Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

UDA mourns lost leader and aims to lose another

Twenty-five years after the murder of UDA leader John McMichael, the organisation is once again pushing the self-destruct button, says Brian Rowan

Loyalists are making big plans; thinking about how to mark the 25th anniversary of the killing of one of their leaders, John McMichael. McMichael was two things; both a military and a political figure, identified with the violent actions of the UDA as well as the strategy document, Common Sense.

So he articulated a kind of loyalist version of the republican 'Armalite and ballot-box' approach.

McMichael was 39 when he was killed by an IRA bomb attached to his car a few days before Christmas 1987. "He was unique," the loyalist Jackie McDonald said. "He was a very, very powerful man ... had a great presence and great ideas - far, far ahead of his time."

This is one description offered from within the loyalist community and from someone who was close to McMichael. But those who suffered at the hands of the UDA will have their own thoughts.

The loyalist plans are for a band parade on the eve of Remembrance Sunday and a black-tie dinner with invited guests; a date for it yet to be announced.

McDonald said McMichael wanted the UDA "to be something" and described him as a man prepared "to take chances".

Its chance to be something came in that period of the mid to late-1990s, with the ceasefires and the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

By then, McMichael's son Gary was leader of the UDA-linked Ulster Democratic Party (UDP).

But it was a period when we witnessed loyalists press another of those self-destruct buttons; witnessed feuding and then the decision to push McMichael, party colleague Davy Adams, and the UDP off the stage.

The party was 'dissolved'; a statement advised that there would be 'no media comment on this matter by the former leadership of the UDP, as further comment would serve no useful purpose'. It was a public humiliation.

And, years later, the UDA is at yet another of those crossroads: this time, McDonald is the target of a public put-down delivered in a statement that has its roots on the Shankill.

He made the mistake/blunder (as some would view it) of discussing parades at the height of the July marching season; saying out loud that he would support "a one-way ticket" to the Field, with no return parade.

And he went further, describing the Twelfth as his "worst day of the year"; because of the many drink-fuelled rows that have to be tidied up.

It was the moment his enemies were waiting for; those who are jealous of his media profile and who hate the description given to him of 'the UDA leader'.

He is one of five UDA leaders - the so-called 'brigadiers' - and without question is the best-known and most public. He has also managed to build relationships with senior republicans.

Some within loyalism view this as fraternising with the enemy; something that is seen as too cosy.

Add to this what some have interpreted as an anti-Twelfth commentary and McDonald finds himself in something of a corner.

He has been accused of being "totally out of step with the overwhelming thinking of the majority of the wider loyalist family''.

Yet what he is doing is challenging that loyalist family to think more widely than its own needs and interests; to think about how marching is being used by dissidents to try to destabilise the peace process.

He was taking one of those chances that John McMichael once took. And, now, he will know how Gary McMichael will have felt when he was so publicly dumped by the UDA.

McDonald should not retreat into a corner, nor should John Bunting in north Belfast. They have given loyalism a voice and its place in the peace process.

It may not be appreciated by the UDA on the Shankill Road and elsewhere. But then there is a question for them: what is their part and role in the peace process?

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