The unionist paramilitary UDA has forcibly ousted its former north Belfast leadership from the city with the tacit support of the PSNI police.
A feared bloodbath was narrowly averted when north Belfast UDA members loyal to Andre and Ihab Shoukri, heavily armed but frightened, eventually submitted in the face of the powers ranged against them.
Following a number of violent incidents between the two groups in recent weeks, matters finally came to a head on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
On Wednesday night, members of the breakaway group attacked homes in the Ballysillan and Tyndale areas of north Belfast belonging to loyalists who supported the mainstream UDA leadership.
One of the houses targeted belonged to a leader imposed by the UDA leadership on north Belfast.
Last week several UDA people living in north Belfast who remained loyal to the overall leadership were also attacked, and some were badly beaten.
Word of Wednesday night’s attacks spread through Belfast and several hundred UDA members and supporters descended on the Westland estate, the stronghold of the Shoukri supporters where Alan McClean - who is believed to have replaced the brothers as UDA dissident leader in north Belfast - lives.
As the PSNI gathered at the scene, it became clear that British Crown forces were supporting the ‘mainstream’ UDA. A huge mob of loyalists was allowed to gather close to the nationalist Oldpark area in order to lay siege to the Shoukri/McLean faction.
Mr McClean - an associate of the Shoukri brothers, who are both in jail and who in June were expelled from the UDA - was forced to leave the Westland estate with his wife and two sons and some supporters at about 4am on Thursday morning.
They left in a convoy of cars with the PSNI ensuring their departure out of Belfast.
Local pastor Brian Madden was involved in persuading McClean to leave.
He said: “I saw machine guns on people’s shoulders, hand guns. I was taken into a house where people were pointing guns, swinging guns around.
“They were very angry and I was very, very fearful and I pleaded with him to leave.”
Mr Madden added: “After about 20 minutes of heated discussion, they started to drop the bullets out of the guns and he agreed that he would leave.”
Fear is now growing now amongst nationalists in areas like North Belfast that UDA violence will now be directed back towards vulnerable Catholics. In the past the end of internecine unionist feuds have resulted in attacks against Catholics their homes and businesses.
The PSNI were accused of allowing a violent mob of armed mainstream UDA members to march into ia nationalist area adjacent to Ardoyne unchecked.
Local councillor Margaret McClenaghan spoke of people’s “disbelief and horror” at the turn of events.
“The PSNI allowed hundreds of UDA members, many carrying baseball bats and other weapons, to leave Ballysillan and set off to confront rival UDA members in Westland,” she said.
“Instead of preventing the march leaving Ballysillan the PSNI decided to allow the UDA mob to leave before stopping them in the heart of a nationalist area adjacent to Ardoyne before they reached the loyalist Westland estate.
“A number of nationalist people fearful of the mob fled from their homes while the PSNI stood back and watched. Only for the restraint and discipline shown by the nationalist community in Ardoyne a potentially serious situation was averted and I would prise them for their conduct.
“The victims in all of this was the nationalist community in Ardoyne who were expected to tolerate a unionist paramilitary mob congregating in their area. This is completely unacceptable.
“People in wider society are watching this latest unfolding episode within the UDA with a mixture of disbelief and horror. People don’t particularly care which faction of the UDA is running its drug empire or conducting sectarian or racist attacks. What people want to hear from the UDA is that they are winding up their operations, ending their attacks and finally engaging with the IICD [arms decommissioning body]”.
* The leadership of the UDA issued a statement yesterday evening, saying “the members in north Belfast are glad to be back in the mainstream of the organisation where they can play a full and meaningful role in the transition required to bring about a positive change to our communities”.
There is now some concern that a similar showdown could erupt between the ‘mainstream’ UDA and the organisation’s leadership in south-east Antrim.