The UDA was, and remains, the largest Loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. It was formed in September 1971 from a number of Loyalist vigilante groups many of which were called 'defence associations'; one such group was the Shankill Defence Association. The UDA's first leader was Charles Smith. Members of the UDA have, since 1973, used the cover name of Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) to claim the responsibility for the killing of Catholics. Despite the well-known link between the two groups the UDA was only proscribed (declared illegal) on 10 August 1992. The UDA attracted many thousands of members (at its peak the estimated membership was 50,000) and very quickly became a formidable force particularly in Belfast. The UDA had a policy of excluding Members of Parliament (MPs) and clergymen from its membership and sought to retain its working-class credentials. During the protests against the imposition of direct rule from Westminster the UDA campaigned with Ulster Vanguard and the Loyalist Association of Workers (LAW). The UDA arranged massive displays of strength on the streets of Belfast during the summer of 1972, when thousands of 'uniformed' members marched through the city centre. One of the biggest 'stand-offs' between the UDA and the British Army at this time took place on 3 July 1972 in Belfast, when 8,000 UDA members confronted 250 troops. However, it was during the May 1974 Ulster Workers' Council strike that the UDA carried out its biggest operation. 
It was the UDA, through the use of roadblocks, which brought large sections of Northern Ireland to a standstill. From 1973 the UFF was responsible for scores of shootings and bombing attacks. In 1977 the UDA supported the United Unionist Action Council (UUAC) strike, but it did not support Ian Paisley's 'Day of Action' or his 'Third Force' in 1981. In 1978 the UDA sponsored the New Ulster Political Research Group (NUPRG) a political think-tank. In March 1979 the NUPRG issued a proposal for an independent Northern Ireland. In June 1981 the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party (ULDP) was established to replace the NUPRG. The ULDP advocated independence for Northern Ireland within the British Commonwealth and the European Community. 
The UDA opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement but was not in favour of a national strike over the issue. In January 1987 the UDA published the document "common sense" plans for a future political settlement. The document did receive favourable responses from the British government, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). In December 1987 John McMichael, then deputy leader of the UDA, was killed in a bomb attack carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). However, it was alleged that fellow members of the UDA had set up McMichael. Early in 1988 Andy Tyrie was removed as leader of the UDA and control passed to an 'inner council' of six members. During 1988 large quantities of arms were secured by the UDA some of which came from South Africa. In October 1988 both the UDA and the UFF were included in the direct broadcasting ban. In 1989 the ULDP changed its name to Ulster Democratic Party (UDP). During the Stevens inquiry it became apparent that the UDA had access to a large number of security files on Republicans and suspected members of Republican paramilitary groups. During the 1990s the UFF stepped up its attacks on Catholics and Republicans. It also attacked SDLP politicians and councillors. There were a number of multiple killings including: five Catholics on 5 February 1992 in Belfast; three Catholics on 14 November 1992; six Catholics during 48 hours in March 1993; and six Catholics and one Protestant on 30 October 1993. The UDA and the UFF joined with other Loyalist paramilitary groups in calling a ceasefire on 13 October 1994 in response to the earlier IRA ceasefire. The UDP earned a place at the multi-party talks following the elections in May 1996. The UFF (and the UDA) broke their ceasefire during December 1997 and January 1998 and this resulted in the UDP being expelled from the talks. The UDP were readmitted to the talks when the UFF announced a renewed ceasefire on 23 January 1998. Although the paramilitary organisations had reservations about the Good Friday Agreement they backed the UDP in its support for the Agreement.
Membership: At its peak in the mid-1970s, the UDA could organise 30,000 members on the streets of Belfast. Its current strength is probably several thousand with a few hundred being 'active' in the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) a cover name used by the UDA.

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