Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Why this death threat must be taken seriously

The UDA has denied being behind a death-threat to a journalist. But loyalists have never been loath to apply pressure to reporters whose stories they don't like, says Brian Rowan

The UDA had to move quickly and speak in words that did not require a decoding dictionary. Yesterday morning, news outlets were reporting on a threat to an unnamed journalist; that threat purporting to come from the loyalist organisation.

Graffiti had been painted, including the journalist's name and telephone number, and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said there had been a telephoned threat.

These are things that have to be treated seriously. In September 2001, the Loyalist Volunteer Force shot dead Sunday World journalist Martin O'Hagan.

And, in 1984 another of that newspaper's journalists, northern editor Jim Campbell, was seriously wounded in a UVF gun-attack.

Now, long after ceasefires, decommissioning and the ending of the armed campaigns, there are reports of yet another threat.

In recent weeks, the journalist's news outlet has put the UDA under a spotlight; specifically, the organisation in east Belfast, with suggestions that weapons that were intended for decommissioning were stolen and hidden in Bangor. The reports went wider than the issue of guns - and someone clearly believed graffiti and threats should be the response. But what the UDA is saying is that none of this was sanctioned by the organisation.

It said in a statement: "The Ulster Defence Association categorically denies any threats inferred or otherwise directed towards the journalist.

"It respects the freedom of the Press and the right of all journalists to carry out and pursue their profession free from intimidation or threat."

The statement was first described as being from the UDA in east Belfast, then as representing the broader organisation and its 'inner council' leadership.

Frankie Gallagher, of the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), told this paper he had spoken to the journalist.

"I expressed to him, after checking with the UDA, that under no circumstances was the UDA involved in any threat to any journalist," Gallagher said.

He also said there would be contact with senior police to give reassurance that the organisation was not involved in any threats.

And all of this is an indication of the seriousness of the situation - and potential implications.

The UDA is not an 'organisation' in the strictest meaning of that term; rather a fractured group that operates as a loose association under that organisational title.

Its chiefs have the rank 'brigadier' and within their areas have autonomy.

So there is not one leader, but several; indeed, five at that level of 'brigadier' - Matt Kincaid, Billy McFarland, John Bunting, Jackie McDonald and, in east Belfast, Jimmy Birch. And this is an organisation which has never quite found its place in the peace process. It destroyed its own political project when it 'dissolved' the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) and, only recently, was involved in a public spat with McDonald on the question of contentious marches.

He had dared suggest a one-way ticket to the field and no return parades as one possible way of taking annual confrontations off the stage.

The response from another part of the organisation was to publicly accuse him of being "totally out of step with the overwhelming thinking of the majority of the wider loyalist family".

It was the UDA hanging its dirty washing out in public; something that confirmed the impression of an organisation fractured and without discipline; an organisation in which Johnny Adair, John White, Andre Shoukri and Jim Gray climbed to influential leadership positions. And, below them, a culture developed; of criminal rather than cause loyalism.

In its hidden corners there is much still to scrutinise; and the suggestion that it was behind a threat to a journalist had all the potential to bring a media, political and policing focus back onto this group. Loyalists don't want that sort of attention.

The LVF didn't like it in 1999, when I linked members of that organisation to the killing of the solicitor Rosemary Nelson - an attack involving an undercar booby-trap bomb placed during a supposed ceasefire period.

I was asked to retract my news report. This was the LVF in a very public way trying to intimidate; trying to put the attention onto someone else.

The UVF is the same. For years, that organisation passed leadership statements to me; indeed, its most senior leader was directly involved in briefings and interviews. I have all the details.

But when I raised challenging questions about his role in a decades-long conflict, about being in the pay of the Special Branch, suddenly I became the "infamous anti-loyalist journalist".

It is about trying to shift the focus and loyalists have this habit of not just turning on journalists, but turning on their own.

They did it with Gary McMichael and Davy Adams, when the UDP was marched off the political stage; then with Gusty Spence, when he publicly criticised the UVF on decommissioning and on the murder of Bobby Moffett; then that most recent example of the public humiliation of McDonald.

When they read news reports they don't like, they can turn on journalists. But yesterday a bright light was directed towards the UDA and it responded with clear words. It had no choice.

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