By John Kelly
The shaved head of loyalist leader Johnny Adair, festooned by a looming backdrop of Union Jacks, was featured on the front pages of all of the Irish national newspapers and many abroad as well.
That was before British Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson threw him back in the slammer, a decision that seemed inevitable given the new train of violence sweeping through the Shankill Road and other loyalist strongholds in Northern Ireland.
But apart from celebrity appearances at various loyalist gatherings, at one of which he clenched hands with multiple killer Michael Stone, Adair seemed to do little else.
"Seemed" is the operative word in that context. In the murky world of misogynist loyalism, what seems to be is hardly ever what it is.
The neutral visitor to Northern Ireland in these crazed, dying days of summer, might be forgiven for suspecting that Adair even has corporate sponsorship for the gear he wears with all of the aplomb of an Olympic champion.
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Everywhere the burly body builder appeared, he seemed to favor a black T-shirt brazenly emblazoned with the NIKE symbol. Otherwise, he just looked like your average English soccer thug.
Has he agreed to a lucrative little nixer that none of us know about?
He certainly seems to be involved in other, murkier loyalist activities that few others on this island can understand.
Adair is not just another loyalist UDA paramilitary. He has been accorded the dubious honor of wearing the bloody crown that the late Billy Wright, assassinated by Republicans in the Maze Prison, left behind.
Few, even within the loyalist community, understand just why this murderous turf war has exploded.
There are some vexing ideological differences among Ulster paramilitary organizations like the UDA, which is generally regarded to be the strongest in terms of membership and equipment, the UVF, which has traditionally been the most murderous, and the newer UFF.
Superficially, however, none seem to be so serious as to lead to such brutal killings as witnessed last week.
The question remains: just why are the loyalists engaged in an internecine shooting war?
Mandelson has publicly attributed the main causes to gangsterism. He claimed it had nothing to do with the peace process or the Good Friday agreement. Drugs and money were more likely reasons, he clearly implied.
The Ulster Unionist MP, Ken Magennis, was less equivocal. He said that the arrest of Adair should signal the start of a tough crackdown against organized crime.
"The majority of decent people must not continue to be intimidated and besmirched by lowlife elements," he declared in a memorable phrase.
The fear is that the true reason for the murderous rivalry may lie somewhere between explanations such as those and the known antipathy of the loyalist paramilitary forces against both the peace process and the Good Friday agreement.
While Belfast grabs the headlines, the UDA, in particular, continues to intimidate and terrorize Catholics in many areas, particularly in East Antrim. Houses are firebombed, shots fired through windows, and families are driven out of their localities.
The organization of which Adair is still a leading member behaves as though there was neither an agreement nor a peace process.
Similar tactics, including tit-for-tat killings, are also in operation on the Shankill Road. The problem for the loyalists who live there is that the enemy comes from within. They cannot operate against intruders with a united front. No nationalist variety is involved in these attacks. Often it is their very neighbors and their closest friends who intend to destroy them and their families.
Ostensibly, it has little to do with differences regarding the politics of
the peace process. Mandelson and Magennis may be more right than wrong when they argue that it is more about local rivalries that who rules what peace of turf.
But that does not explain UDA sectarian attacks on Catholic families in isolated areas. Those are clearly violent reactions to the agreement. While the Rev. Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionist Party may have nothing directly to do with such actions, its leaders continually articulate the reasons. The agreement, they repeat, is nothing less than a sellout to republicans. It can only lead to a united Ireland in the longer term.
The UDA, of course, has little or nothing to do with the peace process. None of its political representatives in the Ulster Democratic Party were elected to the Northern Assembly. It resents the fact that it seems to have gained nothing from the peace process. Finally, it regards the UVF, in particular, as being soft on republicans. It despises its apparent readiness to sit with republicans and to accommodate them politically.
Apart from political considerations there are also the more practical differences and rivalries. There is the question of illegal drinking establishments and the considerable incomes they earn.
What organization will continue to operate them for the benefit of its own members? What other organization may suffer as the result?
There is also the difficulty surrounding the organization of the large and growing drug culture in loyalist neighborhoods. Again, we are into friction about money and the power that generates it. Not for the first time in its painful history, loyalism is now divided on several fronts. How the extremists chose to deal with the variety of the differences will determine the immediate future.
Some nationalists may tend to dismiss it all on the basis that the loyalists can shoot each other for all they want. That could prove to be the biggest mistake of all. Wasps always sting more often and much worse as summer draws to a close.