Rival loyalist factions drove supporters of Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair from their Belfast stronghold yesterday in a serious blow to the renegade paramilitary commander, who has been at the centre of months of Unionist infighting.
Adair's wife, Gina, and his close associate John White were among a group of up to 50 people who fled overnight from their Lower Shankill power base to Scotland, hours before thousands gathered for the funeral of his bitter rival, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) leader John Gregg.
Gregg, 45, who was famed within loyalist ranks for shooting and almost killing Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein President, was shot dead after returning to Northern Ireland from a Glasgow Rangers football match at the weekend, following two-and-half years of bloody gangland fighting.
Adair's C Company, which has been at the centre of at least three feuds that have left 14 men dead, was blamed for his death. More than 100 of its members have deserted the former commander of UDA's west Belfast brigade after being warned that they would be shot in retribution for the murders of Gregg and his colleague Robert Carson, 33.
Adair, once Northern Ireland's most feared loyalist, is behind bars after being returned to Maghaberry Prison, near Lisburn, Co Antrim, last month when his early release licence was revoked for his involvement in terrorist crimes.
His final humiliation came when his wife left their heavily fortified home yesterday after gangs of men attacked houses in the Lower Shankill area. At least one shot was fired and a man was arrested when police arrived and returned fire.
Adair's supporters caught a ferry to the Scottish port of Cainryan at dawn. Officers from Dumfries and Galloway Police questioned four people under the Terrorism Act. They were released and their whereabouts remained unclear.
However, loyalist sources in Belfast claimed Adair's wife and supporters were not safe in Scotland. One said: "The UDA is right across the UK and I cannot see this being resolved, not just yet. There are outstanding issues.
"It wouldn't matter if they went to the Mediterranean. John Gregg is lying in a coffin and that is a disgrace. We know these people have been buying homes in Scotland ... This is what they had been planning for. It is part of the end-game."
There has been speculation in Scotland that Adair had been trying to buy property in Glasgow and Edinburgh, or to force his way into the pub scene in Ayr. Scottish ministers were "closely" monitoring the situation, said a spokesman for the Scottish Executive.
The overnight exodus came just before thousands arrived for the biggest loyalist paramilitary funeral since the burial of the Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright in 1997.
The four remaining brigadiers that form the inner council of the UDA formed in 1971 from vigilante groups attended the funeral in north Belfast, along with ex-members of Adair's unit and Michael Stone, who killed three people in an attack on an IRA funeral in west Belfast in 1988. Three volleys of shots were fired over the coffin, which was draped in the UDA-affiliated Ulster Freedom Fighters flag.
Meanwhile, Adair's legacy was being wiped out yesterday as what Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, described as a "mafia feud" appeared to be coming to its end.
Bricks and bottles littered the streets and flags were ripped down in the Lower Shankill area. Paint was smeared over a C Company mural some of it daubed by William "Mo" Courtney, once a close friend of Adair who deserted his camp last week. He said: "The feud is now over."
The latest feuding, which security sources say is linked to control of drugs and racketeering, erupted in September when the UDA expelled Adair.
A neighbour of Adair's said: "Things are still very tense and it remains to be seen what will happen over the next few days. There is a lot of bitterness. It's not over yet."
Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly claimed the loyalist Shankill area would not benefit from "the replacement of one group of sectarian killers and drug dealers with another".