'Mad Dog' at heart of convulsions in loyalist Belfast

Feud between rival terror groups is behind recent outbreak of violence and attacks on prominent loyalist leaders
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The Independent Online

At the heart of the violence that is convulsing the Shankill Road district of Belfast is the figure of Johnny Adair, the Ulster Freedom Fighters' leader who is daily living up to his nickname of "Mad Dog".

At the heart of the violence that is convulsing the Shankill Road district of Belfast is the figure of Johnny Adair, the Ulster Freedom Fighters' leader who is daily living up to his nickname of "Mad Dog".

His UFF men have been launching attacks on members of other loyalist paramilitary organisations, as well as targeting Catholic families in areas close to the Shankill.

UFF members tried to break into a bar used by members of the rival Ulster Volunteer Force on Saturday, shooting and wounding three men when they failed to do so. UFF members later attacked homes, including that of the loyalist father-figure Gusty Spence.

Tensions in the district between the UFF and UVF have been high for some time, but in loyalist feuds the use of guns generally puts disputes on to a different plane and often ends in deaths. This, together with Mr Adair's particularly aggressive behaviour in recent months, means people are expecting more shooting.

Mr Adair has a character toughened almost beyond measure by a rough upbringing and an adult life marked by violent activity as a UFF commander, prison, and more than a half a dozen serious republican attempts on his life.

Standing five foot three inches tall, heavily tattooed and pierced, shaven-headed and heavily muscled, he has become almost impervious to wider public and political opinion. The fact that the security forces, republicans and other loyalists all say the UFF is deeply into drug-dealing means he has an image so bad that even Max Clifford would despair of enhancing it.

The UFF and its allies in another group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, have been responsible for murders in areas other than the Shankill this year, generally killing men associated with the UVF.

But when feuds hit the Shankill, the heartland of loyalist militancy, the result can be numerous deaths. The district has both suffered and inflicted much damage during the Troubles, with hundreds of its residents being jailed for UFF and UVF activities.

It will always be associated with the "Shankill Butchers", a UVF gang which carried out a series of particularly gruesome killings of Catholics in the 1970s, using butchers' knives and other implements. Its leader, Lennie Murphy, attained Adair-like prominence before being shot by the IRA.

The Shankill was also often attacked by republicans, most notably in 1993 when an IRA attack ended up killing one of the bombers together with nine Protestant civilians. Known as the Shankill bombing, this was an attempt to kill Mr Adair.

Members of the present UVF are themselves no angels, having also carried out some shootings. But despite this, there is a widespread view among supporters of the peace process that the organisation has adapted much better than the UFF to the post-Troubles world.

The UVF's political spokesmen, in particular David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson, have won praise in the media and elsewhere for helping guide the group away from violence. But they inhabit a dangerous world: Mr Hutchinson's home in Shankill Road was targeted by the UFF at the weekend.

The high standing of Mr Ervine and Mr Hutchinson, and the fact that both were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, has helped reinforce the UVF support for peace.

But the UFF's political spokesmen failed to be elected, losing out in elections because of the image of the UFF and the reluctance of voters to support candidates associated with Mr Adair. Its political wing, which made a promising start in the mid-1990s, has dwindled in stature and influence.

Thus there is a general sense that the UVF has improved but the UFF has deteriorated. There is also a sense that Mr Adair, heedless of wider public opinion, is becoming more and more reckless both in terms of his actions and his appetite for publicity.

The spotlight increases pressure on the police, republican groups and other loyalists to do something about Mr Adair. He is well aware that he is at risk of imprisonment or worse, as he showed when released from prison: his first act was hurriedly to struggle into a bulletproof vest.

This is familiar pattern, having happened in the past with figures such as Billy "King Rat" Wright, the LVF leader and friend of Mr Adair, who was killed in jail by republicans in 1997. The deaths of Wright and Murphy provide stark illustration that in the loyalist paramilitary world a surfeit of celebrity can be lethal.