When Johnny comes marching home

  • 7 January 2005
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Johnny Adair is released from prison this week, Suzanne Breen reports on where he'll be welcome and profiles his life of violence

It won't be like the last time. Johnny Adair emerged from Maghaberry jail three years ago to give a clenched fist salute to a cheering crowd of 300 supporters. They waved flags and set off fireworks as he marched out the gates. The UDA Inner Council was there to greet him. He was whisked off to his Shankill home, which was bedecked in red-white-and-blue bunting. A champagne reception followed.

Adair is due to be freed next week in entirely different circumstances.

The Northern Ireland Office is refusing to give any details of his planned release, but few of his dwindling band of supporters will likely turn up.

A ferry or plane ticket to England has probably already been booked. The UDA's six brigadiers have warned that if he stays in Northern Ireland, he's dead. He could be killed anyway, wherever he goes.

Back on the Lower Shankill Estate all traces of Adair have gone. The house where he held court in Boundary Way is now occupied by another family. The gable walls from which he once stared down have long been repainted with other murals.

"His problem was ego and arrogance," says a former friend. "Johnny thought he was bigger than the UDA and that was a major mistake. Nobody is bigger than the UDA. Nobody takes on the UDA and wins."

Adair (42) was expelled during a violent internal feud, in which he planned to take over the UDA and build an alliance with the smaller dissident Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF).

At one point, he considered killing all the UDA brigadiers. The Northern Secretary, Paul Murphy, returned him to jail in 2003, saying he had been involved in directing terrorism, drugs, weapons offences and extortion.

During the feud, Adair's 'C' Company killed the UDA's most senior commander, John 'Grug' Gregg. Adair's wife Gina, four children, and around 20 supporters were then driven out of their Shankill homes.

They took the ferry to England. The authorities seized £70,000 cash from one car during the journey. Most settled in Bolton, becoming known as "the Bolton Wanderers". Gina Adair has since been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and is recovering after treatment.

The Adairs' eldest son Jonathon (20), known as 'Mad Pup', was jailed last year for selling heroin and crack cocaine in Bolton with two Adair loyalists, brothers Ian and William Truesdale. He has at least another year to serve.

In an interview from Maghaberry, Johnny Adair – who has denounced the current UDA leadership as gangsters – said he would be resettling in Bolton but added: "I've always been a committed loyalist. There are people out there who were supposed to be loyalists but were nothing more than treacherous cowards.

"They know who they are and I know who they are. Some day they'll have to face me. I can live with myself and I can wait." Adair is friendly with a prominent LVF family in the Ballysillan area of North Belfast. "He's like a blood brother to two men in the family and he could link up with them," says a loyalist source. But other sources say the brothers' self-survival instincts make that unlikely: "They don't want to take on the UDA."

The LVF leadership is currently in disarray. There is speculation that Adair could take it over, moving to the Brownstone Estate in North Lurgan, another LVF stronghold, and run the paramilitary group from there.

But Bolton still seems his most likely short-term destination. Chief Supt David Lea, head of Bolton police, warns that his officers won't tolerate any trouble:

"We have always welcomed people from diverse communities if their intention is to lead responsible law-abiding lives. However, should they choose not to abide by the law or engage in anti-social behaviour, we will bring the full weight of all available legislation to bear upon them."

"Bolton is welcome to him. No-one wants Johnny back here," says a UDA leadership supporter on the Shankill. "He brought this area into disrepute with drugs, brothels, and all sorts of rackets. We're well rid of him.

"He upset too many people. If he comes back, he'll go down the road in a box." Yet there is affection for Adair among some people. "Johnny was no angel but he wasn't the worse," says a 68-year-old grandmother.

"His heart was in the right place. He fought for his people and went to jail – plenty more than many of the current crowd (new 'C' Company leadership) have done. Johnny cared about the ordinary folk, the others don't."

Several elderly people speak positively about Adair. They recall his childhood in Fleming Street, the street corners he used to play at, how he worked as a paper-boy, where he went to Sunday school, and his boxing sessions at a local youth club.

"The Shankill is Johnny's home and whatever he's done he should still be welcome here," says another woman pensioner. There are complaints that the new UDA regime, despite claims to the contrary, is heavily involved in drugs and extortion.

Last year, a 17-year-old girl died of a stroke following a massive drugs' overdose. "She was given a snowball which is a concoction, including morphine and cocaine, by an LVF figure in north Belfast.

"Then she went to a UDA club in the Lower Shankill and took straight cocaine," says a community activist. "His successors mightn't be as obvious as Adair but they're up to their necks in drugs." Another source says the UDA recently demanded £40,000 of a local builder.

"People were promised a new beginning and words haven't always matched deeds but there have been improvements," says Brian Kingston, editor of the Shankill Mirror. "The area and the UDA have moved on since Johnny left and if he returns, there will be massive disruption.

"Regardless of who is to blame, it's better if he remains offside. Some people undoubtedly want him back but the majority don't. About five-to-one letter writers to our paper have been against it."

"The thought of more bloodshed and another feud fills people full of horror," says local DUP Assembly member Diane Dodds.

"The Shankill has huge social and economic problems and everything needs to be concentrated on tackling them."

Ulster Unionist Assembly member Chris McGimpsey knows the turmoil of loyalist feuds - he was involved in rehousing around 100 families during one.

"Adair's 'C' Company threatened to kill me twice and I've been threatened by the new management too," he says. "It would be best for the Shankill and Johnny, and his family, if he relocates outside Northern Ireland.

"But I don't know if he will survive in Bolton. He isn't like a normal guy who can get a job and make a life for his family. He won't fit in. He'll only be happy if he has £5,000 or £10,000 in his hip pocket. The only way he'll get that is through crime in Northern Ireland."

McGimpsey, like many observers, finds it difficult to understand why the police in Northern Ireland failed for so long to deal with Adair's men: "The police in Bolton must be supercops because they smashed them in five months yet, the RUC took 10 years to even scratch the surface.

"'C' Company used to stand outside Kentucky Fried Chicken on the Shankill openly selling drugs. I found it incomprehensible how police failed to apprehend them."

Former Det Sgt Jonty Brown, whose evidence helped convict Adair of directing terrorism, says: "No matter where Johnny goes he will be a threat to that community in terms of drugs and violence.

"He will probably fiddle about in Bolton for a while but he'll be back.

That might be a foolish decision. Yet there are so many paramilitaries who pledge to start new lives abroad but they get homesick and eventually are drawn back to Northern Ireland."