Review - UVF: Behind the Mask, by Aaron Edwards
Aaron Edwards, UVF: Behind the Mask, Merrion Press, 2017.

This new history of the modern Ulster Volunteer Force comes highly recommended by Martin Dillon, perhaps the most authoritative journalistic commentator on the Troubles.

Dillon says of Edwards that he, 'skillfully avoids the trap of succumbing to oral history distortions of the past. Instead he confronts head-on the UVF's adoration of the cult of the gunman." 

Others have been more critical. Ciaran MacAirt suggests that Edwards glosses over the role of Billy Mitchell, a key source for the book, in the McGurk's Bar Massacre of 1971, and makes key errors in relation to surrounding events.

Edwards is a Sandhurst lecturer who grew up on loyalist estates around North Belfast, a background which helped make possible the interviews which form the main basis of the book. His relationship with figures like Mitchell, a former UVF commander turned community activist, is both the main strength and the main weakness of his account.

That is not to say that does not attempt to subject his sources to critical perspective or that he does not seek to engage with the literature on collusion between the UVF and the British state produced by writers like Margaret Urwin, Anne Cadwallader and MacAirt. Nevertheless, the attempt to reconcile these imperatives with the nature of his source material often makes for an uneasy synthesis, and some questionable judgements.

For example, Edwards down plays allegations of collusion in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 1974, only to note a few pages further on, the UVF's own suspicions that its Mid-Ulster Brigade, which was heavily involved in the attack, 'leaked like a sieve' to British intelligence.

Such tensions perhaps owe something to the nature of oral testimonies, which though subjected to some critique, nevertheless tend to define the book's structure, lending it an episodic quality.

The foundation of the modern UVF in the late 1960s appears as a series of vignettes, each of which raises as many questions as it answers; the swearing in of UVF members by un-named politicians in an un-named hall, the first sectarian killings, the UVF's flirtation with the mysterious Tara. 

This is perhaps inevitable in writing the history of a clandestine organisation. and Edwards does try to fill in some of the blanks in relation to the UVF's relationship to Ulster Unionist politicians. He also underlines that Whitehall was a full participant in panic about the IRA in 1966, in contrast to official intelligence histories which present the Troubles as a bolt from the blue, in a previously ignored backwater. 

On more recent times, Edwards examines the role of a number of individuals alleged to have been state agents within the UVF. It is perhaps understandable that, as Ciaran MacAirt notes, he does not address similar allegations about the UVF's long-standing Chief of Staff.  

Edwards makes good use of the evidence of intelligence officers to the Billy Wright Inquiry. He might usefully have drawn on the testimony of MI5 officers to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which challenges his view that the intelligence services were slow to engage with loyalism in the 1970s. One officer told the tribunal that loyalism was a specific remit of MI5 by early 1972. There is reason to believe that at least one of his agents, James Miller, was present at some of those early meetings between the UVF and Tara. 

Though Edwards' empathy for UVF members is leavened by no small measure of critical reflection, his work ultimately demonstrates why their testimony cannot gives us the full story.

When it comes to issues such as collusion, there are many things that it is not in the UVF's interest to tell us. There are other things that the UVF itself does not know about about the role of MI5 and Special Branch

This is a useful and important account, but it cannot be definitive. Key pieces of the puzzle are here, but not the whole picture.


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