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Politicians' silence on UDA feud is deafening

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

Still no official statement from the DUP on last weekend's loyalist violence. The party has replied to a News Letter article by Peter Hain and also issued a press release on IRA criminality but apparently it has nothing to say about the UDA mob rule which paralysed north Belfast.

This is strange, given that the faction-fighting all took place within the parliamentary patch of Nigel Dodds MP, who had no problem criticising police action against the UDA's Shoukri brigade when the Alexandra Bar was raided six months ago.

Still no official statement from the Ulster Unionists either. Now that they are allied to the UVF they can hardly intervene in a UDA feud without looking even dumber than they look already. The Shinners have also been tactically taciturn – they can't call on the state to enforce the rule of law when they don't 'recognise' the state, its forces or its laws. But diverting as it is to ponder the stinking hypocrisy of the sectarian parties, it is purely a distraction.

Local politicians don't determine policy towards the UDA – their silence merely facilitates those that do. The question we really need to ponder is this: Who has decided to 'peace-process' the UDA via managed feuds, selective prosecutions and localised suspension of public order?

No doubt Chief Constable Sir Hugh could provide some useful answers. When last year's UVF-LVF feud resulted in similar scenes of mob rule in east Belfast, the PSNI claimed that nothing could be done because no complaints had been received from the public. This was a despicable attempt to pass responsibility for its own job on to the very communities it is supposed to be protecting. It was also complete nonsense. The police can always press charges without receiving a complaint and there are plenty of relevant charges available, from unlawful assembly to behaviour likely to lead to a breach of the peace.

As 500 UDA members were able to hold a 'show of strength' on the Shankill last Saturday without suffering a single arrest, loyalists can safely assume that they are exempt from all such charges if they gather in adequate numbers. Sir Hugh might say that he has insufficient resources to handle things differently – but he has rather conspicuously failed to say anything of the kind.

The Alexandra Bar raid demonstrated that the PSNI is perfectly capable of rounding up an entire UDA faction without sparking off a bloodbath. So why has it only ever rounded up the one UDA faction that has just fallen out with all the others?

Sir Hugh Orde has expressed frustration with the way the courts handle loyalist cases. Is the PSNI receiving its peace-process signals from the Public Prosecution Service? The PPS is responsible for both prosecutions and bail applications.

Until this year it operated a clear revolving door policy towards loyalists, including the Shoukris – until a mysterious foot was suddenly jammed in that door in the case of the Shoukris alone. The director of the PPS is Sir Alasdair Fraser QC, who demonstrated after the Stormontgate fiasco that he sees no reason to explain himself to anyone.

However, Sir Alasdair does answer directly to UK attorney general Lord Goldsmith, who sits in the cabinet. The cabinet is formally advised on Northern Ireland matters by Jonathan Phillips, the NIO permanent secretary and former NIO political director.

Implementation of peace process policy is handled day-to-day at cabinet level by the prime minister's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, but because Tony Blair has never held a cabinet vote during his entire term in office, ultimate responsibility for loyalist peace processing goes right to the top. The situation in Dublin is much the same. Irish president Mary McAleese is most strongly associated with southern overtures towards the Jackie McDonald faction of the UDA – but whether or not this was her idea, it is inconceivable that she would pursue it without the taoiseach's full permission. Bertie Ahern has recently confirmed this by meeting the 'mainstream' UDA himself.

Perhaps these establishment figures in London, Dublin and Belfast are correct in their cynical approach – but they must still be held accountable for the consequences. Last year the UDA murdered three people, including one Catholic and one Protestant civilian.

Those victims are unlikely to be its last. Is official policy towards the UDA striking the right balance between overreaction and appeasement?

We would have a much better chance of an answer to that question if our two largest parties could bring themselves to ask it.

August 4, 2006

This article appeared first in the August 3, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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