The new chief of the PSNI, Simon Byrne, has said his force is “not in cahoots with the UVF” after details emerged of a series of meetings with well-known loyalist leaders over the handling of a bonfire in east Belfast.
Byrne, who became chief of the PSNI only this week, was also forced to deny police deliberately leaked details of contractors who were tasked to remove the bonfire. The leak caused Belfast City Council to abandon its plan to expel the trespassers and reopen the leisure centre where the bonfire had been constructed.
It was lit on Thursday night of last week, one of hundreds of sectarian displays on the eve of the Twelfth of July marches, when Protestants publicly celebrate a 17th century battle victory over Catholics with infernos of nationalist symbols and effigies.
In a series of questionable statements since the incident, the PSNI insisted it had “no powers to remove anybody” accused of aggravated trespass.
The most shocking development came when it emerged that Stephen Matthews, who denies being the leader of the east Belfast UVF, was among those who took part in talks with the PSNI before the Avoniel bonfire took place.
The PSNI has said their discussions with Matthews were not “meetings”. But their denials still sharply contrast with initial claims from last Saturday, when Byrne said the PSNI would “not tolerate” the UVF and would “take it on using all its powers”.
Appealing for public sympathy later, Mr Byrne said there had been “a considered and cynical attempt” to involve the PSNI in a “dispute between communities”. He claimed the UVF were “prepared to put women and children in front of a bonfire in the expectation” the PSNI was going to appear in large numbers.
“I think it was a cynical ploy and I condemn it,” he added.
Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson mocked Byrne’s response, and the indication that the PSNI had been “outplayed by bouncy castles and a kids party”. He described the event, reportedly intended to boost the UVF’s reputation following the brutal murder of community worker Ian Ogle, as a “strategic masterclass” by loyalists.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said the PSNI must follow through on the pledge to “crack down” on the UVF with all its powers.
Mr Kelly said: “The East Belfast UVF were heavily involved in the Avoniel bonfire. It is a crime gang involved in everything from drug-dealing, racketeering, sexual assault and murder so it is not some kind of cultural or community organisation.
“It needs to be put out of business and the new PSNI Chief Constable vowed to do precisely that when he came into the job.
“Simon Byrne was clear that the UVF would not be tolerated and that the PSNI would go after them with all of their powers.
“Those words need to be followed by action because the East Belfast UVF is a scourge on communities. People don’t want to see the PSNI sitting down and doing meetings with the UVF, they want to see them taken off the streets and put before the courts.”