By Jack Holland
It looks to me like the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force are painting themselves into corners.
The long-simmering tension between the two largest loyalist organizations, who disagree over many things, political and otherwise, has taken something of an artistic twist with one side accusing the other of attacking its murals.
John White, former UDA commander of "C" company on the Shankill Road, last week denounced the UVF for defacing a huge mural of loyalist icon Billy Wright. The UDA painted the mural to honor Wright (himself a former UVF leader), who was murdered by the Irish National Liberation Army in late 1997.
"Whatever relationship may have existed in the past no longer exists," White was reported as saying of the UDA and UVF, who were once part of an umbrella group, the Combined Loyalist Military Command. "The UVF has tried to dictate what UFF murals can be painted in the Shankill estate. They are trying to take power and effectively slapped the UFF in the face when they destroyed the mural to Billy Wright."
The UFF is a cover name the UDA has used since 1973 to claim responsibility for its killings. In recent years, the UDA has grown closer to loyalist dissidents who are opposed to the peace process, though the UDA/UFF is still, technically speaking, on cease-fire. Wright split from the UVF in 1996 and formed his own group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force. In the last few years it has been suspected that the UDA has been linking up with the LVF, especially in Belfast, to help it carry out attacks.
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The mural wars so far have been centered on the Shankill area, where the groups share territory.
Jack McKee is a pastor for the New Life Fellowship church on the lower Shankill and has been anxiously monitoring the deteriorating relationship between the paramilitaries in his parish for some time.
"I’m concerned that it could get out of hand," the Shankill-born pastor told the Echo last week. "Protestant paramilitaries like to flex a bit of muscle."
He explained that the UDA has been involved in putting up a lot of murals recently.
"One of them was of Wright," he said, "right in the middle of the Shankill. It was meant to show where they stand, establishing a link to the LVF." He speculates that it may well have been done purposely to upset the UVF, which had denounced Wright after he left the organization, demanding that he leave Northern Ireland or be shot.
According to McKee, UDA members are the main muralists in the area.
"For some reason they are more interested in putting up murals than the UVF," he said. "The UVF need more of a reason. Nine out of 10 times it would be the murder of one of their men." Then, he explained, the UVF will immortalize him with a mural. The UDA believes that its can use its paint brushes to make the Shankill area more attractive to tourists, it is reported.
According to Pastor McKee, this comparative lack of artistic interest among the UVF means that a lot of its murals have begun to flake, and need to be retouched.
I can personally vouch for the UDA’s interest in murals.
In July 1998, John White took me on a tour of some of the organization’s works of art that adorn Shankill gables. He had just returned from a holiday during which he had spent some time in Rome, visiting the Cistine Chapel. And as we all know, there is no better mural than that. As we were studying an unfinished mural depicting the history of the UDA, near the old Stadium cinema, White described to me how deeply Michaelangelo’s work had impressed him. However, he was not so impressed with the history of the UDA mural and thought it could still do with a bit of work. I thought it looked fine the way it was, considering it was a work in progress.
So far, McKee said, he hasn’t heard of any UVF murals being attacked, though others report that there has been UDA retaliation. White has reportedly said of the attack on the Wright mural that the UDA is "not going to take that lying down." He has reportedly threatened to produce another 10 murals and put guards on around-the-clock duty to protect the others painted by the UDA.
The war of the murals is just the latest indication of the growing problems within and between the various loyalist paramilitary groups. The UVF and the LVF have been at each others throats since 1996. Since the beginning of this year, two people have died as a result in the Portadown, North Armagh, area. Meanwhile, elements within the UDA in Belfast have become increasingly identified with dissident loyalists. A few weeks ago, several LVF prisoners in The Maze moved into a UDA-controlled block, while three UDA members from East Belfast dissociated themselves from the merger.
Paramilitary affiliations in loyalist groups are often determined by location as much as anything else. The UDA-LVF link-up seems to be a West Belfast-driven initiative. West Belfast, the old fiefdom of John White, is now the power base of John Adair, who made his name in the 1990s as a dangerous and sometimes daring activist when he followed in White’s footsteps as the commander of "C" company.
Under Adair, murals appeared all over the Shankill celebrating "C" company’s prowess. They are very colorful productions. One shows six masked gunmen, with a variety of weapons. Three standing with rifles raised, one holding what looks like an M-60 general purpose machine gun, while two others squat nearby, one with a submachine gun. Above them a banner proclaims: "UFF.2ND Batt.C coy." Beneath is its motto, courtesy of Tina Turner: "Simply The Best".
What it is best at is not explained — but I do not think it refers to the organization’s mural-painting skills (though they are impressive enough).
Pastor McKee is all too aware of the potential for an escalation of violence — he has spent a considerable part of his ministry dealing with the effects of "punishment" beatings and shootings administered by the UDA and UVF. Previous feuds claimed many lives. At least 50 UDA and UVF members have been killed in internecine disputes, not to mention the unfortunate bystanders who get in the way.
"It could get out of hand," he said of the war of the murals. "A lot of innocent people could suffer."