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Ulster Defence Association (UDA)

Insurgency Overview

The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) is a loyalist paramilitary group which is based in Northern Ireland. The group was founded in 1971 during the The Troubles in Northern Ireland where loyalists who wanted NI to remain a part of Great Britain fought a conflict against republicans militias and groups such as the IRA (Irish Republican Army) who wanted to unify with The Republic of Ireland. The group was set up in order to counteract Irish Republican Army operations and to defend loyalist neighbourhoods from republican paramilitaries.

History & Foundations

The group was initially formed as a coalition of multiple community defence groups which had originated in the predominantly protestant loyalist neighbourhoods in Belfast after the outbreak of violence in 1969. The UDA originally patrolled their areas and attempted to remove IRA informants from within their neighbourhoods but it was not long before membership numbers began to increase and they began training their members in paramilitary tactics such as arms training as well as setting up roadblocks and community patrols in their areas. The UDA had now begun operating with the intent of countering IRA operations.

It is estimated that at their peak they had 40,000 members.(1) The UDA were originally a legal community defence organisation which was sanctioned by the British state, who would carry out attacks under the alias of the “Ulster Freedom Fighters” in order to avoid the UDA being banned.

In July 1972 the UDA built barricades in the Springfield area of Belfast in order to separate themselves from neighbouring catholic estates – 250 British troops were sent to confront them but ended up backing down due to the sheer number of armed UDA militants who were prepared to fight them.(1) The UDA began carrying out attacks on republican areas and republican figures with one notable attack being that of SDLP politician Paddy Wilson in 1973.

In 1974 the UDA showed its influence amongst working class loyalists by organising The Ulster Workers Council Strike. This was a Strike in protest to a proposed peace agreement which would have, in their view, given republicans way too much power. This was a general strike within loyalist communities organised by a number of loyalist paramilitaries including The UDA and also the Ulster Volunteer Force. No trade unions supported the strike and The UDA used intimidation to ensure that people adhered to it. Roadblocks were set up all over the country by loyalist paramilitaries to enforce this too. The strike lasted two weeks before it was called off after the loyalists had achieved their demands. The power sharing agreement collapsed. During the strike The UDA ramped up their violence and killed 39 people over the course of the two weeks and injured hundreds.(2) In 1988 the group committed one of its most infamous attacks when one of its members, Michael Stone, showed up to an IRA funeral in Belfast and indiscriminately began throwing grenades into the crowd. 3 were killed and dozens were injured in the attack. In 1993 the UDA members entered a restaurant in Derry where people were celebrating Halloween and opened fire, indiscriminately killing 8 people.

In 1994 the UDA announced an official ceasefire to coincide with the IRAs ceasefire and in 2005 it officially ended its armed campaign. The UDA signed up to the Good Friday Agreement and ended their armed campaign but have retained a strong membership, which is estimated to stand today at around 12,000 members. In 2021 The UDA pulled out of The Good Friday agreement following controversy surrounding the implementation of a sea border between Ireland and mainland Britain during the Brexit negotiations. Though the UDA are no longer signatories to the Good Friday agreement, they have not resumed their armed campaign.(3)

Objectives & ideology

The UDAs primary objective is to keep Northern Ireland as a protestant state. Contrary to other loyalist groups whose sole objective is to remain a part of Great Britain, The UDA were originally supportive of the idea of an independent Northern Ireland so long as it was run as a protestant state.

Since its inception, the UDA has subscribed to the ideology of Unionism, maintaining the belief that if the Protestant populations in Northern Ireland were to be assimilated into a predominantly Catholic Irish Republic, they would be subjected to discrimination and oppression. In recent years, the group has faced accusations of engaging in various criminal activities such as extortion, robbery, and murder, commonly associated with gangland operations. An MI5 assessment conducted in 2021 stated that the South East Antrim UDA possesses "arms access" and is significantly involved in the illicit drug trade, community coercion, intimidation, and other forms of criminal behaviour.

Presently, the UDA claims to prioritize "community development," yet numerous individuals residing in regions influenced by the UDA experience profound fear. In these communities, especially in East Antrim, the UDA exercises extensive control and surveillance, ensuring strict adherence to their rules, with severe consequences for those who dare to deviate. The most common forms of punishment are beatings or kneecappings (a common practice amongst paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland in which a person has their kneecaps shot as a form of punishment). Often people will also be warned to leave the community. (3)

Killings nowadays are rare but will still happen occasionally, the last person known to be shot to death by The UDA occurred in 2017 when James Colin Horner was murdered due to an internal feud within the organisation. In 2020 Glenn Quinn was beaten to death by the group as a punishment for getting into a fight with a UDA man earlier that day.

Approach to Resistance

The UDA would target civilians to a much higher extent than their republican counterparts in the IRA. It is estimated that the UDA were responsible for around 400 deaths during the conflict – 220 of these were civilians and 37 of them were members of other loyalist paramilitaries. In 1994 the UDA released a document which called for the ethnic cleansing/removal of Irish Catholics and any non-white or non-protestant communities in Northern Ireland. The UDA's war seemed to be one against the general Catholic population of Northern Ireland whereas the IRA had more coherent political goals which were removing the British army from Ireland and also creating a united Ireland. The UDA stated that if the IRA laid down their arms then they would do the same unless there was a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, in which case they would act as an “IRA in reverse”.(3)

International Alliances

In the wake of the Northern Irish conflict (The Troubles) which ended in 1999, many documents emerged which confirmed that the UDA had been colluding with the British army and intelligence services during The Troubles. The British army and the UDA had been sharing information such as the names and locations of republicans. It was later discovered in an MI5 report that around 85% of the UDA's target information was given to them by British intelligence. The British army also helped The UDA carry out assassinations. One of the most notable incidents of collusion was The Miami Showband Massacre when one of Ireland's most popular showbands was on tour in Northern Ireland and were stopped at a checkpoint which had appeared to be a British Army checkpoint. The ‘soldiers’ who were manning the checkpoint were wearing British army uniforms and whilst they were checking the car, they planted an explosive device which detonated prematurely. 5 people were killed including two of the British soldiers.

It is believed that the British army and UDA had colluded in order to make the band look like IRA explosive smugglers, thus meaning they could increase security checks on the border. (4)

There was also a general hands off approach to the UDA, crimes often were not investigated and British intelligence often failed to let republicans know if they were targets for assassination by the UDA and other loyalist groups.

This however, ceased in 1992 when the British Government officially recognised them as a terrorist organisation. The British army had colluded with The UDA in order to take down the IRA but the number of civilian deaths and the British army' involvement was driving more republicans towards the IRA.(3)

The group also had strong connections with British Neo Nazi organisation Combat 18 who helped them smuggle in weapons from the mainland. Most notably former UDA leader Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair used to regularly travel back and forth between Northern Ireland and England to attend Combat 18 events and meetings.

Works Cited (Chicago-Style)

(1) - 2023, Cowell-Meyers, Kimberley and Arthur, Paul. “Ulster Defence Association” Brittanica.

(2) - 2007, Gillespie, Gordon “Sunningdale and the 1974 Ulster Workers” Council strike” History Ireland.

(3) - 2023, Corthorn, Paul “Ulster Unionist Political Thought in the Era of the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968–1998”

(4) - 2022, McGovern, Mark “Legacy, truth and collusion in the North of Ireland.”

Additional Resources


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