08 March 2006

Jekyll and Hyde: the two faces of north Belfast UDA

Belfast Telegraph

Was the north Belfast UDA really about to call a halt to criminality? Security expert Brian Rowan investigates

It is the new Jekyll and Hyde of the Ulster Defence Association - the new two faces of the paramilitary organisation. This is the UDA in north Belfast. It is not something that will be said out loud, but the loyalist leadership now has its biggest problem since Johnny Adair and his so-called C Company.

The UDA in the north of the city and its leader Ihab Shoukri have been in the news spotlight since a police raid on a pub meeting six days ago. Eleven men were subsequently charged and we now know that a hand written UDA document was seized.

Over the past 24 hours, a dispute has emerged about the nature of the pub gathering. Was it a rehearsal by Shoukri and his men for a paramilitary "show of strength" or were they getting ready to "announce an end to all criminal activities"?

In the Jekyll and Hyde world of the UDA in north Belfast, the answer could be both. Adair and his C Company had the same two faces - a public position that suggested support for the peace process, while, privately, the reality was something entirely different.

Whatever is suggested by the words written in that UDA document seized last week, the facts are different. Shoukri and his men have replaced Adair and his C Company as the most malign influence within loyalism.

That is something that is said privately within the loyalist paramilitary world, and is an opinion held within the most senior ranks of the PSNI.

"They are almost akin to the dissidents of republicanism," a senior police source said. "There is a group in the UDA in the same mode, and it's for their own ends."

Last week's police operation was about "sending a message" to Shoukri and the UDA in north Belfast and it was an indication of where the PSNI believes the biggest threat exists within loyalism.

Adair brought unwanted attention to the wider UDA organisation. The Shoukris - both Ihab and Andre - have done the same.

Last week a senior loyalist source told this newspaper that the UDA in north Belfast was "filling its pockets". This was a reference to its involvement in criminality. Now, just a few days later, we are being asked to believe that those same individuals are going to cut holes in their paramilitary pockets to stop them from being filled again. Only a fool would fall for that one.

The changes that are being considered within loyalism will threaten the money, and the lifestyles and the status of some of those at the top of this paramilitary organisation, including some of its leaders in north Belfast. Maybe that is why there is a line in last week's seized document that reads: "We'll never go away you know."

As one police source observed, if they really were going away, why would they need balaclavas, rubber gloves and uniforms?

To go away would mean ending their criminality. To go away would mean giving the loyalist community a chance to breathe and to find its feet again, and to go away would require those in the paramilitary world to give up their power. Some of those who still have that power and who talk about deprivation in the loyalist community have been the destroyers of that community and its reputation.

For a very long time now, some in the leadership of the UDA and the closely associated Ulster Political Research Group have been talking about change - change that will see this organisation re-involve itself in the peace process. In the background, there has been a lot of talking with many different people. But is the UDA leadership in north Belfast hearing what is being said?

"They let on they are listening," a senior loyalist paramilitary source told the Belfast Telegraph.

So, if he is not convinced that the UDA in the north of the city is up for change and up for peace, why should anyone else believe the talk of taking the "fight into the political arena"?

The UDA has a leadership, a six-man Inner Council. Ihab Shoukri (north Belfast) is part of it, as are Jackie McDonald (south Belfast), Matt Kincaid (west Belfast), Billy McFarland (north Antrim/Derry), and two other 'brigadiers', in east Belfast and south-east Antrim, who we are not naming at this stage.

That Inner Council of six 'brigadiers' will decide the future shape of the UDA organisation - its position on guns, on politics and on peace. It has been a long wait for its decision, and, in the waiting, the credibility of the internal and external discussions that are taking place is once again being questioned - questioned because in the middle of that debate, someone thought it would be a good idea to put on a pub performance in paramilitary dress.

There is a similar debate going on inside the UVF and the closely linked Red Hand Commando. There are people who want to move loyalism on, to give it a place in the peace process, but there are others who are stuck in their old ways and whose positions are threatened by change. There is a moment of choice coming for the loyalist paramilitaries. What is it to be?

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Bar room letter read out in court

A four-page handwritten statement was read out in court by Crown counsel David Hopley who said it was intended to be delivered at the UDA/UFF function the following night.

Mr Hopley said it was found in the possession of one of the defendants, Gary McKenzie (34), of Clare Heights, Belfast, and after quoting several details he handed the statement to Lord Justice Sheil who retired to his chambers to read it.

When the judge returned he told Mr Hopley to read the following statement in open court:

"In the summer of 1972 when the IRA threatened our very existence young Protestant men flocked in their thousands to join vigilante groups across Ulster to defend Ulster from Republican aggression.

"These brave young men manned barricades at their street to defend their homes as the enemy drew in.

"These vigilantes became what is now the Ulster Defence Association. "At one stage in 1974 the UDA made the loyalist community so strong that it was able to topple the Sunningdale Agreement.

"Friends and comrades, thank you for showing your support for tonight's event. As you know know the PIRA has surrendered. "This in itself was a victory for the loyalist community although our Unionist politicians and the Secretary of State don't want to seem to give us any concessions.

"So we must now take our fight into the political arena. However, this does not spell the end for the UDA. We want to reassure you all that the Ulster Defence Association is here to stay.

"I would also like to take this opportunity to let our prisoners and their families know that we will continue to fight for them.

And while Hugh Orde continually calls us criminals and puts only North Belfast Brigade Staff in jail on trumped up charges, we remain as strong as ever. We'll never go away you know!"

"Only for these brave men who knows where we would be today.

So tonight we would like to show our appreciation to some of them who have made it here (Get Willie to hand out plaques).

"Could we please also show our appreciation to our four office staff for their tireless work and endeavour."

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