Disclaimer – Reaper Feed does not condone or support any of the political views or actions of the various paramilitary groups active in the conflict in Northern Ireland. We made this trip in order to gain an insight into the horrific days of The Troubles through the people who lived it, on both sides of the political spectrum from the IRA to members of the UDA and The Red Hand Commando.

This article is part two of Reaper Feed’s The Troubles Series and follows on from our previous piece: Hanging out with an IRA Commander in Belfast when we were invited to explore the conflict in Northern Ireland on a guided tour of UDA and IRA strongholds led by former high ranking combatants. This time, we were to explore the loyalist area and the side of the conflict fought by those who support the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As we stood at the so-called peace wall, which stretches longer than the Berlin Wall did and was constructed in an attempt to prevent the rival nationalist and loyalist communities from butchering each other, we looked towards the Shankill Road in the distance which is the stronghold of Ulster Loyalism and populated by many loyalist paramilitaries. We waited as the stocky figure approached us in shorts, flip flops, and a t-shirt despite the weather being around 2 degrees.

In the UK and Ireland, the wearing of flip flops all year round is seen as a symbol of casual criminality. You don’t wear work shoes and you’re not afraid of the cold. The former loyalist commander introduced himself under the pseudonym of ‘Carl’. Tony, the former IRA commander, and arch-enemy greeted him with an apprehensive nod. ”Right lads, it was a pleasure. This is your fella for the loyalist area, remember what I’ve told you.” Tony said as he shook our hands and walked away. ”Aye and there are two sides to every story, Tony, you know that!” Carl shouted after him. The men tried to make the atmosphere jovial, but underneath, the tension of the troubles was definitely still there.

‘So then boys, shall we set off?’, Carl said with a smile as he clutched a bottle of water. ‘You’ll have to excuse me, it was an old pals birthday yesterday so I’m feeling a bit tender today!’. Carl was a very different character to Tony and had a very approachable and friendly nature with a hint of if you fucked with him, you died. Think of a Mike Ehrmantraut type character, as Carl also bore a physical resemblance to him as well despite being a lot taller.

“Catholic homes caught fire because they were loaded with petrol bombs; Catholic churches were attacked and burned because they were arsenals and priests handed out sub-machine guns to parishioners”

– Loyalist Ian Paisley at a rally in 1968 following attacks on Catholic homes.

Now in his mid-60s, Carl had lived through the height of the troubles as an active paramilitary of the Red Hand Commando and as a commander in the UDA. He’d been shot by both the IRA and his own side in violent feuds, survived a pub bombing, and received a term of 6 life sentences in prison in the early 1990s before being released in the year 2000 under the Good Friday Peace Agreement.

”I didn’t plan this tour so I’ll take you to places I think are important to understanding the troubles and you can ask me anything you like. I’m thick-skinned so don’t hold back!” said Carl as we made our way to the memorial at the infamous Bayardo Bar on the Shankill Road which was a known hangout for members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. In the summer of 1975, the bar was packed with people of all ages when three IRA members began breaching the door before launching a gun and bomb attack that killed 5 people and brutally injured over 50. As the IRA members fled, they fired an Armalite assault rifle into a crowd of Protestant civilians waiting at a taxi rank.

Carl was inside the pub at the time and one of his close friends who was working as a bouncer on the door was one of the first gunned down. He was knocked out in the explosion and woke up in a hospital. ”Violence only brought violence and I can’t say we were victims for long. The tit for tat violence was a ruthless thing.” He said in reference to the wave of retaliatory attacks the Bayardo attack brought. In the days following, loyalists launched car bombs and copycat pub attacks in Republican areas. The Bayardo is gone today, but the memorial garden stands in its place reading ‘a forgotten atrocity’.

Carl was very open about his crimes but we didn’t pry into detail about every murder charge, as there simply wasn’t enough time.

As Tony had done, we wanted to know Carl’s backstory of how he ended up as a paramilitary for the loyalist cause. ”The pub attack was a driving factor in me joining but back then it was the normal thing to do. I grew up with Catholic friends but in 1969 everything changed. We segregated into our own areas and when the killing started it didn’t stop. If I was born a few streets away I probably would have been a militant in the IRA.” In 1996, Carl was found guilty of a plethora of murders, attempted murders and conspiracy to commit terror. He received 6 life sentences and was destined to die in jail before being released after 3 years under the Good Friday Agreement.

During his paramilitary years, Carl had joined an infamous group known as The Red Hand Commando. Declared a terrorist group under British Law, The Red Hand Commando was a militant and highly trained loyalist unit that is known to have killed various Catholic civilians and some of its own members, often breaching door in the dead of night in violent attacks. However, they were often subcontracted by other loyalist factions to carry out killings so the true number will never be known. Oddly, the Red Hand Commando used a motto in Irish Gaelic which translated to ‘red hand to victory’. Selection for the highly secretive Red Hand Commando was highly competitive and was the only loyalist paramilitary organization during the troubles to have never been infiltrated by informants. The Red Hand Commando group was one of the only aspects of his career that Carl was evasive about.

As we continued down the Shankill Road with Carl, it was a mirror image of walking down the Falls Road with Tony as various locals stopped to shake Carl’s hand and unruly local kids playing up outside a fish and chip shop soon behaved and moved on when Carl told them to. Consequently, the fish and chip shop was also a part of the loyalist story when it was the site of an IRA terror attack aimed at killing UDA leadership including the infamous Johnny Adair. Carl was driving to attend the meeting when an IRA bomb detonated prematurely and killed one of the attackers, eight Protestant civilians, and one UDA member.

In revenge, the loyalists launched a wave of UDA vs IRA terror against the Catholic community which killed 14 civilians. Carl added ”That fish and chip shop attack brought one of the worst attacks of the 1990s. Some UDA boys left Belfast and to Londonderry where some Catholics were having a Halloween party in a pub called the Rising Sun. They walked in wearing boiler suits and balaclavas, shouted ‘trick or treat!’ and unloaded pistols, assault rifles, and shotguns into the crowd killing 8 people and wounding a lot more. The thing was there were two protestants shot dead in the crowd, which shows how fucked up the war had become”.

Carl asked us if we’d like to have a pint in a Shankill Road institution, The Rex Bar, and we happily obliged as he looked desperate for the hair of the dog to work off his hangover. The Rex Bar is a hub of loyalists and decked out in an array of political ephemera. Carl insisted the pints were on him, but naturally, the bar didn’t service Irish Guinness so we were given two pints of Tenants brewed in Scotland. As Carl chucked us a couple of menus to grab some food, we told him we’d already eaten in the Rock Bar on the Falls Road. ‘Crafty IRA bastards, trying to win you over through the stomach! Burger and chips with a side of RPG, was it?’ Carl joked in reference to the loyalist rocket-propelled grenade attack on the Rock Bar during the troubles in 1993.

”You’re sitting in loyalist history here, lads” said Carl, and he wasn’t wrong. The Rex Bar was founded back in 1865 and has been a feature of the loyalist community through the decades. Outside in a large memorial dedicated to the local protestants who fell fighting for Britain in WW1 as well as another to those killed during the troubles, inside the walls are decorated with various flags and loyalist sayings and UDA songs fill the air. The pub was often used as an HQ to deploy UDA forces direct to the frontline of the troubles. Interestingly, one of the decorations on the wall was an old SA80 magazine which Carl claimed to have been stole in a riot back in the 1980s.

After his recent release from prison, Carl was enjoying a pint in here when it became ground zero for the blood-soaked loyalist feud that erupted in the summer of 2000. The Rex Bar was attacked by hundreds of rival loyalist paramilitaries leading to gunfire erupting and four people being shot. In the evening, houses were burned down as rival factions were driven out of the area.

The Red Hand Commando Rex Bar Shankill
The Rex Bar on the Shankill Road.

After a few pints of strong Glasgow lager, we stepped back out into the winter sun on the Shankill Road. Despite being a few streets away from the Falls Road, it felt like being in a different country. The Irish tricolor had been replaced by the heritage of the Union Jack, pictures of Irish Easter Lillies had been replaced by pictures of Queen Elizabeth II and the Red Hand of Ulster, and Republican slogans and had been replaced by loyalist slogans. The murals of masked men with assault rifles, remained eerily similar, however. We passed another fish and chip shop with characteristic Northern Irish humor that would not have been allowed during the height of the troubles: a fish and chip shop called ‘For Cod and Ulster’ in a play on words of the loyalist slogan ‘For God and Ulster’.

Carl walked with a significant limp and a stick due to being shot in the legs by Kalashnikov rounds fired by the IRA in the 1980s during the height of the troubles. Following his release from prison, he was watching TV at home when a burst of machine-gun fire came through his window and almost killed him. This time it was fired by his own side as the Northern Ireland loyalists exploded in a vicious internal feud between different factions. Carl was on the winning side and watched as his attackers, who were loyal to exiled loyalist leader Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair, fled to mainland Britain. ‘A bunch of attack dogs following a man who extorts money illegally from straight peg people’ was how Carl described the exiled members.

As we reached the bottom of the Falls Road, we were about to bid farewell to Carl when we asked him what his thoughts were on the aftermath of the troubles in Northern Ireland. ‘I wish that what came along in 1999 had come in 1969. The thirty years of bloodshed could have been avoided. I don’t regret my past as it was the way of life back then, but it would have been better had it never happened. I and the men who fought alongside me are all seeing the aftereffects of war as they grow older. Bullet wounds and psychological trauma lay in wait further down the years, its a veterans lottery on who gets it. I hope you’ve learned something about the troubles today, lads, and enjoy your time in Belfast. I’m gonna go and try to work off my hangover!”

With that we left Carl and headed back into downtown Belfast, enjoying a pint in the famous and visually stunning bar that was packed with tourists who’d probably just returned from bus trips to the Giant’s Causeway. A ten minute walk away from but an entirely different world to the tense pubs of the Falls and Shankill Roads with a violent past and political edge of the troubles.

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Batya (Батя) is the founder of Reaper Feed. He is an international security advisor and a high-risk expedition leader across former and active conflict zones such as Eastern Ukraine, unrecognized post-Soviet states, the North Caucasus, and the Middle East. Batya founded Reaper Feed to provide unprecedented insight into the lesser-seen sides of human conflict and modern warfare. He is from the UK but his work means he is based in various countries around the world.