Nationalists have been warned to be cautious about their safety following confirmation that the north’s largest unionist paramilitary group, the UDA, is in disarray.
There have been growing tensions among rival UDA factions since last month, when a number of men expelled from the north Belfast ‘brigade’ paraded along the Shankill road.
The organisation took the highly unusual step of releasing a statement this week to back north Belfast boss John Bunting.
Bunting had lost the support of a number of people once loyal to deposed leader Andre Shoukri, and many were seen walking alongside the rogue west Belfast UDA on British Army Remembrance Day.
Since then breakaway loyalists from north Belfast have held pickets at the homes of former UDA prisoners linked to Bunting. Around 30 people, among them leading flag protesters, marched to the homes and offices of UDA figures who now operate as ‘community workers’ in north Belfast.
In a statement released to the media, the east and south Belfast UDA expressed support for Bunting and issued a direct warning to dissident loyalists.
The statement said: “Recent threats made against our members, particularly our ex-life prisoners who are held in such high esteem within our membership, are not acceptable.
“We the East and South Belfast Brigades of the Ulster Defence association confirm that our colleagues in North Belfast have our full and unequivocal support.”
A number of ‘mainstream’ UDA members have now been warned that their lives are under threat.
Historically, outbreaks of loyalist feuding have also been followed by attacks on nationalists as rival factions seek to demonstrate their ruthlessness and capacity for violence.
The increasing criminality of the organisation in west Belfast is believed to have been a factor in an arson attack against a mother-of-four.
Tracy Coulter’s home on Shankill terrace was set ablaze in an attack linked to the conviction of prominent loyalist ‘Mo’ Courtney, who was found guilty of head-butting Coulter in a dispute over the drugs-related death of a cousin.
Ms Coulter, daughter of loyalist Jackie Coulter who was shot dead in 2000, said the UDA was trying to force her out of her home since July. However, she said she will not leave.
“The UDA are not on ceasefire,” she said. “They are attacking people and letting people sell drugs. They find out what kids are selling, fine them #2,000 and make them sell for them. Everybody here knows it. And they are still getting funded for their offices.”
Meanwhile, the detonation of a device filled with shotgun powder on the windowsill of a house in County Derry on Tuesday was blamed on a regrouped UDA.
SDLP east Derry representative John Dallat said there were concerns in the Garvagh and Coleraine areas that the UDA were “active again and are recruiting people to their vile organisation”.
“There is extreme concern that the UDA are re-emerging with new leadership,” he said.