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Clampdown on UDA was long overdue

(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

That's another marching season over, or it will be when the last Black march wends its doleful way along the road. Nothing at all to do with any genre of Afro-Ulster loyalism you understand, but the last gasp of the senior loyal order, the preposterously named Imperial Grand Black Chapter, signals the end of the marching season each year.

There's never any trouble at their marches. Members of the 'Black' are more sedate than their coarser Orange brethren nor do they favour an extensive tail of yahoos defiling the rear of their marches as Orange and Apprentice marches feature. The 'Black' see themselves as, can you believe this, a 'royal priesthood', and address each other as 'Sir Knight'. Seriously. Few notice their marches.

Then again you hardly noticed any marches this year. Minor stuff at estates near Drumcree, a few flying beer cans and bricks at Ardoyne, nothing much at the Apprentice Boys in Derry. In fact the statistics are all about enormous reductions in violence across the north, over 80 per cent down at the Fountain estate interface in Derry for example, only a fraction of the number of police and British army usually required everywhere.

What has happened? A tribute to the hard work of people with mobile phones at interfaces some say, community workers engaging with each other on the other side of the divide. Maybe so, but that would be to suggest these people just dossed around last year and the previous three years. They didn't. They had mobile phones then too. They knew each other's names. They ran about demented but it did no good.

No. The main difference is that the UDA leaders who were organising loyalist violence from 1999 have been spancelled. These were the men who launched a huge campaign of sectarian attacks on Catholics and their property which saw about 500 pipe bombs thrown killing one Catholic woman and also a few young UDA members when their bombs exploded prematurely and damaging countless homes, clubs and other premises. The UDA orchestrated almost nightly riots in parts of north Belfast for weeks on end including using petrol-bombs, blast bombs and firearms. They also opened fire on the British army and got away with it.

One particularly odious character, John Gregg, was largely responsible for a reign of terror against Catholics in Larne and Carrickfergus. The activities of the unspeakable Johnny Adair are so infamous as to need no description. There's not the space to refer even to a fraction of what the other self-styled brigadiers got up to from 1999-2003. Then, this spring, when they were no longer able to kill rival members of the UVF or attack Catholics because they fell out and began to kill each other instead, the police belatedly acted. There's now a shaky ceasefire.

During all the time when Adair, Gregg and the others were waging their campaign and the name, rank and serial numbers of UDA leaders appeared regularly in newspapers, unionist politicians blamed the IRA. What are they like?

For their part, the British administration here did nothing. It was only after dithering for months that our previous proconsul, John Reid, screwed up the courage to declare the UDA's ceasefire over in autumn 2001. Then he did nothing. Then he met the yobs responsible for the violence to ask them to stop. Really.

Despite both police and British army spokesmen saying the UDA was responsible for the street violence, and despite the police thanking republicans for their efforts in calming street violence in 2001 and 2002, unionist politicians, with characteristic dishonesty and hypocrisy, continued to point the finger at Sinn Féin and continued to snuggle up to councillors who are UDA front men. Even when the UDA leaders imploded of their own accord this year none of this changed.

This summer with the gangsters who recently ran the UDA either dead, in jail or on remand there's been comparative peace on the streets. Why didn't the British administration here act three years ago, two years ago? How many dead and injured would have been saved? Very simple. The lack of response was entirely consistent with the ambivalence towards UDA violence since the organisation was set up in 1971 then manipulated by intelligence services as a counter-gang to the IRA to terrorise Catholics, a terrorist organisation incredibly kept legal until 1992.

Only now that the IRA campaign is clearly over has the British administration decided that they no longer need the UDA. In fact the UDA is a problem and has to be eliminated. Now why couldn't they do that before? Well, think of the protests from the security forces. 'You can't crack down on the UDA. We need them. We'd lose some of our best killers.'

August 28, 2003

This article appeared first in the August 27, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

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