Sunday Life

Loyalists at war: How guns handover was spiked

Adapted by Ciaran McGuigan from 'UDA: Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror'

19 September 2004

BRITAIN'S top cop scuppered advanced plans for a major act of UDA decommissioning, when he swooped on six suspects in the Pat Finucane murder hunt.

Sir John Stevens' move against six UDA men suspected of involvement in the 1989 murder of the solicitor, destroyed a plan hatched by cutthroat killer John White and UFF terror godfather Johnny Adair, to out-manoeuvre Sinn Fein over weapons.

White claimed that he had almost succeeded in persuading the organisation he helped turn into a killing machine, back in 1972-73, into destroying some of its weapons, before the IRA acted on its arms.

What blocked the UDA being the first terrorist group to give up weapons, was the ongoing fallout from the murder of Pat Finucane.

Since 1989, the Finucane family had campaigned vigorously for an independent inquiry into the solicitor's assassination.

In January 2000, the reactivated Stevens Inquiry had confirmed that it had identified six loyalists as the main suspects for Finucane's murder, and their details had since been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, along with forensic evidence linking them to the killing.

White's sidekick, Johnny Adair, was in favour of handing over weapons, but was adamant that a move against any of the men would scupper any chance of the UDA decommissioning.

And there was more: "If any of those men, whether it's one of them or all six, are arrested and charged, then you can kiss goodnight to the peace process from our point of view," he said.

The arrest of the six UDA men, including the organisation's leader in the Highfield area, Eric McKee, coincided with the emergence of a scandal across the Atlantic involving the IRA.

The Provos had been caught buying scores of handguns, in Florida gun shops.

The operation was eventually thwarted by the FBI, and several Provisionals, including west Belfast man Connor Claxton, were arrested and charged.

The gun-running route had already provided the IRA with up to 100 weapons with no forensic history.

One of the 'clean' guns was used to assassinate Real IRA man, Joe O'Connor, in 1999.

Despite the indisputable fact that the IRA 'army council' had sanctioned the Florida arms-buying spree, no penalties were imposed on Sinn Fein.

When Adair and his cronies looked at the IRA getting away with clear breaches of good faith, they thought to themselves that they could do the same.

What compounded their anger, was that their colleagues in west Belfast were more vulnerable to arrest over crimes committed before Good Friday 1998, than IRA members were for committing crimes since then.

The UDA came extremely close to publicly decommissioning a large amount of weaponry, in early 2000.

Adair had spoken to 'quartermasters' about the guns and explosives selected for destruction. White had laid out plans to invite the world's media to an undisclosed location, where the weapons would either be handed over to - or destroyed in front of - a representative from John de Chastelain's office.

But the arrest of the six Finucane suspects allowed 'inner council' sceptics, such as John Gregg, to scuttle the initiative.

The past crimes of the Troubles - specifically the Finucane murder legacy - had effectively scuppered a chance to move forward.

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