The downfall of Mad Dog Adair

At the height of his power, loyalist warlord Johnny Adair was responsible for a murder spree that resulted in the deaths of 40 Ulster Catholics. But it was only when he turned the guns on his own people that his reign of terror ended. David Lister and Hugh Jordan recount the demise of the Shankill Godfather

Sunday October 5, 2003
The Observer

On 15 May 2002, after 21 months in Maghaberry Prison in County Antrim, Johnny 'Mad Dog' Adair was released from jail for a second time. As he jumped out of a white prison van, he punched the air in celebration and shouted the only Latin words he had ever known: 'Quis separabit'. Over the next eight months the UDA's slogan, meaning, 'Who will come between us?', would become a bad joke, but for now there was unbridled euphoria as up to 300 supporters cheered and let off fireworks. Before returning to a triumphant reception outside his home in Boundary Way, West Belfast, he was welcomed by his fellow brigadiers. The media captured the show of unity as the South Belfast UDA leader Jackie McDonald and his colleagues gathered round to shake his hand. What reporters did not know, however, was that most had been reluctant to go. Looking back, Billy 'The Mexican' McFarland of north Antrim and Derry explained: 'I regret going to meet him. In the end the five brigadiers went and out of those five no one wanted to shake hands with him. There had been stories in the papers about splits in the UDA and John White argued that this would show unity.'

Within weeks, Adair and his spokesman White were contriving to persuade the world that the Shankill loyalist was a changed man. He took up a £16,500 post as a prisoners' welfare co-ordinator, a position funded by the British taxpayer. When the news broke, the Northern Ireland Office faced a storm of protest and insisted Adair had only been employed for five weeks. Adair was defiant.

'For years people were complaining, asking what I did to earn money and now they can see that I'm legitimately employed and pay taxes just like everyone else. People complain no matter what I do.' Throughout the summer he continued to pretend his interests now lay in community and political work. Although the majority of the political initiatives came from White, all the evidence suggests Adair knew exactly what he was getting into.'They needed each other,' said one senior police officer. 'Adair needed White to give him some semblance of credibility, precisely because White was the softer face of loyalist terrorism. White needed Adair because he was Johnny Adair. He had power.'

On 2 July, a snappily dressed Adair was part of a loyalist delegation that met John Reid, Tony Blair's third appointment as Northern Ireland Secretary. 'Has the man from the UDA become the Man at C&A?' asked a Sunday newspaper as it pored over his costume. In fact, Adair was considerably more up-market. As he stepped into the East Belfast Mission Hall for the meeting, he was wearing a pinstripe Hugo Boss suit, a yellow tie with a fashionably large knot and a baby-blue shirt. He looked every inch the stylish Mafia boss.

It was the second time Adair had met a serving secretary of state. But just like the previous occasion, when he had met Mo Mowlam inside the Maze, he never opened his mouth. Jackie McDonald, who was among those at the meeting, recalled, 'Johnny didn't say anything, not one word. After it was all over John Reid pointed outside and said, "I'll go out and talk to the reporters now - there's about 40 cameramen out there, but if you want to go for a cup of tea, go in that way. The cameras are that way." So myself and others headed for the tea, but, of course, Johnny headed for the cameras.'

Sectarian tensions had been high since June 2001, when Protestant residents in north Belfast began a 12-week picket of Catholic schoolgirls and their parents as they walked up the Ardoyne Road to the Holy Cross primary school. Although both his brother, Archie, and his friend, Gary 'Smickers' Smith, were sent to jail over the trouble at Holy Cross, Adair did not support the protest and saw it as a public relations disaster for loyalism.

By now, Adair was so obsessed by the media he was starting to irritate even his friends. There was nothing he loved more than being on TV. Maureen Dodds, Winkie's wife, recalls, 'Any time he was on TV no one was allowed to speak. He used to record all his TV appearances and just sit on the edge of the table playing the video over and over again.'

Although the seeds of Adair's downfall were already visible by the time he went to jail in August 2000, the real turning point came on 10 June 2002. Adair, who had just returned from a holiday in Benidorm, was sitting in his living room with the LVF's Jackie Mahood when he heard about the death in jail of Mark 'Swinger' Fulton. His friend and fellow drug dealer, who was on remand in Maghaberry, had been found in his cell with a leather belt around his neck. The fact that he was lying on his bed when he died led to lurid speculation that he had been engaged in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. Whatever the cause of death, Fulton was genuinely suicidal. He had never fully recovered from the murder in 1997 of Billy Wright, his LVF commander and close friend, and he was also convinced he was dying of stomach cancer.

While Adair was upset at his friend's death, he also saw it as an opportunity. According to one close associate, 'I was talking to Swinger four months before he died and that was the first time I realised what Johnny was up to with the LVF. Johnny was running up and down to Portadown and he would have gone to all these different dos. So my reckoning was that he was definitely working deals with them on the drugs. And I think when Swinger died, Johnny saw that as his move to take over the whole patch.'

The strength of Adair's relationship with the LVF was confirmed on 21 July 2002, when Gerard Lawlor, a 19-year-old Catholic, was shot dead. The murder followed the shooting of Mark 'Mousey' Blaney, a 19-year-old Protestant, earlier that evening. Although Blaney was not killed, the fact that he was shot in broad daylight across the Ardoyne peaceline was seen as a deliberate republican provocation.

Within two hours, teams from C Coy and the UDA in north Belfast were dispatched to kill a random Catholic, shooting and injuring a man in Oldpark and opening fire without success on the Ligoniel Road. Shortly after midnight, Gerard Lawlor was walking home from a pub on the Antrim Road when a motorbike pulled alongside him and a gunman shot him twice in the back with a .38 revolver. Summoning its favourite choice of words, the UFF said the killing was a 'measured military response' and warned of 'further military action'.

By the summer it wasn't just the behaviour of Adair Snr that was attracting attention, but also Adair Jnr. To his father's growing anger, Jonathan Adair was rapidly gaining a reputation as a thug and a troublemaker. In June, his father's men beat him with baseball bats and iron bars after he broke into the home of an 84-year-old woman and stole her purse. In August, Adair had little choice but to consent to a more severe punishment after Jonathan hit a female shop assistant in a filling station on the Crumlin Road. Shortly before midnight on 7 August, Fat Jackie Thompson, who as C Coy's 'Provost Marshal' was in charge of kneecappings, dragged the 17-year-old into the middle of Florence Square in the lower Shankill and shot him in each leg with a 9mm pistol. As punishment-shooting victims go, Adair Jnr was lucky. By shooting the teenager through the calves, Thompson ensured there would be no permanent damage.

'Johnny had no choice other than to give his blessing,' said one of Adair's friends. 'There was a whole catalogue of things. He [Adair Snr] knew it was only a matter of time before he was going to get shot.' Although the shooting surprised few on the Shankill, to the outside world the idea of a father authorising a gun attack on his own son was savage. As Jonathan recovered the following day, Adair was indignant at suggestions that he had sanctioned the shooting or even pulled the trigger himself.

'What man in his own mind would do a thing like that to his own son?' he said. 'Had I known prior to this, I would have had my son on a ferry away from here as fast as possible.' Maintaining he had 'no idea' why the shooting took place, he added, 'He's a quiet boy. He never smoked, never drank, he loved his wee push-bike. Every day he was down the job centre looking for work, he was always doing the old age pensioners' gardens for nothing.'

Adair was fast becoming a caricature of the terrorist godfather, a cult figure whose face was rarely out of the newspapers. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, before his thirst for power and celebrity drove him into open confrontation with his fellow loyalists.

In September 2002 it became clear he was trying to promote a far closer alliance between C Coy and the LVF than the rest of the UDA had realised. On his release from jail, the LVF had presented him with a commemorative mirror bearing the message, 'UFF-LVF Brothers In Arms', but it was now obvious the links went far beyond personal friendship. To its astonishment, the UDA learnt that Adair viewed the mid-Ulster LVF as an extension of his paramilitary empire and claimed to have up to 70 men under his control there.

Jackie McDonald could hardly believe his ears when one of his commanders told him the LVF in Lurgan, County Armagh, had asked to borrow some camouflage equipment on the basis that they were 'all part of the same organisation now'. McDonald, whose south Belfast brigade stretches into mid-Ulster, was determined to confront Adair. He drew up a list of LVF figures in mid-Ulster and went straight to the Shankill to ask Adair about their relationship with C Coy. 'Myself and another fella challenged him about these people who now said they were part of the west Belfast UDA, although they were in the south Belfast area,' he recalled. 'We said this can't be, and he said he had 70 men up there. We said, "You can't have," and he said, "No disrespect to you Jackie, but they want me as their brigadier." I said, "If they want you as their brigadier they should go and live on the Shankill Road."'

The row with McDonald marked the beginning of a sharp deterioration in Adair's relations with his fellow brigadiers. McDonald, a convicted extortionist, was an old-style UDA boss in his early fifties whose views about running the organisation were dramatically different from Adair's. While Adair believed it needed a single charismatic leader, McDonald was convinced the UDA's strength came from the fact that each brigade area was autonomous. Adair despised McDonald because he'd been in prison during the early 1990s and had never taken part in the 'war'. In a rant from his prison cell, he described McDonald as a 'nothing and a nobody' who had 'never once been on the battlefield'. He said: 'He's into fake clothes and fake perfumes and contraband cigarettes.'

But it wasn't just McDonald whom Adair secretly loathed - it was all his fellow brigadiers with the exception of Andre Shoukri. He saw Billy McFarland, of north Antrim and Derry, as a hillbilly, and John 'Grug' Gregg, of southeast Antrim, as a waster who had contributed nothing since shooting and failing to kill Gerry Adams 18 years earlier. Last, but not least, was Jim Gray of east Belfast, for whom Adair reserved special contempt. Gray was a part-owner of the Avenue One Bar on the staunchly loyalist Newtownards Road. A flash dresser, he enjoyed the high life, eating and drinking in the best restaurants and bars, and rubbing shoulders with Glasgow Rangers footballers during regular trips to Ibrox Park. His detractors dubbed Gray and his cohorts 'the Spice Boys', while at every opportunity Adair referred to him mockingly as 'Doris Day', because of his bleach-blond hair.

The spark that set in motion Adair's showdown with his fellow commanders came on Friday 13 September, when Stephen Warnock, a senior LVF drug dealer, was shot dead. He was killed as he sat in his BMW in Newtownards, County Down, with his three-year-old daughter. According to police sources, he was murdered because he had borrowed £10,000 from a local drug-dealing cartel and had refused to pay it back.

A friend of Adair's from jail, the two had become increasingly close following the death of Mark 'Swinger' Fulton, triggering speculation that the Shankill godfather intended to install Warnock as his leader in east Belfast in a new loyalist terror group. The LVF was stunned by Warnock's murder, and Adair was immediately convinced it had been carried out by the UDA on the orders of Jim Gray.

Although press reports suggested the killing was the work of the UVF-linked Red Hand Commando, Adair's suspicions appeared to be confirmed when a man was abducted and questioned by the LVF. He told his interrogators that Gray was directly responsible for Warnock's murder. As far as Adair was concerned, it was all he needed to hear.

Three days after the shooting, Gray called at the home of one of Warnock's brothers in east Belfast to pay his respects to the murdered 35-year-old. He was leaving and about to get into his BMW when he heard a voice say, 'This is for Stephen.' As he turned to see who was speaking, a bullet pierced his cheek, shattering his jawbone and teeth before exiting the other side.

Gray recoiled in agony, but he knew that had he not turned his head he would have been dead. The would-be assassin then turned his gun on Gray's UDA colleague, who was about to get into the passenger seat. He leant across the roof of the car and pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed and Gray's friend took to his heels. Despite his injuries, Gray also fled. After finally clearing his weapon, the gunman fired several more shots at the fleeing UDA men before disappearing into the night. With blood streaming from his face, Gray staggered to the nearby police training depot at Garnerville, where he received first aid from officers before being whisked away to the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald. He was lucky to survive the assassination bid, although he now faces an £11,000 dental bill to have his mouth rebuilt.

Gray's fellow UDA brigadiers were livid at the attempt on his life. But it was nothing compared to the anger they felt when they discovered that Adair, John White and Andre Shoukri planned to attend Warnock's funeral. McDonald thought it was a sick joke: 'I heard from a mate that Jim Gray was shot. So I phoned John White and said, "What's happening?" He didn't sound at all surprised, and he said, "We have a funeral to go to tomorrow," and I said, "How the fuck can you? Whoever shot Jim Gray will be at that funeral."

This was on the phone about midnight the night Jim was shot. I came over to east Belfast the next morning and they were on the phone to John White saying, "You can't go to the funeral." White was told Jim Gray specifically asked from his hospital bed that they didn't go. He said, "Well, we're going, do you want to have a meeting afterwards?" I said, "If you go to the funeral, there will be no meeting at all."'

Gray's colleagues were sure he had not been involved in Warnock's death. As they pieced together the events leading up to his attempted murder, they uncovered a disturbing piece of information. Adair had been attending Warnock's wake shortly before Gray's arrival and had been moved to a neighbouring house, where he was able to watch the shooting from a window. They believed Adair had deliberately encouraged the attack.

To the consternation of McDonald and the other brigadiers, Adair, White and Shoukri went ahead with their plan to attend Warnock's funeral. On 20 September, Adair was summoned to explain himself at an emergency meeting of the UDA's inner council in a community centre in south Belfast.

The day of reckoning had at last arrived. In a gesture of defiance, Adair gave the go-ahead that morning for a joint UFF/LVF mural bearing the message, 'Brothers in Arms'. As he paced up and down the front room of his offices in Boundary Way, he was determined not to back down. He was furious that a group of middle-aged men who had done next to nothing during the early 1990s was about to sit in judgment over him. He could barely believe it had come to this: Johnny Adair, the loyalist hero who had brought the war to the IRA's front door, who had survived countless assassination attempts and a long stint in jail, was being ordered to explain his actions to the leadership of the Ulster Defence Association. As he became increasingly agitated, his mind churned through a range of possible scenarios, but began to settle on one in particular. There was only one course of action, it seemed, that could salvage his authority and teach McDonald and his cronies a lesson.

As he prepared to travel across Belfast to the meeting in Sandy Row, a police listening device picked up the basic outline of Adair's plan. 'Adair had this idea to walk in and shoot them all,' said one Special Branch officer. 'Special Branch heard him discussing it. He was saying, "I'll just walk in there and shoot all those fuckers. I'll pull a gun on them and shoot them all."' This version of events is confirmed by one of Adair's closest advisers, who was in the office that morning: 'Everything blew up that day. He was so berserk he punched a hole in the door. Johnny was saying, "I'm going to stiff every one, I'm going to stiff that big girl McDonald. I'm going to kill them before they kill me."'

As Adair arrived in a jeep with blacked-out windows, several dozen men from the UDA's other brigade areas were already waiting on nearby street corners. The police were also there in numbers, though they deliberately kept their distance. As Adair walked into the building he was accompanied by Fat Jackie Thompson and James 'Sham' Millar, both of whom were armed. In the gents' toilet, Thompson pulled a 9mm chrome Ruger from under his jacket and handed it to Adair, who tucked it under his waistband and covered it with his fleece. He then walked into the meeting, making it painfully obvious that he had a gun.

Seeing this, McDonald deliberately sat next to Adair, believing he could overpower him if he produced his weapon. But as the meeting wore on, Adair realised that there were other guns in the room and that it would be madness to chance his arm. This was not the time or the place, and he knew there would soon be other opportunities to kill his old comrades. But the meeting, which lasted two hours, became increasingly heated as Adair continued to justify his allegations against Gray. According to McDonald: 'Johnny had this thing about east Belfast. So right away, when Warnock got shot, Johnny assumed they had something to do with it. He saw that as an opportunity. But the evidence produced against the east Belfast UDA was totally ridiculous. McDonald recalls that the meeting broke up abruptly after Adair received a call. 'He was speaking to an LVF man and then he said, "I'll have to go." All the brigadiers headed off, fearing they'd be ambushed by Adair and his men if they hung around.'

As Adair and his C Coy minders drove away from Sandy Row it was clear he intended to make his old colleagues pay for challenging him. Within minutes of leaving the meeting he was kicking up a second storm. He went straight to Ballysillan, where he told senior members of the LVF what had just happened. Unbeknown to Adair, however, he was being monitored by a team from the mainstream UDA. 'We knew everything that happened,' said Billy 'The Mexican' McFarland, who believed Adair's terrorist career was now finished. 'He walked straight into the LVF meeting and told them, "I've just met the puppets."'

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