounted how his appeals for people to stay off the streets had been met with derision: ‘I feel that they no longer feel that anything can be done through parliament and that they have got to take a leaf out of the republican socialist rebellion in order to make themselves heard.’ [Irish Press, 14 Oct. 1969, p.1] Many in Protestant and loyalist heartlands of Ulster were beginning to agree. The Hunt Report was regarded as the final straw. At a meeting in Glenwherry, Co. Antrim held on 13 October Craig asked, ‘Was the police constable’s death at the weekend caused by the man who pulled the trigger or by a weak fumbling government?’, further stating that ‘Now the Protestant backlash has begun because of extreme provocation and is taking a serious turn. Someone has blundered and someone will have to pay the price for it.’ [Irish Press, 14 Oct. 1969, p.4]

Of course someone had already paid a heavy price. Arbuckle had lived with his wife Dorothy and infant son Clive in Westway Park, a quiet street in Ballygomartin at the top of the Shankill. Dorothy aged just 29 and already a widow told reporters ‘I would do anything to stop another policeman’s wife going through what I feel now. I knew he (Victor) was on duty up the Shankill – among the Protestants. I slept well. I thought he was safe. I just couldn’t believe it when I was told he had been shot dead.’ [Irish Press, 14 Oct. 1969, p.4] One dead police constable and two dead working class men from the Shankill, Geordie Dickie and Herbie Hawe.

By the middle of March 1972, almost two and a half years later, there were 250 more dead bodies. Most of the casualties had been caused by republican violence, with a number of killings perpetrated by Crown forces. Bill Craig had formed the Ulster Vanguard movement on 9 February in opposition to the unionist leadership of Brian Faulkner and stated, ‘God help those who get in our way for we mean business.’ [Belfast Telegraph, 19 Feb. 1972, p.6] On 18 March at a massive rally held at Ormeau Park in south-east Belfast Craig went further:

We must build up the dossiers on the men and women who are a menace to this country, because one day, ladies and gentlemen, if the politicians fail, it will be our duty to liquidate the enemy.

Simon Winchester was a journalist for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper based in Belfast for thirty months during the early 1970s. He had a front row seat for Northern Ireland’s descent into bloody violence in this period and made a significant observation about the ‘silent and utterly sinister rise of Protestant passions, and the growth and organisation of more and more secret Protestant armies’ in 1971-72:

Many of us used to remark regularly on the astonishing capacity the Loyalists had for muting their understandable rage … The Loyalists felt a deserted people, let down, humiliated, alone: small wonder they began to organise late in 1971, and channel their feelings of subdued bitterness along the traditional Ulster veins. The only wonder was that they had restrained themselves from doing it before. [Winchester, In Holy Terror, pp.179-180]

With the ‘green-light’ provided by Craig’s menacing orations in the late winter of 1972 the Protestant backlash had been made flesh. This book aims to explore how loyalists graduated from fighting with belts and boots to arming themselves with bombs and bullets during Northern Ireland’s free-fall into sectarian bloodshed during the early 1970s.


This book examines in depth the trajectory of militant loyalism from the 1960s until its full growth and proliferation in 1972 and in the period up until the mid-1970s. Close attention will be paid to the range of different individuals who came to prominence during this period and the various organisations which formed as part of the kaleidoscope of loyalist reaction. The interface between political rhetoric and violent response will be explored while the experiences and motivations of those involved in loyalist paramilitarism during this pivotal period in Northern Ireland’s history will be laid bare through in-depth oral history interviews.

In recent months, with uncertainty over Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, young loyalists have once again emerged onto the streets of Northern Ireland in protest at fears over changes to the status of Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. Although there is no clear parallel with the dreadful period of the 1970s, it is necessary for people to remember how quickly Northern Ireland can slip into a spiral of bloodshed and brutality. This book is a stark reminder of the dark days of political rhetoric and sectarian violence.

In recent years a number of excellent accounts of the Troubles have been written under the guise of secret histories or anatomies. This book adopts the latter structure, seeking as it does to examine and better understand the evolving structure of an often complicated and poorly understood body of both politics and paramilitarism. In the pages of the book the constituent parts of militant loyalism will be broken down and will be explored through the structural organisation of the society and historical period in which individuals and communities experienced dramatic and violent change. What were the external and internal influences on the emergence of loyalist paramilitarism?

Due to its very nature militant loyalism and loyalist paramilitarism has long operated in the shadows of society with only a few prominent individuals emerging under the spotlight of the tabloid newspapers in Northern Ireland. In that respect there is no way of creating a definitive or comprehensive anatomical portrait of this period in respect of loyalism, whether political or militant. I can only hope that in the years to come, as records are released and new evidence is uncovered, this anatomy will continue to grow in full and society as a whole will better understand this bloody and dreadful period of British and Irish history.


Please support me in researching and writing this book. Your support will help me cover research costs and newspaper subscription fees. Everyone who contributes will have their name printed in the book as a way of saying 'thanks'.

Note: the title is a work in progress and may not be the final title of the published book.

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