One step forward in Ulster, but many more to come

'The arrest of Adair has at least demonstrated that the murderous paramilitaries are not beyond the law'
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The Independent Online

If nothing else, the present crisis in the Shankill is a reminder - if one were needed - that the mere achievement of a political settlement would not mean an easy life for politicians in Northern Ireland. The office of Northern Ireland Secretary will continue to be high profile for a long time to come. Not surprisingly, the Tories, who had long been urging Johnny Adair's arrest, have been claiming some credit for it. But Mandelson's instinct, by all accounts, was in favour of suspending Adair's licence almost from the moment of his return from holiday.

If nothing else, the present crisis in the Shankill is a reminder - if one were needed - that the mere achievement of a political settlement would not mean an easy life for politicians in Northern Ireland. The office of Northern Ireland Secretary will continue to be high profile for a long time to come. Not surprisingly, the Tories, who had long been urging Johnny Adair's arrest, have been claiming some credit for it. But Mandelson's instinct, by all accounts, was in favour of suspending Adair's licence almost from the moment of his return from holiday.

There were then many necessary hours of discussion about whether there were adequate grounds for doing so with the RUC and the Army - and some initial anxiety on the police's part - before the arrest was agreed. A further reason for the delay until Tuesday night was that considerable thought went into when and how to make the arrest, to minimise the danger of retaliatory action by Adair's supporters.

One risk was the possibility that the Sentencing Commissioners would overturn the decision. The other was the much graver one that the lifting of Adair, in the already tense and volatile atmosphere generated by Monday's murder by the UVF of two UFF men, one a close personal associate of Adair's, would provoke another outbreak of lethal violence against UVF personnel by the UFF.

On the one hand it would be standard practice, according to the omertà of loyalist feuding, for there to be vengeance attacks on the UVF. The fact that the killings came after UFF men had terrorised families in the area would make little difference. On the other hand ministers appear to know what they are talking about when they say that however much they publicly defend Adair, many of his supposed supporters may privately be breathing a sigh of relief at his return to gaol.

It would be nice to think that it was beginning to dawn on them just what an intimidating, if cunning, thug Johnny Adair is. And certainly there must be members of the UFF-UDA who shrink from the orgies of internecine violence which Adair's self-seeking attempt to consolidate his leadership of the organisation threatened to unleash. But there is another, less high-minded reason; that every inflammatory appearance by Adair invited an unwelcome spotlight on an organisation many of whose leaders would prefer to get on quietly with the business of drug-based racketeering and low level intimidation.

Certainly there is a political context to the feuding between the UFF and UVF. The UFF and its political wing, the UDP, were slower to catch the peace train than the UVF and its political wing, the PUP. Secondly, the PUP had in David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson two persuasive and strategic politicians who secured seats in the new Northern Ireland assembly which were denied the UDP, further increasing its isolation from the political process.

But the UFF appeared to be much more engaged in extending its criminal control in the Shankill than in an ideological war with its rival. Which is why on Monday Mandelson insisted that the feud had "nothing to do with politics or the peace process - it is nothing less than squalid, murderous gang warfare."

Tacit fears within the UFF that Adair's talent for self-promotion might make life more difficult for the organisation would hardly have been misplaced. Even before Mandelson left for his holiday, he had ordered an internal review of the struggle against racketeering and drug trafficking. The idea was to establish how best the security forces, while they were striving to confront the inevitably more immediate priority of dissident republicanism, could focus more keenly on the gangsterism and criminality which had survived the peace process, mainly, if not exclusively, among loyalist ex-paramilitaries. Mandelson's denunciation on Tuesday night after Adair's arrest of the "dark" and "Mafia" side of Northern Ireland life strongly suggests that the impetus for this will now be accelerated.

There is even a link here, so far barely noticed, with what will probably be the biggest issue of Northern Ireland politics in the coming weeks. The central political imperative remains the continued survival of the settlement which ushered in devolution at the end of May. There is no sign that it has been threatened by the present murderous outbreak of violence. But it could be by other factors.

David Trimble is indirectly a beneficiary of Adair's arrest since respectable Unionists have been among those most affronted by Adair's flaunting of himself since his release. But conventional wisdom has it that a second "confidence building measure" over IRA arms, to follow the inspection of its dumps, will be needed to get him through a by-election in South Antrim next month, and party conference in October. But republicans are likely to balk at that without resolution of some outstanding points.

One of these is the sensitive question of republicans technically on the run who either escaped gaol, broke bail, and now face arrest if they return to Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein is pressing for an amnesty; and there is something deeply illogical in continuing to hunt them down when those who in many cases have committed even more serious offences, and much more recently, have now been released from gaol under the Good Friday Agreement.

But the other is the Government's treatment of the Patten report, which not only republicans but the SDLP believes Mandelson has unacceptably watered down. This is not the time or place to rehearse the fierce arguments on both sides; there will be time enough for that before the bill returns to the Lords in September. Suffice it to say that nationalists are baffled and angry that the report should have been modified in detail by the Government as the Bill goes through.

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs, however, they may be misunderstanding Mandelson's motives if they assume that he is merely trying to throw a few bones to the Unionists.

The Government's current insistence, for example, on retaining more discretion in the hands the Chief Constable than nationalists would like, circumscribing the extent of local political oversight, and retaining some form of special branch operation, has a lot more to do with what ministers see as the need for an effective police force than with mollifying unionism.

Nationalists - and the Irish government - are deeply frustrated that British ministers should be further compromising some of the details of a report which they see as itself as having been a compromise between the demands of the two traditions. British ministers are frustrated because they think nationalists see the issue only as one of conflict resolution and not also one of effective policing - not least of the loyalist "dark side" of Northern Ireland life.

But these are arguments for another day. In the mean time, the arrest of Adair - and for that matter of another man, in connection with Monday's murders - have at least demonstrated that the murderous "loyalist" paramilitaries are not beyond the reach of the law.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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