Loyalist drug feud forces 200 families to quit homes

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The drugs flat which is at the centre of the lethal Shankill loyalist feud is boarded up now, but there are plenty of characters around in baseball caps, with multiple earrings and tattoos, to provide merchandise.

The drugs flat which is at the centre of the lethal Shankill loyalist feud is boarded up now, but there are plenty of characters around in baseball caps, with multiple earrings and tattoos, to provide merchandise.

The property is in the middle of the lower Shankill estate. This is now the undisputed heartland of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the group led by Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, who has been recalled to prison because of his part in the feud.

A local community activist said: "Oh yes, everybody knows about the drugs flat. There's a wee bit of hard drugs, but mostly just ecstasy and blow. They say it makes up to 10 grand profit a week." Control of the area by the UDA is visibly confirmed by the huge slogan of the "UFF", the UDA's alternative name, which covers a large gable wall, and by the sight of boarded-up houses.

Most of these were occupied by people who had connections, however slight, with the rival Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). They were forced out by the UDA in the course of the latest loyalist feud, which has being going on for more than a month, costing three lives.

In addition to the deaths, the trauma and social disruption have been enormous. More than 200 families have been hurriedly rehoused as a peculiarly Belfast form of internal ethnic cleansing has been put into effect. One young woman recalled: "They just threw a thing through our window, smashed the whole window and then they just stood there. They didn't say anything - they didn't have to - we just knew we had to go to get out."

Some shots were fired through windows, but mostly it was up close and personal. A local councillor recalled: "People actually just came into their houses, smashed their windows, smashed their furniture. Usually they gave them 24 hours to get out."

One person involved with rehousing the intimidated said of the residents' attitudes: "It's a mixture. Some are resigned, some angry, some hysterical, some vengeful. Some of them are just traumatised."

The brutally simple strategy has worked, so that the drugs flat is now in a UDA-controlled zone. Near by, a whole street has become the heart of UDA territory, festooned with all manner of flags and bunting, often blocked off at each end by cars, with dozens of men and youths hanging around.

The social fabric of the Shankill Road district is being ripped apart by all this, as the paramilitaries demonstrate daily to the youth of the district the power that can come from the gun, the baseball bat and the drugs economy.

The authorities and some locals are working hard behind the scenes to set up peace talks, in the hope of resolving the situation without further bloodshed. In the meantime, however, only exceptionally heavy policing keeps the lid on. Near Malvern Street, the scene of a loyalist murder in 1966, before the Troubles really began, an elderly woman left her bench to speak to an RUC constable, telling him how terrible it was. The policeman was not alone; around him an eight-man patrol of the Royal Marines was fanned out, their wary rifles giving him protection.

In a 10-minute period three armoured patrols cruised up and down the road, the Army trying out some big new vehicles. All this is disconcerting for many locals, who in recent years have become unused to seeing soldiers on the streets, but everybody is aware that without them there could be a dozen dead in a day.

The fact that more than 200 families have moved means that up to a thousand people have been very directly affected by the feud. Many of them move only a short distance, tending to resettle further up the Shankill, in what is known as UVF territory.

A main road, Agnes Street, has become the unofficial boundary between the groups. And amazingly, some of the loyalists would rather put their trust in republicans than in their rivals, for some of their black taxis are making detours into the Falls rather than venture into each other's areas.

The depth of bitterness between them can be seen in the word-processed leaflets which both groups have taken to distributing. A UVF document sneers that UDA means "Unlimited Drugs Available" and describes one UDA leader as "this brainless idiot". Other UDA men are accused of prostitution, rape, adultery, informing and being gay.

Retaliatory UDA pamphlets describe one UVF figure as an "informer, pimp, drug baron and gutless thug", and another as a "handbag thief, criminal and alcoholic woman beater". A third is called "a welfare officer who looked after prisoners' wives in ways that their husbands wouldn't approve of".

Many of the leading figures have, Mafia-style, "gone to the mattresses". As in The Godfather novel, they no longer sleep at home, instead staying by the dozen in hostels or loyalist clubs, sleeping on the floor and taking turns to stand guard.

As the insults and the baseball bats fly, the Shankill itself is a dreadful sad mess. It always sported flags and murals, but now every inch has been plastered with big new slogans and aggressive graffiti, some of which contain death threats. It has become as tattooed as the paramilitary toughs.

The fact that many children have moved house has created a real problem for local schools, with some pupils suddenly disappearing and others suddenlyarriving. A local school governor said: "Potentially we could end up with UDA and UVF primary schools, if the two groups decide to live apart."

A respected community worker summed up: "The community will re-emerge from all of this and they'll struggle and they'll survive, but it will be a different Shankill from the one that went into this tunnel. It will be more divided within itself, more bitter."

Few people on the Shankill are optimistic about its future, given the deaths and the divisions, for the paramilitarism is, they fear, here to stay. They fear too that, after the present convulsions, the drugs flat, and perhaps more drug dens, will be reopening for business.