Improbably, Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair's first words to his followers were in Latin: "Quis separabit," he yelled – the motto of the Ulster Defence Association – beaming as he was freed from jail.
The assembled loyalists did not respond in classical kind yesterday when they thronged around their freed leader after the white prison van delivered him to them at the end of his latest prison term. They could perhaps have greeted the stocky figure with "Salve, Canem Insanum" or some such dog-Latin. Instead they confined themselves to whooping, cheering and shouting "Yo" and "Up the UDA".
Then they piled into cars, sounded their horns, revved the engines and sped off in convoy towards Belfast. They waved Ulster flags through the car windows, some letting off loud fireworks as they went.
The UDA are a rough crowd: few classical scholars here. They are tough and tattooed, serious street people, second or third-generation products of the Troubles, most of whom, like Johnny, have been behind bars.
Everybody is nervous about Mad Dog's release from the kennel of Maghaberry prison, worrying that if he is in militant mood, the frequent rioting in north Belfast will become even more frequent. The loyalist marching season, with its traditional heightening of tension, is coming up and the simmering territorial and sectarian problems of north Belfast remain unresolved.
Adair had been freed, as have nearly all republican and loyalist prisoners, as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Peter Mandelson, when Northern Ireland Secretary, locked him up again two years ago to serve the rest of his sentence, citing involvement in guns and drug-dealing involving "vast amounts" of money.
The Quis separabit tag is supposed to stress loyalist unity but Adair was also accused by the authorities of being up to his neck in internal feuding that led to more than a dozen loyalist deaths.
His release, at 8am, was carefully choreographed with senior police officers walking out from the prison to arrange final details with Adair's spokesman, John White.
Adair had nothing further to say, but Mr White stepped up to the microphones to announce that Mad Dog would help bring calm. He was addressing nationalists, probably conscious of the fact that Adair has been accused of killing a score of them.
"The nationalist community have nothing to fear from Johnny Adair," he declared. "Johnny Adair will be a force for good." A rather less comforting message exuded from some of the UDA men clustered around Mr White as he delivered his pacific words.
Some wore sunglasses, hardly necessary at that early hour; some put up the hoods of their anoraks; some pulled woolly hats low down. Some theatrically used scarves to conceal the lower half of their faces. None of this suggested that the UDA was fully committed to the peace process. All of it was instead apparently designed to convey, as unsubtly as possible, that the UDA remained ready for bother.
The peace process is supposed to be inclusive, and it has indeed done much to neutralise large tracts of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland. But nobody can see how the process can accommodate those parts of the UDA who want no part of it – the authorities have no option but to continue to send large numbers of riot police on to the streets.
The fireworks set off to celebrate Adair's release are formidable, heavy things called "Stealth Bombers", which have also been used in north Belfast rioting. The police will be hoping that this will not be another long, hot summer, with the UDA hurling these things into their ranks.
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