Twelve days before millions of voters across the United Kingdom went to their polling places, Colin Horner went shopping with his three-year-old son, Oscar.
Balloo Link in Bangor, County Antrim, is a shopping centre like hundreds of others across the UK, with a Sainsbury’s supermarket, other shops, mundane in a sameness on that Sunday afternoon. Between the shopping carts and the parked cars, a gunman appeared and targeted his victim, then fired off a volley of rounds. Horner was hit six times and died pretty much instantly. One stray round hit a nearby car.
The whole incident was caught on CCTV and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said the killer wore a dark-coloured hoodie and a builder’s mask to disguise his identity. Little Oscar likely saw it all, how his Daddy was killed in front of his eyes and his black Nissan car. Shoppers and staff tried to save Horner, but they couldn’t. Other horrified shoppers said the gunman fired at close range to make sure Horner, in the parlance of that part of the world, “was clipped”, then made his getaway in a red Ford. That car was driven by a second man, had stolen number plates and was found burnt out.
And as is also the parlance, Horner “was known to police” and was a close friend of Geordie Gilmore, a former commander in the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), who was himself “clipped” just weeks before. Horner was considered a soft target and had fled to Bangor after Gilmore’s murder and he received death threats.
Police cracked the case pretty quickly, and the killer was another UDA man on bail at the time of the killing. His bail condition included wearing an electronic tag. It didn’t have a GPS locator, but instead makes sure the wearer isn’t outside during the hours of a court-imposed curfew. Horner’s murder was meant to be a warning to any other associates of Gilmore that the same would be happening to them in a bitter feud between factions of the South East Antrim UDA.
For those of you unaware of the UDA or the history of similar paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, they are clandestine groups that use their men and muscle to intimidate, manipulate, murder and organise support for the loyalist cause in the province. They want to ensure, through any means, that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom that also includes England, Scotland and Wales.
On the other side of the political and sectarian divide, republican or “nationalist” paramilitaries want to ensure that Northern Ireland is united with the Republic of Ireland in the south of the divided island.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ended three decades of violence in the province that claimed more than 3,600 lives. It also set up a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, one that collapsed in January because both sides can’t reach a deal on a joint agenda for government. Paramilitaries on both sides were supposed to have handed over their weapons, disbanded, and engaged instead with political activities.
The lure of cold hard cash from lucrative criminal activities such as racketeering or controlling the street drug trade ensures that some paramilitary activity continues, mostly but not exclusively in loyalist areas. Horner’s killing occurred in the last two weeks of campaigning in Northern Ireland, and Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Fein, the main republican political party on the nationalist side, called on unionist politicians to distance themselves from the UDA in the wake of the killing.
“The UDA has continued to be involved in pipe bombings, intimidation, arson, drug dealing and extortion over the past number of years,” O’Neill said. “I call on anyone with any information on this murder to bring it forward to the police. The PSNI has a key role in bringing the activities of these gangs to an end. But there is also a responsibility on all of us in positions of political leadership to play our part in challenging the very existence of these groups,” she said. “It is 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and all paramilitary groups should leave the stage.”
According to press reports in the province, O’Neill continued: “The political leadership of unionism, the [Democratic Unionist Party] and the [Ulster Unionist Party] must make clear that there can be no grey area, no more equivocation, the UDA have no place in the community and must disband immediately.”
When the ballots were counted cross the UK, the results left the UK divided and British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative party came up eight seats short of an overall majority. In divided Northern Ireland, the DUP won 10 seats, Sinn Fein claimed seven, with the last of 18 sets in the province claimed by an independent unionist, Sheila Hermon.
May has reached out to the DUP for support to shore up the UK government, and DUP leader Arlene Foster has been to 10 Downing Street to hammer out terms of support. Foster is familiar with the whole concept of reaching out for support. Two days after the shooting down of Colin Horner — before he was even buried — Foster met with Jackie McDonald, the leader of the UDA in south Belfast. He is also a key member of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), the umbrella group for paramilitary groups on the unionist side. Several DUP candidates in the election went on to be endorsed by the LCC and the Ulster Political Research Group — candidates who won their seats and on whom May will rely on for support in a confidence and supply deal in key votes in the House of Commons. Some of those DUP MPs did reject the endorsements, but not too loudly.
The DUP leader also serves as Northern Ireland’s First Minister. It was her refusal to step aside and allow an independent investigation into a failed renewable energy scheme that had ballooned to £400 million (Dh1.87 billion) that led to the collapse of the power-sharing joint government in the province. Talks to revive the power-sharing government are underway, and if no deal is reached, the province will be directly ruled by the government in Westminster.
So much for the London government being an “honest broker” now.
What’s interesting is that during the election campaign — one that was interrupted by terrorist attacks in Manchester and Belfast — Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for his former meeting with Sinn Fein, then the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. If he was “soft” dealing with terrorists three decades ago, would he be “soft” if he was Prime Minister? The results mean that question is on hold for now.
There are other questions, however, that shouldn’t be put on hold, and plenty to be asked of May and Foster. Little Oscar, after all, deserves some answers.