The Gangs Of Belfast

Twice in recent months, John Gregg survived bomb attacks on his home in Belfast. On Feb. 1 his luck ran out. Traveling back from a football game, the powerful local boss of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association and a colleague were shot dead as their taxi halted at a city intersection. To blame: a renegade faction of the same Protestant group fighting for control of local crime rackets. Some 7,000 mourners turned out for his funeral.

The murder--and the mass demonstration in Gregg's support--brings an ugly truth to light. The 1998 peace accords, signed by the major Protestant and Roman Catholic political parties in Northern Ireland, were supposed to put an end to 30 years of religious and patriotic conflict. But if the sectarian bombings and the shootings have abated, the killing continues. With no war to fight, the paramilitaries have refocused on crime. This is especially so on the Protestant side. Leaders who once claimed to be protecting their communities against attack from the Irish Republican Army--Gregg himself served nine in years in jail for the attempted murder of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams--have morphed into mobsters fighting viciously for turf and personal fiefdoms. Police estimate that half of the 80 crime gangs operating in the province are linked to the Ulster gunmen. Alan McQuillan, a former Belfast police chief, leads a new antiracketeering drive. "These people are into every aspect of organized crime," he says. "Drug dealing, extortion, armed robbery, counterfeiting and prostitution."

Too often, ordinary people are caught up in the warlords' feuding. The working-class Shankill Road district of Belfast, a staunchly Protestant area that saw some of the worst violence in Northern Ireland's Troubles, is now an epicenter of gangland violence. With unemployment running at more than 60 percent, racketeers find no shortage of recruits among young men in search of excitement and status. Until recently, this was largely the fiefdom of Johnny (Mad Dog) Adair, a jailed terrorist and the leading adversary of the murdered John Gregg. Blamed for Gregg's killing, many of Adair's henchmen have now fled to Scotland after a local UDA putsch. In the past two years, his battles with rival crime families have cost at least a dozen lives. Hundreds of people have been intimidated into leaving their homes because of allegiance to the wrong faction. "The good decent people of this area found they were living under the jackboot," says May Blood, a veteran community worker in the neighborhood. "The peace process just never happened in the way we thought it would."

It is a vicious cycle. The area's grisly reputation scares away jobs and business, which in turn has sapped the community's economic health. Small wonder many of the area's residents look to the future with fatalism. "This will never end," says a neighborhood shopkeeper. The gangsters "are all making too much money out of this."

Northern Ireland's Protestant gangs are not the only criminal abusers of peace, of course. A parliamentary report last year reckoned that the IRA was pulling in £8 million a year from organized crime in the Catholic districts, almost as much as all its unionist counterparts combined. But police note a vital difference. In deference to local opinion, the IRA has kept to less controversial areas of crime such as smuggling and counterfeiting, as opposed to extortion and drug dealing. There's less of a stigma to those, authorities say, yet it's equally big business. Last year the Northern Ireland cops picked up more counterfeit goods than the rest of the United Kingdom's police put together.

All this takes place amid a wider gloom over Northern Ireland's prospects. For the fourth time in four years, the government set up under the peace agreements, a power-sharing arrangement between Catholics and Protestants, has been suspended amid interparty squabbling. Once again Northern Ireland is under direct rule from London. At least the IRA is not yet dusting off its weapons. "The option of going back to war is something that Gerry Adams never actually entertains, particularly after 9-11," says Paul Bew, a politics professor at Queen's University, Belfast. For the Protestant community of Belfast, that's some comfort. Its own criminals are quite enough to endure.