A feud between rival factions of the unionist paramilitary UDA erupted in intense clashes at the weekend during which a PSNI policeman was shot in the back.
More than 150 UDA members and supporters were involved in the fighting betwwen of the mainstream paramilitary group and a renegade south-east Antrim ‘brigade’ in Carrickfergus, County Antrim on Saturday night.
Tensions remains high after four senior members of the mainstream UDA and their families were intimidated from their homes in the area.
The wounding of the PSNI man is being treated as attempted murder and is the first paramilitary shooting of a member of the British Crown forces in six years.
About an hour after the shooting, a man was stabbed in the back with a machete in an attack blamed on the breakaway south-east Antrim gang. He was treated in hospital and released.
The PSNI said three men were arrested after being stopped in a car containing batons, CS spray, a crossbow, crossbow bolts and balaclavas.
The clashes follow an announcement by the mainstream UDA in Larne on Friday that it was taking control in south-east Antrim.
Former south-east Antrim leaders Tommy Kirkham and Gary Fisher were expelled in March. It is understood supporters of the pair tried to attack the new UDA representative on Saturday, leading to the street clashes.
Ironically it was Tommy Kirkham who led talks last year with the Dublin and London governments in an effort to convince the UDA to disarm and put an end to its general criminality.
However, the group is now in danger of splitting into a series of feudal empires in a long-running dispute over who will control valuable drug and extortion rackets.
The weekend violence is the culmination of 18 months of friction between the UDA’s ruling ‘inner council’ and its former south-east Antrim ‘brigade’.
The dispute erupted when the leadership expelled north Belfast brothers Andre and Ihab Shoukri. However, Mr Kirkham and the southeast Antrim UDA, under the control of ‘brigadier’ Gary Fisher, decided to support the brothers.
With over a million pounds in government funding for UDA ‘initiatives’, the inner council tried to increase pressure on its south-east Antrim opponents by announcing that it had appointed a new leadership in the area.
When south-east Antrim failed to react the UDA upped the ante further.
It unexpectedly turned up in the area on Friday in another attempt to show Kirkham and Fisher supporters who was in charge.
UDA spokesman Frankie Gallagher addressed the waiting media but it was the images of the inner council in the background, with its new south-east Antrim ‘brigadier’, that were designed to send the strongest signal.
What happened next is uncertain, but within hours dozens of police in riot gear were separating rival factions outside the Carrickfergus home of the new south-east Antrim leader.
The mainstream UDA has called for calm.
“We are also calling for no knee-jerk reaction to this intimidation,” said a spokemsan.
The Rev Harold Good, former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, who verified IRA decommissioning, called on the UDA to disarm.
“The war is over. People have aspirations and those channels are open to everyone in a free democratic society,” he said.