Growing violence prompts UDA ban: David McKittrick reports on an anomaly under which a legal organisation masterminded hundreds of assassinations

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday reacted to a steadily rising tide of loyalist violence by reversing a 20-year-old policy and announcing a ban on the largest Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association.

The ban, which came into force at midnight last night, puts the UDA on the same basis as the IRA, making membership an offence punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment.

The move brings to an end the anomaly of two decades under which the UDA, while directing an assassination campaign through the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Freedom Fighters which has resulted in the murders of hundreds of Catholics, has remained a legal organisation. Although its leaders have, with the IRA and Sinn Fein, been kept off television since 1988, it has openly maintained headquarters in Belfast. Its telephone number is listed in Yellow Pages under 'political organisations'.

Some mystery remains as to why the Government did not respond earlier to nationalist calls for proscription of the organisation. The move was welcomed by the Irish government and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which said that not banning the UDA had given some the impression that loyalist violence was regarded as less reprehensible than republican violence.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said a detailed review had satisfied him that the UDA was actively and primarily engaged in criminal terrorist acts. The security forces have for two decades classified the UDA as a terrorist organisation, sending more than 100 members to jail for murder.

Sir Patrick would not spell out the precise reasons for the policy change, but the trigger may have been the takeover of the UDA several years ago by a new leadership which the RUC characterises as harder, more aggressive, more determined and more ruthless. These 'young Turks' initiated the killing of 17 people last year and 14 this year. Their apolitical approach has removed the argument that keeping the UDA legal might at some stage encourage it to move away from violence.

Up to 200 RUC officers have been redeployed to deal with the possibility of violent protest from the newly banned organisation. It is accepted that proscription will not end UDA violence, instead driving the group underground. It may also seek to resurface under a pseudonym. Last night an answering machine at UDA headquarters declared: 'This is the Ulster Information Service.'

In the early days the UDA, starting as an amalgam of vigilante groups, had more than 20,000 members and was often said to be too big to ban. It went into steep decline from 1977, however, and since has been tainted by associations with racketeering and, more recently, drug dealing.

It proved ineffectual in the loyalist protests which followed the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985, but its murder rate has gradually increased. It is believed to have several thousand members, almost all in the greater Belfast area, with hundreds actively involved in violence.

The Irish government, welcoming the ban, said it shared the widespread concern in Northern Ireland about the UDA's activities and believed that the threat posed by it must be firmly confronted.

Some Unionist politicians welcomed the ban but called for a similar move against Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. Michael Mates, a Minister of State for Northern Ireland, said Sinn Fein's refusal to condemn IRA violence was repugnant but added: 'They are not in the same league in the directness of the involvement in violence.'

Andrew Hunter, MP for Basingstoke and chairman of the Tory backbench Northern Ireland committee, criticised the Government for failing to ban Sinn Fein as well. 'I hope that the government in southern Ireland will now agree to internment.'

'Young Turks' blamed, page 3

(Photograph omitted)

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