State Papers1992-2002

Loyalist leaders struggled to contain hardliners who wished to attack Republic

Irish officials were secretly warned that elements within loyalism were pushing for attacks on economic targets in Dublin after the IRA bombed the London Docklands in February 1996

Loyalist leaders struggled to keep paramilitaries from moving their murder campaign across the Border into the Republic in the wake of the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire during the 1990s, newly-released files show.

Irish government officials were secretly warned that elements within loyalism were also pushing for attacks on economic targets in Dublin after the IRA bombed the London Docklands in February 1996.

Documents just released into the National Archives disclose a number of conversations between diplomats based at the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast and then leader of the Ulster Volunteer Force-linked Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) David Ervine.

During the fraught period of peace negotiations the IRA ended its 1994 ceasefire with the so-called Canary Wharf bombing, which killed two people and injured more than 100. Killings also resumed in the North. Ervine confided in Irish officials that he was “deeply pessimistic” about the loyalist ceasefire holding, particularly after an IRA sniper shot RUC policewoman and mother of three Alice Collins in April 1997.


Days after the attack outside Derry’s courthouse, Ervine told the officials that an unclaimed retaliatory attack could be expected, but that his real worry was the cumulative effect of a series of “measured responses” by loyalists.

It threatened to “transfer the initiative” from the “relatively moderate” umbrella Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) group “into the hands of a hardline element who are demanding a full scale return to paramilitary activity”, Ervine said.

“It was only a matter of time,” Ervine suggested, “before the hardliners would succeed in having the (loyalist) ceasefire brought explicitly to an end,” records of the conversation note.

At the time loyalist paramilitaries were carrying out “targeting operations”, Ervine said, before making a “cryptic reference” to “the trouble we’ve been having trying to keep them away from the Border”.

Ervine said he had been “arguing strongly that it made no sense to respond to a renewed IRA campaign by launching attacks on targets in the Republic” because “the people of the Republic had made crystal clear that the IRA did not talk for them” and had also signed up to the consent principle, establishing the right of a majority in the North to self-determination.

While it was “likely that resumed loyalist violence would be directed primarily at Sinn Féin” in the North, Ervine said there were “those who held – stupidly, in Ervine’s view – that the way to retaliate for, say, IRA attacks on economic targets in Britain would be to hit economic targets in the South”.

The PUP leader told the Irish officials he was concerned a collapse of the loyalist ceasefire would mean the “relatively older” CLMC being usurped by “younger and more volatile elements whose approach would be less predictable”.

“He also noted maverick elements becoming involved,” the officials reported back to the Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Dublin.

Ervine also told the officials that loyalist paramilitaries “greatly appreciated” the work of Irish security forces in uncovering IRA arms and explosives dumps, and that their “continuing success” would “militate against the extension of any future loyalist campaign to include the South”.

In a separate meeting between Ervine and Irish officials at Castle Buildings in Belfast in January 1997, the PUP leader “dwelled on close links between the LVF (Loyalist Volunteer Force) and the DUP”.

The LVF was a breakaway group from the UVF which specialised in murdering Catholics randomly. Willie McCrea, then DUP MP for Mid Ulster, was unrepentant about sharing a platform with LVF leader Billy Wright.

Just months later Ervine told the Irish officials that “DUP activists have been involved alongside the LVF in fomenting tension recently within the unionist community in east Belfast”.

“One example was an arson attack on a Protestant church, carried out by people who ran away shouting ‘Up the IRA’ but who, [Ervine] is reliably informed, were associated with the DUP,” the documents show.

Brian Hutton

Brian Hutton is a freelance journalist and Irish Times contributor