'Young Turks' are blamed for rise in loyalist violence: The UDA ban follows years of its violence being played down by the Government. David McKittrick reports

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A BRIEFING document prepared in 1988 for foreign journalists by the Northern Ireland Office contained an extraordinary statement about the Ulster Defence Association. It stated: 'There is no evidence that it is engaged in organising terrorist attacks.'

That assertion would be regarded as an astonishing whopper by almost everyone who has closely observed 'the troubles' and knows anything of the activities of the UDA. It is an indisputable fact that it and the other main loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, have been responsible for the murders of hundreds of people, most of them civilians.

The best estimate is that together they have killed close to 800 of the almost 3,000 dead, with the UDA responsible for half or just less than half that figure.

Evidence of UDA involvement in violence is abundant. More than one hundred UDA members have been sentenced to life imprisonment for murders committed in an assassination campaign that began on a large scale in 1972 and continues. Hundreds more have been jailed for lesser offences.

Judges hearing cases involving UDA men have repeatedly denounced it as a terrorist organisation. Those coming before the courts are not junior or fringe members, but seniors in its structure. At least four former members of its ruling 'inner council' are behind bars.

Earlier this year the trial of Brian Nelson, an agent inserted into the ranks of the UDA by military intelligence, heard evidence that he had been personally recruited by members of the inner council to improve their information on republicans earmarked for assassination.

In private, neither Army nor RUC sources - or the UDA itself - would maintain for a moment that the group was not heavily involved in violence. But the Government, as can be seen in the 1988 document, has always preferred to play down its character. This helps to explain why the UDA remained legal for so long.

The Government has chosen, especially when addressing foreign audiences, to project the IRA as by far the principal threat to life and order in Northern Ireland, either ignoring the loyalists or presenting them as an essentially reactive sideshow.

In Northern Ireland terms, the police have had much more success in dealing with the UDA and UVF, who are particularly prone to infiltration, than they have with the IRA.

The UDA began life in the early 1970s as an umbrella group of local vigilante organisations made up of Protestants concerned by growing IRA activity and by nationalist political advances. At its peak it had around 26,000 members, many of whom paraded in paramilitary uniform in the streets of Belfast.

Its members ran drinking clubs and took part in some community activity, but by the summer of 1972 it became clear that some of its members, including its leaders, were heavily involved in violence. Today about 20 UDA members are serving life sentences for murders committed that year.

The numbers involved fell away drastically as the years passed, the organisation contracting into Protestant ghettos around Belfast. Its killing rate fell, but the murders never entirely stopped and have increased in recent years.

In 1989 and 1990 the UDA and UVF together killed 19 people each year. But in 1991 this rose significantly, the UDA alone killing 17. This year the UDA has already murdered 14 people, five of them in an indiscriminate attack on a Belfast bookie's shop.

It retains a certain amount of community support, but this has tended to fall over the years as the organisation has been linked with drugs and racketeering. Its prestige took a further blow this summer when a well-known UDA member was charged with sexually abusing an under-age girl inside UDA headquarters.

The past five years have seen an almost complete removal of the organisation's top leadership: some were jailed, others expelled and two were killed. The 'young Turks' who have replaced them are held responsible for the increase in violence.

The old guard occasionally dabbled in the political sphere, which meant there was at least a notional possibility that they would one day turn away from violence and into politics and community affairs. The Government may well have concluded that, since their replacements have shown themselves to be completely uninterested in politics, it is not worthwhile to keep them legal.

In addition, there have been signs that the Mayhew administration may be gearing itself up for a tougher line against republican violence. It may be that the UDA ban is an attempt to demonstrate that it is prepared to be tougher on loyalist extremists as well.


THE UDA killings so far this year:

9 JANUARY: Catholic chip van owner, whose mother is a prominent peace campaigner, shot dead near Moira, Co Down.

14 JANUARY: Protestant with UDA connections shot dead in east Belfast. UDA alleged he was RUC Special Branch informer.

30 JANUARY: Catholic man shot dead leaving shop in Lisburn, Co Antrim.

2 FEBRUARY: Catholic taxi-driver shot dead at his north Belfast home. UDA described him as a 'staunch republican'.

5 FEBRUARY: Five Catholics killed in attack on Belfast betting shop.

12 MARCH: Catholic man shot dead at his home in north Belfast.

2 APRIL: Sinn Fein election worker shot dead in Kilrea, Co Londonderry.

15 APRIL: Senior UDA man shot dead in east Belfast. UDA claimed he was RUC informer.

28 APRIL: Catholic woman shot dead in west Belfast chemist shop. UDA wrongly claimed she was related to a Sinn Fein official.

8 JULY: Catholic teacher shot dead at his east Belfast home. UDA gunmen had gone to wrong house.

(Photographs omitted)