Skelly McCrory’s death in July 2022 was widely reported. He slipped and fell, suffering catastrophic fatal injuries, outside his flat in a rundown part of Ayr, Scotland. The business that Skelly referred to in the quote above was the operations of the West Belfast UDA/UFF, roughly speaking from around 1987 to 1994. This piece will look into some aspects of McCrory’s life, and tie together the fates of some other West Belfast UDA figures, including Johnny Adair.
Much has been written about Adair, the volume of which in my opinion significantly outweighs his importance in the Troubles. Adair is a gifted self-publicist, and this has led to many histories of loyalism in general, and the UDA in particular, focusing heavily on him and the actions of those around him. Despite the self-congratulatory hyperbole, when analysed closely, far from being the most effective paramilitary unit of the Troubles, they were not even the most prolific iteration of “C Company.” I was given an opportunity to view files that the RUC prepared for the case to prosecute him for Directing Terrorism. Much of the detail of these files is already in the public domain, reported by Hugh Jordan, Ian S. Wood, Martin Dillon, and others.
As with many of my pieces, I sometimes find news reports of persons with the same name and approximate age as those I am writing about. Unfortunately I am unable to confirm if they are indeed the same person, so simply give the details as reported and cite the source, which is usually the Belfast Telegraph via the British Newspaper Archive.
Bigots, Skinheads, Hoods, and respectable unionist cover
On Friday, 2nd November 1979, three men were given six months in prison each for an assault, in which hammers were used, which fractured the skull of a 14 year old named Samuel McCory. The assault happened in the Crumlin Road area of Belfast, and appears to have been a reprisal for earlier incidents involving “gangs of youths” harassing locals. I do not know if this is Skelly, but he would have been 14 in 1979. The last reported criminal incident I know of involving Skelly was in 2019, a bizarre incident which involved indecent exposure and homophobic abuse.
One of the interesting, and unreported, details from the RUC Adair files concerns George Seawright, UVF member, Belfast City Unionist Councillor, and assailant of Tom King. Adair, and others, were seen in Seawright’s company in 1986, and the RUC assumed a “process of sectarian indoctrination” was taking place, with Seawright playing the role of indoctrinator. Given the close friendship of Adair & Skelly, it’s probable that Skelly was with Adair. But I think, not for the first time, the RUC had it wrong. Adair and his friends were already deeply sectarian by that stage, as well as being violent, anti-social, and deeply dysfunctional criminals who enjoyed the power their violence gave them. Seawright was given an eulogy in an “Official National Front” publication, that lauded his far-right credentials and links with the NF. Perhaps it wasn’t just sectarian indoctrination that had taken place with Skelly & Adair, though the racial politics seemed to recede in importance to the men. Adair and his friends association with the NF dated to at least 1983.
In April 1983, a 36 year old homeless alcoholic Catholic man named Patrick Barkey had the misfortune to meet three men from the Shankill area who called themselves “NF Skinz.” William Madine (17), Clifford Bickerstaff (18), and Albert Martin (19) were originally charged with murder, but convicted of manslaughter. Despite luring the vulnerable Mr Barkey to what would be the scene of his death, and using their fists, feet, and concrete blocks to ill Mr Barkey, the trio were provided with “character references from respectable unionist politicians” (UDA, McDonald & Cusack) which helped them receive sentences ranging from 12 months suspended (Martin) to under three years (Madine, Bickerstaff). Adair and Skelly were named as members of NF Skinz by Henry McDonald in the Guardian, but there’s no suggestion they were involved in this particularly squalid killing. In 1991, eight years after 18 year old William Madine violently killed a defenceless man, another William Madine from the Shankill vicinity (I can’t confirm if it is the same man) aged 25 was charged with a violent assault on a Belfast woman. Skelly had a son named Samuel Madine – again, I cannot confirm if he is any relation is the violent Shankill “NF Skin.”
The UDA’s Political Animals
Skelly and Adair were given to proclaiming their effectiveness in targeting the IRA. Skelly saying that “The IRA had the upper hand so we decided to fight fire with fire and fight the IRA on a level battlefield and they didn’t like it” with Adair recently saying, about Skelly:
Sam McCrory wasn’t just a crazed gunman. He followed a carefully thought-out strategy … He was a political animal who physically stood up to the IRA. And when the time was right, he supported peace.
In terms of taking the war to the IRA’s door (a wearisome loyalist trope), it is true that Skelly was sentenced to 16 years for the attempted murder of two senior IRA figures. But it is also true that that operation was a security force set-up, and the chances of either IRA man dying at the hands of the UDA/UFF was remote. That ill-fated operation in 1992 led to one loyalist saying “they [security forces] were going to wipe us out – this was going to be our Loughall (Mad Dog, Lister & Jordan, p125). This gives the entire collusion debate another, usually overlooked, angle.
Killings that Skelly has been linked to (in the Belfast Telegraph 11th Aug 2022) include ex-internee Francisco Notarantonio, a pensioner, and an English man named Patrick Hamill, both in 1987. It’s difficult to see how either of these killings could be considered taking the war to the IRA in any feasible way.
Just over a week before Skelly and his comrades drove into the security force ambush, UDA members in East Belfast murdered a 51 year old teacher named Cyric Murray. A former colleague of Mr Murray’s had this to say about him and his death:
It was unbelievable that it happened. He wasn’t a political animal in any way at all ... He was quiet, reserved, shy. He’d given his whole career to the children. That was his life – the school was his life. He was dedicated to his school and the children. When I look back on it, I think it was an awful waste. A terrible act. And, really, they couldn’t have picked a worse target.
I wonder what Skelly, the “political animal” following a “carefully thought out strategy” would have made of the murder of Mr Murray, a man dedicated to education, who was not a “political animal.” I am unaware of this question being put to him.
I’m frequently baffled at the lack of challenge given to loyalists who see the post Anglo-Irish-Agreement phase of their violence as successful, let alone different, to loyalist campaigns that preceded it.
“When the time was right, he [Skelly McCrory] supported peace.”
Mo Mowlan, as was heavily reported at the time, visited the UDA/UFF prisoners in HMP Maze, and this supposedly played a role in maintaining the UDA/UFF ceasefire in the late 1990s. In 2000, Skelly is alleged to have led a massive crowd of UDA/UFF members and supporters during an assault on the Rex Bar on the Shankill Road (Mad Dog, p289). The Belfast Telegraph reported that he was one of the those who opened fire on the bar. Again, it’s difficult to see a carefully thought out strategy at play here, but I revisited some sources and, whilst it’s speculation on my part, can perhaps see a rationale for the attack on the Rex Bar, and the subsequent loyalist feud, which was intense and bloody, as well as devastating and traumatic for the Shankill Road community. I am starting to think that the nucleus of the Shankill feud sat with John White. One thing is abundantly clear though: the UDA’s penchant for nihilistic, politically barren violence didn’t stop with the Good Friday Agreement.
When sadistic, oddball knife killers fallout: John White vs the UVF
In Jack Holland’s book, Hope Against History, John White claimed that the UDA’s C Company were responsible for “90%” of the sectarian violence in Belfast between 1972 and 1976. This is highly unlikely given the range of organisations carrying out killings in this era, including the Red Hand, UVF, and some elements of the Provisional IRA. White, like Adair, seems to enjoy publicity and revising his own history. Despite White’s egotism, Hope Against History is a good book to get a sense of the UDA without the undue focus and attention given to Adair. It’s published prior to Adair’s weird attempts to place himself front and centre of loyalism, and a meek media’s acquiesce to his desires.
Ian S. Wood in his peerless book about the UDA, Crimes of Loyalty, wrote this about John White in particular, and tensions between the UVF and UDA in general:
The lingering antagonism between the two organisations supposedly brought into being by a common enemy was clearly voiced in a short and lavishly illustrated history of the UDA published late in 1999 and widely believed to have been compiled by John White. In the section entitled 'Casualties' he declared: "It is sad and quite ironic that the UDA had more men murdered by the UVF than by the IRA. In fact the UVF has been responsible for murdering twenty seven members of the UDA. In many cases these crimes were carried out for no other reason than rivalry and disrespect for an organisation which the UVF saw as a threat to its power base and influence in the Loyalist community." He went on to refer to the "deep resentment among many UDA members towards the UVF that still comes to the surface from time to time.
White’s animus against the UVF could well stem from his belief that UVF members (some of the ‘Shankill Butchers’ gang) gave the RUC information about him (Hope Against History), leading to his intense interrogation and subsequent conviction for the “psychotic outburst” murder of Paddy Wilson and Irene Andrews. In 1977, the RUC put it to UVF member William Moore that he’d been involved in recent cutthroat murders. Moore replied “It was the UDA in the lower Shankill who committed those murders” (Shankill Butchers, Dillon, p209). Moore was deflecting: it was him and his friends who had committed cutthroat murders in the mid-1970s, but it was indeed the lower Shankill UDA who committed many murders of Catholic civilians involving knives and torture. White may well be correct about the source of information about him. Interestingly, Martin Dillon attributes murders from 1972 to UVF members which are likely to have been instead carried out by UDA elements.
Brian Rowan, in the Belfast Telegraph named John White as working for RUC special branch. Rowan also wrote: “Loyalists also blame him for the collapse of the CLMC ", an umbrella leadership covering the UDA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando.
"He had a deep hatred of the UVF," one loyalist source said.
Another source described him as "the most malign figure within loyalism."
The article also says:
There was his association with Johnny Adair, no-one was closer, his role within political loyalism after the ceasefire and in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement and his links to the Inner Council of the UDA. White sat in meetings attended by the so-called brigadiers - the six most senior figures in the paramilitary group.
So, on the face of things, he would have been a valuable listening device inside this part of the loyalist community, but, of course, there is another side to the story.
He is a convicted killer. He was also a suspected drug dealer, and he and Adair became two of the most destabilising influences inside loyalism during the peace process years.
Indeed, it could be argued that they are largely responsible for the mess that loyalism now finds itself in.
So, several sources, wrote of John White’s antipathy towards the UVF.
It is of course conjecture on my part, but the RUC would presumably have been quite happy to watch militant loyalism descend into violent anarchy that reduced the menace of the UVF and UDA individually and collectively. Perhaps White got what he wanted, and the security forces got what they wanted.
Part Two to follow…
⏩ Brandon Sullivan is a middle aged, middle management, centre-left Belfast man. Would prefer people focused on the actual bad guys.