The sociologist Steve Bruce stated in his book The Red Hand (1992) that it would appear to be ‘sour grapes’ if one were to criticise another author writing on the same subject. Bruce’s target was Martin Dillon and the weak cod-psychology he adopted in trying to explain the psychopathic behaviour of the ‘Butchers’ leader Lennie Murphy. The writer Iain Turner states in his excellent Balaclava Street blog that Bruce’s ‘…conclusions in The Red Hand regarding the Murphy gang rest on a sounder basis than the imaginary couch upon which Dillon places often long-dead men.’ Despite Bruce’s brilliant deconstruction of Dillon’s portrait of Murphy as suffering from pathology due to his Catholic surname, The Shankill Butchers continues to sell well and is often held up as an essential and accurate account of some of the more notorious loyalist paramilitary actors who operated during the ‘Troubles’.
I now fear that UVF – Behind the Mask by Aaron Edwards (which Dillon has written the foreword to) will come to be regarded in the same light. Indeed, many uncorroborated myths are pushed in the book and so, like Bruce in 1992, I feel that I have to make some kind of intervention to raise awareness of a few of this book’s various failings and weaknesses.
In the blurb on the back of Behind the Mask, the tabloid journalist Hugh Jordan, not known for his nuanced understanding of loyalism, promises that the book ‘will be seen as the definitive history of the…Ulster Volunteer Force’. Given his pedigree as a historian – he has written popular accounts of Mad Mitch in Aden and the Northern Ireland Labour Party – as well as his claims of ‘unprecedented access to leading members of the UVF’ the appetite was well and truly whetted for Aaron Edwards’s book.
There are a number of glaring weaknesses and inaccuracies in Edwards’s book, however, that means that it falls far short of being anywhere close to definitive. I do not intend to deconstruct Behind the Mask in the same manner that Bruce did with Dillon’s Butchers, but throughout this article I do intend to highlight some of the aforementioned and numerous weaknesses and inaccuracies. I do this in the hope that the general reader will be forewarned – or at least retrospectively informed – of the unreliability of this account of paramilitary loyalism.
At this stage, it is only fair that I disclose that I have written on the same subject as Edwards (hence the Bruce/Dillon analogy). Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries – The Loyalist Backlash was published in 2016 to a great reception by many in the loyalist community, but also by nationalist journalists, demonstrating that it wasn’t merely ‘preaching to the choir’.
Turning to Edwards’s book.
The omens are not good when the reader opens the book to be confronted with a dramatis personae that has the late Hughie Smyth’s date of death as May 2012, rather than 2014. Smyth was a popular loyalist politician and former leader of the PUP. Billy Hutchinson’s year of birth is claimed as 1957 rather than 1955. Such errors could be forgiven as typos but are sadly indicative of what is to come. As anyone who lived through the Troubles will testify to, the fine margins of being two years older or younger at a certain point in time could sometimes be the difference between getting ‘involved’ and not.
Edwards’s prologue, ‘The Two Billys’ should have been an excellent way of introducing the tensions which emerged within loyalist paramilitarism and which have tested the long peace in Northern Ireland. Billy Greer and Billy Mitchell – two popular UVF commanders who died shortly after one another in July 2006 are the ‘two Billys’ referred to and are key figures in any historical account of the organisation. Edwards makes a credible point when he states here that ‘It [the history of the UVF] is at its heart a story of ordinary men like…Greer and Mitchell, who became involved in paramilitary activity for a variety of reasons. They both rose to prominence through their ability to get the men and women under their command to do things they wouldn’t have otherwise done. Yet, their stories also demonstrate why some individuals remain involved in militarism, while others go against the grain and ask serious questions of what had brought them to the point where they advocated, planned and participated in violent acts’.
Sadly, in describing his attendance at such a solemn event as Greer’s funeral, Edwards feels the need to adopt a condescending tone towards those in attendance: ‘There seemed to be more chiefs than Indians in attendance. All of them dressed in smart suits and sensible shoes, even if some of them insisted on the addition of not-so-sensible white socks. The sweet smell of cheap deodorant and aftershave wafted through the air…’.
If Edwards had tempered his condescension and embarked on a biographical study of Mitchell and the East Antrim UVF this book might have been a fantastic and perhaps authoritative account of the complexities of a man’s journey within loyalist paramilitarism; from the evangelical Bible Protestantism of 1960s Paisleyism, through loyalist feuding and a genuine prison conversion into a key architect of loyalist community activism and politics. Edwards obviously felt close to Mitchell and this shows in his ability to understand the complexities of a man who a former UVF leader called ‘Red Billy’ when I brought him up in conversation; but a man who also flirted with the National Front before settling on a brand of Christian Socialism which saw him become an important figure in community relations in North Belfast and East Antrim in his post-jail life.
However, it is when writing about Mitchell and the origins of the book that Edwards’s hubris gets the better of him: ‘The person who originally suggested that I write the book was…Billy Mitchell. At a meeting in Monkstown in October 2005 he asked me: ‘When are you going to write the history of the UVF?’ Mitchell was a clever man, and well-liked among certain sections of the UVF. However, as my own conversation with a former higher-ranking UVF leader [see paragraph above] testifies to, Mitchell was not universally liked. The UVF is and always was [as Steve Bruce has excellently observed] a central reservation which cut through various and often transient political, military, intellectual and emotional journeys. While it was certainly more disciplined than its larger rival the UDA, the UVF had a number of often conflicting processes and personalities coursing through its veins which would make it inherently difficult to write ‘the history’ of the organisation. Being ‘asked’ to write ‘the history’ of the UVF by Mitchell, then, will immediately subtract credibility from the book in the eyes of many former members before they have even moved past the acknowledgements.
The start of the preface is toe-curling, as Edwards describes an afternoon spent drinking with veteran UVF members in Monkstown, ‘discussing the finer points of English premiership football and horse racing…’. Of course, it just so happened that this was no ordinary day – it was what became known as ‘9-11’, and Edwards describes watching those infamous televisual images, writing that ‘The irony was not lost on me as I watched these events unfold on the other side of the Atlantic. Mass-casualty terrorism was unleashing its devastating killing potential across the most iconic skyline in the world while I sat quietly and comfortably opposite men who had probably been responsible for sustaining one of the longest-running campaigns of terror in British history’.
This anecdote, along with the description of Billy Greer’s funeral tells me that Edwards wants the reader to see that he was among the men of violence – however fleetingly; it is the sort of validation-seeking that no serious historian should communicate directly in the text. Indeed Edwards has often bemoaned so-called ‘outsiders’ writing about loyalism – that no-one else has either the authority or legitimacy to write about the community from which he hails. With Edwards at the centre of the narrative in certain parts, the reader is presented with a hard-boiled tabloid-esque style which would make most people wonder whether the book is about the UVF or Edwards himself.
It is in making mistakes about some basic and fundamental events in recent history in Northern Ireland that Edwards show a real careless streak. He drops a serious clanger when he states that the IRA bombing of the Four Step Inn took place in Sandy Row, whereas it is well known that the Four Step was on the Shankill Road. This cataclysmic event calcified rapidly hardening attitudes within the loyalist working class with many people calling for an intra-communal reaction. Immediately afterwards the DUP was formed, with Paisley using the immediate shock among people on the Shankill to announce his latest political project. In the background the UDA was formed. Most of the Shankill men I spoke to in my own research talked eidetically about rushing to the scene – many of them arriving onto the road having been at Windsor Park to watch a European Cup fixture involving Linfield and Belgian side Standard Liege. They described the carnage they witnessed on the night, and shortly thereafter the funerals of the two men killed. The funeral of Ernie Bates (uncle of Basher) and Alexander Andrews was the largest in the city since that of Edward Carson. To make such a fundamental factual error relating to a hugely important turn in the road toward loyalist paramilitarism for many young men is unforgivable.
Irritatingly the author states that the Red Hand Commando was ‘formed in 1972 by William ‘Plum’ Smith, Winston Rea and twenty-year-old Stevie McCrea’. This is untrue – the organisation was formed by a group of young loyalists under the leadership of former Paisleyite and Shankill Defence Association leader John McKeague in 1970. This is noted by me in my own book under the unambiguous sub-heading ‘Birth of the Red Hand’ (pp.69-74). The late Plum Smith had previously mentioned it in his autobiography (pp.26-27) Indeed, it is incredible that McKeague – such a pivotal figure in early UVF history – is notable by his absence from the book (apart from one mention in a paragraph about Lennie Murphy’s time in Long Kesh). For such an individual to be overlooked subtracts any credibility from the narrative.
The claim that Stevie McCrea was involved in forming the RHC is pure fantasy; indeed, I – and former prominent members of the organisation who I have spoken to – would be interested in meeting his source for this information. McCrea, who would later become a legend within loyalist paramilitarism for his attempted ‘X-Ray’ escape from Long Kesh did however join the organisation (becoming a member of the Village platoon in South Belfast, initially part of ‘A’ Company – Shankill) and was arrested for murder on 31 October 1972 (not 1973 as Edwards claims). Indeed, the episode in which McCrea was apprehended would make for a gripping addition to any history of paramilitary loyalism – involving as it did a chance encounter with a police officer, a police dog and a potential melee near Windsor Park with a group of UDA men.
Also, why did the author not probe the close relationship between Gusty Spence and the RHC? When Spence was ‘abducted’ in July 1972 it was the RHC who were at the forefront of this operation. Of course, the UVF had a big role to play, with a masked Geordie Orr (another pivotal UVF figure notable by his absence from the book) and others prominent at Spence’s famous interview with ITN reporter David Boulton. Spence’s son-in-law (Winkie Rea) and nephew (Frankie Curry) were both members of the RHC. This is a personal suggestion and not a criticism. Although Spence’s re-arrest is mentioned in the book, his being spirited away after his daughter’s wedding is confusingly not even introduced.
When it comes to the Shankill Butchers, the author devotes two full chapters to the subject. As we know from Dillon’s 1989 book and posts on various internet message boards, this episode in loyalist paramilitarism has attracted its own subculture, similar to the ‘Ripperologists’ who have devoted huge amounts of time to solving the identity of the mystery person behind the gruesome Whitechapel murders of 1888.
There is a fascinating story about how Lennie Murphy tried to murder Hughie Smyth during the Shankill feud of late 1975 on foot of Smyth being friendly with the Balmer family [Dessie Balmer being a rival of Murphy’s on the Shankill at the time], but the matter is dropped without any explanation of what happened. Did the UVF not see an opportunity to take action against Murphy? Did Smyth not want the feud to escalate? The latter is perhaps a plausible reason as to why Murphy was not killed outright. There are a number of occasions in the book where Edwards dangles a fascinating vignette and then leaves it hanging with no follow-up, seemingly moving on to a completely different event apropos of nothing.
One contemporary of Murphy found this anecdote particularly lacking in credibility, stating to me in a recent conversation that if it had Chuck Berry who had tried to kill Smyth, he would have believed it.
Later, Edwards makes an horrific mistake when he states that a ‘second twist’ to Lennie Murphy’s assassination (in November 1982) ‘was that he died yards from where Billy Moore and other members of the Shankill Butchers gang had dumped the body of their final murder victim, twenty-year-old student Stephen McCann’. To the unfamiliar reader, the book clumsily absolves the Butchers of some horrific crimes.
McCann, whose horrific murder was carried out in late October 1976, was NOT the last Butchers victim. Indeed, the murder of Joe Morrissey in February 1977 stands out as a particularly nasty, abhorrent and vicious killing. It was at this point where I questioned whether Martin Dillon had even read Behind the Mask. In Butchers Dillon writes poignantly about how it was seeing the post-mortem photographs of young Stephen McCann and the poems that he had written before his murder that drove him to reveal the grisly details of what the Butcher gang inflicted on their defenceless victims. In fact, the insensitivity is repeated on the following page where Edwards repeats details of the same ‘ironic twist’ about the interment of Murphy and the ‘last’ Butchers victim.
At the end of the two Butchers chapters Edwards quotes a ‘woman from the Shankill area’ who allowed the gang to use her house for meetings. From his conversation with ‘woman from the Shankill area’, Edwards derives a Dillon-esque revelation that John Murphy – Mr B in Dillon’s original book and who later died in a car crash was the ‘real’ leader of the Butchers.
As dead men can be safely accused of anything, this paragraph made headlines without any reporters actually scrutinising the real lack of evidence. While John Murphy may have been a UVF member, he did not hold the rank or seniority of his younger and more charismatic brother. The contention that Murphy being behind bars and unable to give orders (according to ‘woman from the Shankill area’) holds no water. Murphy was a ruthless terrorist who was able to kill inside jail, so it is not a stretch to imagine him giving orders from behind bars. Indeed, it is likely that many assassinations in Northern Ireland started with an ‘order from prison’.
It is during the sections on the Butchers that some confusing interview material is put forward without dissection or explanation. ‘Bill’, a CID detective that the author interviewed has this to say about the Butchers’ modus operandi: ‘…the plan was hatched to abduct the target. There was no noise, no commotion. Later the victim would be reported missing. By then the gang would have taken him away, killed him, then burnt their clothes. Nothing sadistic – who better than a butcher. It was premeditated. Hold him for three days’ suffering and then kill him – out of sight, out of mind’. Edwards does not attempt to break that excerpt down, perhaps because if it is broken down logically then its credibility might be called into question while it makes little sense (unless he is talking about the killing of Joe Donegan in October 1982). However, still – ‘nothing sadistic’ – really?
‘Bill’ further states that ‘Murphy came from a mixed background’, seemingly alluding to Martin Dillon’s theory that Lennie was tortured for having an alleged Catholic heritage and, indeed, a Catholic father living in relative solitude in his terraced house in Percy Street. That ignores the significant number of people with Murphy, Molloy etc. as surnames in the Shankill area. Not to mention that William Murphy, Lennie’s father, is honoured in death as a UVF member.
I haven’t been able to hear Edwards talk about the book, but observing his online interactions his stock response to any public criticism or challenge is to state ‘I will definitely look again at all the issues you raise and ensure that the section is properly revised for a future edition’. This particular response emerged on Twitter when Ciarán MacAirt wrote an article challenging Edwards on his account of the McGurks pub bombing of December 1971.
The bombing, carried out by the UVF, killed MacAirt’s grandmother and the identity of the perpetrator of the atrocity was the subject of cynical disinformation at the time. In response to Edwards’s book, MacAirt wrote the following piece, which like much of Edwards’s book (and indeed MacAirt’s) is full of supposition and conjecture (e.g. in MacAirt’s article he constructs sentences such as ‘…if it was the UVF Billy Mitchell, his name would have been well known to British Military Intelligence…’, which puts one in mind of the old saying ‘if your auntie had balls she’d be your uncle’ ). Ifs, buts and maybes are three terms that crop up repeatedly in weak accounts of the Troubles. Edwards’s response to MacAirt, offering a revision, should leave any reader with a feeling that – in the parlance of John Lydon – they are being cheated.
Most of this review, or rather short collection of observations, about Edwards’s book has focused on the 1970s. I have noticed a number of errors in the 1980s and 1990s material, and have been alerted to inaccuracies in the 1960s chapter by someone close to the UVF of that period.
The book looks as though it hadn’t been proof-read, with numerous spelling mistakes causing the overall product to appear unprofessional.
Despite this, those people who read casually about the Troubles will be titillated and thrilled by Edwards’s book; but for those of us with an intimate knowledge of loyalism it is frustrating to see such an error-strewn book hit the shelves. The book does not progress the story of militant loyalism. Like the work of Martin Dillon, the book is constructed around anecdotes and conjecture rather than hard historical interrogation.
Having previously spoken at length to a number of former UVF and RHC members, I certainly didn’t feel that I was getting ‘behind the mask’ while reading this book. Although the UVF, the YCV [the story of which is incredibly not mentioned at all], and the RHC were responsible for a number of murders, the truth is – as Edwards alludes to – that the vast majority of their members were normal young men with skilled jobs who found themselves killing in response to the IRA and the orations of clean-handed politicians.
That is the uncomfortable truth that needs to be written, but this book didn’t reveal much of the personalities behind the mask.
I just felt disappointed as I turned the final page, and had to sadly nod in agreement when I later saw a comment on Twitter that the book resembled a ‘feature-length’ copy of The Sunday Life.
Gareth Mulvenna is the author of Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries – The Loyalist Backlash