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The UDA kingpin who gained a President's trust

Imagine the First Gentleman in the áras, Senator Martin McAleese, being proposed as a presidential candidate by a self-styled 'Brigadier' in an illegal paramilitary organisation.

Picture a UDA leader sentenced to 10 years for extortion and blackmail partnering the President's spouse for 18 holes at the K Club, the preferred pleasure spa of billionaires.

Visualise the same loyalist desperado on a panel in west Belfast with Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable of the PSNI, and his predecessor Hugh Orde, now Britain's most influential policeman.

But the eyes of loyalists and republicans popped when Jackie McDonald posed for a photo with Martin McGuinness -- formerly of the IRA's ruling Army Council -- in front of Bobby Sands' mural.

When other loyalists challenged him for shaking hands with the deputy first minister in Northern Ireland, McDonald replied that it couldn't have been easy for McGuinness to meet him.

"We weren't f****** boy scouts," he reminded the accusing loyalist paramilitaries.

McDonald is the most enduring of a succession of celebrity loyalist paramilitary leaders from Johnny Adair through the ironically named 'Doris Day'.

But, supporters say, there is no record of his direct involvement in the campaign of sadistic torture and sectarian murders like other UDA leaders.

"He is the best of them by a mile," said a security source. "Much more emotionally intelligent, articulate and charming than his peers."

The source added: "And he has an impressive list of contacts in the highest of high places where it counts, friends in government and the security services."

McDonald (64) has the direct line numbers of US special envoys and of the most senior figures in the Irish and British governments -- but Martin McAleese is on the speed dial of his mobile.

McDonald has been described as a back-to-the-future former terrorist who has a presence on social and business networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

He is also the most powerful non-elected figure in south Belfast where he lives and the UDA rules.

His position as community leader in the Taughmonagh estate in south Belfast, where he has his family home, was secured by a combination of ruthlessness and bad-boy charm.

He is proud of masterminding the banishment of the muscle-bound sectarian sadist Johnny Adair from the UDA and the North.

Some hardliners loathe McDonald's mission to improve inter-community relations while others are jealous of his fame.

He first met President and Senator McAleese in 2005 and began talks that culminated in McDonald leading a UDA delegation to Dublin to commemorate World War One with Queen Elizabeth in May.

Although he didn't meet the queen, he and other loyalist leaders have been to áras an Uachtaráin to take tea with the McAleeses.

A former dentist who was raised a Catholic in loyalist east Belfast, Martin McAleese fast-tracked an Irish passport for McDonald nearly three years ago.

It was a great risk but it allowed Martin McAleese a unique opportunity to hear the authentic voice of loyalism and it delivered them a friend they could trust.

And McDonald has never done anything to embarrass Martin McAleese, who had ignored warnings about the UDA 'Brigadier' from well-informed friends and security sources.

Indo Review