UDR was chief weapons supplier to loyalist murder squads and government knew

UDR soldiers have been linked with notorious atrocities such as the Miami Showband massacre and the activities of the Shankill Butchers

A Shankill Butchers’ victim lies in a Belfast alley – at least one member of the notorious gang was in the UDR

Richard Sullivan

The UDR was chief weapons supplier to loyalist paramilitary groups.

The reputation of the much-maligned British Army regiment has always been overshadowed by its close links to and collusion with terror groups the UDA and UVF.

In a reveal-all book UDR Declassified, former civil servant Micheál Smith reveals the government was aware of collusion suspicions from the early Seventies, and he also uncovered government files in which successive administrations feared the regiment could not be trusted.

For unionists, joining the UDR was honourable and in many cases a family tradition, but behind the badge and the uniform was a dark truth.

For nationalists it was a brutal, sectarian force wedded to loyalist paramiltaries.

"The flow of weapons from the UDR to the UDA in the early days was stunning," Micheál Smith told the Sunday World.

"The extent of weapons losses from UDR armouries, or from the homes of UDR personnel, amounted to a steady flow of modern military equipment from the British Army straight into the hands of loyalist gangs.

"Most significantly, the Subversion in the UDR report found that the UDR was the single 'best' source of weapons for loyalist gangs, and their 'only significant source of modern weapons'."

Several members of the UDR murdered the Miami Showband

The book is the result of three years of detailed research of unsealed British government and Ministry of Defence files which revealed the first references to collusion appeared as early as 1971, immediately after the regiment was formed.

"Reference to the theft of a rifle from the UDR on September 2nd, 1971, appears in a note about weapons losses forwarded, in 1972, to the office of a British under-secretary of state - that is, to ministerial level. Internal British Army documents throughout the 1970s used the word collusion routinely and repeatedly."

He said in a memo from the early Seventies, then Secretary of State Merlyn Rees states how he simply didn't trust the UDR.

"The UDR was essentially a locally raised militia, it was a tactic they had used in other countries and conflict zones, recruiting local people to essentially fight their war."

He said it soon became apparent to the British they had created something of a monster. Many of those who joined up were already members of loyalist paramilitary groups.

"It was regarded as relatively normal, people didn't see a conflict between being a member of the UDA or UVF while also wearing the uniform of the UDR."

The same report stated that some soldiers were "undoubtedly living double lives" and that the primary loyalty of many of its members was to a concept of "Ulster" rather than to the British government.

"Declassified documents clearly show the British didn't trust the regiment, they thought the UDR's vision of Ulster was very different to their own, they were almost frightened of them."

Serving UDR soldiers were linked some of the most notorious atrocities throughout the Troubles such as the murder of three members of the Miami Showband in 1973 carried out by the infamous Glenanne Gang, which was made up of RUC members, UDR soldiers and the UVF.

UDR soldiers stationed at Girdwood Barracks in Belfast were strongly suspected of involvement in the bloody-soaked UVF murder machine the Shankill Butchers.

At least one member of Lenny Murphy's Butchers gang was a member of the UDR.

"The British brought their colonial expertise to Northern Ireland. Wherever they've been around the world they have sought out loyal elements in the local population and recruited them for their cause," said the author.

"Very much a case of divide and conquer."

He said working alongside the RUC and other British Army regiments stationed here brought its own difficulties.

"There was a distrust there, even among the police, many of whom were uncomfortable working with the UDR."

Two UDR soldiers died in this IRA blast in Belfast city centre in 1988

In 1984 Secretary of State Douglas Hurd in a briefing memo described them as "mistrusted, hated and not held in high regard".

Despite the unease and suspicion surrounding the regiment, it remained very much at the entre of the conflict. It was a fully integrated regiment in the British Army and, with almost 6,500 soldiers, it was the largest.

What set it apart was that it was entirely locally recruited and never served outside Northern Ireland. It was also the regiment with the longest single deployment.

The regiment was created as a replacement to the notoriously sectarian B Specials but many of the practices and attitudes were simply carried into the newly created militia.

The author said British military masters turned a blind eye to rampant criminal activity in its ranks.

"Between 1985 and 1989, UDR members were twice as likely to commit a crime as the general public. The UDR crime rate was 10 times that for police officers in the RUC and about four times the British Army rate.

"By the early 1990s, around 120 members or former members of the regiment were serving prison sentences for serious crimes, and 17 had been convicted of murder."

He said he had set out to write a pamphlet into the UDR's role in Northern Ireland but as more and more information emerged it soon became clear there was enough material for a book.

With the help of the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry, where he was working at the time, he compiled one of the most complete examinations of the regiment's place in Northern Ireland's history.

"I came to this with no agenda - everything in this book is research-based, the proof is there for all to see, I've simply put it all in one place. It is irrefutable because it is fact."

The book has attracted criticism, simply because of the subject matter.

The new book

"I never set out to cause upset, I didn't want to do that," he said. "It is a harsh but fair account, it is reliable and verifiable. I soon realised that some of the people who were critical haven't read it."

It is estimated 15 per cent of UDR members had links to paramilitary organisations.

"There's a chapter in the book where I acknowledge the ordinary men and women who joined up and put a uniform. It was a very brave thing to do, they stood up to be counted and many paid with their lives."

This year marks 30 years since the regiment was disbanded.

Mr Smith added: "And yet truths continue to emerge that unlock closely guarded state secrets about the British 'dirty war' in Ireland, not least the role of the UDR.

"By creating the UDR and putting them on the front line they [British] made the Troubles even more sectarian."

UDR Declassified is published by Merrion Press and is available now.

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