Splits among loyalist paramilitary groups are of major concern for police, Northern Ireland’s most senior officer has claimed.
Matt Baggott said fragmentation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) had created competing agendas, and connected gun attacks in east Belfast, Coleraine and Portrush to individual units seeking to exert their power.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable said: “At present we are concerned about developments within loyalist paramilitary groups.
“Our assessment is that they are fragmenting and we are seeing a number of competing agendas and increased lack of cohesion which is of a concern.”
In September the UVF was blamed for the attempted murder of a 24-year-old care worker in east Belfast. Jemma McGrath was hit multiple times in the stomach and legs as she sat in a car outside her home in the Lord Street Mews area of east Belfast.
Mr Baggott told members of the Policing Board that intelligence had confirmed the shooting was not sanctioned by the leadership of the UVF but was carried out by individuals connected to a breakaway unit.
“There are no indications that this was sanctioned by the overall UVF leadership. We believe it to be carried out by individuals linked to a single UVF unit acting on its own accord,” he said.
Punishment-style attacks including the shooting of a 15-year-old schoolboy in Coleraine, Co Londonderry last month were also attributed to a single unit of the UDA.
Mr Baggott added: “Again there is no reporting to indicate that those attacks were sanctioned by the overall UDA leadership. It is again believed those attacks were carried out by individual members of the UDA in the north Antrim area.”
The chief constable rejected claims that police were “going soft” on loyalist paramilitaries whom he described as parasites.
“We will continue to relentlessly pursue people who break the law and bring crime to our streets,” said Mr Baggott.
“There is absolutely no way we are going soft on these groups. There is no standing over these groups and our view is that those who bring crime to the streets are parasites and they will be pursued and will be brought before the courts.”
Meanwhile, Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris said a major operation against the UVF in east Belfast was ongoing, targeting a wide range of crimes including intimidation, extortion, blackmail and historic murder cases.
Weapons, drugs, cash and tobacco have all been seized as a result of the operation, it was revealed.
“We are tackling the full gambit of criminality that they have been involved in,” said Mr Harris.
Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan raised questions over the length of time taken to attribute the attack on Jemma McGrath to the UVF.
He claimed the UVF had orchestrated attacks on the nationalist Short Strand enclave in east Belfast, violent flag protests, drug dealing and shootings.
Mr Sheehan added: “Are all these incidents without sanction?
“This is not members acting in an individual capacity yet we have had very few arrests for those involved in the activities of the UVF.”