The chief constable does not believe the top UVF leaders are “wreaking havoc in communities”.
Speaking at the PUP’s annual conference on Saturday, George Hamilton also added that despite this, the organisation seems relatively disorganised and is “peppered” with figures who are disconnected from its senior leaders.
The officer said he was speaking “without prejudice”, ahead of the publication of a fresh assessment of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups; this has been commissioned by the Secretary of State and is expected to report this week.
In early October 2013, in the wake of the shooting of 24-year-old east Belfast woman Jemma McGrath (something widely blamed on the UVF), Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris had said: “The UVF very clearly yes have involvement in drug dealing, all forms of gangsterism, serious assaults, intimidation of the community.
“They are subject to an organised crime investigation as an organised crime group.”
Mr Hamilton said, when asked about ongoing UVF activity: “I do not see the senior leadership of the UVF as being involved in sanctioning criminality or wreaking havoc in communities.
“There would be some suggestion even just looking at the actions of people on the streets that they are doing their best around interface tensions, around parade and protest issues.”
However, he added that “key leaders ... appear to be out of line with the corporate leadership”.
After the panel event involving the chief constable, PUP leader Billy Hutchinson (a former UVF convict) said in a statement: “We hear calls for paramilitaries to go away but no one has provided an answer or option as to where they should go to.
“If we are to properly address the continued existence of paramilitaries then this can only be achieved by the implementation of an effective and state supported process of demobilisation which enables former combatants and paramilitaries to become fully involved in the civic and economic life of their community and of Northern Ireland.”
He endorsed the idea of an “official opposition” at Stormont, and highlighted issues including poor educational attainment among working-class Protestants, and weak mental health services.