A falling out among thieves has created a fresh upheaval within Belfast's loyalist paramilitary undergrowth, prompting at least one major figure to flee the country.
The illegal Ulster Defence Association (UDA), populated as it is by people known as Mad Dog, the Egyptian, Bonzer, the Bacardi Brigadier and Mo, is rarely quiet for long, and once again trouble has erupted.
No trace of ideological or political differences are visible in the dispute, which reflects the UDA's descent into straightforward criminality. The current quarrel revolves around money and power - with a dollop of sex thrown in as well.
The tale is both violent and labyrinthine, most recently centring on the UDA's North Belfast brigade. Its former leader Jimbo Simpson lost the top job last year because as his nickname, the "Bacardi Brigadier", suggests, he was too fond of drink.
He was replaced by Andre Shoukri, known as the Egyptian, who was then a protegé of the most notorious of them all, Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair. But Adair and Shoukri fell out in one of the UDA's periodic feuds.
Shoukri armed himself with a gun as protection against Adair: the police arrested Shoukri with the gun and he was jailed. Another UDA brigadier, John "Grug" Gregg, who shot and wounded Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams in 1984, was killed in the feud.
Adair was imprisoned as a menace to society, the authorities citing money laundering, drug-dealing, extortion and directing terrorism. In his enforced absence his faction came off worst and a majority of his West Belfast Brigade turned against him.
Dozens of his supporters fled to Scotland and England with a small colony, including Adair's wife Gina, settling in Bolton, Greater Manchester, where they are known as the neighbours from hell.
One of his supporters who fled, Alan McCullough, took a chance and returned to Belfast, apparently after being told his life was not in danger. He was killed soon afterwards and his body was buried in a shallow grave.
Two UDA brigadiers have been charged with his murder - William "Mo" Courtney, who displaced Adair as boss of the West Belfast brigade, and Ihab Shoukri, who took over North Belfast when his brother Andre was jailed.
A preliminary court hearing has been told that the two brigadiers were in a car which collected McCullough and took him away from his home.
The North Belfast UDA then appointed William "Bonzer" Borland as brigadier.
The present scrap apparently originated when brigade headquarters demanded a cut of £5,000 from a local UDA unit which had carried out an armed robbery. Rather than handing it over, the Bacardi Brigadier attempted to stage a coup and regain control of North Belfast. When this move failed he beat a hurried retreat and this week left the country. Bonzer still runs North Belfast.
No blood was actually spilt - which was unusual for a UDA feud. But early in the week tensions ran very high as scores of Bacardi people and Bonzer men milled around in the north of the city. Police stepped up deterrent patrols in an attempt to prevent open violence breaking out.
In UDA terms £5,000 is peanuts since the organisation has made big money from drugs and other activities. Although Gina Adair is agitating for a council house in Bolton, police seized £70,000 from her when she arrived in Britain. Everybody believes the Adair faction has much more cash squirreled away in hidden bank accounts as well as property in Spain and Tenerife. In Belfast the authorities have launched a new drive to seize such money. They recently froze the assets of a major loyalist drug-dealer who was shot dead in yet another feud earlier this year. His property and bank accounts are officially estimated to be worth £1.5m.
The underworld is awash with cash. Earlier this month police seized a shipment of 1,200lb of cannabis resin, valued at £2.5m which they said was destined for the UDA. Last month they intercepted another £1m paramilitary shipment of ecstasy tablets.
Local newspapers and a new book on Adair have made a series of allegations against him, including claims that he was an informer and bisexual. Both he and Gina are reputedly prodigious lovers - Adair says as much himself.
In furious phone calls from prison Adair maintained: "There are hundreds of women who'll vouch for the fact that Johnny Adair is not gay. I'm not gay." Adair is held in isolation well away from other loyalists who bear grudges against him, with a release date in 2005.
He said of his many detractors: "They are jealous, cowardly fools. They've made one big mistake. They think Johnny Adair is dead. They think I'm finished. But I'm not dead. I'm very much alive.
"I will meet these cowards and nobodies face to face, to ask why they told these lies.
"I'm stuck in here, defenceless, but I will come out of here physically and mentally stronger than ever."
Although the UDA has calmed down considerably since Adair was jailed, it has been involved in much low-level sectarian violence in recent months, particularly in and around North Belfast.
Attempts are being made to coax the organisation into politics. Recently for example the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, appeared at a function at which the UDA's South Belfast brigadier was present.
The Government and some politicians maintain discreet contacts in the hope of eventually turning the organisation towards a political road. But for the moment it remains introspective and largely detached from the world outside the loyalist ghettos.
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