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Rise and fall of loyalist icons

(Barry McCaffrey, Irish News)

A senior UDA source last night (Thursday) admitted that few people would ever know just how close John White and Johnny Adair came to taking over the UDA. But as Adair this morning paces the floor of his Maghaberry prison cell White is getting used to the cold winds of a Scottish winter and the lower Shankill is under new management.

The rise and fall of White and Adair could be seen to have been a history of the fortunes of the UDA and its most infamous 'C company' unit.

It is a little known fact that Adair and White were born in the same street on the Shankill. Although separated in age by 15 years their lives would be inextricably linked.

At 20 years of age White was arrested in London and spent a year in Brixton jail charged with trying to buy arms for what later became the UDA. The charges were eventually dropped because of entrapment by what White claimed was MI5.

Even then White's position, in what was to become Northern Ireland's largest loyalist paramilitary grouping, was assured. In the first two years of the UDA's inception 75 people were murdered.

Not content that the UDA was carrying out enough attacks on nationalists the UFF was formed in 1973. John White was always reticent about his role in the setting up of the UFF.

A macabre loyalist paramilitary accolade, in which the UFF used the code name 'Captain Black' to claim its killings, was a tribute to White's position within the group. But it was one of the most brutal killings of the Troubles which brought him into the public eye.

In June 1973 SDLP senator Paddy Wilson and his Protestant girlfriend, Irene Andrews, were found stabbed to death at a quarry on the outskirts of north Belfast. Although White was arrested and questioned about the killings the next day, it was only when he was questioned in Castlereagh in 1976 about other offences that he admitted his involvement.

During an interview just days before he fled White agreed to talk about the brutal murders. Claiming that the UDA had decided to try and sicken the nationalist community after six Protestant pensioners were killed by the IRA White said that a decision had been taken to murder the prominent nationalist.

"We felt the SDLP was supporting the concept of a united Ireland, therefore giving some support to the armed struggle, to pursue that through violence," he said.

"We felt that (killing) someone like Paddy Wilson, someone of that calibre, would be seen as someone high up within the nationalist community. That would send a powerful message and strike fear into Catholics."

Asked why Irene Andrews was murdered, White said: "We didn't know she was a Protestant, we just thought she was a Catholic to be honest."

Sentenced to life imprisonment White recalled how he had been sent to an H-block full of IRA prisoners on the Blanket protest, because he had refused to put on the prison uniform, judging himself a 'political prisoner'.

"Walking into the H-block they thought I was a Provo and they were all out the window cheering.

"It was a tremendous scene to experience. They were all banging on the windows and walls with cups to welcome me in.

"The irony was it lifted me, although they didn't know who I was."

As White's UDA career was stalled for 16 years it was his neighbour, Adair, who was making a name for himself in the lower Shankill. Small and skinny in stature, Adair rose through the ranks of a UDA which in the late 1980s had been heavily infiltrated by both the Special Branch and British military intelligence.

While UDA murders had dropped during the mid-1980s, the emergence of British army agent Brian Nelson within the west Belfast UDA saw a major increase in the killings of Catholics. With the help of his army handlers Nelson supplied the personal details of hundreds of nationalists and republicans to C company's gunmen.

When White left jail in January 1992 the UDA that he had left behind had changed dramatically. Adair was now controlling the lower Shankill.

Adair regularly boasted how it had been C company and not the rest of the UDA which murdered most Catholics in the late 80s and early 90s. He would happily recall how C company gunmen had taken over a house in the heart of republican west Belfast waiting for the leader of the IRA's Belfast brigade to arrive at a house opposite.

The attack, he said, was aborted when a British army foot patrol came into the street as the IRA leader was about to get out of his car.

Stories of Adair travelling around nationalist estates dressed in a Celtic jersey were legion. It was his belief that he could not be caught which saw him jailed for directing terrorism in 1994.

Adair chatted and boasted to RUC officer Jonty Brown in his Heather Street home about the latest murder which had been carried out, unaware that Brown was secretly recording the conversations.

When eventually brought to Castlereagh and confronted with the overwhelming evidence against him he is reported to have said: "Oh no lads, you haven't done this on me."

He pleaded guilty to the charges, thereby stopping any of the embarrassing evidence against him from becoming public.

Ironically it was in jail that Adair's iconic image developed. He met his first secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, when she went into the Maze in 1998 to negotiate with loyalist prisoners.

The same year White suffered public humiliation when he received only 976 votes in the assembly elections.

When Adair was freed in September 1999 he had become the cartoon image of a loyalist hard man. Gone was the skinny 20-something baby face to be replaced by a bald-headed, bulked up loyalist 'hero'. There to meet him was his boyhood hero White.

While his UDA counterpart Michael Stone left jail and quickly drifted into relative obscurity, Adair was never out of the public eye.

Within months he was being considered by security chiefs as a risk to peace. He began building close ties to the LVF – much to the annoyance of the UVF.

A 'celebration of loyalist culture' on the Shankill in August 2000 sparked a feud with the UVF in which seven people were to die. But in a telling sign of what was to come Adair failed to bring the rest of the UDA into the feud.

As the killing continued then-secretary of state Peter Mandelson ordered Adair's return to jail.

While Adair was back in jail, White's influence within C company was minimal. His support for the Good Friday Agreement did not sit well with the UDA or its political wing the UDP.

In jail Adair had ideas of his own for the UDA. Released on May 15 last year he was met by the six members of the UDA's ruling 'inner council' who were aware by this stage that Adair was already planning to move against at least two 'brigadiers'.

Back in his lower Shankill stronghold on the day of his release he told C company supporters that they would retake the Shankill from the UVF.

Within weeks he had indeed ousted north Belfast brigadier Jimbo Simpson and replaced him with what he believed was a loyal supporter in the form of Andre Shoukri.

It was common knowledge within loyalist circles that east Belfast brigadier Jim Gray would be the next to go.

Tensions with at least two other brigadiers, Jackie McDonald and John Gregg, were also bubbling beneath the surface.

When LVF leader Steven Warnock was shot in September 2002, Adair blamed Gray and ordered that the inner council take action against him. But Adair and the LVF chose not to wait for the UDA to investigate Warnock's murder and Gray was shot in the face near the Warnock home.

Adair and White ignored a UDA order not to attend Warnock's funeral and within days both had been expelled from the organisation. But if the expulsions were meant to annoy Adair they appeared to have the opposite effect.

"We have been here before," he would say. But this time Adair was not just facing the UDA. The UVF still had old scores to settle.

Urged by the mainstream UDA not to get involved the UDA provided intelligence on the movements of Adair and his supporters.

With any hope of a career in politics long gone White's future was firmly tied to Adair's whims. But the mainstream UDA's hatred for him was as strong as that for Adair. White, they insisted, was responsible for poisoning the mind of a 'good loyalist'.

As the year 2002 drew to an end the feud had struggled to get under way. But in a throwback to the UDA/UVF feud, families were forced from the lower Shankill – only this time it was Adair's former colleagues.

Former west Belfast 'brigadier' Winkie Dodds fled his home in Boundary Way, just two doors from Adair's own house, claiming he was being intimidated.

On St Stephen's Day gunmen from Adair's C company shot dead Jonathan Stewart (22) because he was the relative of a mainstream UDA man. On January 2, Roy Green (32) was killed by the mainstream UDA as he left a bar in the Ormeau Road area. Green was accused of passing information to Adair. But perhaps the most crucial event was Adair being returned to prison on January 10. He was further detached from orchestrating the feud when he was moved to an isolation wing in Maghaberry.

The decision to take Adair off the streets allowed the mainstream UDA to persuade senior figures from C company to defect. Although White insisted that it was "business as usual" he could not have mistaken how much smaller his world was becoming every day.

"Johnny couldn't stand anyone to be giving the orders unless it was him," one senior loyalist said.

"John White's problem was that he needed Adair for muscle, but he had to go along with him when Johnny decided he wanted to take over the whole organisation.

"These two men were once UDA icons in their own right but now they couldn't even buy a Union Jack t-shirt on the Shankill.

"Who ever was to blame, I doubt if the UDA will ever allow itself to create another Johnny Adair."

February 8, 2003

This article appeared first in the February 7, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News