DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson met with a loyalist paramilitary umbrella group just days before he moved to end power-sharing at Stormont, raising fears that crime gangs continue to wield significant influence with his party.
Donaldson was reported to have met representatives of the ‘Loyalist Communities Council’ (LCC) in east Belfast on January 31, less than a week before DUP man Paul Givan tabled his resignation as First Minister, triggering the latest Stormont collapse.
The LCC represent a number of paramilitary gangs from the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando. It has been criticising British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s for his “lacklustre” response to their anger at the Irish protocol of Brexit, which has brought increased checks at ports in the north of Ireland.
Sinn Féin Policing Board member Gerry Kelly said that Givan’s resignation was about the DUP catering to its own political interests.
“It will come as no surprise that before they took this latest reckless and irresponsible action, they once again met with representatives of active loyalist paramilitary groups, still involved in criminality, to seek electoral support in advance of the upcoming assembly elections,” he said.
Donaldson also met senior members of the Orange Order last week, not long after British Foreign Minister Liz Truss and British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis held a meeting with the same anti-Catholic organisation, in the heavily loyalist Shankill area of west Belfast.
Although the Stormont institions are due to collapse as a result of Givan’s action, new legislation is currently being prepared to allow a ‘zombie’ Assembly to be retained. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald described the process as a reckless political stunt.
“For more than a year now the DUP have brought the turmoil, chaos and dysfunction playing out in their party to the very heart of government. The British government’s stance has encouraged this,” she said.
“Today’s decision for Paul Givan to resign from the Executive is all about their own narrow and self-serving political interests. It is also about the loss of the unionist electoral majority and the reality that they can no longer get everything their own way.
“It is also about Brexit and the protocol. The facts are clear – the protocol is essential. It is here to stay. The British government is in flagrant breach of international law and there is a huge onus on the Irish government to hold London to account and seek international support for this.”
Ms McDonald called for an early election at Stormont.
“I want to be clear, we cannot stagger on in the months ahead without a functioning executive. Sinn Féin will not facilitate this. So in the absence of a functioning executive, an early election must be called and the people must have their say.
“This is one of those defining moments. We can do so much better than this chaotic theatre. Powersharing can work, but it can only work if parties involved are committed to it.
“Good government can deliver, of that there is no doubt. And that is what we, and we believe the other parties, wants to see happening.
“So if today’s behaviour and decisions of the DUP show anything, it is again demonstrable evidence that we live in a time for real change, and this includes the prospect of constitutional change, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.”
The DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson also called for an election, but his interest in one remains a subject of debate, as his party faces the threat of being toppled from the position of largest party by Sinn Fein. He has warned that his party may not go back into a power-sharing government after an election if issues around the protocol are not addressed to his satisfaction, or if Sinn Fein wins the position of First Minister.
The London government, which has sole control over the timing of the election, indicated it is in no rush to do so.
Tory hardliners, including the embattled British PM, have been accused of seeking to exploit the crisis in the north of Ireland to denounce the European Union and boost support for a right-wing hard-Brexit agenda, and that appears set to continue.