By Jack Holland
While the media’s attention remains focused (as usual) on the IRA and its horde of weapons, with Unionists clamoring for "decommissioning," the North is being swept by a wave of actual violence — sectarian violence. It is being perpetrated not by republicans but by extreme Protestants and it is directed against vulnerable Catholic families.
According to Irish government sources, there have been about 160 fire bomb and pipe bomb attacks in recent months. Claims of responsibility have come from various shadowy groups, such as the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Defenders, both of which were unheard of until a year or so ago. However, there is growing evidence of the involvement of one of the mainstream loyalist organizations, the Ulster Defense Association which is supposed to be on cease-fire.
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, recently alleged that for all intents and purposes the UDA cease-fire is over. In fact, it showed signs of erosion last summer when the UDA’s political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party, failed to win any seats in the assembly elections. Suggestions are that disgruntled UDA members have linked up with former adherents of the Loyalist Volunteer Force to launch their own little campaign of sectarian terror, one of whose victims was the nationalist lawyer Rosemary Nelson. They have merely invented a few more "organizations" of convenience to try to throw the police off their track.
Such a development would not be surprising, given the history of Protestant terror groups. The loyalist paramilitary underworld has always been a murky place. And the UDA has been one of its longest enduring denizens.
That it should be the UDA and not the Ulster Volunteer Force that has gradually drifted back into violence is also not surprising. The UDA emerged out of a muddle of "defense" militias set up in the wake of the August 1969 riots. It remained a decentralized, loose-knit organization of vigilantes which could not even decide on what it should call itself until 1971. Interestingly enough, in view of the fact that the current campaign features the use of pipe bombs, it was a pipe bomb accident that galvanized the vigilantes into forming the killing machine known as the UDA.
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The mishap occurred on Sept. 21, 1971, at a house in Bann Street, near the Lower Oldpark Road in North Belfast. John Thompson and James Finlay, two UDA members, were making pipe bombs in preparation for a planned small-scale campaign against Catholic-owned businesses. Finlay, a former British soldier, was the UDA’s training officer. A premature explosion killed him outright. Thompson died a few weeks later.
Finlay’s funeral was one of the first paramilitary turnouts staged by the UDA. Afterward, at a meeting in a nearby school hall, the hard men of the UDA, for the first time producing weapons, deposed the leadership and took over the organization. Among those who staged or supported the coup were Charles Harding-Smith, Davey Payne, Tommy Herron and Andy Tyrie, all of whom would play prominent roles in the history of the UDA in the ensuing years.
It was not long after this takeover that the UDA began a serious murder campaign, accounting for most of the victims of sectarian attacks in Belfast for the next five years.
Still, even after the Charles Harding-Smith coup it remained a divided organization, split between East and West Belfast. It was only when Andy Tyrie became supreme chairman in 1973 that power began to gradually centralized. Tyrie remained in that position until 1988. After his removal, a younger, more violent-prone leadership came to the fore and pushed the organization into a vicious spate of killings in the early 1990s. Many of those went to jail. Other, older members, who had been in leadership positions in the early 1970s and had been jailed, got out in time to support the loyalist cease-fire in October 1994. But now it appears that their influence has waned and that the UDA’s history is repeating itself, with a gradual loosening of control from the center. The organization might well break up into a patchwork of fiefdoms of the sort from which it emerged in 1971. If this should occur, then it would pose a serious threat indeed to the stability of the peace process.
The UDA does possess members with enough skill to make deadly under-car booby-trap bombs, such as that which killed Nelson in March. There are also several notorious UDA gunmen either on the loose or about to be freed from jail, thanks to the provisions of the Good Friday agreement. Sinn Fein has claimed that a couple of them have been spotted in Catholic areas, perhaps scouting targets.
The spate of attacks against Catholic homes has gone unchallenged, according to nationalists. It has created a dangerous situation not only in that there is always the potential for innocent people to lose their lives — as happened last July, with the deaths of the three Quinn brothers — but the campaign could have a disastrous impact on nationalist support for the Good Friday agreement. It could, if unanswered, undermine Catholic support (which is still strong, according to a recent opinion poll) for the agreement.
Unfortunately, the police, who are responsible for preventing these attacks, are themselves vulnerable to them. Last summer, at the height of the sectarian fire-bombing campaign against Catholics — in one week there were 130 bombings — the homes of policemen also came under fire from loyalists. In one week, 14 RUC families were forced out of Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, where the sectarian attacks have continued almost uninterrupted. Once again, as the Drumcree crisis looms, loyalists have been threatening that police families will suffer the consequences if the RUC does its duty and blocks banned Orange marches or cracks down on loyalist terrorists.
It seems also that loyalists are intent on going beyond petrol bomb warfare. Two weeks ago, in North Belfast, loyalist gunmen attempted to duplicate the deadly attacks on Catholic betting shops that claimed eight lives in 1992. Fortunately, the would-be-killers’ guns jammed and a couple of sharp-eyed children spotted them in time to warn the punters. But the makings of a massacre were all there.
The danger is, of course, that such an atrocity, or the killing of another prominent nationalist, could compel the IRA to end its cease-fire and carry out a retaliatory attack. Then, not only would the political process have come to an end, but the entire peace process which has sustained it for the last four, faltering years, would be in danger of collapsing.
May 26-June 1, 1999