The son of an infamous loyalist paramilitary is accused of involvement in a major feud between different factions of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association).
Stephen McKeag, the 30-year-old son of the late loyalist leader Stephen ‘Top Gun’ McKeag, has appeared in court charged with carrying out one of over a dozen petrol and pipe bomb attacks which have taken place over the past week in north Down.
McKeag and another man also faced charges relating to arson, intimidation, and possession of drugs.
A serious and ongoing loyalist feud in the north Down area saw four attacks on Tuesday night alone, with petrol bomb and arson attacks in Bangor, Newtownards and Ballywalter, with another attack in Donaghadee on Wednesday night. Eight other houses were damaged by petrol bombs or pipe bombs over the previous six days, most of them occupied at the time, as rival UDA gangs in the North Down and Ards areas compete for control and the proceeds of drugs crime.
Two people have been taken to hospital following one attack at a house in Newtownards in which a brick was thrown through the front window and two petrol bombs thrown inside.
There have also been hijackings and a variety of threats scrawled on the targeted properties and others, mostly in Newtownards, ten miles east of Belfast. North Down UDA has been warning members of the South East Antrim UDA that if they don’t leave the area, they, along with their families, will be considered targets.
The gang has around 50 members in Newtownards and Bangor, who have been engaged in drug dealing, extortion and intimidation. While some members of the South East Antrim UDA have fled their homes in the clashes, others have refused to leave, including top figure Adrian Price. His house was smashed up by masked men after he was ‘expelled’, and threats against him painted on walls nearby.
Price is one of five men accused of the loyalist feud murder of Colin Horner, who was gunned down in front of his toddler son and other shoppers in a car park in Bangor in May 2017. Horner’s murder was linked to a separate feud which claimed the life of leading Carrickfergus loyalist Geordie Gilmore two months previously.
Graffiti has appeared in the last week threatening members of the Price gang, naming senior members of the gang with crosshairs, ordering them to get out. The graffiti was signed off ‘ND UFF’ which is a reference to North Down Ulster Freedom Fighters, a cover name for the UDA.
Paint was thrown at a North Down UDA mural in the loyalist Kilcooley estate on Thursday night, while the home of a relative of a senior UDA figure was attacked over the weekend.
There are reports that the West Belfast UDA are also now involved, and there is speculation the UVF could become involved after some of the attacks occurred close to the homes of their members.
Ulster Unionist Party spokesman Mike Nesbitt expressed concern that the situation is spinning out of control.
“It’s been 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement and 29 years since the ceasefires. Whatever rationale these groups had to exist — and I don’t accept there ever was a legitimate rationale — is long gone.”
The Strangford representative said the gangs involved in the violence are “giving Newtownards a bad name”.
“They are giving Northern Ireland a bad name too, but they don’t care,” he added.
The ‘Loyalist Communities Council’, a quasi-umbrella grous that claims to speak for the loyalist paramilitary groups, has remained silent on the violence, while there has been no criticism either from normally voluble DUP politicians.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly described the recent threats and acts of intimidation as “absolutely despicable and outrageous”.
“The only motive these criminal gangs have is continuing to drive misery and fear into our communities through racketeering, drug dealing, extortion, intimidation, threats and murder,” Mr Kelly said.
“Rather than ‘expelling’ drug dealers from their gangs and issuing threats, the real question is why do they continue to exist 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement?
“These gangs have no place in our communities. They should pack up and go.
“There is an onus on political leaders to call out this intimidation and for the police to act to hold those responsible accountable and end the continued existence of armed criminal gangs in our society.”