Northern Ireland

Has the terror group really changed its spots?

Image caption Reverend Robert Beckett is a Presbyterian minister by day, and paramilitary watchdog by night.

The Reverend Robert Beckett is not known for pulling his punches.

In his north Belfast parishes of Crosscollyer and Somerton Road, he is a Presbyterian minister by day, and paramilitary watchdog by night.

He regularly holds the UDA leadership to account for the activities of its membership, and concedes, that recently, things have been changing.

"I have my own sources within the community" he explains, "and there is no doubt in my mind that the UDA in north Belfast has expelled drug dealers, it has stopped racketeering, it has stopped collecting money as an organisation.

"It has put a stop to the money-lenders, some of whom were charging interest at 100%. I am absolutely convinced of that".

'Scrutiny'

Reverend Beckett talks with the type of fearlessness typical of religious ministers.

The UDA leadership acknowledges his scrutiny of their activities.

"He's not afraid to pull you up on something, and he hears about what's happening even before we do," said Jackie McDonald, the man widely considered to be the most senior of six UDA leaders.

Reverend Beckett has been ministering in the north Belfast area for 40 years, and became closely involved with the UDA following the death of 16-year-old Dean Clarke.

He had been sold the drug known as 'blues' in the loyalist Tiger's Bay district.

"At that stage the UDA were heavily involved in drug dealing," said Beckett, "and the mothers went to the UDA and said, 'the war is over, give it up, or get out'".

Image caption The UDA leadership acknowledges his scrutiny of their activities.

That was three years ago, but according to this terrier-like preacher, change has finally come about.

It is a view reflected by the head of the International Monitoring Commission (IMC), Lord Alderdice.

'Substantial steps'

"Despite the peace process, there was a recognition by the leadership of the UDA that some of their people were still involved in crime.

"They took substantial steps. They expelled some people, some left and some changed.

"Not everybody has changed, but certainly at a leadership level there has been some very impressive movement".

So what about recent reports that the UDA expelled a number of families in the Tiger's Bay area?

How does that square with a peaceful approach for former paramilitaries?

"Those reports were not accurate," said Reverend Beckett.

"That was a case involving alcohol problems and other difficulties."

I quiz him about how he can be so sure, given that in the past UDA 'brigadiers' in sharp suits have met religious leaders and politicians promising peace, only to revert to type.

"What you say is quite true," he concedes, "but this time I have seen the evidences of it, and I check regularly within the community and I am told that this time they are doing what they claim they are doing."

I attended a curious meeting in Duncairn Gardens in north Belfast last week.

Two UDA 'brigadiers' sat beside the PSNI's district commander for north Belfast.

Seats away were members of the International Monitoring Commission.

An end to violence

All were listening to an address by a former IRA heavy hitter in the form of Gerard O'Reilly from the New Lodge.

The topic?

How loyalists, the police and republicans had managed to bring almost nightly violence in the area to an end.

After the gathering, the IMC sat in a circle at the corner of the room, with the two 'brigadiers' and other UDA members, to discuss progress.

Such a casual shooting of the breeze would have been inconceivable a few years ago.

But some decommissioning has taken place, and trust between the parties clearly has been established.

In his six years reporting on the UDA and groups like it, Lord Alderdice has never been so up-beat.

"It's a very positive picture, and I think it is very important that people outside Northern Ireland, indeed some people within Northern Ireland, realise there is a very good news story here, as well as some difficulties that remain."