One of the unusual features of the current loyalist feud is that it may well be the first in which there is some, genuine political content. Roughly speaking, one group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, is largely pro-Good Friday Agreement, while the other, the Ulster Defense Association, is mostly against the agreement.
Some will dismiss this factor as irrelevant, and put the whole dispute down to personalities and money. There is no doubt that without Johnny Adair, the hot-headed West Belfast UDA chief, the feud probably would not have broken out. Equally, there is little question about the financial considerations involved in what is a struggle for control over certain districts, mainly the Lower Shankill area of West Belfast.
Both are important factors. But one indication of the political context of the feud is the fact that the two elected members of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the UVF, retain their seats in the Northern Ireland assembly even though the UVF has recently murdered two people and carried out a whole series of violent acts, including a bomb attack destroying premises used by its rivals.
In 1998, Sinn Féin was expelled from the all-party talks because the IRA had shot two people. Just two weeks ago, Adair was thrown back into prison because he was seen associating on the Shankill with armed men and his supporters were involved in attacks against the PUP/UVF. But there has been no move from the authorities to apply the same criteria to the PUP¹s elected assembly members, Billy Hutchinson and Davy Ervine, in spite of the fact that the UVF is responsible for almost daily acts of violence in what is a concerted campaign. Nor has there been any outcry in the media demanding that fairness should be applied and that those who violate the Mitchell Principles of non-violence (to which one has to subscribe to be allowed to hold one¹s seat, at least in theory) be thrown out of the assembly. The UVF is involved in a campaign of violence. Ervine and Hutchinson are its spokesmen. Ergo . . .
It is hard not to agree with Gina Adair, Johnny¹s formidable wife, when she alleges that her husband is the subject of unfair treatment.
The reason, of course, sticks out as plainly as Johnny¹s muscles. The pro-agreement Unionists desperately need Ervine and Hutchinson for their votes. Without them, the anti-agreement unionist faction within the assembly would have a majority. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, would really be put in an embarrassing position. As we know, the British government has been accused of doing everything possible to avoid that, including diluting Patten¹s recommendations on police reform and, according to some, risking the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. However, turning a blind eye to murder and mayhem is another matter.
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Unfortunately, the Irish government, the other chief partner to the accords, has not exactly led the way in demanding that the PUP/UVF should be penalized for its members¹ bombings, beatings and shootings which are causing such an upheaval on the Shankill these days. It too looks at the Stormont arithmetic and keeps its mouth shut.
One way the British and the Ulster Unionists have responded to the loyalist violence is to call for the IRA to make another decommissioning gesture. Now that makes a lot of sense, doesn¹t it? The Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson made this appeal about a week ago, and the UUP have been muttering similar hopes. In the meantime, to date 194 families in the Shankill area have been driven from their homes, three people have been shot dead, a man has been seriously injured in a booby-trap bomb attack in Bangor, and the UDA/UDP¹s premises on the Shankill has been devastated by an explosion. It is one of the most concerted periods of loyalist violence since late 1997, when the assassination of Billy Wright set off a round of UDA and LVF murders.
Yet, the government turns the pressure on the IRA.
Again, the reason is sticking out as prominently as Napoleon¹s Nose. The South Antrim by-election, stupid! The British hoped that another inspection of arms dumps would help convince wavering UUP supporters that things are moving ahead as planned. Needless to say, republicans must be rather bemused by the reasoning behind this, though it is perfectly logical — if that is, you accept the basic premise.
The feud and the by-election are actually part of one broad process of political disintegration within Unionism. Though it began to occur in 1969, with the rise of Ian Paisley, the 25 years of violence which followed had the effect of keeping Unionists together, except — and it is an telling exception — for the years 1973-75. That was when Britain¹s first attempt at reaching a compromise settlement was made, resulting in the short-lived power sharing executive. That led to fragmentation with the formation of the Vanguard movement, the Northern Ireland Unionist Party, and ultimately the demise of the former Unionist Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner.
With political compromise postponed, and violence in the ascendant for the next 20 years, Unionists closed ranks. But fragmentation began again with the current peace process. It not only affected the Unionist Party, but the loyalist paramilitary groups. Where there was once only two — the UDA and UVF (the Red Hand Commandos were a sort of adjunct to the latter) — there are now three large organizations, including the LVF, plus a bevy of splinter groups. This mirrors the break up of Unionism at a political level which has accelerated since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
The reasons are not hard to see. Unionism was never really an ideologically based political party but was set up with the specific purpose of opposing nationalism. Any settlement which requires unionism to adapt to nationalism is bound to have serious repercussions as happened in 1974 (The Sunningdale Agreement) and again in 1998 (the Good Friday Agreement). The problem is that there is no settlement possible in the North without making that adaption. But as the Paisleyite victory in South Antrim shows, the UUP might well prove unable to do it without alienating much of its support.