Loyalist paramilitary organisations are targeting desperate food bank users, according to a new investigation into UDA and UVF loan sharks operating in Belfast.
A BBC Spotlight investigation has discovered that vulnerable people, including a mother on benefits, have been targeted by the paramilitary money lenders.
Loyalists have used their contacts at the food banks and have been watching those arriving at the charitable outlets to identity those who are in need of money.
One man told the programme how they faced a vicious cycle of spiralling debt and intimidation. He said the loan sharks cold-called him and gave him a £500 loan after identifying him at a food bank. A month later he was told he owed them £1,300 because he had borrowed the money for a month and now owed them interest.
He said he had turned to a local food bank after he had lost his job and his benefits were cut.
“I got a knock at the door, there’s these two young men telling me things that they shouldn’t have been able to tell me,” he said.
“They knew I needed money, they knew I was struggling and they knew when I got paid my universal credits, they knew the dates of when I’d be paid, and they said they could help me out.”
Jonny Currie, head of food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, said: “These are illegal money lenders, criminal gangs, paramilitary organisations, whatever you want to call them, in those local communities, that are preying on people who are in crisis”.
One single mother who borrowed £50 which was to be paid back in £10 a week instalments. When she missed a payment an extra £10 was added making it harder to clear her debt.
At first, she had no idea the money came from loyalist paramilitaries and within three weeks the lady was forced to hand over her benefits to the group who were waiting for her outside the post office.
That escalated to intimidation with a message that the money should be paid ‘or else’. She was left living in fear of gangsters familiar with her daily routine.
A Westminster MP has now spoken out against the practise of awarding grants to controversial loyalist groups by state agencies.
Chair of the Westminster Committee on the North of Ireland, Tory MP Simon Hoare, described those involved as the “scum of the earth” and “organised criminal, intimidators, thugs and extortionists”.
He joined growing calls for an end to the state sponsorship of the ‘community groups’ which support the loyalist paramilitaries.
He said that at some point “we have to stop this cosying up, this accommodation of allowing people to wave a false flag that when you pull it off you find that they are no more a community worker than they are a neurosurgeon.”
The failure of the PSNI police to tackle paramilitary activity has been blamed for a continuing cycle of loyalist threats and intimidation, particularly in east Belfast.
The situation where energy support payments remains blocked by a unionist veto and the financial pressures associated with Christmas have boosted the numbers of those in financial desperation.
Rev Brian Anderson is chairman of the East Belfast Mission, which runs services to help those who are becoming fodder to the loyalist loan sharks.
“People are struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “I would notice particularly that the benefits that would last a fortnight, are now only lasting a week to 10 days.”
He warned people that the PSNI had told him that if the loyalist extortion is not satisfied, then those involved would be “asked to do activities of a criminal nature”.
A fresh round of threats of violence by loyalists on Wednesday and the appearance of posters in east Belfast featuring images of the loyalist bombings of Dublin in 1972 were condemned as an attempt to distract from the documentary. The posters feature an image of Tanaiste Leo Varadkar and the message ‘The possibility of a return to violence is very real’.
Nationalist commentator Chris Donnelly wrote: “We’re all supposed to play stupid and ignore the obvious choreography from the loansharking, drug dealing loyalist gangs.”