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Loyalists at crossroads with no end in sight to feuding

(Barry McCaffrey, Irish News)

Barry McCaffrey asks whether the latest UDA clashes are part of leadership attempt to "clean house" before being brought in from the cold or merely the latest in a long line of internal feuds

The UDA now finds itself at an important crossroads. It is being actively encouraged by the British and Irish governments to end its criminal activity and disband its paramilitary structures but it is also in danger of splitting into a series of feudal empires in a long-running dispute over who will control valuable drug and extortion rackets.

The weekend shooting of a policeman in Carrickfegus is the culmination of 18 months of friction between the UDA's ruling 'inner council' and its former south-east Antrim 'brigade'.

The dispute erupted when the leadership expelled north Belfast brothers Andre and Ihab Shoukri, accusing them of involvement in criminal activity.

Subsequent Independent Monitoring Commission reports, still linking the mainstream UDA to involvement in drugs and extortion, did not go unnoticed.

But the Shoukris' expulsion marked a turning point for the modern UDA.

Not only was the related Ulster Political Research Group meeting British and Irish ministers but the inner council itself was taking part in the talks.

Ironically it was south-east Antrim's Tommy Kirkham, who was later also expelled by the UDA leadership, who led the talks with the two governments.

In exchange for ministers bringing the group in from the cold, the UDA was told to 'clean house'.

The Shoukris were the first to go as their public involvement in criminality had become too much of an embarrassment.

However, Mr Kirkham and the south-east Antrim UDA, under the control of 'brig-adier' Gary Fisher, decided to support the brothers.

Mr Kirkham's decision to split from the mainstream organisation surprised many.

The Newtownabbey councillor had been the group's main political spokesman and its key link with the British and Irish governments.

The UDA's efforts to be seen to reform were first apparent during last summer's dispute with the Shoukris.

While it had been happy to resort to weapons during previous internal feuds, most notably with Johnny Adair in 2002, this time it opted for the weight of numbers.

The inner council put pressure on the Shoukris by marching hundreds of men to their stronghold on the Westland estate in north Belfast.

Within hours Shoukri supporters were being escorted on to a ferry by the PSNI to leave Northern Ireland.

In a similar move last week, and with £1 million in government funding secured for UDA initiatives in the meantime, the inner council tried to increase pressure on its south-east Antrim opponents by announcing that it had appointed a new leadership in the area.

When south-east Antrim failed to react the UDA upped the ante further.

It unexpectedly turned up in the area on Friday in another attempt to show Kirkham and Fisher supporters who was in charge.

UPRG spokesman Frankie Gallagher addressed the waiting media but it was the images of the inner council in the background, with its new south-east Antrim 'brigadier', that were designed to send the strongest signal.

What happened next is uncertain. Inner council sources accuse their south-east Antrim opponents of trying to attack UPRG spokesman John Thompson.

Within hours dozens of police in riot gear were separating rival factions outside the Carrickfergus home of south-east Antrim leader Thompson Gilmore.

During previous loyalist feuds police were reluctant to intervene and appealed for dialogue.

But as tensions increased in Carrickfergus on Saturday night, an officer was shot.

South-east Antrim supporters are being blamed.

Although his condition was not thought to be life-threatening, it is the attack on a policeman that could ultimately force Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde to act.

Last night (Sunday) it was reported at least four families loyal to the mainstream UDA had been intimidated from their homes in south-east Antrim.

Senior loyalists Sammy Duddy and John Bunting are also among a number of loyalists understood to have been informed by police that their lives are under threat.

It appeared that a resolution of the UDA feud was nowhere in sight.

The UDA is at the crossroads but it remains unclear which direction it will take.

July 24, 2007

This article appeared first in the July 23, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

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