22 January 2004 Edition
UDA bomb scares bring disruption to North
Not content to rest on their laurels after their highly-visible campaign of violence and intimidation towards ethnic minorities, the unionist paramilitary machine went into overdrive this past week - bringing Belfast city and much of its surrounding area to a standstill with a series of bomb threats.
The latest unionist version of fun and games began on Wednesday last, when loyalist prisoners in Maghaberry Jail went on a 12-hour rampage which left 18 prison officers injured and resulted in thousands of pounds of damage to prison facilities.
Thirty-five loyalists ran amok inside Bann House, causing extensive damage, as talks continued in a bid to avert strike action over security provisions for prison guards. Later that day, PSNI boss Hugh Orde confirmed that two pipe bombs found in North Belfast were also linked to the protest.
Then, shortly after midnight on Friday 17 January, British bomb disposal units were called out to examine suspect devices in several locations throughout Belfast - including one left outside Sinn Féin's Ormeau Road office.
The bulk of the bomb threats came at the height of morning rush hour. By 11am the number of alerts throughout the city had jumped to 22, with the resulting chaos bringing commuters to a standstill.
Traffic was immobile for several hours, with many main arteries in and out of the city shut down while suspicious vehicles and devices continued to turn up. The M1 was closed in both directions as far as Lisburn after a suspect vehicle appeared under a bridge at Stockman's Lane.
Meanwhile, more than 200 students were in the process of travelling to important school exams. Sixth formers in ten schools were due to sit AS-level papers in chemistry, economics and ICT Friday morning. Although the CCEA exam board said it was not aware of any students missing the exams, the delays had to add to the pupil's anxiety and could have affected performance.
Further devices were found at the front gates of Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School on the Ballysillan Road in North Belfast and a community centre on the Ligoniel Road. There was a third in Glenarm, County Antrim, another in Comber, County Down.
There were more bomb alerts on the Falls Road, the Springfield Road and Kennedy Way. In Newtownabbey, more than 30 people were forced to evacuate their homes as three controlled explosions were carried out in nearby Mill Road. There was also an alert at the prison service headquarters at Dundonald House on the Upper Newtownards Road.
While the pressure eased as the morning wore on, the final threat was not declared a hoax until 2.30pm. But no sooner was the last of the morning's alarms cleared than there were three more alerts - at the Falls Road, the Springfield Road and the Andersonstown Road, near Sinn Féin's West Belfast headquarters, Connolly House. These too, were eventually declared hoaxes.
By Friday night, the UDA admitted that it was behind the chaos. It claimed it was unhappy with the way its prisoners were being treated at Maghaberry and warned that its yearlong ceasefire was in jeopardy due to the British governments refusal to acknowledge it.
Part of the problem, says one alleged senior UDA source, "is the government still refuses to recognise the UDA ceasefire, so rank and file members are asking what's the point in having one".
The UDA ceasefire was declared in February of last year, but nationalists have always been sceptical of its existence. The ceasefire came about only as a result of pressure brought upon the UDA after their criminality was exposed during last year's loyalist feud. Yet despite the ceasefire, elements within the UDA have persisted with sectarian attacks and killings.
In May 2003, the group admitted it was behind the killing of Johnny Adair ally Allan McCullough and more recent subsequent attacks on exiled loyalists now living in Bolton. The organisation is also behind the rise of racist hate crimes in predominantly unionist areas.
But then, targeting the vulnerable is what the UDA does best.
Ardoyne priest Father Aiden Troy called on those behind the scares to leave the children alone after additional suspect devices were discovered at Holy Cross Primary Girls School twice over the course of the Saturday and Monday. Holy Cross was the scene of serious unionist paramilitary violence during the 2001 loyalist protest. Another device was found on the grounds of neighbouring St Gabriel's College.
Both devices were later described by bomb experts as "elaborate hoaxes" that had detonator cord attached to them.
Sinn Féin's Margaret McClenaghan, who lives in Ardoyne, speaking to An Phoblacht said: "It is my firm belief that the UDA were behind these incidents and that they are the latest installment in what has been a long campaign against Catholics in this area.
"The British Government has tolerated the UDA campaign for years. Its agencies control and operate agents within the leadership of this organisation, yet the violence and disruption is allowed to continue."
Meanwhile, the UPRG - the UDA's mouthpiece organisation - is urging unionists to boycott Catholic businesses.
Spokesman Jim Wright, from Derry, also claimed that the UDA's ceasefire was in a tenuous state because there was a concerted effort by nationalists and republicans to force Protestants from the North West, "using violence and intimidation in employment and education".
Rubbishing these claims, Derry Sinn Féin Councillor Lynn Fleming said the claim by the UPRG's claims "beggars belief".
"This so called ceasefire has been marked by the murder of innocent Catholics, ongoing pipe-bomb attacks on nationalists, a bloody feud that cost many lives and now involvement in racist attacks against ethnic minorities across the Six Counties.
"These allegations by the UPRG are obviously an attempt to muddy the waters in context of the ceasefire and create excuses for the continuing activities by the UDA."