03 March 2006



03/03/06 09:50 EST

Two leading loyalists who have had talks with Irish premier Bertie Ahern and President Mary McAleese's husband were among 17 people arrested in a police raid in Belfast last night.

Armed police using CS gas stormed the Alexander Bar in Tigers Bay, north Belfast, where it is understood the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was rehearsing for a so-called show of strength. It is understood an event was being planned for some time this weekend.

South Belfast UDA leader Jackie McDonald and Ihab Shoukri, brother of north Belfast UDA leader Andre, were among those detained for questioning over what the PSNI say is an investigation into serious crime.

The UDA are involved in drug dealing, money laundering, racketeering and intimidation. A bitter internal feud has led to a number of murders in recent years.

McDonald and Shoukri were part of an Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) delegation that held talks with Bertie Ahern in 2004.

Mr Martin McAleese has met the pair on a number of occasions - the most recent of which was last month - in an attempt to get the UDA declare and end to paramilitary activity.

He also played a round of golf with McDonald at the exclusive K Club, Co Kildare, and Mrs McAleese embraced him during a visit to south Belfast last year.

Though considered well-intentioned, the meetings have been met with muted criticism in nationalist circles.

Today, DUP MLA Ian Paisley jnr questioned the wisdom of Mrs McAleese meeting with "people whose backgrounds can only be described as extremely dubious".

It is understood police Land Rovers were also on standby in the nearby nationalist New Lodge road area.

Sinn Fein members were concerned that the presence of the police vehicles could attract young people wishing to attack them and they pleaded with them to go home and not get involved.

Councillor Caral ni Chuilin said if it turned out that loyalists were planning a show of strength in the bar, it demonstrated how futile those actions were.

The north Belfast councillor said: "It is ironic that years into an IRA ceasefire, months into a declaration of the end of its armed campaign and since decommissioning was completed, that loyalist paramilitaries are still involved in shows of strength.

"If we are to go forward then we need loyalists to help their own communities and copperfasten the peace process by putting the weapons beyond use and not engaging in this kind of activity. There is no need for armed organisations."

SDLP policing spokesman Alex Attwood said: "The actions to close down the activities of the UDA or any other illegal organisations are fully justified."

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