A senior Tory MP has been accused of holding secret talks with loyalist paramilitaries in an effort to buy off the terror gangs.
It is understood senior UDA and UVF men took part in some of the meetings, although it is unclear which factions were represented.
Simon Hoare is chair of an influential Westminster parliamentary committee, the heavily unionist ‘Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee’.
He insisted his meetings were “private conversations”, and that he is not acting on behalf of the British government.
“I wasn’t there to negotiate or make an offer to loyalists... It was a listening engagement,” he said.
“I wasn’t reporting back to anybody. I was there in a purely personal capacity. I am chairman of a select committee. I have no power. This was a listening engagement.”
The Tory MP said he would also be willing to meet republican armed groups, such as the New IRA and their political representatives, but expressed no plans to do so.
His meetings with loyalist paramilitaries earlier this month were negotiated by loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson and reportedly involved discussions on new Brexit trade checks and “transitioning away from crime”.
The Tory MP said: “They were not secret talks, they were private engagements.
“Nobody sent me off with a list of questions. I was there to listen directly to a group of people in Northern Ireland who are so angry and frustrated.
“One can read about it in the media, but I wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth why people are so annoyed and bitter.”
Some of the gang leaders, who are engaged in a vicious, months-long feud over drugs proceeds and territory, were “hard to reach”, Hoare said.
“I hope they will now recognise that there are people in Westminster with whom they fundamentally disagree, who have a different world view to them, but with whom they can have cordial conversations.
“The engagements were robust, honest and respectful. A conversation taking place is always better than a vacuum of silence.
“Might anything come of it? Who knows, but if it increases our understanding of our fellow man, that is something to applaud.”
But the mother of a teenager shot dead by the UDA expressed her “disgust” at the talks.
Marian Walsh’s 17-year-old son Damien was shot dead at his work in Twinbrook in west Belfast in 1993. The PSNI (then RUC) colluded in the killing.
Ms Walsh said: “I am absolutely disgusted, but sadly not surprised, by the behaviour of Simon Hoare. Not one single British MP has ever contacted me to see how they can support my campaign for justice.
“Mr Hoare and the rest of them have just left me, and others like me, to struggle on alone.”
Ms Walsh said she also wished to strongly challenge Bryson’s recent claim that the loyalists were engaged in what he called “counter-terrorism”. She said: “It was just terrorism. They murdered my son – a child who had done nothing wrong.
“So many others lost their lives the same way. There was collusion in my son’s murder and MPs like Mr Hoare would be better spending their time highlighting that and helping us get the truth.”