Northern Ireland

Prominent loyalist Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine takes part in UVF show of strength in east Belfast

Up to 1,500 men lined Newtownards Road

Winkie Irvine pictured.
Winston 'Winkie' Irvine

A prominent loyalist on bail accused of possessing guns and ammunition was present during a UVF ‘show of strength’ at the weekend.

Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine was pictured with hundreds of loyalists at a parade in east Belfast on Saturday to remember a UVF man killed by republicans.

Concern has been expressed at an “incredibly disturbing” show of strength by a loyalist paramilitary group on the Newtownards Road.

Police say they are reviewing footage of the parade which saw more than 1,000 people, many of whom were wearing white shirts, ties and black trousers, lining the route for an annual memorial event.

Robert ‘Squeak’ Seymour was shot dead by the IRA in 1988.

Up to 700 men in white shirts and black ties line the route of a memorial parade for murdered UVF man Robert Seymour on the Newtownards Road on Saturday afternoon 16th June 2004. No byline please
Up to 1,500 men in white shirts and black ties line the Newtownards Road on Saturdau

Many of those who took part are believed to have travelled from the Shankill Road area of west Belfast.

Tensions within the UVF have been simmering since last year when the group’s east Belfast leadership, including its alleged former commander Stephen ‘Mackers’ Matthews, were stood down.

The decision to remove several senior command figures is believed to have been taken by the UVF’s Shankill Road-based leadership.

Over recent years the UVF in east Belfast has been linked to the drugs trade and other criminality and it is regularly targeted by police.

Matthews denies any link to either criminality or the UVF.

Graffiti on the Newtownards Road
UVF graffiti on the Newtownards Road that has been painted over

Graffiti bearing the words ‘East Belfast UVF’ and ‘F**k the Shankill’, which appeared on the Newtownards Road, was later painted over.

Hundreds of men were pictured taking up position along the road, including Mr Irvine, who is understood to have acted as a steward.

Earlier this month a judge ruled the leading loyalist is to stand trial over the discovery of guns and ammunition in the boot of his car.

Charges followed his arrest in June 2022 by police investigating a hoax bomb alert that led to former the Republic’s former Foreign Minister Simon Coveney being forced to abandon a speaking engagement in north Belfast.

Last month it emerged that Mr Irvine is a key figure in a group that has received almost £1m in funding from the International Fund for Ireland (IFI).

Building Cultural Networks is part of Action for Community Transformation (ACT), an organisation focussed on the “civilianisation” of UVF and Red Hand Commando members.

Shortly after it was formed last year BNC was awarded £878,000 by the IFI.

Mr Irvine was named as an organiser of a BCN convention held in a Belfast hotel in recent weeks.

The IFI was contacted for comment.

Police say an operation was in place for the east Belfast parade, which was organised by the 36th (Ulster) Division Memorial Association.

“A further review of evidence gathered will now take place,” a police spokeswoman added.

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said on Monday that it “is aware of the event which took place in east Belfast on Saturday and will review whether there was any contravention of charity law as a result”.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said she took allegations of police surveillance of journalists seriously
Justice Minister Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)

Justice minister Naomi Long held a private meeting with PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher on Monday during which she was expected to raise the UVF show of strength.

Speaking in the Assembly on the same day she said it was “incredibly disturbing that at this juncture in Northern Ireland we continue to see such shows of strength”.

“I think the people of Northern Ireland generally and of east Belfast in particular, are weary of these paramilitary organisations exerting coercive control in their community,” she added.

The Justice minister, who is standing as a candidate in East Belfast in the Westminster elections, said people want an end to paramilitary groups.

“They’re not interested in changes in leadership and management,” she said.

“They’re interested in these organisations being put out of business, the sooner that happens, I think, the better for us all.

“Some people refer to these as shows of strength. In my view they are shows of fragility. When you have to ship people in from outside to cause intimidation ... there is nothing strong about that.”

Earlier this year hostilities between rival factions surfaced ahead of a commemoration for two UVF men killed in a premature bomb explosion almost 50 years ago.

Tensions continued to rise when UVF posters warning against drug dealing and money lending appeared in east Belfast in March.

Dr Aaron Edwards, author of ‘UVF: Behind the Mask’, said: “Unfortunately these groups are still very much in existence and at times like this, nine months after issuing a statement about their intention to stand down the leadership of east Belfast UVF, it appears the old leadership has not left the stage.

“The escalation of tensions in the most flagrant of ways has come to this point where it’s very much an impasse between the west Belfast leadership and its east Belfast, so called battalion.

“This is about a centralised leadership having its authority flouted by a subordinate group.”