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New Loyalist Feud erupts

JM Thorn

21st October 2002

One of the features of the current peace process has been the rapidly expanding criminal activities of loyalist paramilitaries. This has manifested itself once again with the outbreak of feuding between the UDA and the LVF.  Since the murder of LVF member Stephen Warnock on the 13th September in Newtownards, there has been nine shooting incidents in the space of three weeks, resulting in two more deaths.  Most of these have centred in east Belfast.  These attacks included the attempted murder of Jim Gray, the UDA’s  ‘Brigadier’ in east Belfast and a member of its ruling inner council.

However, this current feud is not merely between organisations, it also cuts across the UDA itself.  The leader of the west Belfast UDA, Johnny Adair, is closely aligned to the LVF and was a close associate of Stephen Warnock.  In is reported that Adair had been trying to extend his influence through the UDA by promoting his supporters in other areas, and had pushed Warnock as an alternative leader of the UDA in east Belfast.  However, this attempt at creating more centralised control came up against the territorial structure of the UDA.  Adair’s push for greater influence threatened the relative autonomy of the UDA’s local fiefdoms and the position of the bosses that rule them.  The response of the other five UDA ‘brigadiers’ to this challenge was to expel Adair and his supporters from the organisation.  While there has not yet been any direct confrontation between west Belfast and the other UDA areas, the violence in east Belfast can be seen as a battle for supremacy between the rival factions in that area.

What’s behind the feud?

The structure of the UDA, with different districts being run by different bosses, is a reflection of the essentially criminal nature of the organisation.  While it may be a cliché to describe loyalists as “gangsters”, it is one that is accurate.  Loyalist paramilitaries control criminal empires that are worth tens of millions of pounds.  They are involved in everything from drugs, extortion, robbery, prostitution to software piracy and people trafficking.  There is also evidence that loyalists have been expanding their criminal activities outside of Northern Ireland.  It was reported earlier this year that loyalists are involved in the drugs trade in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  It is believed that two Scottish drugs dealers were tortured and shot by loyalists after double-crossing them in a drugs deal.

Loyalists have also taken on the cultural trapping of gangsterism.  Many of them conspicuously display their wealth despite having no visible means of support. There are also similarities with street gangs, as Protestant youths are recruited to carry and sell drugs.  Within organisations so oriented towards crime there is an inevitable tendency towards conflict.  This is because the various loyalist bosses can only expand their empires at the expense of another.  Also, within each area, there is a jockeying for position.  This is the dynamic that is driving the current loyalist feud.  It is the reason for the struggle for control in east Belfast and the confrontation between Adair and the other UDA leaders

As always the first victims of loyalists are the people of the community they claim to be defending.  The consequences for working class Protestant areas where loyalists have a grip have been devastating.  These areas have witnessed an exodus of people.  Those that do remain are condemned to living under a state of intimidation and fear. The virtual wastelands of Ballymena, the lower Shankill, and parts of Craigavon are a vivid illustration of the parasitic nature of loyalism within the Protestant community.

Political reaction

One of the notable aspects of the loyalist feud has been the muted political reaction.  British ministers made the usual bland statements about the futility of violence and wrung their hands.  The response of unionists was to claim that the loyalist shooting spree in east Belfast was no more than a distraction.  This was typified by the statement of local Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers -  “At the moment, when the pressure is on IRA/Sinn Fein over the breach of the Northern Ireland Office, this sort of incident only takes away that pressure”.

What is clear is that the British state and the Unionists don’t see loyalist violence as a threat.  Indeed, in his speech announcing the suspension of the political institutions, Secretary of State John Reid, announced unashamedly that loyalist violence did not constitute a threat to the peace process.  Indeed, throughout the period of the peace process, the British have been building up the legitimacy of loyalism and its claims to be solely reacting to “nationalist aggression”.  In was only in July that the Secretary of State met with the leadership of the UDA in east Belfast to discuss their “concerns” about the peace process
Unionist politicians have been actively inciting loyalist paramilitaries to violence in order to build up a sense of crisis around the peace process and move the agenda even further to the right.  They have covered up for their violence by blaming attacks on nationalist areas on republicans! Now they have made efforts to stop the feud, efforts which expose their inactivity when the focus of loyalist violence is Catholics. Given the usefulness of loyalists to both the British state and the unionists, it is very unlikely that there will be any serious attempt to curtail their activities, except insofar as they endanger themselves.  This may well lie behind recent state security successes in finding loyalist arms.

The most likely scenario in the current loyalist feud will be a reconciliation of the rival loyalist factions as they agree a new division of their criminal rackets.  This will last until the next dispute inevitably arises.  However, what unites the loyalists, even during feuds, is their sectarianism.  During the current feud in east Belfast, attacks on the nationalist Short Strand area continued unabated.  With moves afoot to bring the feud to an end, it is likely that such attacks will intensify.  A statement released after talks between the UDA and LVF calling for the feud to end and for loyalist activities to be “focused against republicanism" is an ominous warning.



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