29 May 2006

President’s contact with UDA defended as feud fears grow

Daily Ireland

Irish government backs president’s contact with UDA

Mick Hall and Evan Short

The Irish government has defended President Mary McAleese over her refusal to break contacts with the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) despite signs that the paramilitary organisation may be on the verge of a bloody feud.
It is feared a power struggle between the UDA bosses in north and south Belfast is in danger of erupting into violence after an ultimatum was issued ordering north Belfast UDA ‘brigadier’ Ihab Shoukri to resign his position by noon today.
Shoukri was made north Belfast UDA leader in the absence of his older brother Andre who is currently on remand awaiting trial on charges of blackmail, intimidation and money laundering following his arrest last November.
Ihab Shoukri is currently out on bail after being charged with UDA/UFF membership.
The move against the Shoukris is part of an internal clean-up of the paramilitary organisation by its ruling inner council, which met last Thursday to discuss the situation.
It is understood that south Belfast UDA leader Jackie McDonald is behind the move to oust the two.
The President’s husband Martin McAleese is said to be a close friend of Jackie McDonald and the two men regularly play golf together.
Speaking to Daily Ireland at the launch of a peace building strategy in north Belfast last Friday, the President’s husband, Martin McAleese, categorically denied media speculation the contact between the McAleeses and Mr McDonald had ended.
“Work towards peace continues,” Mr McAleese said.
“If we were put off by every setback that came up the peace process we would fall into paralysis. Work continues.”
The McAleeses now run the risk of severe criticism if they are seen to be courting the UDA while its members are trying to kill each other.
However, their position has the full support of the Irish government.
Last night a government spokesman told Daily Ireland: “The government has always supported the president and her husband’s outreach work for both communities in Northern Ireland.”
More cautious support also came from North Belfast SDLP assembly member, Alban Maginness.
He commented: “The Irish government is aware of the McAleeses’ activities and it is satisfied that this contact is valuable. So long as that contact goes no further the government has my confidence and I would refrain from commenting further.”
Mr Maginness, who has been critical of the McAleeses’ UDA contact, said he was unaware of any “imminent threat” of violence in north Belfast, but warned that the situation could change “at any minute”.
“North Belfast has enjoyed a relatively peaceful period in recent times and I hope that can be maintained. However, the situation here can change at any minute, particular as we enter the marching season and that, unfortunately, reflects the volatile nature of north Belfast,” Mr Maginness said.

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