A clutch of people – one of them also believed to be long time drug dealer Mo Courtney – were approached this week and told to quit the loyalist heartland
The one time loyalist kingpin is one of a number of prominent paramilitary figures who have been targeted in a night of the long knives purge of alleged drug dealers.
A clutch of people – one of them also believed to be long time drug dealer Mo Courtney – were approached and told to quit the loyalist heartland.
The Sunday World can reveal the move comes in the wake of a series of meetings between the leadership of both the UVF and UDA. The expulsion orders have been sanctioned by both organisations.
The inclusion of Courtney and Spence on the hitlist will be seen as a serious statement of intent. Courtney has been one of the main dealers on the Shankill for years.
The C Company commander has overseen a lucrative drug racket in the lower Shankill and until recently his position was seen as virtually unassailable.
In recent times Woodvale commander Spence, who denies UDA membership and involvement in criminality, has stepped back from direct involvement in the trade but is believed to have been the architect of a drug dealing empire that stretches far beyond the Shankill Road.
A spokesperson for Spence said there was no basis in allegations he has been sanctioned.
“There is not even a scintilla of truth in it,” he said in a statement to the Sunday World.
“Mr Spence lives happily in his family home, continues to do so and he has not been involved in any dispute with any person whatsoever. This is categorically, without equivocaton, untrue.”
One other person, a close associate of Spence and the man entrusted to oversee Spence’s expanding drugs operation, has also been hit with a £100,000 fine and told to get out. Despite his closeness to Spence he is not believed to be a member of a proscribed organisation but has convictions for serious criminal offences.
He is also known to have forged links with INLA-linked organised crime gangs in Belfast and Tyrone.
It is not clear whether the pair will cough up but it raises the prospects of further reprisals if they refuse.
Spence, a notorious paramilitary figure, now finds himself isolated and vulnerable. The 62-year-old has been a divisive figure down the years and has no shortage of enemies.
He now finds himself exposed and without the protection of the UDA is wide open to attack.
Ironically Spence now finds himself in position in which he has placed others on numerous occasions. Imposing hefty fines on those dealing without authorisation or for failing to pay drug debts has been a favoured tactic.
Families of people who find themselves in debt to paramilitaries are pressured into forking out tens of thousands of pounds to guarantee their loved ones’ safety.
The move comes just weeks after the UVF ordered two UDA linked drug dealers out of the area signalling they were no longer prepared to tolerate wholesale drug dealing and in particular the increasing prominence of heroin in the district.
The rival terror group leaderships held a series of meetings in an attempt to head off any prospect of rising tensions.
The Sunday World is aware of the identities of five men who have been told they have to leave, including one who is close to Spence and who was seen as his trusted lieutenant as he expanded his drug operation and who is not a member of a paramilitary group.
Sources have told us the paramilitary leadership, including UVF veteran Chief of Staff John `Bunter’ Graham and UDA Brigadier Matt Kincaid, have agreed to ``clean up’’ the area.
To date they have resisted pressure from within their own organisations and in the wider community to stamp out drug dealing, but have now come together in a joint purge of offenders.
In the past they have stopped short of taking action, preferring to turn a blind eye because of the huge profits that helped make them very wealthy.
But there has been rising concern about the increasing presence of “rogue dealers” - criminal elements from outside the area.
The rising influence of Dublin and southern based organised crime gangs has also set alarm bells ringing.
Courtney, Spence and others have formed partnerships with the likes of the renowned Kinahan drugs cartel and other criminal outfits.
The recent theft of guns from a Dublin based gang by Courtney and his second in command was the final straw for many.
The pair convinced a ``vulnerable’’ individual in the east of the city to hand over the weapons in return for a quantity of cocaine.
He had been holding the guns on the orders of convicted rapist and druggie Gerry Verner who in turn was keeping them on the orders of the Dublin gang.
Verner is closely associated with East Belfast UVF which has formed links with Kinahan linked suppliers across the border.
It resulted in a carload of Dublin mobsters cruising the Shankill in search of Courtney and their guns.
Courtney, who was ordered to present himself to terror chiefs on Thursday, was told he could no longer rely on UDA protection.
Fearing a confrontation with an outside gang the UDA leadership washed their hands of one of their main dealers. It is also understood they have communicated with the Dublin mob Courtney and his sidekick had acted without authorisation when they took the guns.
The pair have already been warned their lives are under threat.
Well placed sources also point to partnerships with dissident criminal concerns and other gangs based in republican areas.
The dealers targeted all have extensive links with drug gangs across Ireland and according to our source the UVF/UDA purge is about regaining control of their area.
There was a time when alliances with republican or dissident linked gangs would not have been tolerated and would have resulted in violent retribution.
Similarly links with southern based operations was unheard of. The drugs trade in the north has boomed in the years since the end of the conflict.
The prospect of a fresh market lured outside gangs into the North. Organised mobs from eastern Europe saw no barriers preventing them moving into what would have been seen as no-go areas for any outsiders.
“This is all about control,” said our source.
“First and foremost they don’t want southern gangs shooting people on the Shankill, but while a lot of them have made a huge amount of money they are no longer in control.”
Independent dealers no longer fear paramilitaries and in many cases are allowed to carry on their business in return for a ‘tax’ levied by the UVF and UDA.
Sources say it would be wrong to regard this as a crusade to clean the Shankill of drugs and is more about taking a firmer grip on the trade.
“They want to centralise things,” said our source, “this doesn’t mean drugs will disappear from the Shankill they just want to have complete control.
“What they will do is come down hard on heroin, they regard it as a dirty drug and a killer.”