Brandon Lewis asked to explain NIO meeting with loyalist paramilitary representatives
BRANDON Lewis has been asked to explain why high-ranking Northern Ireland Office (NIO) staff are meeting representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups.
SDLP MP Claire Hanna said the NIO's engagement contrasted with the secretary of state’s refusal so far to meet Stormont ministers in relation to funding victims' payments.
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said the British government officials were "giving credibility to organisations that should have long since exited the stage".
The remarks came after it emerged that loyalist representatives held a 90-minute virtual meeting with the NIO to discuss the Irish Sea border and its implications for the union.
The delegation from the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – an umbrella organisation representing the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando – included Winston Irvine, Jimmy Birch, Robert Williamson and David Campbell, the Belfast Telegraph reported.
The loyalists described the meeting with four NIO officials, including permanent secretary Madeleine Alessandri, as "forthright and hard-hitting" and spoke of "anger on the streets".
"It was important for the NIO to be told the feeling in loyalist working-class estates," Mr Williamson said.
"There is a lot of fear that our identity is being diluted. There are concerns about empty supermarket shelves and lorries queued at ferry ports."
The LCC also asked the NIO to ensure that new US President Joe Biden "was briefed on the need for impartiality and respect for the majority position in Northern Ireland when it comes to dealing with NI-US issues".
But the meeting has sparked anger and calls for the secretary of state to explain why British government officials are engaging with the groups
"The secretary of state needs to urgently explain why these gangs, which continue to cause pain and misery in communities across Northern Ireland, are being hosted by his department while he continues to turn a blind eye to requests from executive ministers to discuss a pension for victims of the troubles – it is a perverse sense of priority," South Belfast MP, Claire Hanna said.
Mr Dickson said: "The NIO are giving credibility to organisations that should have long since exited the stage.
"It undermines confidence in policing and justice, and is particularly galling given the secretary of state won't meet ministers about funding the victims pension, and have yet to confirm match funding for the tackling paramilitarism programme of the executive."
The NIO declined to comment.