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'Rope-a-dope' strategy has one little snag

(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

Remember Muhammad Ali's 'rope-a-dope' strategy for dealing with big, stupid, brutal, heavy punchers? The most famous example was the fight he called the 'rumble in the jungle' against George Foreman in 1974. Ali lay on the ropes absorbing heavy punches on his arms and body and appeared to let his opponent have his way. Foreman blattered away at him – he was punched out by round five. Ali played him for another three rounds, then three quick bops and Foreman was out for the count.

The NIO's strategy for dealing with the UDA is a bit like that. For about five years now the security services and PSNI have been allowing the UDA to punch itself out. Here's the way it works. An outrageously corrupt so-called 'brigadier' is identified in the media as an embarrassment to the new image the UDA is carefully cultivating of community service, tray bakes, lemonade and helping old ladies across the road. Repeated stories about the 'brigadier' complete with ludicrous nicknames like the 'Bacardi Brigadier', or 'Doris Day' lead to the NIO warning the UDA this kind of thing has to stop or no more cash.

As a result, the gang boss is first isolated, then deposed by his fellow gangsters and expelled from the UDA. The boss naturally refuses to accept his expulsion and gathers his cronies around him to try to cling on to his corrupt little 'fiefdom' as last weekend's UDA statement actually described it. Why should he allow somebody else to take over his hard-won drug-dealing and racketeering district?

At this point the rest of the UDA moves in to 'deal with' the former gang boss. Since 2002 this has been the traditional route followed by Johnny Adair, John White, Jim Gray, Jim Simpson and other troublesome figures. In some cases the former gang boss has ended up dead.

The Shoukri brothers have now reached the most dangerous point, isolated and expelled but unable to see the writing on the wall. At this stage it is traditional for a 'loyalist feud' to break out. In fairly short order the cronies of the former boss are overwhelmed, see the error of their ways and rejoin the mainstream. That was the message the couple of hundred yahoos in jeans and hoodies were delivering in Cambrai Street on Saturday night. That's been the script now in west, east and north Belfast.

The security forces, prosecution service and courts connive willy-nilly at this scenario. We've witnessed several pantomime performances in court when well-known UDA leaders have walked free. Sometimes no-one will give evidence, sometimes it's because they are MI5 or special branch assets, sometimes it's a curiously limp-wristed prosecution. In the end it has proved easier and shall we say, more final, to have the UDA deal with its 'troublemakers' itself.

The message the NIO has been sending UDA bosses is that if they stop criminality and devote themselves exclusively to community service – now don't laugh at the back there – there'll be stacks of money for community development in their districts which UDA men can supervise, all legit.

To this end the NIO has been developing 'good' UDA men and showering them with approval; Jackie McDonald in south Belfast being the most obvious recipient of the flattery. If he and the NIO 'good' UDA can stop the violence and push out the most egregiously corrupt UDA bosses then it seems the NIO will allow its good guys to carry on as before.

For that's the only snag with the NIO's rope-a-dope strategy. They do carry on as before. The last IMC report concluded that 'the UDA is responsible for most loyalist incidents. We are aware of no change in the broad pattern of UDA involvement in organised crime.'

It could be that ultimately 'rope-a-dope' will succeed, that when the UDA's teeth are drawn and all the hard men are dead or jailed the toothless survivors will have no alternative but to roll over and be counted out like big George Foreman. In the meantime the NIO is happy to allow their 'good' UDA to maintain a controlled level of corruption. After all, it only affects the poorest unionist districts and the DUP doesn't complain.

August 3, 2006

This article appeared first in the August 2, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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