The Ulster question: peacemakers or stuntmen?

Northern Ireland's largest loyalist paramilitary group has entered a new phase with this week's disposal of a stockpile of pipe bombs and the recent removal from power of Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair.

But few outside the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) are celebrating, becausethe organisation appears to be intent on becoming less conspicuous rather than less violent or less immersed in criminality.

The UDA's disposal on Wednesday night of 18 pipe bombs in the Shankill area of west Belfast is viewed as a token gesture rather than the beginning of any serious decommissioning of its weapons.

The volcanic convulsions of recent years, largely sparked by Adair, have inflicted tremendous damage in working-class Protestant communities and cost many lives in feuding. Now that he is in jail and his followers have fled to Britain, theorganisation is aware that he has left them with an image problem of huge proportions.

It therefore hopes for a period of relative quiet, explaining that it dumped the explosive devices "as part of the ongoing steps to stabilise and normalise loyalist west Belfast". Its idea of stabilising and normalising its west Belfast heartland is not, however, aimed at running down its activities, but on calming that area in particular and loyalism in general so that it can gradually return to business as usual.

That business was recently described by Tony Blair, who said: "The activities of loyalist paramilitaries no longer fool anyone. Much of it has long since descended into gangsterism, drug-dealing and organised crime." Districts where the UDA is strong, such as the Shankill, are very often the most run-down and dilapidated. This provides an eloquent demonstration that deprivation helps breed paramilitarism, which in turn worsens the deprivation.

In recognition of this, Mr Blair announced a £3m fund last week aimed at helping rebuild communities such as the Shankill, which have been shattered by paramilitarism.

By coincidence, that £3m was the exact street value of a loyalist drug shipment intercepted by police earlier this month. The fact that such large amounts of money are involved in the drugs trade and other racketeering helps explain why groups such as the UDA are so hard to eradicate.

Another main sphere of its activity is attacks on Catholic homes, using pipe bombs, petrol bombs and other missiles. Over the years these have caused few deaths but they have forced hundreds and perhaps thousands of families to move home.

Most deaths in recent years have been the work of loyalists rather than republicans, with Adair and the UDA involved in several outbreaks of vicious feuding. Adair expelled from the lower Shankill hundreds of loyalist families whom he considered disloyal.

The UDA is the biggest loyalist group, centred in Belfast and nearby towns. Ever since the early 1970s it has had thousands of members in its ranks, demonstrating that it has the ability to regenerate itself over the decades.

Its leaders tend to be tough nuts who have lived through the Troubles. Ill-educated, they hold a power and status that would not be available to them in any other way of life. The unemployed in the loyalist underclass supply a steady flow of recruits.

The next largest group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, is involved in violence but not in drugs. It has also shown a genuine interest in the peace process and maintains a small but respected political section headed by the Assembly member David Ervine.

The UDA, by contrast, disbanded its political wing several years ago and cares little for the peace process. Attempts by the Government and others to encourage UDA involvement in politics – which included meetings with Adair – have come to nothing.

Adair's mistakes included a megalomaniac ambition to take over the entire UDA, a reckless courting of publicity and an appetite for often gratuitous violence.

Those who are left in charge have grasped that too much publicity is a bad thing and that the various components of loyalism would benefit from a period of settling down.

But these organisations are by now permanent fixtures in working-class communities: they are going to remain a presence in the land, primitive but powerful.

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