Monday, August 08, 2005

Loyalists at war over drugs and extortion

Sunday Business Post:

Fears are increasing that the ongoing loyalist feud in the North might be spiralling out of control following riots on the Shankill Road in Belfast lastThursday evening.

Six loyalists were arrested in PSNI raids in the area last Thursday afternoon. Shortly afterwards loyalists hijacked cars and threw petrol bombs, and the PSNI fired 11 plastic bullets and blamed loyalist paramilitaries for orchestrating the trouble,whichthey said injured 40 officers.

The PSNI raids mark a change of policing tactics. Two weeks ago the PSNI failed to intervene as more than 150 Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members converged on a rival loyalist estate in east Belfast. The latest violence comes after the UVF murder of Stephen Paul, a 29-year-old loyalist linked to the Loyal ist Volunteer Force (LVF), outside his home in north Belfast last Saturday evening. He was the third victim of the feud. The shooting took place amid a campaign of intimidation and macho pledges by both sides to continue until “the last man is standing".

The feud is the result of a long-standing turf war between the two groups to control the North's drug trade and extortion rackets. So far only two people have been arrested in connection with the three murders linked to the feud, although last Thursday the PSNI carried out a series of raids in loyalist areas and estimated the cost of policing the feud at »30,000 (€43,000) a day. In private, the LVF and UVF have vowed to escalate the violence, rejecting calls for mediation.

A senior Belfast UVF figure said the shootings would continue until the LVF disbanded and moved out of Protestant areas. He predicted that the feud would spread to other areas of the North, particularly Mid-Ulster,where the LVF controls the drugs trade. “We aren't going to let this go until the LVF are wiped out - if we don't, they will come back and the feud will restart a year down the line. That has been the story of the feuds in the past and we don't want that repeated,” he said. “We are in the driving seat, and they know that.This will go on until the last man is standing,” said the UVF figure.

The UVF claim they can't make any decision on their future until the LVF disband. In the past, however, the group has ruled out decommissioning weapons under any circumstances. The release on bail of a number of high-profile LVF-linked loyalists in recent months has emboldened the group, the UVF claim.

One of those given bail is a key LVF-aligned figure in the Ballysillan area of north Belfast, one of the last Belfast LVF strongholds. Mervyn Gibson, chairman of the Loyalist Commission, a discussion group used by loyalist paramilitaries, said the LVF had told him there would be no compromise. “They are simply saying that they have nothing to talk about and they are determined to see it through,” said Gibson.

“All attempts at mediation have been rebuffed, and it looks certain that the feud will come to a bloody end.”

Last week the family of one of the feud victims, Craig McCausland, called on unionist politicians to put pressure on loyalist paramilitaries to end the feud and ultimately disarm.

McCausland was shot dead by the UVF at his north Belfast home on July 11. His fammily said they were “disgusted" by the UUP and DUP's “silence" on the feud, and contrasted that with repeated calls for republican disarmament.

While the DUP has gone on the attack against republicans and the British government in the past week, its response to the ongoing loyalist feud has been far less vocal. North and east Belfast, the two areas most affected by the feud, are represented by two of the DUP's most senior MPs, Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds. A DUP spokesman said that while the party opposed all violence the “concessions given to Sinn Féin" were more important last week than the feud.

“The big news this week was not coming from the loyalist feud - it was the constitutional question and the concessions given to republicans,” said the spokesman. “We don't tolerate violence, from whatever quarter.” While the LVF has been weakened, it retains pockets of support in Belfast and Mid-Ulster. The origins of the rivalry stretch back to 1997,when the LVF was formed in opposition to the UVF's political direction and support for the peace process.

However, the latest round of bloodletting between the UVF and LVF can be traced back to January, when the two groups attacked each other on the Shankill Road in a bid to control the area's taxi companies. The feud fizzled out after a number of shootings, but since then the UVF have vowed to eradicate their rivals and settle old scores. In 2001 the LVF gained control of UVF strongholds in Belfast by siding with the much larger UDA during that group's feuds with the UVF. The loss of such strongholds remains a major issue within the UVF. Each side now claims that the other is being controlled by the PSNI's Special Branch.

The UVF claim that the LVF exist because key figures are informers, while a series of allegations contained in a British/Irish Rights Watch report this week claim that most of the UVF's most senior members are long-term Special Branch agents. Speaking while on holiday in Kerry, David Ervine, leader of the PUP, said the current situation was “deadly" but unlikely to end without further violence.

“It really is deadly; I wish it was over, but there is nothing I can do,” he said. “There are people on both sides who are intent on seeing this thing through to a bitter and bloody end. It is tragic.” Attacks such as last week's murder of Stephen Paul just yards from the Ardoyne interface heighten nationalist fears. Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey said loyalists feuds often ended with sectarian attacks. “Nationalists living at interface areas throughout Belfast, and across the North no doubt feel vulnerable during this period,” said Maskey.

“History tells us that when loyalist feuds come to an end, loyalists tend to direct their violence against innocent nationalists.”

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