These are four hundred of the most turbulent, bloody, depressing and unrelentingly hopeless pages I have ever read. McDonald and Cusack begin their story in the late 1960s as Protestant hegemony was being challenged, and the Troubles erupting. While on one side of the divide, the Provisional IRA were preparing to renew their war with The British and Loyalists, the movement towards armed para-militarism was lead both by a small tight knit terror group called the UVF, and broad masses of street gangs caught up in the territorial wars that raged around Belfast. It was from these gang resistance movements that the UDA was formed. Violent, brutal and given to grotesque acts of barbarism to enemies both within and without its ranks, the UDA gained a significant hold on sections of working class loyalist Belfast.
According to the authors the high-water mark of the groups' influence was around the time of the Ulster Workers Council strikes of the early 70s, which brought down the Stormont regime, and with it power-sharing, and a role for Dublin in the rule of N. Ireland under the Sunningdale agreement. During this era, violent mass action against the perceived sell-out of Ulster by the British brought the UDA into the centre of Ulster's fraught politics.
However, it is the author's contention that everything was downhill from this point for the UDA. The organisation fundamentally failed to coherently develop a convincing 'political-wing' to mirror the electoral successes which Sinn Fein were able to enjoy after the hunger strike era. The Ulster Democratic Party consistently failed to gain any control over the disparate and warring factional groups within the UDA in order to ever achieve much politically. In addition to that, Loyalist voters lost any sense that the UDA were 'defenders of their community' much after 1974, and had no inclination whatsoever to vote for the representatives of violence, drug-dealing, thuggery, and organised crime which blighted their neighbourhoods. For this is what the organisation had in fact become.
Militarily, the authors assessment of UDA violence is also grim. Every chapter of this book is filled with descriptions of appalling and sickening violence. Some books (notably anything about the IRA from a nationalistic/republican stance) add detailed justifications for, and excuses for 'armed struggle'. McDonald and Cusack do not, but they do record a litany of horrors. Some of the worst of these were the 'tit-for-tat' killings conducted by the UDAs wing known as the UFF. Their strategy was to execute random Catholics in response to IRA/INLA killings of Loyalists. Their belief was that this terror would drive a wedge between the Catholic population and the IRA/Sinn Fein - while the truth was that their actions turned countless nationalists into republicans. The authors view is that this strategy was both morally and strategically disastrous.
The chapters on 'collusion' were not what I had expected. What I was anticipating was reading about the UDA being used to hit IRA targets who the Special Branch of the RUC were unable to get court-worthy evidence against. There was some of this. What there was a lot more of was details of the extent to which the security forces compromised and crippled the organisation, riddled it with moles and controlled it via the release of information and effective prosecution and imprisonment of key operatives. In addition to that, there were some incredible stories of UDA collusion with Republican terror groups, usually involving the betrayal of a rival in the constant battles to control the movement.
The book ends with two major stories. The first is of the official leaders of the UDA becoming involved in the peace process, and formally ending their 'war'. This is interesting reading, and a good counterbalance to the headline grabbing story of the IRA, London, Dublin, Washington and the path towards democracy. There were of course, a series of Loyalists terror groups who made similarly stuttering moves away from killing, but without the lure of the prospect of anyone ever voting them into office in return. The second is of the horrendous internal warfare that raged between the various Loyalist groups at this time, central to which is the menacing figure of Johnny Adair, who sought to control the movement by sparking a war between the UDA and the UVF, by siding with the LVF against their former comrades in the UVF.
The authors paint a miserable picture of a nasty, chaotic, violent, and bloodthirsty series of Loyalist terror gangs who carved out a role for themselves in the evils of The Troubles, fighting for Ulster - but sustaining their own glamorous lifestyles, and causing incalculable damage to their enemies and their natural friends. It is an extraordinary tale, one full of tragedies and contradictions. This remains one of the darkest books I have ever read - but yet is an essential part of the story of Northern Ireland's troubles, and search for peace.
The book was published in 2004, and the UDA/UFF did not verifiably put its weapons beyond use until 2010.