‘Crime gangs’ could scupper loyalist paramilitary pledge: chief constable

Organised crime gangs in east Belfast and north Down have been singled out by the chief constable as posing a particular threat to a paramilitary pledge to end criminality.

George Hamilton said that while he was “positive” about Monday’s joint UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando statement, he believed the paramilitary units most active in drug dealing and extortion posed an ongoing problem.

George Hamilton singled out the UVF in east Belfast and UDA in north Down as potential problems

George Hamilton singled out the UVF in east Belfast and UDA in north Down as potential problems

At a press conference in Belfast, the three loyalist organisations said they “emphatically” condemned crime, and said those involved in criminality were “an affront to the true principles of loyalism”.

The statement was widely welcomed, but many people have questioned why the paramilitary organisations have still not disbanded.

Mr Hamilton singled out the UVF in east Belfast and the north Down UDA as being particularly active “in drug dealing, in extortion, carrying out so-called punishment attacks on their own communities”.

He said: “East Belfast UVF for example is pretty much just a mid-range organised crime gang that is wreaking havoc on communities, fear on communities in terms of the criminality that they’re involved in.

“There are other areas as well, the UDA side, they’re struggling clearly too with north Down UDA and we’ve seen that in recent weeks – threats issued against journalists and so on.

“So there’s a pretty broad spectrum, from some groups and areas that are actually pretty inactive or certainly not engaged in that type of criminality.”

Mr Hamilton added: “We have people at that end of the spectrum right through to organised crime and people carrying out so-called punishment shootings and punishment beatings, and it’s not acceptable and we’re going to pursue them.”

Speaking immediately after Monday’s press conference, Winston Irvine of the PUP said the illegal organisations had remained intact to ensure that the transformation [to peace] is successful.

“To simply leave the stage, would probably result in more crime and more difficulties on the street. A vacuum could quite easily open up,” he said.

UDA commander Jackie McDonald said the agreed statement “will cause problems in some areas with individuals who are masquerading as loyalists”.

However, the chief constable said that 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, “there is no reason whatsoever, if there ever was, for these organisations still to exist ... they should have gone away by now”.

Speaking on the Nolan Show yesterday, Mr Hamilton said: “We have heard statements like this in the past, dating all the way back to 1994 and the so-called ceasefire statements, which had some content not dissimilar to what we heard [on Monday]. But I am an optimist. I want to be positive about this and I welcome the statement.”

The chief constable went on to say: “I don’t want to do anything to legitimise them, to give them credibility. They are illegal organisations, they are proscribed under the Terrorism Act, and therefore anything that is going to make Northern Ireland a safer place, anybody refuting violence and criminality, of course as chief constable I am going to welcome that, but fundamentally, there is no reason whatsoever, if there ever was, for these organisations still to exist.”

Asked if he viewed the statement a game changer, he said: “Time will tell, I don’t know.”