Paramilitary feud troubles Belfast

Police hope Tuesday's arrest of an Ulster Freedom Fighter leader will head off further violence.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The relative success of the Northern Ireland peace process may be at the heart of recent violence in Belfast between rival pro-British paramilitary groups.

An increasingly violent feud is pitting the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and the allied Ulster Defence Association (UDA) against the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Days of clashes claimed two lives in the past week. The arrest of a senior UFF leader is aimed at heading off further unrest.

Belfast political commentators say the feud has more to do with competition for turf than ideology.

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No Catholic groups are involved in the unrest, which hasn't damaged the peace process yet, analysts say, though there is always a risk.

For some, more worrisome is the fact that after a two-year absence, British troops were called in to deal with civil disturbances for the second time this year, rather than relying on the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Despite the fears of some community leaders, there was quiet following Tuesday evening's arrest of Johnny Adair. The UFF leader was released from prison last year, one of hundreds of convicted paramilitaries set free under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord. As part of their parole, they pledge not to engage in further violence.

"Here was a man who was behaving as if he were untouchable," Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said in an interview yesterday with British television. The top British official in the province, Mr. Mandelson is in charge of security.

"That he could swagger before the cameras ... incite violence in this way ... was undermining public confidence in the rule of law in Northern Ireland, as well as posing a threat to public safety," Mr. Mandelson said.

Show of support

About 100 Adair supporters waved UFF banners at armed police and soldiers posted near the Adair home overnight, but there were no serious reports of trouble. "There is a lot of anger out there that he has been arrested," said John White, chairman of the Ulster Democratic Party, a pro-British group.

Still, some Protestant as well as Catholic leaders urged Britain to crack down on other militants as well.

Ken Maginnis, a spokesman for the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland's main Protestant political group, told reporters, "It is happening in the vacuum that has followed political violence, and it has to be nipped in the bud now. It is greed more than 'God and Ulster' motivating those behind the violence."

The clashes have centered on the gritty urban neighborhood around Shankill Road, a heartland for pro-British, or loyalist, Protestant hard- liners during Northern Ireland's 30 years of sectarian strife.

Some observers say that in addition to settling political and personal scores, the rival paramilitaries are engaged in a battle for control of funding sources, which include drug dealing and extortion.

Worrying sign

Yet while Shankill residents welcomed the British troops and their stabilizing influence, it worried political analysts.

Leading expert Sydney Elliott of Queen's University in Belfast says, "I don't know why someone thought these troops were necessary. It seems a wee bit odd. What is wrong with the Royal Ulster Constabulary? Why did they feel they needed the Army?"

Mr. Elliott says he fears the use of the troops indicates a shaky peace.

British troops patrolled the entire province in July at the height of the marching season when the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal group, shut down motorways to protest a parade ban and sporadic rioting erupted throughout the region. Protestant marches mark historic victories over Catholics. While Protestants say they are proud displays of their culture, many Catholics object to the parades as inflammatory attempts at intimidation.

This week's unrest was limited to a small urban area in west Belfast. Assistant Chief Constable Ken Stewart said of the troop deployment, "I have reluctantly decided that it is now appropriate to seek support from the Army. This is planned as a short-term measure."

Unlike the rival UVF, Adair's followers are not represented by any political party in Northern Ireland's new self-rule assembly. Eliott says, "They have nothing to lose, and I'm very alarmed."

The Ulster Volunteer Force is represented by the Progressive Unionist Party. One of the group's political representatives, Frank Cunningham, says a masked man fired two shots through the window of his home in a neighboring county. "It makes me very sad to think that whoever sanctioned the attack on my home was probably someone who, a few years ago, I would have considered a friend and colleague," he says.

Latest unrest

The latest unrest began over the weekend at a community festival, where rival groups taunted each other during parades. Later, shots were fired at a crowded bar.

On Monday, two leading Adair supporters were shot and killed. One man was arrested in connection with the shootings, and six others are being held on weapons charges.

Shankill residents welcomed the British troops, who chatted with children, allowing them to peer through the viewfinders on their rifles.

Asked how she felt about Protestants killing Protestants, one elderly woman on the street replied, "They're head cases!"

Politicians representing the feuding Protestant paramilitaries are calling on all concerned to participate in behind-the-scenes mediation talks similar to those that brought about the 1996 cease-fire between pro-British and pro-Irish paramilitary groups.

*Material from the wire services was used for this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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