Growing up with the UDA
The loyalist paramilitary group’s historic arms move may have been overshadowed by events elsewhere but, as Brian Rowan reports, it is a significant milestone on the road to peace
I can still remember the men in bush hats and green jackets standing in the hall — a memory that dates back into east Belfast in the early 1970s.
At the time, I was a very young teenager. Minutes earlier the windows of our home had been smashed and the men who arrived had come to assure my parents it had nothing to do with them.
Back then we were one of those many families in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, after several more attacks, we were forced to leave our home.
In the fear and tension of that time the UDA emerged from the different vigilante groups and defence associations.
It took a place on a war stage that stretched across decades, and is linked to scores of murders and statements the vast bulk of which were issued under the cover name of the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
I think it was the commentator and former politician Brian Feeney who first described the UDA and the UFF as the same men in different balaclavas.
Yet, remarkably, the Ulster Defence Association was not proscribed until 1992, by which time the Shankill loyalist Johnny Adair had climbed to a senior rank in the organisation.
Why it took so long to outlaw the UDA is just one of the unanswered questions of the war.
In my reporting of that conflict, the first of its leaders I had contact with were the so-called supreme commander Andy Tyrie, and John McMichael.
The latter was killed in an IRA under-car booby-trap explosion in 1987 and was replaced at the UDA’s top table, on its inner council, by Jackie McDonald.
And there you have the link to the present day UDA leadership. More than two decades later, he has become the most prominent and public of the current paramilitary brigadiers.
In that period the UDA has caused turmoil and has been through turmoil. It is remembered in what it would term the spectacular attacks — the murder of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, Michael Stone’s gun and grenade attack on mourners at a republican funeral, the Greysteel pub shootings.
But there have been scores of other killings — people targeted, triggers pulled, and victims labelled as republican in an attempt to justify random sectarian murder.
The most violent surge in UDA activity I reported on was in the early 1990s when the loyalist organisation used the Hume-Adams talks process as an excuse to target the entire nationalist community.
Anyone Catholic was considered a legitimate target with the UDA claiming a new threat to Ulster from a Pan-Nationalist Front.
In their communications with the media, I took scores of statements from the loyalist organisation, statements dictated after killings and delivered with codewords to prove their authenticity. Some of the codewords used were The Ulster Troubles, The Crucible, and Titanic, just some of the secret words used by the UDA in its war.
By the early nineties during that violent surge there was a new leadership — including Johnny Adair, Alex Kerr, Gary Matthews, Jim Spence, Joe English and Billy McFarland. In this period McDonald was in jail. Ray Smallwoods, later killed by the IRA, was the political thinker who sat in on those leadership meetings.
The ceasefires came in 1994, then the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement. But as the peace process evolved the story of loyalism has been dominated by infighting and feuding, much of it sparked by Adair as part of a play for power.
Big names in the paramilitary leaderships fell — some of them murdered and others exiled. The list includes Adair, his associate John White, Jim Gray, Andre Shoukri and John Gregg.
And it is out of this mess that the UDA has struggled to find its place in the peace and taken so much time to complete the decommissioning process.
There is another leadership now — McDonald, Matt Kincaid, Jimmy Birch, John Bunting and Billy McFarland. They are today’s inner council; the men who madelast week’s major arms move possible.
But decommissioning will not be the end of the UDA. The challenge now is to march its men off that war stage and into the peace.
“I believe the UDA has already stepped off the stage,” Frankie Gallagher of the aligned Ulster Political Research Group told the Belfast Telegraph. That is something much easier said than done.
You only have to look at the pages of the most recent report of the Independent Monitoring Commission to read an assessment linking the UDA to continuing criminality including drugs, robbery and extortion. And we know from experience that there is no magic wand that makes these organisations disappear.
“You cannot be a loyalist and a criminal,” Gallagher said yesterday. And so it is up to the UDA to now take those next steps — steps that create distance between those who want to be part of the peace and those who continue to operate in that criminal world.
Not every UDA gun and bullet and ounce of explosive will have been given to the decommissioning process. These organisations do not leave themselves without weapons, and that includes the IRA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando.
That is not to downplay the significance of what has happened. Decommissioning is important in terms of confidence building and in saying that wars are over.
General de Chastelain and his team would not have called what the UDA did in recent days major unless there were the arms to justify that description. Arms, ammunition, explosives and explosive devices were destroyed and that is good news for the peace process.
Republicans know the significance of what happened. Gerry Kelly, a man of the IRA’s war and now a junior minister at Stormont, called it “a substantial move forward”.
He is right. Guns that did a lot of damage have been silenced and destroyed.
It means this UDA leadership accepts the war is over and the challenge now is to find a place in the peace.