The changing face of the UDA?
BY LAURA FRIEL
A row of men, dressed neatly in sober suits and ties, respectable, restrained, resolute and most importantly distinct from the usual tattooed skinhead or fancy car Wide Boy image. The visual message was clear. The UDA was signalling a break with the past, a new beginning, a move forward. Well almost but not quite.
Many media commentators have expressed confusion and disbelief at the fact that a programme in which the UDA declared they "want to give peace a chance" has been dubbed 'The John Gregg Initiative'
For a start those addressing the media at a Belfast press conference were not the leadership of the UDA, but a UDA front known as the Ulster Political Research Group.
Tommy Kirkham, Frank McCoubrey and Frankie Gallagher of the UPRG are so close to the UDA that it would be difficult to spit through the gap but they are the mouthpieces of the UDA not its determining body.
A group of middle-aged men maybe facing the press but only to announce that the paramilitaries of the UDA, so recently basking in the light of media attention, would be returning to their traditional role as 'faceless' protagonists.
"It is the intention of the inner council not to have a public face any more and therefore the entire organisation will become faceless once again," said Tommy Kirkham reading out the UDA statement.
Far from looking us all straight in the eye, from now on the UDA would be keeping its head down. The cynics will no doubt relate this sudden commitment to modesty with the current crack down on unionist paramilitary crime.
As Susan McKay of the Tribune pointed out “after its antics of recent months the UDA has no choice but to lie low. The 'brigadiers', while they have clearly enjoyed becoming media celebrities, must have begun to get uneasy over calls for them to be arrested."
d UDA leaders are not only living in fear of being arrested but also having their considerable personal assets seized. The Assets Recovery Agency can seize cash and goods believed to be the proceeds of criminal activity. Unionist paramilitaries routinely enjoy lifestyles beyond the modesty of their declared incomes.
New legislation under the Proceeds of Crime Act gives the Recovery Agency powers to trawl through bank accounts and tax returns. Anyone unable to account for any cash beyond a £10,000 limit is liable to suffer confiscation.
The act was recently used to confiscate £76,000 from Johnny Adair's wife Gina after she was caught carrying the cash haul as part of her luggage as she fled from Belfast by ferry to Scotland. Media speculation has suggested that Adair and his close associate John White have a further £2.2million in European bank accounts.
In a further attempt to cover their tracks, rumours have been circulated in the media that a number of prominent UDA leaders have been 'stood down' and replaced on the 'inner council', no doubt by 'faceless' men.
Meanwhile, at the UPRG press conference, a statement from the UDA announced "a 12-month period of military inactivity" to be "monitored" every three months. Or to put it another way, unionist paramilitary violence will be suspended just long enough to allow unionist politicians to enter elections in May without fear of being compromised.
But UDA violence will resume unless "there is real and genuine political movement during and after the election of the new Assembly.
"An agreed, acceptable and equitable final settlement will produce even greater peace and stability within the confines of our beloved Ulster," said the UDA statement.
The UPRG emerged as a PR mechanism after the UDA rejected Gary Michael and the Ulster Democratic Party. The UDP collapsed when a quarter of the party's ruling officers quit in rejection of the peace process. Shortly afterwards, the UDA announced it no longer supported the Good Friday Agreement.
The UDP's electoral base evaporated as members of the UDA increasingly looked to Ian Paisley’s uncompromising DUP for political representation. But while the DUP would happily absorb the UDP’ electoral base, they could never publicly speak on behalf of the UDA. That was left to the UPRG.
Like many of those who appear in front of the cameras as members of the UPRG, Tom Kirkham is opposed to anything 'lefty', by which he means the moderate aspirations of working class unionism as represented by the PUP. As far as the Good Friday Agreement is concerned, the UPRG mirrors the DUP's rejectionism.
Many media commentators have expressed confusion and disbelief at the fact that a programme in which the UDA declared they "want to give peace a chance" has been dubbed 'The John Gregg Initiative' by the UPRG.
"John Gregg's spirit lives on," Frankie Gallagher told the media. "This unique initiative which the UDA has announced is a result of that spirit and his work before he was murdered by cowards."
In the 1980s, John Gregg seriously injured Gerry Adams in a near fatal gun attack. He recently said his only regret was that he had not succeeded in his bid to kill the Sinn Féin leader. More recently, Gregg initiated and sustained a reign of sectarian terror against Catholic families in North Belfast.
In recent years, Gregg was responsible for some of the most despicable sectarian killings, including the murder of Catholic postman Daniel McColgan, Catholic teenagers Ciaran Cummings and Gerard Lawlor and the killing of Gavin Brett in the mistaken belief he was a Catholic.
To announce a promise of "calm and stability" in the name of a violent sectarian killer appears an anomaly. But it isn't. Gregg was and his supporters continue to be virulently anti-Agreement. Over the last few years the UDA has deployed sectarian violence as a blunt instrument in the wider unionist agenda of destroying the Good Friday Agreement and its power sharing institutions.
The UDA simply believe that currently political unionism is best placed to achieve their shared agenda. Clearly the only 'real' and 'genuine' political movement the UDA will deem acceptable is the collapse of the current peace process. Every three months the UDA will assess political unionism's 'success' in undermining the Good Friday Agreement. And if the Jeffery Donaldsons and the Peter Robinsons fail, "the UDA will as always be the last line of defence".