Paisley's pattern of violence headligne here

A ferocious war between rival drugs gangs has erupted in a town once famous for its shawls, cotton mills and Hillman Imps. John Arlidge reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sunday nights are pool nights at the Park Bar in Paisley. At 8pm the sound of the laser karaoke machine fades away and would-be hustlers take their turn on the blue baize. It is the busiest night of the week.

Last Sunday, however, the table was bare. Nobody chalked up a cue, and instead of the clatter of white on red and yellow, the pub was quiet. It was a week after John Kelly was shot, and no one felt like playing.

Kelly was waiting for the pool competition to start when he was gunned down. The 36-year-old was relaxed, laughing; and did not sense the danger. Above the sound of the karaoke, he could not hear the shouts of his friend John Kennedy as he was attacked outside the bar by four men. It was the first sign that a week of gangland violence was about to begin.

At 7.15pm, as Kennedy lay bleeding with a bullet wound in his leg, a stranger in his twenties opened the swing doors that lead into the Park Bar. He stared into the crowd of locals and quickly picked out Kelly. From his jacket, he pulled out a gun and fired two shots, one of which hit Kelly in the face. As he collapsed, badly injured, the gunman fled into the snow.

The shooting was followed by three more gun attacks in the Paisley area in as many days. The worst was on the Tuesday, when Andrew McLaughlin, a 31-year-old father, answered his door to an unknown man who blasted him with a shotgun. He died on the way to hospital. His assailant escaped. In another incident, a pair of armed youths threatened two policemen before taking a family hostage.

Within hours of each shooting the police confirmed that they were drugs- related, the result of a struggle between rival factions for control of the local market. Drugs in Paisley are big business, worth more than £10m a year, and as the illegal trade has grown, many of the town's 79,000 residents have become resigned to it. But that was before the dealers swapped knives for guns and the shooting started. Now, with no one arrested for the latest attacks, local people fear that the burgeoning gun culture will tear the town apart.

"Old" John Watson, 65, is one of the regulars who have returned to the Park Bar in recent days. He says last week's shootings mark a new chapter in the history of Paisley.

"For people like me who remember the days of the cotton mills and the textiles, we are still the town that made the Paisley pattern famous around the world. But most people have forgotten that now. They say we are the Wild West, Scotland's Bronx. I don't want to admit it, but I'm afraid it's true. There are that many guns on the streets and people who are prepared to use them."

Mr Watson contrasts the attitudes of today's youngsters with those who used to attend the dance nights that took place every Saturday in community halls around the town. "Sure, there's always been violence here. We used to brawl. You said something, got hit around the head - you probably deserved it - and that was the end of it. The only thing it left you with was a sore head at work in the morning. Now people are not waking up at all. Things are getting out of hand."

Paisley, five miles from Glasgow city centre, grew rapidly in the 19th century when the textile mills opened, and it soon became Scotland's largest town. Even after the mills closed, it continued to thrive as local businessmen successfully diversified into heavy industry, in particular vehicle manufacture. But it did not last. By the end of he recessionary Seventies, the engineering plants had all but disappeared. Today, a supermarket stands on the site of the production lines that gave birth to the Hillman Imp, and the well-to-do Victorian terraces are surrounded by housing estates where unemployment has reached 70 per cent.

As the shawl-makers and car-makers left, a new breed of entrepreneurs moved in. When hard drugs, in particular heroin and black- market prescription sedatives, flooded into Glasgow in the Eighties, the local underworld picked up a piece of the trade. Heroin is still rare in Paisley, but demand for depressants, notably cannabis and sleeping tablets, is high among the growing band of young unemployed.

Today, 10 years after the first pushers took to the streets, the supply of drugs is controlled by three factions, with members of two local families at the forefront. Flare-ups like last week's shootings are part of a long- standing territorial war that has intensified as dealers' profits have grown. Senior detectives know the identities of the men behind the drugs and the shootings, but with the main players careful to keep a low profile, gathering evidence is difficult. What's more, the latest gun attacks have created a climate of fear that is hampering investigations. Local people whisper the names of the "families that deal a wee bit" on street corners, but so far few have come forward with information.

In the doorway of the Top View Community Centre, which stands next to "Fort Apache", a burnt-out row of shops in the deprived Ferguslie Park estate, one woman explains why. "Everyone knows what is going on. It's a close community. We have no secrets." She tugs on her silver-coloured necklace. "That's why no one dares to stick their neck out. They know that if they do, word will get round, and soon they'll have no neck left at all. As long as the dealers don't come to my door, I will leave them alone. Perhaps it's wrong, but it's life, real life for folk here."

It is an attitude that angers detectives, frustrated by the slow progress of their inquiries. Supt Douglas Walker, who is leading the hunt for the main gangs, is critical of locals. "People may not think that the drugs directly affect them, but they do. It is a dirty trade which affects the whole community - the lives of the users that are wrecked, the crimes that they commit to get money to feed their habit, the damage to the environment.

"Drugs are part of society and the police alone cannot stamp out the problem. We need a partnership with the public. The choice is up to the community."

Ten days after Kelly was left for dead on the floor of the Park Bar, Supt Walker is aware that public confidence in officers may suffer if no arrests are made soon. But he is optimistic that he will rid Paisley of its Wild West image. "Remember, the dealers have to be lucky all the time. We only have to get lucky once. The breaks will come."