As UDA confirms major split, a dangerous tussle for power is now brewing
A Power struggle within the paramilitary UDA is now playing out on the public stage – with a statement confirming a major split.
It was signed by the so-called 'brigades' in east and south Belfast and offered "full and unequivocal support" to the leadership in the north of the city.
An attempted coup has been developing there, aimed at dislodging John Bunting.
Significantly, the UDA on the Shankill refused to endorse the statement supporting him.
Bunting holds the paramilitary rank of 'brigadier', but is being challenged by a rival faction including expelled members in the north of city.
While it is denied, they are believed to have support from significant paramilitary leaders in west Belfast.
Yesterday's statement from the UDA in the east and south of the city accepted that the group had "arrived at a critical point in time".
It said strong leadership and courage would be needed "to ensure the survival of our great organisation".
The police concern will be the potential for this bust-up to develop into a violent street feud.
There are reports that the rival north Belfast faction – determined to oust Bunting – has already appointed its own leader. That happened at a meeting in Ballysillan on Tuesday evening.
What is now developing is a paramilitary numbers game and a dangerous play for power.
The statement from the UDA in east and south Belfast – where Jimmy Birch and Jackie McDonald are leaders – means Bunting has not been isolated.
Yesterday's statement read: "We unreservedly condemn recent attacks and threats on our colleagues in north Belfast.
"These threats and attacks have come from a loose collection of individuals, containing amongst them a core group of expelled members, bolstered by criminal and drug-dealing elements and young men that (sic) had never been a part of our organisation."
Last week this newspaper reported on a developing and worsening situation inside the paramilitary organisation.
The home of one of Bunting's associates – John Howcroft – was picketed by rival loyalists, and police had to manage a volatile situation on the ground.
And last Saturday a banner was displayed in the flag protest march in the city centre which read North Belfast UPRG 'under new management'.
Each UDA area has a branch of the Ulster Political Research Group.
The banner displayed on Saturday was aimed at further undermining Bunting and Howcroft.
The UDA has been plagued by feuds, the latest developments a repeat of previous power struggles.
Responding, Bunting told the Belfast Telegraph: "North Belfast has moved on from previous regimes. We are in a peace process and what's important is the future."
He described the statement and support from the UDA in east and south Belfast as "positive".
Settling of scores in a battle of the egos
By Brian Rowan
This paramilitary power play is about personalities and egos.
It is about trying to remove Bunting, who has enemies in north Belfast and on the Shankill.
We have watched these coups before. You can be a UDA 'brigadier' one day and dead, ousted or exiled the next, as history shows:
John Gregg – shot dead in a UDA feud.
Andre Shoukri – overthrown as the so-called 'brigadier' in north Belfast.
Johnny Adair – ordered out of Northern Ireland.
Jim Gray – shot dead by his own men.
Alec Kerr – exiled.
Billy McFarland – stood down.
Now the focus is on John Bunting in north Belfast.
But this is not just another fallout within loyalism. It asks bigger questions, such as why in 2013 is there still a paramilitary structure and a UDA leadership?
Those leaders still hold grand titles and rank.
And some of them appear untouchable.
The loyalists in north Belfast involved in this push to oust Bunting would not dare make such a move unless they had muscle behind them.
Despite denials, that comes from a few paramilitary figures on the Shankill – and those who believe they are untouchable.
Their names are on the tips of loyalist tongues.
And their rank today is not about any supposed defence of Ulster or communities, but their own selfish interests.