Back in April 2014 the Belfast Telegraph published a letter from me that began with the paragraph:
What have Sir Roger Casement, Billy Hutchinson, Gerry Adams and the Orange Order got in common? They all share a belief that importing guns and using the threat of violence to influence British policy in Ireland is something to be celebrated.
At that time, I was concerned that the celebration of the UVF gun-running of 1914 through Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee that was attended by politicians from the DUP, UUP, TUV and PUP would be used to legitimise the terrorists of the UVF who still maintain control of housing estates across this province. Back then, as the purple UVF-1912 flags became ever more prominent on our flag poles we were told that these flags were unconnected with the modern day UVF. I did not believe this lie back then and don’t believe it today.
There is far too much confused thinking about the ugly reality of the way we used politically motivated violence in both parts of this island, centred around 1912 for unionists and 1916 for republicans.
The timeline of the setting up of the UVF and then the Irish Volunteers is shown below. Note that the UVF was set up first in 1912, followed by the nationalist Irish Volunteers in November 1913. In April 1914 the UVF imported 25,000 guns from Germany, just months before the start of WW1, with the intention of opposing the will the British parliament.
36th Ulster Division
As World War One got underway, Edward Carson appealed in September to UVF members to join the British Army and by October 1914 the 36th Ulster Division was formed using men from the UVF and from 3 existing regiments of the British Army. It is very unlikely that when they signed up for the UVF or later when many switched to joining the British army these men had any idea of the disaster that awaited them at the Somme.
The disastrous waste of life in the Battle of the Somme (especially the first 2 days) had a dramatic effect across Ulster with 2,069 deaths being a sickening blow. This is why Orangemen parade on 1st July (the date the battle started) and why so many in my community link support for the fallen of WW1 with the UVF.
However, the majority of the members of the 36th Ulster Division might have come from the UVF but they were a minority among the Irishmen who fought and died for the British Army in WW1. According to Wikipedia, of the 130,000 volunteers recruited to the British Army from Ireland for the duration of the war
o 26,000 came from the Ulster Volunteers.
o 24,000 came from the Irish National Volunteers and
o 80,000 had no experience in either of the paramilitary groups
Why Choose This Flag?
It is natural that we remember our war dead and the focus on those who served in the 36th Ulster Division is understandable. So, bands flying flag or banners related to the 36th Ulster Division will have my support. But when someone choses NOT to fly a 36th Ulster Division flag, but instead flies a UVF-1912 flag what message are they sending?
Clearly to them, the UVF matters more than respecting the men of the 36th Ulster Division which contained very many ordinary Irish men who had no link with the UVF.
Perhaps they genuinely want to celebrate only those who were in the UVF, but then why maintain the pretence of this being about the sacrifice of war?
We know the intention of the UVF in 1912-14 was to oppose the will of the British parliament using the threat of violence. Because WW1 broke out before these weapons could be used, we will never know what outrages the UVF of 1912 would have committed. What we do know is that no-one joined the UVF with the intention of fighting in the trenches of WW1.
The Message of the UVF Flag
When people try to excuse chants of ‘ooh ah, up the Ra’ by saying they are only referring to the IRA of 1919-21 it does not lessen the offence, we do not accept this excuse. Correspondingly, the continued flying of the UVF-1912 flags that we see across our province is clearly associated with the modern day, drug dealing and racketeering UVF, marking out territory that is perceived to be under their control – it does nothing for our communities and drives people away from unionism. Similarly, the use of Poppies on UVF murals damages the Royal British Legion and discourages those outside the Loyalist community from supporting Poppy Appeals.
Now that the 12th is over and well before Remembrance Day on 11th November we should think about what is appropriate, and what is not appropriate, to link to poppies and the sacrifices of the First World War.
Arnold is a retired teacher from Belfast.