Collusion alleged as Irvine walks

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The open involvement of a British minister in the release on bail of a top loyalist paramilitary figure has hiked tensions in the north of Ireland ahead of next week’s ‘Twelfth’ marches.

In court on Wednesday, Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine, who is facing arms charges, was released after receiving a reference from British Minister Conor Burns, leading to allegations of direct political interference and collusion.

Irvine was arrested last month with a range of guns and ammunition in the boot of his car but was granted bail despite the opposition of the police.

The reference provided by Burns was described as “extraordinary” by the SDLP. In court, it emerged the Minister had provided a letter in December 2021 saying he would have no issue in “continuing dialogue” with Irvine.

A former Policing Board chair also provided a character reference, as did a number of other authority figures who were not named.

The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole said the intervention “raises questions” about the minister’s judgement.

“For a serving minister to intervene on a bail application raises questions about Conor Burns’ judgment,” he said.

The release of the senior loyalist could exacerbate sectarian tensions which have already seen an outbreak of rioting in Derry.

Trouble followed a large Orange Order parade in the city on Sunday. A PSNI invasion of Derry’s Bogside led to a number of their armoured vehicles coming under attack from nationalist youths. Stones, paint bombs and petrol bombs were thrown before the PSNI withdrew.

The Derry parade was one of hundreds of sectarian marches which have been taking place across the North as the Protestant marching season builds to a climax next week.

In east Belfast, the nationalist Short Strand community was once again barricaded in to facilitate a march by the anti-Catholic Orange Order.

Their main “Mini Twelfth” parade, which is openly supported by the paramilitary UVF, saw high barriers once again used to seal off the isolated nationalist community.

“There are undeniably other routes this parade could take,” Saoradh said, who described it as “a warm up” for other parades that “trample over the rights of nationalist residents”.

“Sectarianism, and more importantly the appeasing of, and normalising of, sectarianism under the guise of maintaining a so-called culture is nothing new in the Occupied Six Counties and seemingly its not going to change any time soon.”

A “No Popery” banner was carried as part of a sectarian parade in Scotland, while another carried a tribute to one of the infamous ‘Shankill Butchers’.

Meanwhile, unionist and sectarian flags and Orange arches continue to be erected as part of the annual loyalist marking of territory, without interference from the authorities.

Loyalist bonfire-builders have been constructing dangerously large pyres, a primitive symbol of loyalist ‘domination’. In Portadown, one was set on fire prematurely.

In north Belfast, a controversial bonfire has returned to a sectarian interface at a site where nationalist ministers previously attempted to have cleared.

Tyres and plastic road barriers had been added to the bonfire at Adam Street, which is located close to the Duncairn Gardens Interface between Tiger’s Bay and New Lodge.

At least one sectarian clash has already taken place between groups of youths near the interface.

“As Covid restrictions ease and people get back to a sense of normality, sectarian bigots are straight out of the traps to don bowler hats and sashes, the regalia of hate,” said Saoradh Newry representative Stephen Murney.

“Sectarianism, and more importantly the appeasing of, and normalising of, sectarianism under the guise of maintaining a so-called culture is nothing new in the Occupied Six Counties and seemingly its not going to change any time soon.”

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