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Minister issues UDA with worthless ultimatum

JM Thorn 

23 August 2007

On face value, the announcement by Social Development minister Margaret Ritchie that she will halt the funding of a loyalist initiative in 60 days unless the UDA starts to decommission arms seems quite decisive.  It came in the wake of UDA orchestrated violence in Carrickfergus and Bangor in which shots were fired at police.  In the Carrickfergus incident a police officer was shot and injured as members of two rival factions squared off.  The minister said these actions were a "clear breach" of the basis on which funding was awarded. 

The financial package, announced by the NIO in March, proposed giving  £1.2m to a Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI) project involving the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG).  While it had the declared aim of encouraging development in deprived loyalist communities, the involvement of the UPRG, which is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the UDA, demonstrated clearly that it was a payoff for loyalists.  Despite denials from the UPRG and the Government, it was widely seen as a bribe for the UDA.  The message to the UDA was that if it toned down its more brazen criminal and paramilitary activities its members would be rewarded.  The funding package was not conditional on the UDA dismantling its structures or disarming.  This demand has never been made by the British. 

Margaret Ritchie is therefore actually wrong about the basis on which this funding was awarded.  Also, what she is demanding of the UDA (“interact meaningfully with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning”) doesn’t go beyond what they are currently engaged in.  In response to Ritchie’s demands UPRG spokesman Frankie Gallagher was able to point out that “there is already engagement with the international decommissioning body and there is already meaningful engagement with the IMC (International Monitoring Commission)” and that “at least 40 meetings have taken place in the last two to two-and-a-half months with the PSNI working on crime and criminality."  On this basis there is no prospect of the UDA having its funding cut. 

More importantly, there is no political support such a move.  In making her announcement on funding Ritchie was acting without authority.  Under the terms of the St Andrews Agreement, she cannot make such a decision without the support of the executive and assembly.  What has emerged subsequently is that support from her executive colleagues wasn’t forthcoming.  She revealed to Radio Ulster that the executive had refused her request to have the issue discussed.  The unionist parties are opposed to stopping funding to the UDA.  Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey said he believed that most people within the UDA were committed to peace, though it "needed to do more".  The most hostile reaction to Ritchie’s empty ultimatum came from Sinn Fein.  Michelle Gildernew said her party had nothing to do with the decision, saying it was a matter for the Social Development minister.  Alex Maskey went even further claiming that it was mistake to link money for deprived loyalist communities to the behaviour of the UDA.  He said that “where there is poverty, social exclusion and weak community infrastructure” government obviously “has a responsibility to act.”  This actually backs up the UPRG claim that the funding has nothing to do with the UDA, and that its withdrawal would represent an attack on Protestants. 

The Sinn Fein position is very dangerous as it legitimises the position of loyalist paramilitaries within Protestant communities.  Rather than exposing them as the parasitic gangsters they are, loyalists are accepted as agents of some sort of progressive development.  This completely pulls the rug from under the feet of people within the Protestant community who are involved in legitimate community development, and those who have the courage to speak out against the parasitic grip of loyalists.  However, such positions flow inevitably from the concept of “community rights” that underpins the current political settlement and identifies loyalist paramilitaries with Protestants and gives them some sort of representative role that they are totally unable to obtain by persuading Protestant workers to vote for them. Sinn Fein the new Catholic party, having abandoned any form of revolutionary perspective that would have set them the task of winning the support of Protestant workers, are willing to accept the loyalists as some sectarian mirror image representing Protestants. Given that their own position is now largely dependent on money from the British Government, they would also not want to set the precedent of cutting funding. 

The biggest promoters of the idea that loyalists can play a progressive role are British and Irish Governments.   The British Government has been the main sponsor of the attempts to make the UDA respectable.  Despite the controversy over the new funding package, the fact is that the UDA is already in receipt of public money.  The UPRG receives almost £500,000 a year.   Fourteen people linked to the UDA like veterans Sammy Duddy and William McQuiston, are already employed as community workers. The British offered no support to Margaret Ritchie’s threat to cut off funding to the loyalist group.  Policing and Justice Minister Paul Goggins merely reiterated the well worn line that loyalists must "demonstrate real leadership to set their communities free from criminality and the influence of paramilitaries". 

The Irish Government has also been providing financial support to loyalists.  Much of this has come in the form of grants to dubious projects for commemorating WW1.  There is also the well publicised links between President McAleese and UDA leader Jackie McDonald.  Most recently the Office of the Taoiseach made a 4,000 euro donation to a loyalist backed “regeneration scheme” in the Mt Vernon of north Belfast.  This scheme, which involved replacing paramilitary wall murals with slightly less threatening ones, was headed by UVF mouthpiece Billy Hutchinson. 

This donation was particularly insensitive as it coincided with the second anniversary if the UVF murder of Catholic teenager Thomas Devlin. His mother wrote to Bertie Ahern complaining that the donation risked “legitimising the actions of some of the people in Mount Vernon, who are hiding, protecting and harbouring Thomas's killers."  Officials in the Taoiseach’s office dismissed her complaints.  The Irish Government also rejected the ultimatum over UDA funding.   The foreign affairs minister Dermott Ahern instead heaped prise on loyalists and pledged his Government’s continuing support.   He said that the Irish government would continue to be supportive to “progressive elements within loyalism” and understood the “difficulties and the challenges” they faced.

All this renders the supposed ultimatum to the UDA worthless.  At most it is a piece of political posturing by the SDLP.  Given the political imperative to keep loyalists on board the peace settlement, and the overriding need to accommodate unionists and avoid anything that they can denounce as an attack on the Protestant community, the threat to cut funding to the UDA is one that cannot be carried out.  The minister claimed that the UDA were in "the last chance saloon", but in reality they continue to have a free hand.

The vast majority of people believe that the St Andrews settlement will in some way bring about a slow and gradual decay in Loyalist sectarianism.  This incident demonstrates that in fact a contrary process is taking place.  The loyalists are being cemented into civic society and their organisations are being pumped up with state funds.  As long as this process continues it will represent a major barrier to working-class organisation.


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