Bail for leading loyalist paramilitaries criticised

Prominent loyalists arrested during the PSNI raid on a Belfast pub last week were released on bail, despite continued sectarian violence and criminality on the part of the loyalist paramilitary groups. By Colin Heatley

Last Sunday (5 March) a Catholic taxi-driver in North Belfast escaped death when a UDA gang put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Had the gun not jammed, North Belfast would have been burying an another innocent Catholic killed in a sectarian attack.

But the murder attempt, coming less than 72 hours after the police arrested 17 UDA-linked loyalists in a raid on a pub in north Belfast, was staged to send out a warning that the group will not tolerate any interference in its affairs.

Remarkably, almost eight years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the UDA, the largest paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, remains as violent and menacing as ever. The police have publicly linked the organisation to a drugs supply network that covers most of the North and a variety of prostitution and racketeering operations.

Despite meetings with President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin, the UDA remain as militant as ever and seemingly as willing to push the North towards conflict.

The raid last week was supposed to be a major blow to the UDA, but within 48 hours Ihab Shoukri, the most senior member caught in the swoop, was out on the streets on bail. That was despite having being already out on bail when he was arrested in a loyalist bar, which was in itself a contravention of his bail conditions.

Stung by criticism, the PSNI Chief Constable announced on Monday that he would seek to have the decision overturned. At the time of going to press a decision had not been reached. Five other leading loyalists were also granted bail.

Some members of the legal profession argue that the burden of proof is now on the prosecution to prevent bail and that has led to an over-lenient judicial system. Nationalist and loyalist communities are questioning the liberal bail policy, although for different reasons.

Some loyalist community workers accuse the North's judiciary, not known for its leniency on paramilitary offences during the Troubles, of releasing the men to destabilise loyalist areas, which in recent times have borne the brunt of UDA and UVF violence. They argue that releasing well-known loyalist paramilitaries allows the various factions to continue their extortion and drug dealing uninterrupted.

Nationalists on the other hand accuse the state of "turning a blind eye" to loyalist violence and acting leniently because so many loyalist paramilitaries are Special Branch informers. Whatever the truth, it is clear that only those who benefit, politically or financially, from loyalist violence are content with the current situation.

Those granted bail reads like a Who's Who of loyalist paramilitaries. The lenient bail policy is all the more remarkable considering many of those involved in the UDA's activities were granted early release from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and could be sent back to complete the remainder of their sentences at any time.

Moreover, neither the UDA nor UVF is engaged in any meaningful political strategy designed to move them away from violence and with IRA decommissioning they remain the most significant paramilitary players. Over the past five years the UDA, and to a lesser extent the UVF, have wreaked havoc in the North.

Between 2001 and 2003 the UDA orchestrated a pipe bomb campaign against nationalists in Belfast, which forced hundreds of families to move and whole streets of Catholics to live with wooden boards over their windows. When there was a lull in the pipe bomb campaign, the UDA, UVF and LVF shot each other over territorial and drugs disputes.

The British Army were called back onto the streets. Despite the violence, the bail policy continued. In 2001 Andre Shoukri, the UDA's North Belfast leader, was caught with a gun and bullets during the height of one of these feuds. He was granted bail.

In 2003, Jim Fulton, a leading loyalist paramilitary facing serious terrorist charges, was granted bail. That July he even had them changed so he could go to the Orange Marches.

In December 2003, Ihab Shoukri, a brother of Andre and a leading UDA figure even at that stage, was granted bail while facing charges of murdering Alan McCullough during the loyalist feud.

In March last year 32-year-old Laurence "Duffer" Kincaid, a senior North Belfast loyalist linked to the LVF, was granted bail despite facing charges of possessing class-A drugs with intent to supply. Community workers warned that his release would destabilise the area. Within a few months the North Belfast LVF was engaged in a violent feud with the UVF.

Around the same time William "Mo" Courtney, a top-ranking Shankill Road UDA member, was granted bail, despite facing a murder charge. He was accused of murdering a 21-year-old loyalist who had been enticed back to the North with promises of safety and then savagely murdered and buried in wasteland.

Human Rights lawyers, such as Padraigín Drinnan, support the rights of defendants to be granted bail, but admit that the procession of loyalists released on bail in recent years has raised eyebrows. "Certainly in years gone by this wouldn't have happened and it does raise concerns," she said.