28 July 2005

Cynicism and suspicion in loyalist heartland

IOL

28/07/2005 - 19:38:45

Loyalists today greeted the IRA’s statement with suspicion and expressed concern over the motives behind the historic announcement.

UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald digested it for the first time in his office in a prisoners’ drop-in centre at the heart of the Protestant Sandy Row in south Belfast.

He said: “How can they say to wee Paddy, on the border with his AK47, who has spent 27 years shooting at soldiers and peelers (police): ’Give us your AK47. You don’t need it any more’?

“How do they say to the real hardliners ’We are getting what we set out to get’? The Green Book (the IRA constitution) said they would never give up an ounce of Semtex or a bullet until we achieve a United Ireland.”

McDonald, who served half of a 10-year sentence for extortion, said there must be a hidden motive for today’s ground-breaking declaration.

Reading the full statement for the first time, he forecast the loyalist community would be troubled by the hidden diplomacy which preceded it.

He said: “They (republicans) must believe we are within touching distance of a united Ireland. You can’t blame the unionist and loyalist community. They have to treat this with great suspicion.”

McDonald predicated moves towards a united Ireland would have the potential to plunge the North into a new era of violence.

He said: “If there was any plan in the next number of years for it to happen, to bring about a united Ireland, loyalism and unionism would rebel against it. We would become what the IRA were. We would have to fight against it any way we could.”

Despite the statement, McDonald does not believe the IRA will abandon its arms.

“As a loyalist, what the IRA does with weapons decommissioning does not bother me because I know that they will still have enough manpower left to deal with any situation that arises.

“The hawks (in the IRA) would not have it any other way. The most important thing is that the weapons are not being used.”

The former prisoner said some weapons would have to be detained in order for the IRA to defend their communities from drug gangs.

McDonald said the DUP is facing a major challenge convincing its electorate that, just months after the £26.5m (€38m) Northern Bank robbery, the IRA can be trusted.

He also predicted party leader the Rev Ian Paisley would seize upon the fact that the statement does not include the phrase: “The war is over“.

But he called for the statement to be viewed as a starting point.

“We can’t go on the way we are going,” he said. “We have to improve things for our young people so they don’t fall into the same traps as we fell into. We need to give them some sort of future.”

IT tutor Jim Watt also works at the Prisoners Enterprise Project, which is sandwiched between Just William’s Café and the Ulster Society.

Mr Watt said the local community has been left incensed this week by Tony Blair’s comments comparing al-Qaida to the IRA and the release of Shankill bomber Sean Kelly.

The 53-year-old said: “Tony Blair said the IRA never killed 3,000 people but if they got 1,000 police officers in the one place they would have killed them.”

On the statement, he said: “The unionist and Protestant people are being truly betrayed. In one sense it would be great to see disarmament but at what price? I imagine most people will treat it with contempt.

"They are not doing this out of some sense of altruism. They have not been slaughtering Protestants for 30 years just to say: ’We will give up and go’.

Mr Watt also questioned the decision to release Sean Kelly, who planted the 1993 IRA bomb which killed nine civilians.

He said: “If they provided evidence that he was involved in terrorism at the time the IRA were on ceasefire, who was he involved in terrorism with? Was it dissidents and will dissidents decommission their weapons as well?”

Rain lashed down from grey skies wich hung over the Sandy Row as the historic IRA statement was released to the world.

The weather summed up the mood of some locals who felt today’s announcment would make little difference to the North after three decades of bloodshed.

William Hewitt, 35, was painting red lettering on to a white drum as he absorbed the significance of the statement.

The Drum Sounds shop sells instruments and memorabilia ranging from flags and badges, to CDs and DVDs.

A dark blue Ulster Defence Association t-shirt hung over the counter as Mr Hewitt carried out his work on a wooden stool.

He said: “It is disgraceful Sean Kelly was released before the statement was put out. Everyone is disillusioned by the whole peace process as it is just a series of concessions to republicans. I have no faith in the whole peace process and I have no faith in the British government to deliver peace.”

Across the road – which is lined with red, white and blue painted kerbstones - from the prisoners’ drop-in centre, the owner of the Carpet Centre has more reasons than most to despise the IRA.

The IRA killed two of Robert Smith’s cousins and claimed the lives of six of his friends.

On the motives behind today’s statement, Mr Smith, 44, said: “They have seen what has happened in London and New York and they can’t be seen as terrorists any more. They want to be seen as a law-abiding organisation but they are a terrorist organisation.

Of the losses he has suffered, Mr Hewitt said: “The IRA killed two members of my family and six of my friends, who were all members of the security forces.

“It is a bitter pill to swallow that they have put down the gun without even an apology for what they have done. It is a statement 30 years too late.”

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