Set up for murder?

THERE is a paramilitary mural on the Mount Vernon estate in north Belfast which reads, "Prepared for peace, ready for war".

It is a painting which became synonymous with the period around the loyalist ceasefires of 1994.

And while it was a UVF slogan that at times rang hollow, it was one which could perfectly sum up the life of UDA leader John McMichael.

Man of war. Man of peace.

Killed on December 22, 1987, when a booby-trap device exploded underneath his car, at his home in Lisburn, McMichael was someone who lived by the sword and died by the sword.

He was a brutal killer. There is no other way to dress it up.

Yet McMichael also became known as a pragmatist and a thinker; ready to engage peacefully with the other side in search of a settlement in the Province.

Gary McMichael, his son, said: “I don’t think my dad was ever trying to portray himself as anything different than he was.

“He was saying he was a loyalist and he and his people had a right to defend themselves and engage those who they considered the enemy – on a military level.

“But at the same time he was very clearly saying, ‘that does not mean that’s what we want to do. We need to find another way out and we need to resolve our problems’.”

John McMichael was a ruthless director of terrorism.

On the other hand, he was constantly considering a way out of the Ulster problem; and in 1987, along with others in the UDA, he produced the Common Sense document, which espoused many of the ideas which later underpinned Northern Ireland’s political settlement – such as the Assembly’s power-sharing and committee systems.

Yet he did not live to see the peace process evolve.

What is known of his death is that the IRA killed McMichael – their biggest loyalist scalp in the Troubles.

It has been alleged that Stakeknife, the senior Army mole inside the IRA, had given up to 10 warnings that McMichael was to be killed but the military’s Force Research Unit (intelligence wing) did nothing to prevent the attack.

But even if intelligence services did not prevent it, who was it that was close to McMichael that aided the attack?

There are those, including Gary McMichael, who point the finger of blame at UDA member Jim Craig, who had criminal links with republicans.

Craig had a motive because the UDA boss was publicly vowing to rid the organisation of those who used its name as a cover for personal criminal gain.

Gary McMichael added: “I have not been given any information that contradicts that Jim Craig was involved.

“Craig had at his disposal all the knowledge of my dad’s movements and whereabouts.

“At the same time, my dad was putting Craig under the microscope.”

Then-RUC Chief Constable Jack Hermon said there was loyalist involvement in the murder.

But that did not only bring Craig into the picture.

Another theory the News Letter has now heard is that ex-UDA brigadier and informer – now dead – Tommy “Tucker” Lyttle could have been responsible, with prompting from the security services.

It was rumoured – via the IRA statement claiming the murder – that McMichael was planning a major bombing campaign in the Republic.

MI5, the Army and the RUC would have reasons to wish to prevent that and Lyttle could have been used as part of that game.

Lyttle also later pointed the finger at Craig, which some suspect was to make sure no suspicion fell on him.

UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald was McMichael’s right-hand man.

He too is now sceptical of Craig’s involvement – noting that McMichael trusted Craig.

He is open to the Lyttle theory but said, “we just may never know”.

The final possibility is that McMichael was set up by a prison officer with loyalist contacts – John Hanna – who was sleeping with Rosena Brown: later exposed in court as an IRA intelligence officer and sentenced to 20 years on explosives charges.

McMichael’s friend and fellow UDA chief Andy Tyrie believes Hanna – later jailed for other offences and now dead – was so infatuated with Brown he used his loyalist prison relationships to gather information for her.

Tyrie said: “She came into the bar [McMichael’s Admiral Benbow, in Lisburn] and was introduced to John – he was warned he was being watched.”

The ex-UDA leader also feels Craig was an easy scapegoat.

“Jim Craig was blamed for a lot of things over the years – many of them were justified,” said Tyrie.

“But my view is that the real informers stay in the shadows. A lot of misinformation and black propaganda has been thrown about over the years and Jim Craig was an easy target.

“Jim was a friend of John and someone who helped him out.

“Jack Hermon said, ‘I choose my words very carefully, there was loyalist involvement’.

“That always stuck with me, the way he said it – carefully, as if it was not as cut and dried as you might think.”