Loyalists meet in unprecedented show of unity over Brexit 'betrayal'
LOYALISTS - including the alleged leaders of a number of rival paramilitary factions – met last night in an unprecedented show of unity following what they have claimed is a betrayal by the British government over Brexit.
The highly unusual gathering in the East Belfast Constitutional Club saw members of various loyalist paramilitary factions come together for the first time in almost two decades.
While members of the press were not permitted inside the meeting, it is understood Belfast UDA leaders Matt Kincaid and Jim Spence attended.
Jamie Bryson, who has been publicly warning of loyalist anger at the Brexit deal and the threat of people “taking to the streets”, and Stephen Matthews, the alleged leader of the east Belfast UVF, were also believed to be there.
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Prominent figures from the hard-line South East Antrim UDA were also in attendance, in an unusual show of solidarity since a bloody loyalist feud in 2003 divided the organisation.
Members of the Mid Ulster UVF along with veteran members of the Red Hand Commando were also in the room.
They were joined by a number of prominent Orange Order members, including Rev Mervyn Gibson.
The Grand Secretary of the Orange Order said he was attending the public meeting in a personal capacity "to listen to fellow loyalist and unionist views."
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However, he publicly discouraged any protests similar to the 2012 union flag protests that brought parts of Northern Ireland to a standstill.
The Irish News has been told by some of those present that there was a heated discussion about how loyalists should react to the latest withdrawal agreement.
It is understood there were calls for "resistance" and "doing whatever it takes" to prevent further compromise on Brexit.
Some also claimed that threats of dissident republican violence “had been rewarded” and ongoing loyalist support for the peace process was said to be at “breaking point”.
The gathering took place within a week of the DUP, which has rejected the Brexit deal, meeting with senior representatives of loyalism.
DUP leader Arlene Foster met senior UDA figures earlier this month and later held a separate meeting with Winston Irvine and Harry Stockman who would be close to the thinking of the UVF.
A spokesman for the DUP defended the meeting, saying: "The party engages with a range of stakeholders about a range of matters on an ongoing basis in the interests of moving Northern Ireland forward."
While the gathering last night dispersed peacefully it is understood further public meetings have been planned across Northern Ireland in coming days.