The husband of the Irish President held secret talks with the UDA in Belfast last week amid growing speculation about an imminent announcement by the unionist paramilitary group.
Martin McAleese met up to 10 senior figures from the UDA and its associated Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), including Ihab Shoukri, Jackie McDonald, Billy McFarlane, Tommy Kirkham and Frankie Gallagher in a south Belfast on Wednesday afternoon.
Unusually Mr McAleese had no police bodyguards during his meeting with the loyalists.
Mr McAleese has been a key figure in efforts to encourage an end to unionist paramilitary violence.
The private talks are understood to have centered on a package which both the Dublin and London governments are offering to the unionist communities in exchange for UDA movement on disbandment and disarming.
It was understood to be the first time that Mr McAleese had met Ihab Shoukri, who is awaiting trial on UDA membership charges.
It was also reported that UPRG leader Tommy Kirkham met British Direct Ruler Peter Hain in private on Tuesday.
After yesterday’s meeting with Mr McAleese UDA south Belfast ‘brigadier’ Jackie McDonald said: “Martin McAleese was there to hear what we had to say and we were there to listen to him.
“We are meeting a range of people, including the governments, to try and find a way forward.
“It is unrealistic for anyone to expect loyalists to move forward without help for working-class communities.”
Mr McDonald confirmed that he was aware of a possible announcement that the UFF [a cover name for the UDA] was being disbanded but ruled out any imminent move on weapons.
“I can see that situation [UDA disbandment] coming about in certain circumstances,” he said
“From what I understand, it is being discussed.
“But decommissioning isn’t on the radar. It hasn’t been discussed at this stage.”
While Mr McDonald would not be drawn on any imminent UDA announcement, it is reported that the paramilitary leadership was briefing its members on the possible deal with the two governments.
Meanwhile, speculation in a Sunday newspaper has suggested that the Ulster Volunteer Force, the second largest unionist paramilitary group, is “going out of business”.
A UVF leader was reported by6 the Obsesrver nespaper to have said: ‘The UVF is going out of business because there is no need for it any more. The IRA’s war is over, republicans have accepted the principle of consent. It doesn’t make sense to go on. If we are not being attacked by armed republicanism any more, then there is no point in having a UVF.’
However, the UVF has no plans to disarm.
“The weapons will be put into deep freeze as a reassurance for those worried about future events,” the source said.