Northern Ireland

Leading loyalist facing gun and ammunition charges revealed as key figure in group that received close to £1m IFI funding, after his arrest

Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine main organiser of conference that clashes with next court date

Leading loyalist Winston Irvine who has been charged with possession of a firearm and ammunition in suspicious circumstances. Picture: Pacemaker
Leading loyalist Winston Irvine is seeking to have charges of possession of guns and ammunition thrown out. Picture: Pacemaker

A leading loyalist accused of possession of guns and ammunition has emerged as a key figure in an organisation that received close to £1m from the International Fund for Ireland just over six months after he was arrested following a police surveillance operation.

But it is not clear whether Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine will attend a Building Cultural Networks conference on cultural expression he is organising as it clashes with his latest court hearing as he attempts to have the charges thrown out.

The June 2022 arrest was carried out by officers investigating a hoax bomb alert that forced Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney to abandon a speaking engagement in north Belfast.

Simon Coveney is informed of a security alert while speaking at a peace-building event at The Houben Centre in Belfast
Simon Coveney is informed of a security alert while speaking at a peace-building event at The Houben Centre in Belfast in March 2022 (Hume Foundation/PA)

Mr Irvine (48) is named as the organiser of the BCN convention, to be held next Wednesday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in south Belfast.

But he requested and was granted a hearing into the strength of the prosecution case against him and that is listed to be heard over two days on Wednesday and Thursday next week.

BCN, formed in January 2023, is part of Action for Community Transformation (ACT), the Shankill Road-based community organisation focussed on the “civilianisation” of UVF and Red Hand Commando members.

Shortly after its formation, BCN was awarded £878,000 by the IFI, a body set up by the Irish and British governments in 1986 that draws in money mainly from the European Union, the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

“The overall aim of the project is to develop a strategic and community led approach to positive cultural expression in 16 PUL (Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist) areas across NI,” the IFI said in its annual report.

“The project will look at a long-term solution to issues around cultural expression, particularly bonfires.”

Ravenhill bonfire
BCN was awarded funding to look at areas of cultural expression, particularly bonfires

Mr Irvine was charged with possession of firearms and ammunition in suspicious circumstances. It is alleged two suspected pistols, an air gun, magazines and more than 200 rounds of ammunition were discovered inside a leather Calvin Klein holdall in the boot of a vehicle he was driving. .

He was arrested by police investigating the security alert at an event attended by Mr Coveney. The minister was evacuated from the Houben Centre next to Holy Cross Church on Crumlin Road after a van was reportedly hijacked and driven to the venue. A controlled explosion was carried out.

Mr Irvine requested the preliminary inquiry as part of a bid to have the charges thrown out. A judge at Belfast Magistrates’ Court on Thursday said the hearing into the strength of the prosecution evidence will be held.

Up to a dozen police surveillance officers are expected to give evidence at those proceedings.

The court hearing clashes with the BCN convention, due to take place from 9.30am to 4.45pm on Wednesday.

The convention title is Cultural Expression: Rights, Roles & Responsibilities, which “encapsulates the essence of the event, directing participants to explore and examine the interconnected dynamics of individual rights, societal roles and collective responsibilities, as we aim to deconflict identity and cultural expression in Northern Ireland”.

The best known hotel in the Andras House portfolio, the Crowne Plaza.
Conference takes place at the Crowne Plaza in south Belfast

According to the organisers BCN “has made a hugely significant and outsized contribution in helping to manage many of the highly contentious and dangerous challenges around bonfires and cultural celebrations.

“Playing a crucial role in conflict prevention, contributing to one of the quietest and most peaceful summer’s experienced in Northern Ireland in recent times.”