Flags row: One of the biggest crime gangs in Northern Ireland, and it’s out of control
In this month six years ago the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams stepped onto the Newtownards Road in east Belfast.
It was one of those big headline days in the peace process as someone identified with the republican enemy came across the lines to pay his respects at the funeral of a loyalist leader.
David Ervine’s story spanned the war and peace of this place — caught with a bomb and jailed before he began a long journey into the world of politics. At the time of his sudden death on January 8, 2007, he was a Stormont MLA and leader of the PUP, the party with political links to the UVF.
The most senior leaders of that organisation were inside a packed church when Adams arrived for the funeral, and Jeanette Ervine will never forget that moment: “It was extraordinary and it was wonderful to see him welcomed.
“That it was allowed to happen, I believe, was out of respect for David,” she said.
But, six years later, she describes recent events as both depressing and very sad.
“I hear people say this process isn’t a peace process, but it’s a lot better than what we had.”
Today, Gerry Adams couldn’t step onto the Newtownards Road. Not in this climate of fury linked to the City Hall flag row.
Six years later, this part of east Belfast has been dragged back in time and is seen today within a frame, not of peace but of street mayhem.
And the images of those battles are a reminder of the old days and old ways, and a reminder also that the UVF has not yet completed its exit from the stage.
“East Belfast is like a circus,” said one source, a person who knows the place inside out. “And people don’t know the way through it.”
What he does know is the identity of the senior UVF figures in east Belfast who are directing the street violence.
“Those are the two top players,” he said, naming the men in question before making this wider observation about the UVF organisation.
“There’s already a split and it needs to be called.” What he meant is there are those within the so-called east Belfast battalion who are not under the control of the central leadership based on the Shankill Road — what in the paramilitary world is styled as the brigade or command staff.
“The whole province is being held to ransom by 20 people,” he continued, meaning those senior figures in east Belfast and their closest associates.
And he recalled the words of a senior detective who he said had described the UVF in east Belfast as one of “the biggest criminal gangs in Northern Ireland”.
Money, crime and drugs are all part of a toxic mix.
Up to this point the central UVF has not cut its east Belfast battalion loose for fear of another maverick or renegade organisation emerging similar to the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
So, the pretence for now is of one organisation at a time when a significant chunk of it is out of control.
The overall leader of the UVF is now in his late 60s, maybe battle- weary and no longer able to rule his entire roost.
And in east Belfast his battalion commander sits back and allows those immediately next to him in rank to direct a violent street play.
He hasn’t stepped in to stop it, and according to a security source, it is not because he can’t, but rather he won’t.