To Belfast Catholics, John Adair was the ultimate bogeyman. Harry McCallion on the rise and fall of a gang leader
A timely reminder of the horrors of Ulster's recent past was delivered last week in Belfast Crown Court. John Adair, 31, known to his victims, cohorts and the media as "Mad Dog", was sentenced to 16 years in prison after admitting a charge of directing terrorism. He also received a concurrent seven-year term for membership of an illegal organisation. He was, the prosecution said, "dedicated to his cause, which was nakedly sectarian in its hatred of those it regarded as militant republicans, among whom he lumped almost the entire Catholic population".

The charge of directing terrorism, brought to the statute books two years ago, is the newest weapon in the armoury of the Northern Ireland security forces. It enables them to prosecute suspects who either organise or direct acts of violence and is aimed at bringing the godfathers of terrorist organisations to justice. Adair is the second man to be charged and convicted of the offence.

Adair comes from Hazelfield Street, off the Shankill Road in north Belfast; nearly one in every four of Ulster's 3,173 victims died within a few square miles of his home. The Shankill Road and its satellite estates of Tyndale and Forthriver have produced some of the most active killers of modern times, among them the notorious UVF man Lenny Murphy and his Shankill Butchers and the Window Cleaner, a UDA man who would place a ladder up to the bedroom windows of his Catholic victims and shoot them when they answered his knock.

I met Adair often when I served in Tennant Street RUC station in the late Eighties. He was just starting to make a name for himself within the ranks of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and when I first met him, two things struck me - his bravado and his eyes. I remember looking into them and thinking: "This man is a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic." He was fit and ran almost daily. None of us realised at the time that he picked out the gang's victims by jogging into nearby Catholic areas to recce houses and escape routes.

From the start, Adair was extremely security conscious. Early on, he knew that paramilitary killers were more often than not betrayed by informers within their own ranks. By the time he was running his own gang, a branch of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), a flag of convenience for the then legal UDA, he had hand-picked a select group of five men to help him. He refused to brief them about operations until the day the victim was to be killed, and even then, often at only an hour's notice. According to an RUC CID source, Adair often boasted during his interrogations of Catholics that there were no touts (informers) among his associates because they all knew that the penalty would be a "head job".

Nobody knows exactly how many innocent Catholics Adair's gang killed, but an RUC source makes a conservative estimate of between 20 and 30 over 15 years.

Adair's growing prominence did not go unnoticed in republican circles. The Provisional IRA set out to kill him several times. On one occasion, two IRA killers armed with an AK47 rifle took over the house opposite Adair's. Unknown to them, the house was owned by a Protestant man who carried a legal firearm after surviving an IRA attempt on his life.

The IRA men were waiting for Adairwhen the Protestant pulled his pistol. "It was like something out of a Keystone Cops movie," said a police officer who arrived minutes later. "The two young IRA men, pursued by the Prod, panicked and fled, both firing wildly and missing by a mile."

The ease with which the IRA got into the Shankill Road area prompted Adair to go public. At the end of 1992, he and his minders used beer barrels to block off a newly opened street connecting Protestant north Belfast with the Catholic west. Adair appeared on Ulster news broadcasts demanding that the road should be sealed off "to protect innocent Protestants from assassination". The RUC took down the beer barrels at night, and Adair put them up by day. Eventually, the road was officially closed.

By the end of 1992, Adair had become the most important paramilitary figure in north Belfast. At times of particularly high tension, he would meet leaders of other UDA hit teams to co-ordinate attacks. His increasing prominence and charmed life only enhanced the fears of Catholics in nearby areas. "To Catholics I worked with, he was the ultimate bogeyman," said a Protestant. "They saw him everywhere and blamed him for everything."

It was the British army that clashed with him next. The intelligence community had failed to penetrate Adair's tight security; it decided a military operation was needed. A detachment of 14 Intelligence Company was given the job of watching Adair 24 hours a day.

The company, known as The Det in Special Forces circles, is one of the most professional units the Army has ever produced. Set up in 1972, the unit, specially selected and trained, had focused on the IRA. Watching Adair was to prove more difficult and just as dangerous. The Det could not use local security force bases for fear of compromise by cleaners or even part-time police officers who lived on the Shankill. This meant more time had to be spent on the ground, on foot or in cars.

Almost inevitably, one of their operators was spotted by Adair's minders. As he walked past Mad Dog's house, the Det man was rushed by three men. He pulled his 9mm Browning and shot his way out, leaving behind two wounded men. This incident had a profound effect on Adair, who was convinced the Army was out to kill him. If an unknown car passed him more than once, he would point at it and shout "SAS, SAS" at the top of his voice.

By early 1994, the IRA was quietly laying foundations for its ceasefire with the British government. Before the guns were to be put away, the Belfast IRA was intent on settling a few scores with the Protestant paramilitary who had killed so many Catholics. On the Ormeau Road, two UFF men who had organised a massacre of Catholics in a betting shop were gunned down. On the Shankill, two leading Ulster Volunteer Force commanders were shot dead. Mad Dog was next on the list.

The UDA maintained an office on the Shankill Road. On a certain day at a certain time, the IRA appear to have believed Adair would be there. Two IRA volunteers arrived, wearing white coats and carrying a bomb. It exploded prematurely, killing one IRA man and nine civilians. In the days that followed, the UFF carried out the Greysteel massacre, in which seven more people were killed, and many other random assassinations.

Armed with the new law of directing terrorism, the RUC set about using Adair's own bravado and big mouth to trap him. In a highly secret operation, an RUC officer was fitted with a concealed microphone. Even the officer's colleagues were unaware of his mission. Over several months, the officer engaged Adair in conversations. Gradually, Adair began to boast of his exploits and role as a UDA commanding officer. Finally, the trap was sprung. Weeks before the ceasefire, Adair was arrested.

In Catholic areas, many slept safe for the first time in a decade. Protestants demanding his release blocked the Crumlin Road opposite the jail holding Adair, and some Protestant politicians accused the RUC of entrapment. Caging a Mad Dog is one thing; removing his power is another.

Before the Combined Loyalist Command, the umbrella group that controls all Protestant paramilitary activity, called its ceasefire, Adair had to be consulted in his prison cell. Surprisingly (and perhaps because he was in prison), he gave his consent. A year into the ceasefire, Adair still controls the activities of his cohorts in north Belfast from prison. After an impromptu search, officers seized a mobile phone hidden in his cell. This resulted in a prison riot and roof-top demonstrations by Protestant prisoners.

Many RUC men were unsure if the evidence against Adair would be enough to convict, and initially, he denied the charges. A major factor in his change of plea was the possibility of a reduced sentence and the imminent reintroduction of 50 per cent remission for terrorist crimes.

A recently erected mural on the Shankill Road depicts three black-clad UVF men, two holding assault weapons, the third a sledgehammer breaking down the door of a Catholic house. A little over a year ago, with Adair at large, such a scene was the living nightmare of every Catholic family in north Belfast. Let us all hope we do not see his like again.

The writer served in the Parachute Regiment, SAS and RUC. He is the author of `The Killing Zone', published by Bloomsbury.