Feud fears as UDA tries to oust Shoukri
Tensions within the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the largest paramilitary group in the North, reached crisis point this week with senior members making a bid to oust Andre Shoukri, leader of the north Belfast wing of the group.
Shoukri, who is currently in Maghaberry prison awaiting trial on extortion charges, has become an increasingly isolated figure within the UDA. Other UDA leaders from across the North believe Shoukri is hatching a plot to have them assassinated.
The UDA's ruling "Inner Council" is due to meet later this week to discuss the situation – an earlier meeting at a hotel in north Antrim was disrupted by supporters of Shoukri.
The internal tensions come just a week after the Loyalist Commission, an umbrella group which talks to loyalist paramilitaries, ousted its chairman, Rev Mervyn Gibson, over claims that he was "too friendly with Catholics".
The Loyalist Commission provided political analysis to the UDA and Ulster Volunteer Force, and attempted to stop feuds between the two groups. The departure of its chairman is viewed as a destabilising move.
Although the UDA's leaders are united in their opposition to Andre Shoukri and his brother Ihab, past experience of loyalist disputes shows that they always spill over into violent feuds. Shoukri, the son of an Egyptian sailor, took over the north Belfast UDA as a result of a bloody feud between former UDA boss Johnny Adair and other senior loyalists.
Since then Shoukri has expanded the group's criminal network in north Belfast and has angered many by leading a flamboyant lifestyle. The resentment has been building for months but has only gained the backing of the UDA's other leaders in recent weeks.
Last week more than 100 UDA members met in north Belfast with the intention of ousting Shoukri. However, in an unexpected turn of events, two senior loyalists, Sammy Duddy and John Bunting, who were leading the calls for Shoukri to be ousted, were kicked out themselves.
The meeting is an illustration of the support which Shoukri still has. The internal tensions are taking place as the marching season approaches in the North and northern nationalists fear that the UDA will, as in the past, find common cause with each other by turning their weapons on vulnerable Catholics. Over the past six years almost two dozen loyalists have been killed as a direct result of internal feuds. In the summer of 2000 the British Army had to be re-deployed in Belfast to keep warring loyalist factions from the UVF and UDA apart.
Since then there have been several more major loyalist feuds, which culminated in the UDA's mass expulsion of Protestant families from the Shankill Road in Belfast in early 2003.