Backlash feared as 'Mad Dog' Adair is sent back to prison

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Police and army chiefs were today bracing themselves for a swift retaliatory strike after loyalist leader, Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, was sent back to prison.

Police and army chiefs were today bracing themselves for a swift retaliatory strike after loyalist leader, Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, was sent back to prison.

They were expecting the UDA and UFF to hit back at the UVF as fears heightened of the loyalist paramilitary feud plunging into an outright bloodbath.

Adair was behind bars last night after the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, ordered his arrest in an attempt to quell the loyalist feud, which has cost two lives in Belfast.

Adair, regarded as leader of the illegal Ulster Freedom Fighters, was arrested by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and taken to Maghaberry prison near Belfast. His arrest followed a day of UFF attacks on homes in a number of parts of Northern Ireland, which showed the organisation was intent on taking revenge on the rival Ulster Volunteer Force for a shooting on Monday in which two men died.

Adair had been set free last September under the early-release terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The conditions of freedom for such prisoners state that they can be re-imprisoned by the authorities without reference to the courts.

Before ordering Adair's arrest, Mr Mandelson held a two-hour meeting with senior police and army officers including the RUC Deputy Chief Constable, Colin Cramphorn, and the Army's commanding officer, Sir Hew Pike.

Mr Mandelson said: "My priority is public safety and I cannot give freedom to an individual intent on abusing it. I am satisfied that this particular individual has breached the terms of his licence.

"It is time for all of us to confront the dark side of Northern Ireland's society, the mafia culture created by decades of paramilitary conflict."

He added that information from police made it clear Adair had been involved in this week's feuding. He said Adair had been warned about his behaviour when he appeared at the Drumcree protests in July. He appeared to respond, but in the last few days he had done "absolutely nothing" to earn the freedom given to him.

"I just want to make this clear. Nobody is untouchable in Northern Ireland, nobody is above the law. That is precisely as Johnny Adair has appeared to behave in the last few days, and that is completely unacceptable."

"I have been struck by the sense of great shame felt by Shankill residents over what's been going on, in which Mr Adair has been so heavily involved ... People have spoken of the pride that they once had in their neighbourhood, in the Shankill, now they speak of their fear, and it is Johnny Adair particularly and the activity he has incited who has been the source of that fear," he said.

Mr Mandelson said Adair could apply for early release again but a decision would be affected by his recent actions.

The security forces will be watching to see whether the arrest helps calm the atmosphere in Belfast or whether the UFF reacts by unleashing more violence.

Released prisoners are not supposed to return to paramilitary violence, and Adair in recent months had in effect challenged the authorities to act against him. He appeared at a number of protests and shows of strength, at some of which weapons were fired.

The loyalist paramilitary underworld remained tense yesterday, with leading members of both groups in hiding at what they hope are safe houses.

The Shankill remained generally calm last night with only a handful of Adair's supporters gathering outside the estate where he lives. Several of them threatened that retribution will begin today.

After Monday's killings there were retaliatory UFF attacks on homes in a number of areas, although an uneasy peace prevailed in the Shankill Road where troops were on patrol. Shots were fired at houses in Londonderry, east Belfast, and the north Antrim villages of Dervock and Portballintrae.

Although offers of mediation have been made, the general feeling is that the two groups are probably more intent on inflicting damage on each other than attempting to end the conflict at this stage.

John White, political spokesman for the UFF, said: "Sooner or later we'll talk but that will not happen before we've walked behind more coffins. I think that's a tragedy." He claimed Adair was badly beaten up when he was arrested and added:"Johnny was almost expecting to be arrested there had been so much speculation that he had been organising the violence. But this is going to misfire very badly. We shall see what the reaction is going to be."

Another of its political spokesmen, Gary McMichael, said: "This infighting is tearing loyalism apart. Those involved should realise they are on a road to nowhere. Ultimately the loyalist community are the losers in this feud."

Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party, the UVF's political wing, said mediation talks would have to get under way at some stage but he did not expect a start to be made just yet. "Sooner or later people will talk. We have to find a mediator who is respected on both sides," he said.

The Rev Roy Magee, the Belfast Presbyterian minister who has acted in this role in the past, said he was ready to help out but believed the two sides were not yet ready to talk.