The first time that I met the loyalist leader Johnny White was in 1977, when, with David McKittrick, at the time the Northern editor of the Irish Times, I was researching a history of the UDA, of which White was a founding member. He was a furtive, nervous, and rather diminutive figure, always on edge and looking over his shoulder. He had good reason for his unease.
His appearance belied his fearsome reputation. By 1977, White was regarded as perhaps the most dangerous loyalist gunman in Northern Ireland. He was, one admirer told me much later, “the Johnny Adair of the 1970s.”
So it was more than fitting that both Johnnies were expelled within days of each other from the organization whose reputation for sectarian violence they had done so much to create. The UDA’s other leaders got together to denounce Adair as possessing a “lethal combination of ego and adrenaline.” The UDA accused him of wanting to take over the entire organization. White was given his marching orders after he dismissed Adair’s expulsion with contempt. White and Adair had become close after White was released from prison in the early 1990s, having served a 17-year sentence for the grisly double murder of Paddy Wilson and Irene Andrews. Wilson, a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, and his secretary were stabbed multiple times in a frenzied attack by White and others after being taken to a deserted quarry north of Belfast. One of the gang later told me with unforgettable candor that stabbing a woman in the breast was “like stabbing a pillow.”
White was arrested in 1977, four years after the murders, during inquiries into another murder — that of UDA member Jackie Hutchinson. Hutchinson had (unknowingly) provided McKittrick and me with another memorable moment. During our research into the murders of folksingers Rosemary McCartney and Patrick O’Neill, who had been kidnapped at a UDA roadblock on the night of July 22, 1972, the UDA leadership told us to talk to Hutchinson. Hutchinson gave us some details about the gruesome killings — how the two Catholics had been brought to the UDA headquarters above a Shankill pub and taken to an upstairs room where towels were draped over their heads so they could not see their interrogators, among whom was Davy Payne, whose reputation rivaled that of White’s. Leading members of the UDA were also in the room, including Tommy Herron, the organization’s vice chairman. (He was murdered a year later by his own men.) O’Neill was badly beaten. Hutchinson said he had stood guard at the door. He told us he glanced in once and saw a bloody hand reaching out from under O’Neill’s towel toward Rosemary. With a grin he told us how he had suggested they rape Rosemary McCartney since it was a shame to “let her go to waste.”
After being promised that they would be freed, the two Catholics were bundled into a car, driven to a spot near the Glencairn estate, and shot to death. Shortly after we had spoken to Hutchinson about the killings, we were asked to go to UDA headquarters on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast for a special meeting with the chairman, Andy Tyrie. We were taken into an upstairs room. As we walked in we realized the blinds were pulled down. The door was slammed shut behind us. There were about five UDA men in the room, standing with their backs against the wall and their arms folded. Tyrie came over to us and asked if we had been speaking to the police about the murders of O’Neill and McCartney. We swore we had not. Another UDA man came over and rather menacingly asked “Are you f—ing sure?” Tyrie informed us that the police had been arresting UDA men and questioning them about the 1972 killings. We swore blind that we had not gone to the police. Fortunately, they believed us.
Late one night, shortly after our scare, McKittrick came back to the house I was sharing with him at the time and said: “Jackie Hutchinson’s been murdered by the UDA.” The UDA had decided that Hutchinson was the source of the leaks to the police about the McCartney and O’Neill killings. His body was found in a shallow grave not far from where, five years earlier, the bodies of McCartney and O’Neill had been left, riddled with 12 bullets, in the back of a car.
In 1977, White had cracked under intensive questioning from the Royal Ulster Constabulary detectives and confessed to the Wilson-Andrews murders. The UDA lost one of its top gunmen, the man who had helped come up with the idea for the fake “Ulster Freedom Fighters” — the name the UDA began using in 1973 to claim responsibility for its murders. From late 1972 until he was interned in the summer of 1973, White, often using the pseudonym Captain Black, led the organization’s “C” company on a rampage, which he resumed in late 1975 when internment was ended. By his own estimate, his unit had been responsible for about 40 murders.
Twenty years later, another White began making a name for himself in the annals of “C” company. But the UDA that Johnny Adair joined was somewhat different from the organization that White had helped to build. In the 1970s, there had been a series of battles for dominance in the organization that had left one UDA leader dead (Herron) and several seriously wounded or on the run. Tyrie had gradually taken over, and by the late 1970s was the boss. He was forced out in early 1988, after he had grown complacent, allowing the UDA to slide into inactivity.
The new men who took over decentralized power, dividing it among the five or so brigade areas. This was the system that Adair is accused of wanting to change, and not for any political reasons. The modern UDA is a drug-running organization, and Adair wanted to have control of all its lucrative activities. He had filled posts with his own close supporters in West Belfast when he got out of jail recently. But it turned out to be a more difficult proposition on the other side of the River Lagan in the East Belfast UDA, which has always retained a certain independence from the organization in the west of the city. Meanwhile, Adair’s grab for power may provoke another bloody feud.