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Mean streets

Shocking scenes of families being forced from their homes in north Belfast were reminiscent of the worst expulsions of the Troubles. Veteran newsman Jim McDowell - whose family was targeted by the LVF godfather behind this week's threats - charts the often bloody history of paramilitary rivalry


Forced out: residents move from their homes in the Ballysillan Avenue area of Belfast after attacks on their properties this week

Forced out: residents move from their homes in the Ballysillan Avenue area of Belfast after attacks on their properties this week

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Johnny Adair

Johnny Adair

Billy Wright

Billy Wright

Jim Gray

Jim Gray

Andre Shoukri

Andre Shoukri


Forced out: residents move from their homes in the Ballysillan Avenue area of Belfast after attacks on their properties this week

The history of this place is that decent people have become inured to the word "feud". It's a word that is synonymous with vicious tit-for-tat killings and cruel family evictions. Like those folk fleeing their homes in Ballysillan this week.

And although, as my journalist colleague Ciaran Barnes pointed out in an earlier piece in this newspaper on Thursday, the evictions there aren't fuelled by an actual feud, he rightly warns that it could spark one.

With the UVF taking on the LVF. Once again.

Because, as Ciaran accurately underscores, it is drug-dealing thugs masquerading as the LVF, with its intimidating paramilitary paraphernalia of flags on lamp-posts, who are forcing folk to flee their homes this time.

And yet, there is no real LVF anymore. No central core or corps. No commanding structure. No chain of command.

The rump of what still poses as the LVF is run by a criminal godfather and drugs overlord who now "lives the good life" in something not a kiss-in-the-ass off luxury in east Antrim.

This gangster cannot be named for legal reasons. But I have personal knowledge of him.

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He and his gang once targeted a member of my family. They were going to kidnap and shoot him to get at me and what I was writing about him.

A tip-off - just hours before the crime was to be committed - thwarted the plot. And probably saved the intended target's life. But the east Antrim mobster, still supplying the drugs dealers in the likes of Ballysillan, remains a free man.

For one reason, I firmly believe. At one stage, he was a security forces tout. And, like others in the informer-riddled former LVF, some of them murderers, they know too much to be prosecuted. And, therefore, deem themselves as 'untouchables'.

But the LVF is now a skeleton of the sectarian terror gang founded by Billy 'King Rat' Wright when he was booted out of the UVF and based his murder and money-making machine - protection rackets, extortion and drugs - around Mid-Ulster. Ditto the other two loyalist killer and gangster mobs, the UVF and the UDA. The UDA once boasted that it was the biggest 'Protestant' paramilitary outfit in Ulster. Then, it had six so-called 'brigadiers' - all answerable to an Inner Council.

They were a disparate and deadly crew, which included the infamous, at that time, 'Brigadiers of Bling' - Jim 'Doris Day' Gray, Johnny 'Mad Dog' Adair and Andre 'Bookies' Brigadier' Shoukri.

But the demise of that trio of prancing paraMafia-style crimelords, with their flash clothes, flash cars and penchant for flashing bulging wads of cash around, pre-empted the demise of the UDA.

Jim Gray was first expelled, then executed, by his own: the UDA.

Adair and his then wife, Gina, her jewellery carried to the Scotland-bound boat in a shoebox, were forced into exile, in what became colloquially and jocularly renowned as 'The Flight of the Pearls'.

Shoukri was booted out in a bloodless internal coup after 'sequestering' UDA funds of almost £1m, which he squandered in betting shops, hence his sneering pseudonym.

And the biggest bust-up to blow up under the Inner Council was when the south-east Antrim Brigade of the UDA broke away.

It evolved into its own criminal fiefdom, but still with murder as its hallmark, as heinously illustrated with the recent double murders of Geordie Gilmore in Carrickfergus and Colin Horner in a Bangor shopping mall car park.

The North Belfast Brigade imploded long ago, after the drugs-linked debacle created by both Andre Shoukri and his brother, Ihab, who tragically and ironically died of a drugs overdose himself.

John Bunting was one the latest in a jinxed line of 'brigadiers' to take over in the loyalist stranglehold of Tiger's Bay, where a previous one-time commander bore the accurate, if unenviable, mantle, of 'The Bacardi Brigadier' (work the reason for that nickname out)!

However, Bunting has since had to move house, while a still-fuming internecine feud in North Belfast claimed the life this time last year of Andre Shoukri's best buddy and one-time UDA sidekick John 'Bonzer' Boreland.

And up in Londonderry, the UDA brigade there disintegrated after its No 1, Billy 'The Mexican' McFarlane had had enough, and earned enough, to step aside, before the criminal elements seeking to unseat him got the chance to shoot him, rather than merely oust him.

So, that leaves the UDA with just two of the original six brigades extant and with their brigadiers still able to exercise some modicum of central, or core, control.

But only just. Because Jimmy Birch in east Belfast and Jackie McDonald in the south of the city and Lisburn are increasingly becoming back-seat drivers.

And it is becoming increasingly unclear whether that is a voluntary move, or is being forced upon them, again, by younger, criminal elements.

They have been moulded in the 'easy money' ways of the paraMafia, and don't want to give that up at any price, even for the hundreds of thousands of pounds the Government is now pouring from the public purse into the back pockets of former paramilitaries now employed as "community activists" - on both the loyalist and republican sides.

Similarly, the UVF is as fragmented as an exploding, or imploding, pipe bomb.

Their once core and vertical structure of command has been blown apart by one man - the UVF commander in east Belfast, known as 'The Beast in the East'.

He and his mob now operate almost entirely in a unilateral manner, running their own criminal empire.

The only due they give the UVF's main Shankill-based hierarchy is to pay their weekly sub to the organisation.

In almost every other way, the east Belfast mob acts autonomously and are allowed to do so by the central command, because it fears the consequences if it tries to take them on - the prospect of another feud, in other words.

The south and north Belfast 'battalions' (the UVF differs from the UDA in the brigades/battalions aspect) answer to the Shankill HQ.

All of the 'battalions' show a semblance of solidarity, too, when they are ordered on to the streets to march in special commemoration parades, when the participants parade in flat caps, bandoliers and gaiters reminiscent of soldiers in the First World War.

But these are more showings-off, than shows-of-strength.

However, as Ciaran Barnes again pointed out in his piece on Thursday, the UVF, particularly on the Shankill (remember the cold-blooded and calculated murder of 'Big Bobby' Moffett?) are still capable of showing a brutal show of strength from the barrel of a gun.

Which takes us back to Ciaran Barnes and what he wrote of the current Ballysillan evictions: "Police chiefs will be concerned that these latest attacks only push the matter further away from politicians and into the hands of the UVF on the Shankill Road.

"In their ranks are seasoned killers with a deep hatred of the LVF and who would relish the opportunity to lay down a marker to its new brood."

In other words, Ballysillan Avenue may well lay bare the smoking gun of a new loyalist internecine feud.

Thus, back to the opening paragraph here about us, the decent people, becoming inured to the word 'feud', or more significantly, its causes and effects.

The vicious vendettas which have left their bloody fingerprints over almost 40 years of the so-called Troubles have spanned the parabola of paramilitary terrorism.

From way back to the big split, which saw the Provos spawned from the Official IRA, the catalogue of killings, intimidation and displacement of many people (putting 'them' out of their homes, or, even worse, burning them out) has been a shameful hallmark of inhumanity here.

Extrapolate the Provies/Stickies original internecine warfare across the later INLA/IPLO, the UDA/UVF, the UVF/LVF, the again internal UDA fiefdom feuds, and our recent past is amply littered with (still) simmering shoot-outs and put-outs.

So, the reaction, the understandable reaction, of the rest of us has been: "If they're shooting each other, if they're fighting among themselves, then so be it - as long as they're leaving the rest of us alone."

Except, except ... what does this shrug-of-the-shoulders stance mean for society - our society - as a whole? And especially the innocent families, now again forced to flee their homes?

The real conundrum for us, "the decent people", including me, and especially after all I've witnessed and reported over 50 years as a journalist here, is: if we have, indeed, become inured to paramilitary inhumanity and abuse of basic human rights, does that mean that even a little, or maybe even a big, part of us has become inhumane as well?

In that respect, have the paramilitaries won, in that they have pulled us into their poisonous web of not caring: of another form of PTSS… Post Troubles Stoic Syndrome. If it's not happening on our own doorstep, we don't care.

The answer to that may be to take a look at a picture which, again, appeared in this newspaper on Thursday.

The poignant photograph is reproduced again here.

It shows a young girl in Ballysillan trailing two suitcases up the street as her and her family flee their home.

The bags contain not just her clothing, but the very family fabric of her young life.

That picture casts a dark shadow over what is still happening in part of our paramilitary-wracked society.

However, to most of us, that is all it means. A shadow impinging on our lives. But not imposing on it.

Another shrug of the shoulders. That, ultimately, is the consequence of the legacy that all these long years of paramilitarism has imposed upon us.

Even the decent people. And that's the pity.

  • Jim McDowell's autobiography, The Good Fight: From Bullets to By-lines: 45 Years Face-to-Face with Terror, is published by Gill Books, priced £14.99

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