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Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK
UDA's 'clear message to dissidents'
UFF mural at night
Rival factions of the UDA clashed in Belfast
As political representatives of the UDA meet government officials to discuss the growing tension between the organisation's leadership and a breakaway faction in north Belfast, Home Affairs Correspondent Vincent Kearney asks if the group is on the brink of another feud.

There were no guns on show and no shots were fired, but this was unmistakably a show of strength.

Several hundred members of the UDA obeyed orders from its ruling inner council to attend a short public meeting in the Shankill Road area of Belfast on Saturday night.

It was all about numbers. It was about the mainstream UDA sending a clear message to what it now calls "a renegade faction" in north Belfast: take us on at your peril because we have more people than you.

The rally was organised in response to a tense stand-off between rival UDA factions in the Ballysillan area of Belfast on Friday night.

The trouble flared just hours after a statement from the North Belfast UDA, which said it had appointed a new interim leadership, replacing individuals who had remained loyal to ousted UDA leaders Andre and Ihab Shoukri - people the UDA inner council has branded "dissidents".

Hundreds attended a UDA show of strength
Hundreds attended a UDA show of strength

A crowd of up to 80 dissidents is said to have attacked a number of homes and threatened those supporting the new leadership that they would have to leave the area.

There were reports of shots being fired, and in follow-up searches, the police recovered a shotgun and ammunition.

It was a clear challenge to the authority of the UDA's inner council, made up of six so-called brigadiers.

'Serious about change'

In the past, such a dispute would have ended in bloodshed. When not attacking republicans and nationalists, the UDA has frequently turned its guns on its own.

In recent times, former "brigadiers" like Jim Gray and John Gregg have been killed as a result of internal disputes.

Ihab Shoukri is a leading loyalist
Ihab Shoukri is a leading loyalist

But now the UDA leadership talks of change, of moving away from crime and following a peaceful path. Many are highly sceptical and will take a lot of convincing.

The rally on Friday night was part of the strategy to convince the government that the organisation is serious about change.

Speaking after the rally, Frankie Gallagher of the Ulster Political Research Group read a statement from the UDA leadership.

It started by stressing the organisation's commitment to a peaceful resolution and criticism of the police for not doing enough to prevent the attacks on Friday.

The statement attacked what it calls "a breakaway faction of dissidents" and accused them of "widespread criminality".

There were assurances that the gathering of its forces was not a declaration of intent, but simply a demonstration of support for those UDA members who had been attacked.

Leading loyalist Andre Shoukri
Leading loyalist Andre Shoukri "has been ousted"

But there were also words of warning. The inner council said it would not stand by and watch if there were further attacks on members who are loyal to the leadership.

The UPRG insists this was a simple statement of fact and not a threat, but it is a clear indication that the situation remains highly volatile and that violence could be an option.

The government will hope that an organisation that insists it is looking to the future, does not return to the ways of the past.

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