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State papers: British concerns about UDR in mid-1980s

Douglas Hurd
Éamon Phoenix

THE image and activities of the UDR proved an increasingly embarrassing issue for the British government in the run-up to and after the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The UDR's credibility was first raised by Secretary of State Douglas Hurd who requested an "in-house discussion with ministers" in November 1984.

In anticipation, PWJ Buxton, an NIO official, produced a memo on the regiment, formed in 1970 to replace the former B Specials.

He noted that it was intended to supplement the regular security forces by static guard duties and checkpoints but was not intended for crowd control or riot duties. By 1972, there were 10 battalions and more than 9,000 men.

In the early days, he stated, a quarter of the men were Catholics but "murder and intimidation, together with a growing perception in the minority that the British army, which had come to protect the nationalist community, was becoming arrayed against it...brought this figure down to about two per cent".

"The perception (he insisted) was unfair...but it reflected a truth - that the bulk of its members were strongly anti-nationalist, some of them ex-B Specials".

By the 1980s the UDR had dropped to 6,600 with a permanent cadre of 2,650 operating through the north with the exception of Catholic parts of Belfast, Derry, south Armagh and Fermanagh.

Turning to attitudes towards the regiment, Buxton admitted that "the UDR has become a symbol of sectarian division" though any hint that it did not have a lasting role would be regarded with "horror" by unionists.

"By contrast", he told the secretary of state, "the regiment is mistrusted, even hated, in much of the Catholic community and by many Catholic politicians. Their attitude has been confirmed in the past year by the charging of several members with murder; in the case of two men from 2 UDR in Armagh, allegedly committed while on duty".

Southern politicians, he added, "who do not have too many good words for the RUC, naturally abominate the UDR" while, more significantly, the regiment "is not held in the highest esteem by the RUC - including the chief constable (Sir Jack Hermon) who has spoken publicly of its ultimate demise".

A military assessment in 1981 concluded there was no long-term requirement for the UDR though it might have a role in home defence.

Hurd's request prompted a response by the NIO minister and ex-guards officer, Lord `Charlie' Lyell who wrote: "I believe that much of the Catholic population, who had a long-standing grudge against the B Specials" originally saw the UDR "as an opportunity for a non-sectarian force".

However, "this hope was soon dashed due to the fact that many of the dreaded B Specials joined...and secondly, by the intimidation of Catholics".

While nationalists favoured disbanding the force, "the resulting backlash from the unionist quarter makes this an unlikely proposition".

Many Protestants regarded the disbandment of the B Specials in 1970 as "an act of treachery by the British government".

"Disbandment would be seen by unionists as once again leaving the hard-pressed Protestant people undefended" while prompting the creation of new unionist paramilitary groups. Besides, he felt, "there will always be an element within the nationalist movement determined to find bogeymen".

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