Factions of the unionist paramilitary UVF could turn on each other after an order was issued to disband one huge gang in east Belfast which had become notorious for serious crime and intimidation of the local community.
A number of gangs which operate under the banner of the ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’ are now focused in criminal activity, although some also receive controversial public funding via related ‘charity groups’.
Armed men in paramilitary clothing are believed to have been present when a statement ordering the leadership of the East Belfast UVF to ‘stand down’ was read out at Remembrance Day events at the weekend.
It is understood Stephen ‘Mackers’ Matthews, the group’s so-called ‘brigadier’ in east Belfast, has been targeted by senior UVF figures based in the Shankill Road in west Belfast.
There were reports that up to eight gang members were ordered to quit, including some who were in court in recent months charged with serious drugs-related offences.
The potential impact of the move is unclear, but elements of the UVF have already begun increasing their personal security ahead of a potential feud. A brazen late night arson attack in Holywood, County Down in which two dogs died, may be the first sign of a potential conflict over the action.
Made up of around 1,000 men, the east Belfast faction has evolved a huge crime network, one of the largest in Britain or Ireland. Its influence extends beyond Belfast to include a large swathe of surrounding areas.
In February 2021, a large scale act of intimidation brought nearly 40 masked gang members to march through the Pitt Park area of the city in open collusion with the PSNI.
In December 2013 it was linked to an attempt to kill a 24-year-old Jemma McGrath. She was shot six times at her home in the area.
A statement in March claimed the gang had expelled 20 members following arrests for drug-dealing, extortion, and racketeering.
Earlier this month, a major UVF-linked ‘charity’, Action for Community Transformation (ACT), lost much of its state funding after the head of the organisation was seen leading an openly paramilitary parade honouring a UVF killer and wearing a UVF tie.
Other UVF-linked groups have also had their funding threatened amid mounting frustration at the use of public funds to support loyalist terror and crime.
Some senior UVF members have come under pressure to disband remaining structures and “transition” to legal activities. While those involved in crime should face jail, the PSNI has so far shown suspiciously little interest in their affairs.
Academic Dr Aaron Edwards, who has written several books about the UVF, said there were three possible outcomes to the current tensions.
“The first is that the East Belfast UVF as was, they have a choice, the choice is they go quietly into the night, to walk away,” he said.
“The second choice is they challenge the new leadership that has been imposed in the area and they may do that violently.
“Or the third option, according to grass roots people and sources, they hit the ‘Brigade Staff’ on the Shankill, which would be very brazen and would lead to quote, unquote, ‘World War Three’.”