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Loyalists on the rampage 

JM Thorn

27th July 2005

The ongoing loyalist feud has hit the headlines once again with the UVF invasion of the Garnerville housing estate in east Belfast. On the early hours of Sunday (24 July) three hundred men entered the estate and forced a number of families from their homes. Over the next two days about a hundred hooded men maintained a presence in the estate to ensure that those expelled did not return. All this happened just a few hundred metres from the PSNI’s main headquarters. When police and British army personnel did move into the estate, they kept a discreet distance “observing” what was going on.

The next day newspapers and TV news programmes were full of images of loyalists brazenly strutting around the estate. Editorials and commentators expressed their outrage at this break down in “law and order”. In response to such criticisms the PSNI sought to defend its (in)action. The senior officer at the scene, Chief Superintendent Wesley Wilson, claimed that “people may have got the impression that the police were not in control of that, but the police were in control.” Of course this raised the question that, if the police were in control, why did they facilitate this blatant act of intimidation? Chief Superintendent Wilson’s answer to this was that no such intimidation took place: "We looked at what those people were doing in the area to see if we could gather any evidence of offences and if there had been any arrests to be made, we would have made them." He put the responsibility for police inaction onto the residents of the estate because they did not make any complaints about the hundreds of UVF men on their streets! Given the fact that residents had observed the PSNI accommodating the loyalist presence in their estate, what confidence could they have in making a complaint? If the UVF took offence that someone could possibly object to its activities, could that person expect the protection of the police? Clearly the answer is no. Chief Superintendent Wilson capped this nonsense off with an appeal for “politicians and others… to get to grips with this… and have some sort of mediation put in place to stop this feud". So there you have it. The police are oblivious to crimes taking place right in front of them, and believe that the best way to stop criminal gangs murdering people is through mediation. As it is generally agreed that the loyalist feud is motivated by the struggle to control drug dealing, extortion and other criminal rackets, any mediation would inevitably concentrate on how these should be carved up.

Such statements from the police would be comical if the situation wasn’t so serious. In north and east Belfast there are gun and bomb attacks on a nightly basis. In July, two men were murdered by the UVF. One, Jameson Lockhart, was shot dead while sitting on a lorry in east Belfast. The second, 20-year-old Craig McCausland, was shot dead after armed men broke into his home in north Belfast. While the UVF claimed that both men were members of the rival LVF, their links with that organisation were either tenuous or non-existent. What we do know is that Jameson Lockhart was due to be the key witness at the trial of a UVF man charged with attempted murder. After his killing the case was dismissed.

What the loyalist activity at Garnerville and the PSNI response to it highlights is how far removed the north is from the norms of a liberal democratic society. Despite claims of how much change has taken place, Northern Ireland is still fundamentally a sectarian state. As the main motor of sectarian agitation, the loyalists continue to be accommodated. This has been true not just at Garnerville but throughout the period of the peace process, with loyalists being rewarded for sectarian violence, most notoriously at Holy Cross, and the Government giving legitimacy to their claims of marginalization. Despite the recent killings, and reports from its own monitoring commission, the Government continues to recognise the UVF ceasefire and meet with its political mouthpieces in the PUP. Its leader David Ervine, despite his usual weasel words about what a tragic situation it was, has fully endorsed the actions of the UVF and warned that they will escalate. He also said that the PUP had “no influence” over the UVF; this from the party that once claimed its mandate was the “silence of the guns”! Ervine was at the forefront of the UVF invasion of the Garnerville estate, portraying it as some form of mercy mission to rescue its residents from the grip of drug dealers.

What is also revealing is the wider political reaction to the loyalist feud and the events at Garnerville. Unionists expressed mild concern, but made no direct criticism of the loyalists. Instead they blamed police reform for undermining “law and order” (as if such things didn’t happen under the RUC), and called for mediation to end the feud.

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey called on those "who brokered the last loyalist feud" to help again. The SDLP backed the PSNI position that loyalists’ being in control of the area “was the appearance, not the reality”. As it cannot contemplate the failure of police reform, and the wider political process, the SDLP is compelled to maintain this fiction. The same accounts for Sinn Fein’s muted response. Even more than the SDLP, they have emphasised policing as the key indicator of political change. Therefore, Sinn Fein are not going to raise anything that would put doubts over that and impede them taking up their seats on the Policing Board.

What the events at Garnerville highlight is the chasm between appearance and reality within the peace process. We are told that there is political change ongoing, and the institutions of the state, such as the police, are being reformed. However, the sight of sectarian gangsters being given free rein demonstrates clearly that this is not the case. The “new” political structures of north actually bear a striking resemblance to the old one


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