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Loyalists hit the jackpot in Scam City

Andrew Johnson

13 October 2006

Events over the last couple of weeks have demonstrated yet again the British government’s priorities for the North, regardless of what emerges from the current round of talks. It is scarcely reassuring, but the largesse being lined up for distribution to Loyalism is at least evidence that some things never change.

On 2 October, a curious press conference was held in Carrickfergus. There the leadership of the UDA’s South East Antrim brigade lined up for the media while their frontman, local councillor Tommy Kirkham, gave out that the local UDA was splitting from the parent organisation. The occasion for the split, although Tommy was coy about this, was the ouster of the Shoukri brothers from the leadership of the North Belfast UDA. South East Antrim UDA backed the Shoukris, who are apparently getting asylum in Carrickfergus.

But that wasn’t what Tommy said. What Tommy said was that the local UDA was transforming itself into something nebulous called “Beyond Conflict”. It wasn’t doing so because of any change in its fundamental politics – indeed, loyalist paramilitarism was justified as a response to the IRA campaign and “flawed policies from past governments”. Tommy then waffled on a little about community development and the problems facing Protestant working-class areas in the Newtownabbey/Carrick region. This was accompanied by a swanky brochure detailing investments which would be sought for Protestant areas (the small and beleaguered Catholic communities in the region were not mentioned), and promising a shining future for said areas, with the creation of 74 jobs. The rebranded UDA was, apparently, winding up its paramilitary structures, giving up criminality (at least they promised to within five years) and, if you believe it, building socialism for the broad masses of Rathcoole and Greenisland, or at least for 74 of them. These 74 lucky souls may or may not be members of the UDA.

Then came the kicker. The South East Antrim UDA – sorry, the Beyond Conflict Group – says £8.5 million will be needed to make all this happen. Now an £8.5 million investment programme is one thing, but those who have seen big money dispensed to loyalism under the guise of “community development” will be rather cynical. Especially since the British still seem hell-bent on gifting £70 million to Jackie McDonald’s “good” UDA – from which the South East Antrim boys have split – in defiance of their own monitoring body. It is not unreasonable to speculate that South East Antrim wanted to pre-empt the possibility of being cut out of the spoils due to the Brits’ favourite paramilitary organisation.

Will they get it? This demand for what amounts to protection money is so brazen that even the usually docile Alliance Party woke up and issued a scorching condemnation. Many people have expressed the view that the UDA should be paying the people of South East Antrim, especially given their substantial income from drugs, pimping and extortion. But it’s a fair possibility that the Brits will pony up the cash. As usual, it will be dressed up as community regeneration money and, as usual, it will be distributed by paramilitaries who can’t get elected in the areas they control.

A couple of simultaneous announcements from the British government further underlined the nature of politics in the North. Government minister Maria Eagle, accompanied by the DUP’s Diane Dodds, announced a £200,000 investment to create a visitors’ centre to promote tourism in North Belfast and the Shankill Road. Now it is true that the Shankill has serious problems of unemployment, poor housing, educational underachievement and crime, the latter mainly coming from loyalist paramilitaries. But it is difficult to see how these will be addressed by promoting tourism in what isn’t exactly a picturesque area – or even one safe to visit. Shankill residents must be scratching their heads at this boondoggle, the main purpose of which seems to be to show that the DUP can score goodies for its constituents.

Meanwhile, the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre had a question mark put over its future by the government’s withdrawal of an annual £60,000 grant. The stated reason for this is that the Centre failed to comply with accounting procedures – unlike, apparently, the UDA. This may be true – the centre is an amateur operation, after all – but it’s also possible that the Centre’s abrasive boss, Eileen Calder, had stepped on a few too many toes and, as night follows day, a more searching eye was cast on the centre. Two points need to be made here. First, £60,000 is next to nothing in terms of what is spent on Northern Ireland’s funded community sector. Second, the Rape Crisis Centre, unlike the UDA, has actually done some useful work over the years.

We have here the political economy of the North in microcosm. The institutional sectarian corruption of the Good Friday process is reduced to an almost chemically pure form of bribing paramilitary groups to keep quiet. Meanwhile, for those members of the working class who aren’t in the UDA, we get water charges, the Review of Public Administration, public sector pay freezes and the running down of services that help ordinary people, as opposed to lining pockets. If proof was needed that the North was irreformable, this goes a fair way to making the case.


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