The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) has said its members have been attempting to “calm” loyalist anger over the NI Protocol.
The LCC, a body which has tried to bring together former members of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, said it now aims to obtain a meeting with a leading EU figure Maroš Šefčovič to impress upon him the problems caused by the Brexit protocol.
Sinn Fein however said it was “very concerning” that the government was meeting with a body that has ties to armed gangs.
It comes against a backdrop of widespread rioting last month in loyalist areas (including Belfast, Newtownabbey, and Carrickfergus) – which some observers had blamed on paramilitaries – and a number of peaceful-but-illegal unnotified band parades to vent anger at the Protocol and “two-tier policing”.
It emerged today that the LCC had met with both the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Brexit minister Lord Frost on Monday of this week.
It is not clear exactly who from the group was involved in the meeting; it said only that it was a “small contingent” led by chairman David Campbell (who has no paramilitary or criminal ties himself).
The LCC said: “The delegation emphasised the need for significant change to the NI Protocol to bring it back into consistency with the Belfast Agreement, and to remove the clear change in the status of Northern Ireland that has occurred due to the imposition of the Protocol.
“Members advised Lord Frost of the efforts they had to make to try and calm the wider unionist community and appealed to him to ensure that the Prime Minister honoured his commitments to seek, and if necessary unilaterally legislate, to reach an agreement on a workable alternative.
“The LCC also advised Lord Frost that they were seeking a meeting with EC Vice-President Šefčovič to ensure that he understands how the Belfast Agreement has been breached by the Protocol.”
The LCC has been in existence since 2015. Among its initiatives has been to replace paramilitary flags with more neutral unionist-themed ones.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The UK Government regularly meets with groups and individuals from across all parts of the community and it is important we hear a diverse range of views. We are going to continue to engage widely.”
A statement from Sinn Fein MP John Finucane said: “This is a body which represents armed loyalist criminal gangs and it has been reported that they were at the meeting.
“Such armed gangs are involved in murder, extortion and drug dealing and were behind the recent disturbances which saw police officers injured, property damaged and people terrified.
“Armed gangs have no place in our society, and certainly not in meetings on Brexit with British government ministers.
“For years the British state directed loyalist death squads. The British government now needs to clarify its position and whether it retains a cosy relationship with illegal armed criminal gangs.”
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