Sinn Féin has said the British government needs to clarify whether it retains a “cosy relationship” with illegal armed criminal gangs after senior British ministers met with representatives of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando on Monday.
Brexit minister David Frost and Six-County Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis attended the discussions on behalf of the British government. Details of the discussions have not been released. In a brief statement, Downing Street said it was “important to hear a diverse range of views”.
Sinn Féin’s John Finucane described news of the meeting as “very concerning”.
“This is a body which represents armed loyalist criminal gangs and it has been reported that they were at the meeting,” the North Belfast MP said.
“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 in their own homes.
“Armed gangs have no place in our society, and certainly not in meetings on Brexit with British government ministers.”
The meeting comes after protests over post-Brexit arrangements, chiefly the Irish protocol which deals with trade through the north of Ireland.
Frost said the protocol was “presenting significant challenges for many in Northern Ireland”.
In recent weeks, loyalists have organised riots and other disturbances to show their anger at checks on goods traded at Larne and Belfast seaports.
The protocol was also discussed at a lunchtime meeting on Friday between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and 26 County Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The meeting, which the Dublin government said has been scheduled for some time, took place at Chequers, the country house of the British prime minister.
A spokesperson for Downing Street afterwards said only that Johnson and Martin agreed “on the importance of working together to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and to maintain smooth trade between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”