By Jack Holland
In Northern Ireland, the new year, indeed the new millennium by the most accurate reckoning, begins with a bloody trail that leads to old crimes. It is regrettable that one’s first column of 2001 should be devoted to tracing that trail, one of the grimmest and murkiest in the history of the Troubles. But, unfortunately, the almost decapitated body of George Legge, ex-UDA, that was discovered in a field near Carryduff, just south of Belfast, at the weekend has given it a gruesome topicality.
Legge was so badly beaten and cut up that, according to reports, it was almost impossible to discover whether he had been shot. His throat was cut so viciously that his head was left barely hanging on his spine.
He died apparently as a result of the loyalist turf wars being waged over drug-running operations that have already claimed many lives in the Protestant community in recent years, but have intensified during the last few months. But Legge’s death also resonates through earlier bloody episodes that afford a glimpse of the grim internal workings of the UDA, at one time the largest of the loyalist paramilitary organizations.
Legge was the suspect in at least four murders, including that of Ned McCreery, a fellow member of the UDA, who was shot dead on April 15, 1992.
Legge was later attacked and stabbed by one of McCreery’s brothers, Leonard, in a loyalist drinking den. The wound almost killed him but he recovered. Leonard was jailed last April for attempted murder.
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The McCreerys were among the most dangerous figures ever to have been associated with Ulster loyalism. Ned and his cousin Tommy were founding members of the organization in East Belfast in 1971, where they associated with Tommy Herron, the UDA’s vice-chairman. They were involved in some of the most gruesome murders in the history of the conflict.
Throughout 1972, they specialized in kidnapping Catholics, subjecting them to brutal torture before murdering them. In one case, that of James Patrick McCartan, the young man was snatched from a hotel in East Belfast where he was attending a party, and taken to a loyalist club. On McCreery’s orders, he was stripped, hung up by the heels, beaten with clubs and stabbed, before being bundled into a car and shot on a waste ground. Two months later, in December, Patrick Benstead met an even grimmer fate (if such can be imagined) at McCreery’s hands. Benstead, who was mentally retarded, was kidnapped, brought to a loyalist drinking den, where he was branded with a hot poker on the back with the letters "IRA" next to a cross. The killing was described at the time as "depraved, savage and sadistic."
Protestants who ran foul of the McCreery gang met a similar fate . (The details of these and other killings were revealed in February 1974 during the trial involving the North’s first "supergrass," Albert "Ginger" Baker, a member of the McCreery gang who turned state’s evidence. The judge, however, found the defendants, one of whom was Ned McCreery, not guilty. The McCreerys were interned on their release.)
In September 1973, Herron, who used the McCreery gang, was himself murdered, probably by Ned and Tommy. His body was found dumped near Drumbo, in County Down, just a few miles from where Legge’s body would be discovered almost 28 years later.
The McCreerys, following a UDA tradition, went from sectarian killings to just plain criminality and racketeering. In the early 1980s, Tommy linked up with the head of the Provisional IRA intelligence-gathering unit in Belfast, providing him with information about loyalist leaders, such as Lennie "The Shankill Butcher" Murphy. Along with another maverick UDA man, James Craig, McCreery seemed to have been merely interested in removing those loyalists who were muscling in on lucrative rackets. They did this quite successfully until the late 1980s, when they felt victim to a purge from a revitalized leadership, which took over and got rid of the old guard. Craig was shot dead in October 1988 and Tommy McCreery was wounded in a UDA attack a little later. He fled to England, where he was named in court as being involved in running a sort of "guns-for-hire" operation for the London underworld. He was last heard of in Spain in the mid-1990s. Ned McCreery was not so lucky. After the UDA shot him in 1992, it issued a statement saying that he had been working for the RUC and the "enemies of Ulster."
Actually, Tommy McCreery worked for just about anyone who would pay him.
The death of George Legge was so similar to that of the many Catholic victims of the McCreery gang — horrendously brutalized before being killed — that one cannot help but imagine that the ghost of Ned returned to even the score. However, otherworldly explanations are really not necessary to account for his demise. The problem for the UDA — and also, to a somewhat lesser extent, for the Ulster Volunteer Force — has been that it has tended to recruit many of its members from a sort of lumpen element within the Protestant working class. Not surprisingly, there proved to be a fair number of criminals among them, men whose attraction to the organization had little to do with its political agenda. This has been the case from the very beginning. Back in 1973, Herron was murdered by the McCreerys over money that was meant for imprisoned members and which had gone missing. In the mid-1980s, as the UDA’s paramilitary role diminished, leaders such as Craig switched to racketeering. This change has been accentuated since the mid-1990s with the cease-fires, which came not long after drugs began flowing into Northern Ireland in increasingly larger amounts. Republican groups such as the now-defunct Irish People’s Liberation Organization led the way. But the UDA has not been slow to follow.
Apparently Legge was found with his pockets stuffed with money. A month earlier, James Rockett, another UDA man, was murdered over drugs and money. He too had pockets stuffed with cash. The message, presumably, is that if you are going to run a drug’s operation, then you have to do it under the control of the dominant drug barons. No outsiders, mavericks, or people with their hand in the till, will be tolerated. In effect, this means that sections of the UDA have now transformed themselves into a kind of drug cartel.
Even Homer nods: apologies to all those Republicans out there for my column three weeks ago in which I erroneously gave them one president too many. Woodrow Wilson was, of course, a Democrat.