I have known the London boss of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), for over twenty years. I should hasten to add, I’ve not seen him since 1993!
Back in 1990 I met Frank Portinari and some of his shell-suited associates in a pub in Waterloo, London, where myself and one other were applying to be sworn in as UDA members. At the time, despite the murderous activities of it’s nom de guerre the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), the UDA was a legal organisation. It was not, however, the sort of organisation that could or did meet publicly. There was a war going on and we wanted to be part of it.
“Public” meetings of the group in London were normally social evenings held at the school where Portinari was a caretaker and the long, drunken evenings always included a flute band, lots of flags and a whip-round for what were described as “Prisoners of war.”
Portinari had taken over as the Commander of London UDA only a couple of years before, replacing the then alleged leader of the Orange Order in London, because he could not or would not, recruit enough street “toughs” to violently confront Irish Republicans active in the capital and elsewhere around the country.
Thankfully for the UDA Portinari, a Catholic, had plenty of tough friends as he was an ex- football hooligan. By 1992, the UDA in London was little more than another wing of the wannabe terror outfit, Combat 18 (C18).
The links between the two groups in England were unmasked in a documentary by World In Action (WIA) in 1993. The leader of C18 Charlie Sargent, and Portinari’s off-sider and my mate at the time, Eddie Whicker, were both exposed for their activities linking both groups to joint, murderous intent. Sargent even threatened on camera to have the World in Action journalist shot!
Sargent would much later be sentenced to prison for murdering a factional rival He, Sargent, even popped up quite recently but was sent back to jail before he could renew his acquaintance with anyone other than suspected police informant Eddie Stampton. It is our belief that Stampton had his probation restrictions and conditions for nearly beating his partner to death, relaxed as a payment for helping get Sargent sent back to prison.
Portinari was less than happy with him as a result. Stampton (above left) doesn’t seem too bothered about it and has now declared himself the current leader of C18.
The murder of Christopher Castle by Sargent and his accomplice Martin Cross in the late1990’s started a feud in the far-right that continues today in both Blood & Honour (the nazi music outfit) and C18. Interestingly, and just as an aside, in the last few days Stampton appears to have declared himself, rather bizarrely, as the leader of C18 in this country. Just more evidence, if it was ever needed, that the group has been permanently compromised.
After Stampton’s fall-out with Portinari, somebody we believed to be Stampton, went out of their way to try and feed us information on a UDA meeting being held in Waterloo at a drinking club the group uses. Our photo team went to have a look and the information was correct. Nearly one hundred far-right activists from yesteryear (excluding Stampton) met in a bar on Lower Marsh.
But back in the 1990’s and shortly after the WIA program went to air, Portinari and Whicker were then both arrested over a fiasco involving guns being bought and prepared to be sent to the UFF in Northern Ireland. It was an almost deadly comedy of errors as Whicker and Portinari made two journeys to Birmingham with a bag full of rusty old pistols that were meant to be picked up by an Irishman in a pub carpark.
Portinari and the Irishman, James McCrudden, were both sent to prison in 1994. Portinari received five years for his trouble. During the case it transpired that Portinari had hidden some of his deadly arsenal in the school where he worked as a caretaker. Whicker escaped imprisonment on the technicality that he was an incompetent. That same year, Terry Blackham, one of the leading lights in the National Front at the time and a close associate of Portinari and Whicker was arrested trying to drive a machine gun onto a ferry bound for Northern Ireland.
The 1990’s were indeed dangerous and murky times. Stories of collusion, entrapment and people being compromised in a very dirty war in Northern Ireland are now very much in the public domain. Help appeared to be at hand for some in some very surprising places and from 1992 onwards as guns seemed to be common place among the British far-right, there was one night at a school in North London, where a dozen masked men marched into a gymnasium brandishing the guns C18 had bought from drug dealers in East and South East London for the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to wild and rapturous applause.
As well as the murder campaigns being waged by both Republican and Loyalist terror gangs in Northern Ireland and occasionally in Britain, British neo-Nazis were more than willing to facilitate the UDA’s attempts to “out score” the IRA at murder. C18 were also attempting to launch their own bombing campaign in Britain. By the time a relative peace fell on Northern Ireland in the later part of that decade the UDA in London and England had very much the same fate as C18. Whicker, who escaped prison, ended up being the best man at the wedding of the notorious criminal Charles Bronson, but was edged out of the scene completely and has since disappeared. Another big name in those circles who still survives, like Portinari publicly to this day, is former NF and BNP official Mark Cotterill who still hangs around selling badges.
But Portinari has survived. His reward for taking part in the ‘war’ he involved himself in appears to be use of a holiday home in the Greek Islands and over 200 members of the “mainstream” faction of the UDA being ordered to attend the launch of his autobiography ‘Left-Right Loyalist’ in South East Antrim last year.
I’ve only had a brief flick through the book. His insistence that he was some kind of “left winger” is a bit bizarre or not very well thought out or explained, as it seems to be Portinari’s alleged time on the left or as a “leftie” is defined only as the time he was not actually involved in the extreme far-right. A bit like being a “Cultural Marxist”, probably. The early part of his book was the most interesting and less contrived, in particular about his parents and his sibling. It gave a limited insight to a disjointed and rather difficult early life. It’s a welcome bit of candour- perhaps not the easiest thing for Portinari to dwell on. But it would have helped. If this is Portinari’s self-explanation (as it quite clearly avoids being gratuitous regarding the UDA), some candour about himself would at least fill in the many other gaps that appear during his narrative.
Nowadays Portinari commands his one hundred strong following in Britain in the guise of a marching band with social evenings and small protests that go almost unnoticed. Despite the group still being illegal, last year Frank and his chums were parading around London with the flag of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), and most recently (last month) he and his friends held a protest outside the Union Jack Club in Waterloo- having decided against a protest at Downing Street on the same day as the anti-Brexit protests.
Maintaining your job as leader of a hardened band of (mostly) nearly-men means that one probably can’t do a kiss-and-tell. What Portinari offers instead is probably at best, a hurried grope or worst- a story for the boys in the locker room.
The easiest way to do this is perhaps to reinvent an old story. Portinari opens up about the Loyalist plot to kill Ken Livingstone, the former MP, Mayor of London and a long- time supporter of Irish unification. I’ve mentioned it previously, Michael Stone has mentioned it previously- everybody has mentioned it previously.
According to Portinari, there was another plot to kill ‘Red Ken’- this time in January 1993, when according to Portinari, A hitman despatched by the UDA/UFF was ready to shoot Livingstone at a Bloody Sunday demonstration in London. According to Portinari and the Daily Star on Sunday which has run the story, 400 protestors from the far-right were arrested that day as members of the National Front (NF), British National Party (BNP) and Combat 18 teamed up to attack a ‘Troops Out’ march. It was actually 295 who were put onto coaches and driven away, but that’s not the point. The police action on the day (initiated by the then NF leader Ian Anderson informing the police of their plans) allegedly stopped a gunman from doing the job on Livingstone.
It’s all a bit of a mystery why having owned up to being party to a planned political murder- an assassination, Portinari fails to mention how later that same evening a thirty strong nazi goon-squad did attempt a “hit” on an Irish pub in Kilburn, North London. Portinari’s mate Charlie Sargent, the C18 boss who led the assault, claimed it was an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” the Irish out of North London. Maybe the ‘Commander’ was unaware of it? Or is it just too mundane?
Despite being trapped in a pub for a good fifteen minutes and under extreme attack, those inside the pub gave a good account of themselves. It was only the eventual arrival of the police that stopped two C18 members attempting to throw a Molotov Cocktail into the pub.
If there was a (second) operation to kill Livingstone, it failed in the main due to Portinari’s own people (if it did nearly happen) causing a scene and allowing the police to flood the area.
It’s a rare sexy moment in a book that would’ve had more promise if it had a little more tacit honesty about what the UDA really was up to in Britain, how much Portinari and co raise still for the organisation, what happened to the detonators C18 bought from the UDA and why he no longer talks to Stanley Curry, the Birmingham train driver the UDA ordered to try and kill an associate of Johnny Adair in Bolton in 2005.
According to the Sunday World, Curry now lives a lonely and troubled life in Northern Ireland and not the life he imagined he would when released from prison. One person who could perhaps ask Portinari these sorts of questions, is Daily Star on Sunday journalist Garry Bushell, formerly a big hitter at the Sun newspaper in the 90’s. The former English Democrat Mayoral candidate happened to just stumble into Portinari and his chums after their demonstration outside of the ‘Union Jack’ club in Waterloo last month and appeared to have a drink with Frank Portinari, who is still the Commander of the UDA in England.
Writing an autobiography is never easy. Portinari’s just opened another can of worms. But there’s been worse; Eddie Stampton’s bizarre literary exercise is worse by a mile… Portinari’s effort is just scant disappointment.