The Real Ulster Freedom Fighters or Real UFF are a loyalist paramilitary group based in Northern Ireland. Believed to be formed from former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the group has been involved in several bomb and gun attacks, mainly against Nationalist and Catholic targets, although the group has also targeted various unionist and loyalist figures.
History & Foundations
The Real UFF’s name originates from the 1970’s which saw the organisation of armed loyalist paramilitary groups under the umbrella organisation of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA)(1). Originally these groups were formed to act as a defensive measure for Unionist areas against Republican military activity although elements within the organisation began carrying out attacks against republican and nationalist target’s, claiming responsibility under the title of the “Ulster Freedom Fighters”, despite no such organisation officially existing.
The Real UFF announced its existence in 2007 and is believed to be a splinter group from the UVF, formed from those who disagreed with the St Andrews Agreement. This was an agreement between Ireland, the UK, and various Northern Irish political parties and groups, resulting in the restoration of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive. In particular, the group is thought to be founded by supporters of Garry “Smickers” Smith and the Shoukri brothers (2), notable figures within the loyalist movement and former allies of Johnny Adair, a major figure within the UDA responsible for many of the attacks credited to the UFF (3). More recent reporting has claimed that the group is currently led by Adrian Price, another former UDA figure, although it is unclear whether this is the same Real UFF that emerged in 2007, or another group operating under the same name (4).
Objectives & Ideology
The Real UFF continue to uphold the Ulster loyalist ideology of their parent organisation, the UVF. Ulster loyalism in general refers to the more extreme elements within the Ulster Unionist community, which believe in the use of violence to maintain Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and protect “British identity” within Ulster (5). However the organisation can also be understood to represent a more radical offshoot of loyalist ideology, having formed as a response to the perceived “softening” of the loyalist position due to the acceptance of power-sharing negotiations in 2006. This radicalism is illustrated not just by the continuation of violent acts by the group, but also by their choice of targets, with the group having stated its intention to assassinate various high-profile loyalist figures such as the previously mentioned Johnny Adair (6).
The group has also made a point to target drug dealers operating within loyalist communities. This has parallels to Republican anti-drug groups operating in Northern Ireland such as RAAD (now part of the New IRA) who also make anti-drug violence a core part of their actions and messaging (7). It is likely that the Real UFF have taken this position for similar reasons as the aforementioned Republican groups, as it allows the Real UFF to ingratiate itself within Loyalist communities while also granting an element of legitimacy through providing community protection where the state has failed (8). However despite this messaging it should be noted that the currently active Real UFF and other paramilitary groups also have heavy involvement in the Northern-Irish drug trade (9).
Approach to Resistance
Since its inception in 2007, the Real UFF have been involved in several small-scale bomb and gun attacks in Northern Ireland. Many of these attacks have taken the form of pipe-bomb attacks against nationalist individuals and communities, including an attempted pipe-bomb attack against an Antrim GAA club in 2010 claimed by the Real UFF (10). The group have almost targeted non-nationalists including an attempted pipe-bombing at the home of a Polish family in 2011, thought to have been motivated by anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment (11). The most recent attack claimed by the group as of the writing of this article was the pipe-bombing of a home in 2013, although other loyalist groups are also suspected of having carried out this attack (12,13).
Beyond attacks, the Real UFF has also made death threats against various public figures. This includes major nationalist political figures including Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly (14) and former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams (15). As recently as this year, the group have also made threats against prominent loyalist figures such as loyalist activist Jamie Bryson (16).
In addition to political activities, the Real UFF has also become heavily involved in the drug trade in Northern Ireland, similar to other paramilitaries active in the region, since at least early 2023 (17). This trade tends to remain within loyalist communities. In addition to being one of the main sources of funding for groups the drug trade also provides an opportunity for recruitment, by placing disadvantaged youths in drug debt, and offering membership as an alternative to punishment beatings for failure to pay (18). This involvement in the drug trade has created tension with the wider Unionist community, leading to denouncement by Unionist politicians and protests against their activities (19).
Relations & Alliances
Historically, loyalist groups have not maintained many alliances outside of their community. One exception to this would be their connections to the British far-right, including groups such as the British Nationalist Party and Combat 18 in the 1970’s (20). That said, these groups do not appear to have provided significant material support to the loyalist cause (21), and factions within the loyalist community have rejected further attempts to build alliances (22). It is currently unknown whether the Real UFF has continued any of these relationships or forged new ones, however it appears unlikely given the group has failed to maintain friendly relationships even within the loyalist community. Currently, the Real UFF is known to be feuding with elements of the UDA in the North Down area over control of the drug trade, however as previously stated it is unknown whether this group is a continuation of the Real UFF which emerged in 2007, or a distinct group having taken the name for themselves (23).
Works Cited (Chicago Style)
(1) - Derek Brown, Ulster Freedom Fighters – the thugs in hoods (The Guardian, 20 June 2000) <https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/jun/20/northernireland.uksecurity>
(2) - Stephen Breen, Peace process in for a R.U.F.F. time (Belfast Telegraph, 1 April 2007) <https://web.archive.org/web/20121015170801/http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sunday-life/news/peace-process-in-for-a-ruff-time-13903178.html>
(3) - David McKittrick and David McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict (Penguin Books 2001) 271
(4) - Sharon O’Neill, Feuding gangs’ adopted names just a flag of convenience for thugs criminality (Belfast Telegraph, 2 April 2023) <https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sunday-life/news/feuding-gangs-adopted-names-just-flag-of-convenience-for-thugs-criminality/218592476.html>
(5) - Neil Jarman, Ulster Loyalism is a rather curious beast, beyond mere allegiance (The Irish Times, 31 May 2018) <https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/ulster-loyalism-is-a-rather-curious-beast-beyond-mere-allegiance-1.3446052>
(6) - Ibid 2
(7) - Josh Horgan and John F Morrison, “A new breed of terror in Northern Ireland” (CNN, 14 June 2013)
(8) - John Morrison, “Fighting Talk: The Statements of ‘The IRA/New IRA’” (2016) 28 Terrorism and Political Violence 258
(9) -Jude Webber, “Northern Ireland: the paramilitaries that ‘never go away’” (Financial Times, 4 April 2023) <https://www.ft.com/content/7e83e463-0c45-46a6-a6a0-12668cb65dc9>
(10) -Antrim attack deemed “sectarian” (The Newsletter, 15 January 2010) < https://web.archive.org/web/20110610173529/http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/local/antrim_attack_deemed_sectarian_1_1893598>
(11) - Former DUP candidate John Smyth refused bail on explosives charges (BBC News, 27 October 2011) < https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-15483407>
(12) -Blast bomb victim “lucky to be alive” (UTV, 25 February 2013) < https://archive.ph/20130418203555/http://www.u.tv/News/Blast-bomb-victim-lucky-to-be-alive/affe03f8-0d32-44d1-a9e4-bf769fdd8c15>
(14) -Kelly receives another death threat (Belfast Telegraph, 11 February 2011) < https://archive.ph/20130419193337/http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/community-telegraph/north-belfast/news/kelly-.htmlives-another-death-threat-14678179.html>
(15) - Pat Sheehan, Gerry Adams warned of another threat on his life (Sinn Féin, 11 March 2010) < https://web.archive.org/web/20141016061826/http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/18292>
(16) - Brett Campbell, Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson receives death threats from “Real UFF” (Belfast Telegraph, 10 April 2023) < https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/loyalist-activist-jamie-bryson-receives-death-threat-from-real-uff/1403533344.html>
(17) - Niamh Campbell, Ards and North Down: Expelled members of the UDA have named themselves as UFF in loyalist gang feud(Belfast Telegraph, 30 March 2023)
(18) - Webber, (n 9)
(19) - Paul Ainsworth, Jamie Bryson ‘wont be bullied’ after receiving ‘Real UFF’ threat (The Irish News, 10 April 2023) <https://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2023/04/10/news/jamie_bryson_won_t_be_bullied_after_receiving_real_uff_threat-3200395/>
(20) - Henry McDonald, LVF links to neo-Nazis unearthed (The Guardian, 2 April 2000) < https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/apr/02/northernireland.henrymcdonald1>
(21) - How loyalists got out of step with fascism (Belfast Telegraph, 15 September 2011) < https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/how-loyalists-got-out-of-step-with-fascism/28657619.html>
(22) - McDonald (n 17)
(23) - O’Neill (n 4)