05 August 2005

N.Irish loyalists hold on to guns despite IRA move

Reuters

By Kevin Smith
Thu Aug 4, 2005 02:55 PM BST

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click to view - UDA in Rathcoole 2004 - photo REUTERS/Paul McErlane

BELFAST (Reuters) - With a cast of chillingly-nicknamed characters and an alphabet soup of rival factions, Northern Ireland's Protestant paramilitary groups have spent years locked in murderous infighting.

Given the turbulence within these paramilitary groups, experts say, the pledge last week by their Irish Republican Army foes to dump arms and end violence is unlikely to bring any reciprocal moves from Protestant gunmen soon.

Since 2000, feuds between warring "loyalists" -- so-called because of their fierce allegiance to the crown and hostility to a united Ireland -- have left nearly 20 men dead, with three killed since the beginning of last month.

"What you've got with loyalism now is a headless chicken that's running around incredibly frustrated and all the nerve endings are fighting each other," said James Dingley, lecturer in terrorism and political violence at the University of Ulster.

"They have no political brains within their ranks to give them coherent guidance," he said.

Loyalist groups, which reacted to the IRA's campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland by killing Roman Catholics, were responsible for around 1,000 of the 3,600 lives lost in the 30-year conflict. The IRA was responsible for around 1,800.

But since an IRA ceasefire in 1997, the chief struggle among loyalist paramilitaries has been for control of Protestant neighbourhoods in disputes often linked to drug dealing and racketeering.

"The feud situation is dominating things so you're not going to get a quick response," said Mervyn Gibson, chairman of the Loyalist Commission, which includes members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Red Hand Commando (RHC) alongside churchmen and politicians.

"They'll consider the (IRA) statement carefully and like the rest of the (pro-British) unionist community they'll wait to see the words followed by actions," he said.

However, the likelihood of Protestant guerrilla groups -- who regard themselves as defensive organisations against the threat of republicanism -- giving up their guns is remote.

Aside from requiring weaponry to carry out their feuds, groups like the UVF and the smaller Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) -- the two factions involved in the latest power struggle -- see no political gain from giving up arms, as may have been the case with the IRA and its political ally Sinn Fein.

Also, moves to scale back the British military presence in the province in the wake of the IRA's declaration have increased loyalist insecurity about the lack of homegrown protection against dissident groups like the Real IRA.

"I can't see them giving up their weapons, probably because they don't think the union (with Britain) is safe any more," said Henry McDonald, co-author of a book about the UDA.

"Also, the UVF is engaged in a shooting war with the LVF and while that's going on they're not going to give up their guns."

Security sources say loyalist groups have been upgrading their arsenals in recent years, with one source estimating the UVF alone had "enough weaponry to arm at least one infantry battalion".

That kind of firepower is one reason why police fear an escalation in the latest feud as the UVF sets about eradicating the LVF, a breakaway group set up in 1996 by the late Billy "King Rat" Wright and heavily involved in drug dealing across the province.

Other recent feuds have included a struggle for supremacy between guerrilla boss Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair and rival UDA commanders which ended in several deaths and the exiling of Adair and his supporters to England.

Another high-profile paramilitary, Frankie "Pig Face" Curry, one-time leader of UVF splinter group the Red Hand Commando, was shot dead by his former comrades in west Belfast in 1999.

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