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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Ritchie must retain her influence with the UDA

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

It may not seem like it on the surface but Margaret Ritchie has the UDA where she wants them this weekend – in retreat. She has been a brave an effective minister and what she needs now is some cover from Hugh Orde, the PSNI Chief Constable, whose lead she followed in threatening funding loyalist areas.

Orde has a quick way with words and he was on top form in August. He waded in to the political arena to question the allocation of British government money to community projects as part of a Conflict Transformation Initiative favoured by the UDA and the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), its political wing.

'If you want my personal opinion, I wouldn't give them 50 pence" Orde quipped, coining a phrase. He spoke after his officers had come under fire from UDA members in Bangor's Kilcooley estate. The UDA were, at the time, engaged in one of their interminable squabbles over money.

The target of his ire was £1.2 million, payable over three years, which David Hanson, Ritchie's Direct Rule predecessor, had allocated to fund the UPRG's Conflict Transformation programme. It can be argued that Hanson should not have given the money, which looked dangerously like a protection payment to buy off violence, without very short strings and periodic reviews.

However he did so and "Brigadier" Jackie McDonald, the UDA de facto, leader was quick to make it clear that there would be no immediate quid pro quo. Decommissioning was "not even on the radar" declared McDonald, a wily character with convictions for extortion and a businesslike approach to most issues.

McDonald likes to horse trade, he has done so with the Irish government and has even built up a friendly relationship with both President McAleese and her husband Martin, a golfing partner of the UDA leader. McDonald helped defuse the outcry when the President compared Protestant bigotry to Nazism and he welcomed her into community premises in his own South Belfast "brigade area" when other loyalist districts were closed to her.

Irish government money, and private money raised by Martin McAleese, has been channelled into loyalist areas in response to efforts by the UDA or UVF reduce tension or remove threatening murals. It isn't what could normally be called principled but, if there is a principle, it is that money is conditional on delivery. Another principle is that you have to sure that the man you are dealing with can actually deliver.

The UDA is a shambolic organisation. Its structure and style of operation closely resembles the Sicilian Mafia or its US counterpart Cosa Nostra. A series of geographical Brigades areas operate, like Mafia "families". Each has a great deal of autonomy in its own patch where it organises rackets and make deals with legitimate business on the basis of coercion and back scratching.

Brigades come together when they need to, for instance to purchase weapons, to iron out territorial disputes and to meet common threats. If one brigadier attacks another the rest combine to eliminate him.

In the case of Hanson McDonald got the financial concession without guaranteeing anything very much. He seems to have indicated that it would help avoid feuds by making his people look good and showing he could deliver. He then made it clear to his fellow brigadiers that he had not impinged on their territory or made any commitments about the arsenal they held in common.

Hanson should have forced him to get agreement with the other Brigadiers on decommissioning before he agree the grant aid but he hadn't time for that. He was in a hurry to get the whole thing over with before devolution. Buying off the UDA was one of the things the direct rule team did to give power sharing a fair wind.

Despite claims to the contrary the money allocated by Hanson did not go into the pockets of the UDA. Although a number of UPRG members, including Frankie Gallagher its spokesman, are amongst the 14 workers employed with the grants the recruitment was by open competition. Spending is tightly controlled by a reputable organisation, Farset Community Enterprises, and represents a fraction of government and European aid to loyalist areas.

The main purpose the payment served for the UDA was to show that it had some influence and the government was prepared to engage with it. Unlike Sinn Féin the UPRG gets practically no votes in loyalist areas and there is no political way forward for the UDA. Delivering Irish or British taxpayers' money to areas of support is one way of building its credibility.

In a report last month, covering the period up until July 31, the IMC had said that the UDA had not moved as far away from illegal activity as other para-military groups like the IRA and UVF.

"We believe that a lack of internal organisational coherence will continue to inhibit progress" the IMC said.

"At the time of writing this report there seems to have been no progress on decommissioning. There has however been less criminal activity by members and the organisation has publicly discouraged them from engaging in crime, instead directing them towards community work."

The IMC neatly underlines the situation. The grant was encouraging the UDA away from criminality but progress was at best fitful because its internal organisation was decentralised almost to the point of anarchy.

Orde's "I wouldn't give them 50p" outburst, after a police officer was shot in the back by the UDA, struck a chord with Ritchie.

"I agree with the Chief Constable" she said.

"We are not getting payback for the commitment we have shown." And she proceeded to give the UDA 60 days to meet General John de Chastelain's Decommissioning body and start disposing of its weapons.

Workers on the projects were put on precautionary notice and can now be let go on the minister's say-so. Her deadline ran out on Tuesday.

The UDA blustered, claiming that it wouldn't be held to deadlines but the reality is that it met de Chastelain before the deadline. It told him that decommissioning is now very firmly "on the radar" and was only a matter or time. UDA sources even talk of a "convincing gesture" next month, though it is not clear whether this is an act of decommissioning, an inspection of weapons or some lesser move like an order to dump arms. Perhaps they don't know and are waiting to see what they can get away with.

Ritchie pushed them to conceding the principle of decommissioning where Hanson failed. In a game of poker she has forced them to show their hand and she holds a better one.

The question she must ponder over the weekend is whether it would be most profitable to walk away from the table or play on.

The choice is hers. It would be an easy matter to divert the money into other projects, there are lots of them in the areas in question. The ones that she is funding under the UPRG's "Conflict Transformation Initiative" have run for six months and only £70,000 has so far been handed over to them so far. They still have two and a half years to run and the rest of the £1.2 million is still in the pot and in Ritchie's gift.

It's a tough decision but the balance of advantage may be to keep the projects on a financial drip, extending them a month or two at a time. That way she can dole out the money so as to exert maximum pressure and maintain the initiative as she pushes the UDA to keep moving. If there is any back sliding or bravado she can pull the plug without too much ceremony.

Her deadline was very popular with the public and the press who were by and large enraged at the effrontery of the UDA. She appeared strong and her own SDLP party may advise her against appearing to back down or surrender her principles.

What she needs to do is keep her eye on the prize. The UDA's loose structures and endless power struggles make it essential that it is disarmed. Unlike the IRA or UVF, which have tight centralised structures, the UDA's word can't be trusted. McDonald has the ascendant and is a man who, whatever his shortcomings, keeps a promise once given but he could be gone at any moment.

In this situation the bravest thing that Ritchie can do is keep her hands on the levers she has at her disposal and be prepared to use them.

Hugh Orde, who had the courage to call it with the UDA in the first place, can help her politically. It is up to him to say whether he thinks that her pressure has results and whether it should be continued.

He hasn't been slow to comment on political issues with a security dimension in the past and there is no excuse for him to be shy away from giving his judgement now.


October 15, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on October 15, 2007.