Page last updated at 09:59 GMT, Wednesday, 21 June 2006 10:59 UK

Why UDA expelled 'unlikely loyalists'

For two months there has been speculation that Andre and Ihab Shoukri, widely believed to be UDA leaders in north Belfast, were to be ousted. Now, the organisation's leadership has spoken. BBC Northern Ireland home affairs correspondent Vincent Kearney reports.

The Shoukri brothers are unlikely loyalists. The sons of an Egyptian father who married a local woman, they were far from the typical recruits for the UDA, an organisation with links to the racist group Combat 18.

 Andre Shoukri
Andre Shoukri was jailed for two years

Andre Shoukri, 28, is alleged to have risen through the ranks to take over the leadership of the organisation in north Belfast shortly after Johnny Adair was expelled from the organisation.

In 2004, he was one of the UDA's so-called "brigadiers" who met the then Secretary of State Paul Murphy. In July 2003, he was given a two-year prison sentence for possession of a gun.

Ihab, 31, has denied being a member of the UDA, and earlier this month charges of UDA and UFF membership were dropped when a judge ruled that there wasn't enough evidence to convict him.

But senior loyalist and security sources have consistently said that both brothers are senior members of the organisation.

That is no longer the case. In their statement, the UDA's ruling body, its inner council', said it had expelled a number of members in north Belfast.

The statement did not name any individuals, but senior loyalist sources say they are the two Shoukri brothers and another close associate.

The statement also called on the other UDA members in the area to "begin a process of selection and election to replace the individuals expelled".

It took a short time to write, but many weeks to agree. While the statement suggests that the UDA leadership is speaking with one voice, it has taken them a long time to reach that position.

The UDA is divided into six areas and the leaders of each call themselves "brigadiers".

Four of the brigadiers, Jackie McDonald in south Belfast, Matt Kinkaid who runs the organisation in west Belfast, Billy McFarland, its leader in north Antrim and Londonderry and the leader in east Belfast, have wanted to move against the north Belfast leadership for some time.

Ihab Shoukri
Ihab Shoukri denied being in the UDA

But the position of the organisation's leader in south-east Antrim has been ambiguous.

He initially backed the Shoukris and refused to endorse any move against them.

There have been many meetings of the 'inner council' to discuss the issue in recent weeks, but on a number of occasions he refused to attend, sending representatives instead.

It is believed his position changed in recent days when he made clear that he wants to remain with the rest of the 'inner council', rather than stand alongside the Shoukri brothers.

So what is it all about? Why have two of the UDA's most high profile members been expelled?

It is highly ironic that they stand accused by the rest of the UDA leadership of widespread criminality, of running a drugs empire, extorting tens of thousands of pounds from local businesses, and siphoning off money from funds for UDA prisoners.

In court earlier this year, police said Andre Shoukri had gambled 863,000 in a Belfast bookmakers.

Criminality within the UDA is nothing new.

The organisation has long been associated with drugs, extortion and racketeering. Indeed, the last report by the International Monitoring Commission stated that the level of crime within the organisation was endemic.

The problem for the Shoukri brothers was that the allegations about their activities became public knowledge, and at a time when the rest of the UDA leadership is talking about transformation and insisting that it is committed to moving away from crime.

It was a bad time to be washing very dirty linen in public.

There have also been allegations of threats from the north Belfast UDA against at least two of the other leaders, and claims that Shoukri supporters were planning to act independently, effectively creating their own autonomous unit.

History shows that UDA fall-outs often end in bloodshed
In the past, it would have been handled differently. Men would have arrived armed and would have told Ihab Shoukri and his closest associates to leave the country, if not worse.

But today, because the organisation is talking about transformation, of leaving the past behind, those tactics could not be deployed.

So what happens now?

Andre Shoukri is in prison, on remand charged with blackmail, intimidation and money laundering. The movements of Ihab will be watched closely by the UDA leadership in the coming days.

History shows that UDA fall-outs often end in bloodshed. There was a bitter feud when Johnny Adair was expelled from the organisation four years ago, resulting in a number of deaths including John Gregg, a "brigadier" killed by Adair supporters.

Another UDA leader, Jim Gray, was shot dead by former associates in east Belfast last October in another internal dispute over allegations of criminal activity including drug dealing.

The so-called north Belfast brigade appears to be isolated. It is said to have up to 800 members, but the vast majority are inactive.

There is a hard core of a few dozen seasoned terrorists and their decision will determine how this latest chapter in the history of the UDA ends.

The UDA statement makes it clear that it wants what it calls its "valued" members in north Belfast to select a new leadership.

They now have a clear choice - agree or stand by the Shoukri brothers and risk confrontation with the rest of the organisation.

And even if the rank and file UDA membership in north Belfast agrees to support the decision by the leadership, there is no guarantee that the Shoukri faction will accept it.

If they don't, the UDA could be embroiled in yet another bloody dispute.

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