Belfast Telegraph

The Northern Ireland town holding its breath after UDA murder case acquittals

Ivan Little reports from a place where there is talk about settling old scores and death sentences for individuals who gave evidence

A mural for the UDA's South East Antrim brigade in the Sunnylands estate in Carrickfergus
A mural for the UDA's South East Antrim brigade in the Sunnylands estate in Carrickfergus
Some of the cars that were destroyed last year
A sign supporting Soldier F from the Parachute Regiment in the Bloody Sunday case
DUP councillor Billy Ashe at Carrickfergus Castle
Geordie Gilmore

It's a town that wears its loyalism on its sleeve.

Or rather its lampposts, from which Carrickfergus was yesterday flying the flag for the Orange Order, for several factions of the UDA and the UVF, for the Parachute Regiment and for Soldier F, who is to be charged with two Bloody Sunday murders.

But behind the sea of different emblems near Carrickfergus Castle and in a number of housing estates there are currently decidedly divided loyalties in the town where King William famously landed on his way to the Battle of the Boyne, and where people are now united in fear about what renewed paramilitary feuding might bring.

Tensions have been ratcheted up in a number of loyalist housing estates in the wake of not guilty verdicts last week for three men charged with the murder of leading UDA man Geordie Gilmore, who was shot dead as he drove through the Woodburn area in March 2017.

Talk of revenge, the settling of old scores and death sentences on individuals who gave evidence in the trial is on many lips and one man with his finger on the pulse of Carrick's bad blood said it's not so much a matter of if - but rather when - the feud explodes into violence again.

"People are just waiting for it all to kick off to be honest," he added.

Privately, PSNI chiefs have also admitted they fear the worst as they prepare for paramilitary payback with the very public stepping up of security in the town.

Gilmore was the victim of a long-running fall-out between UDA men who were loyal to him and the terrorists' South East Antrim Brigade.

The feud started in 2016 and during that summer more than 100 UDA men marched on Gilmore's home in an attempt to force him out, but he refused to leave.

One local man said Carrick had been holding its breath after the acquittals at Laganside court complex amid concerns that someone, somewhere will seek retribution.

The police, who sent reinforcements into the courtroom last week, have been increasing patrols in Carrickfergus, even though one source said it could take weeks or months before any vengeance is exacted on the streets.

On one evening alone at the weekend, eye-witnesses spoke of seeing six PSNI Land-Rovers driving in convoy through Carrick.

Newspaper headlines at the weekend focused on threats to kill the son of the murder victim, George Gilmore Jr, who was one of the witnesses who testified in the trial of David McMaw, his brother Darren, and Brian McLean, whose supporters cheered after they were cleared and who were later reported to have thrown a party in a club to celebrate the verdicts.

Yesterday there were conflicting reports over the whereabouts of Gilmore Jr, who several years ago survived a murder bid.

He was said by some sources to have quit Carrick on the advice of police, but others insisted he was staying put in the town to "show he isn't afraid of the people who killed his father". Other members of the Gilmore family are still believed to be living in the town.

Two of the three accused gave police addresses outside Carrickfergus and it wasn't known yesterday if they were still residing there or if they have returned to live in the town, where they have strong connections.

In several parts of Carrick murals as well as flags also mark out the 'territory' of the warring UDA groupings.

In one estate a massive South East Antrim mural proclaims that the "price of freedom is eternal vigilance" and borrows the Latin motto of the state of Alabama in America, which translates as: "We Dare to Defend Our Rights."

Beside it there's a plaque to UDA/UFF men who it says were murdered by "the enemies of Ulster" or "made the ultimate sacrifice while on active service during the present conflict".

In the heart of the estates people were too afraid to talk openly about their unease over what could unfold.

But one man said: "It's been surprisingly quiet so far. However, a lot of people dread that something will happen sooner or later."

Another woman blamed the media for "hyping things up" in Carrick.

"If you believed everything you read in the papers at the weekend you'd have thought all hell was going to break loose after the trial, but it hasn't happened - and hopefully it won't," she said.

Councillor Billy Ashe, a former mayor of both Carrick and Mid and East Antrim Councils, appealed to everyone in the town to exercise calm and restraint. He welcomed the PSNI having visibly upped its profile.

He said: "The police have been very proactive. And that is something to be applauded. Obviously I hope that there will be no more trouble in the town.

"But in many ways the police have been in a no-win situation. If they hadn't had a strong presence in the town and something had happened they would have been blamed for not having increased their resources in a bid to keep the peace.

"We've had more than our fair share of paramilitary feuds over the years. There's no getting away from that. And when you think we are 21 years after the so-called Good Friday Agreement, there can be no justification for the existence of the paramilitaries any more.

"And I would appeal to them to get off the people's backs and go away."

But Mr Ashe said he believed that Carrickfergus had unfairly received a "bad Press" in recent times.

He insisted that things weren't as bad in the town as some people made out, adding: "If anything happens in one of our estates for example, all of Carrickfergus is tarred with the same brush.

"Yet if there's something similar in a particular part of Belfast, no one rushes to put all of Belfast in the frame.

"We have nearly 40,000 people living in Carrickfergus and all but a handful of them are getting on with their lives as best as they can, as they always have.

"For most of us life is very normal down here."

However, the potential for feud-related violence is never far from the surface.

A number of people who have had even the loosest of associations with Geordie Gilmore have been targeted in the past.

In Bangor 35-year-old loyalist Colin Horner was murdered in May 2017 right in front of his three-year-old son outside a shopping centre.

Horner had left Carrickfergus after receiving threats from the South East Antrim UDA.

His mother Lesley Horner said that the rival loyalists, who she described as the "scum of the Earth" had hounded her son because he was a friend of Gilmore and had carried his coffin at the funeral.

Earlier this year four men were jailed for life for the killing.

Mrs Horner watched as they laughed and joked following the sentencing and gave the thumbs-up to relatives and friends in the public gallery.

They had taunted his mother by saying that after serving their time in jail they would be back "but Horner won't".

Former soldier Joe Oliver lost 12 cars in two arson attacks on his business premises in Carrickfergus late last year, when he said he and his son also received death threats from South East Antrim UDA.

He said he believed his family had been singled out because his son was a friend of George Gilmore Jr.

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson is seeking urgent talks with the PSNI to discuss the situation in Carrick, which he has described as "very dangerous".

Mr Dickson has said that he will be urging the police to maintain their heightened presence in the town "for as long as it takes".

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