The writing was on the wall for UDP

 

For the past year and more it was increasingly obvious the UDA was not heeding the pro-Belfast Agreement political wisdom of the Ulster Democratic Party. What was inevitable finally happened yesterday, creating further anxieties of an escalation in UDA violence.

The two supposedly inter-twined organisations could not keep pulling in opposite directions. The UDP leader Mr Gary McMichael has held that the party should remain committed to the Good Friday accord while the majority of the membership of the UDA, to whom it offers political advice, now rejects the agreement.

The immediate worry is that without any political restraint the UDA will now be let off the leash. "That isn't necessarily the case", was the best comfort that one loyalist could offer last night.

Both the UDA and UVF were involved in violence, including murders, this year. However the UVF has exercised far greater discipline and cohesion over the same period. It has been paying a reasonable degree of attention to its political representative s in the Progressive Unionist Party.

After all, with two Assembly members, Mr David Ervine and Mr Billy Hutchinson, the PUP has some clout. In contrast, the now disbanded UDP has seen its fortunes gradually declining from the heady days of 1994 when the loyalist ceasefires were announced .

During that period, senior UDP figures such as Mr McMichael and Mr David Adams were being feted in Washington and had the ear of the British and Irish governments. The party had evolved from the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party (ULDP), which was formed by the UDA in 1981.

The ULDP's first chairman was Mr John McMichael, father of Gary, whom the IRA murdered in 1987. It formally transformed into the UDP in 1989. Between 1991 and just prior to the IRA ceasefire in August 1994 three members of the UDP were murdered by the IRA, Cecil McKnight, Gary Lynch and Ray Smallwoods.

The UDP earned kudos in Dublin, London and Washington after the loyalist ceasefire in October 1994. But ironically, four years later when the agreement was signed - an apparent period of great opportunity for the UDP - its fortunes began to dip.

It failed to win any seats in the 1998 Assembly election and while Mr Frank McCoubrey was elected deputy lord mayor of Belfast last year the UDP could only win two seats in the local elections this year, Mr McCoubrey's in Belfast and Mr McMichael's in Lisburn.

To add insult to injury UDP candidates had to run as independent unionists in the May council elections because it failed to register the party name in due time with the electoral authorities.

Gradually, Mr McMichael and Mr Adams, firmly on the pro-agreement wing of loyalism, faded into the background while the more hardline chairman of the UDP, Mr John White, was established as the main face of the party.

In January this year Mr McMichael threatened to resign as leader if the party changed its pro-Agreement stance. But that failed to halt the haemorrhaging of support for the accord both within the UDA and some elements of the UDP.

The writing was on the wall for the UDP when in July the UDA withdrew its support for the agreement.

With the UDP dissolved it remains unclear what the UDA will do next, but if the level of violence in which it was involved this year is any indicator then there are considerable grounds for security concerns.

The UDA was involved in four and possibly five murders this year. In addition, earlier this month Glen Branagh, a member of the UDA's youth wing, died when a bomb he was about to throw exploded in his hand.

UDA figures were operating on the edges of the Holy Cross dispute, and on one occasion fired a pipe bomb as the children were walking to school. Throughout the year the UDA was involved in over 200 pipe bomb and other attacks on Catholics and police in Belfast, Larne, Coleraine, and other parts of Northern Ireland. The UDA also remains deeply involved in drugs and racketeering which the UDP was unable to persuade the UDA away from.

In the face of such violence, the Northern Secretary, Dr John Reid, declared in October that the UDA ceasefire was no longer in operation.

This month the UDA narrowly failed in an attempt to kill a Catholic man in Derry, while last week 400 Catholic construction workers at 20 buildings sites in the Derry area were warned of UDA death threats against them.

UDP figures such as Mr McMichael and Mr Adams, who remain convinced of the logic of the Belfast Agreement, were growing increasingly disillusioned with the UDA violence and their lack of influence on the organisation. Accordingly, yesterday's parting of the way caused considerable security concern but little political surprise.