Arlene Foster defends LCC meeting
THE DUP leadership discussed keeping to a "political path" when it met the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) this week to discuss tensions around the Northern Ireland Protocol.
DUP leader Arlene Foster, who has defended attending the meeting, said criticism against her was "hypocritical and manufactured" and was "deeply harmful as we seek to move Northern Ireland forward".
The meeting came amid anger among loyalists over the Protocol, which necessitates checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
They claim it has driven an economic wedge between the region and Britain and has undermined the Union as a result.
But speaking to The Irish News yesterday Mrs Foster said: "Ignoring communities will take Northern Ireland in the wrong direction.
"As DUP leader and first minister I have a duty to provide leadership and work to ensure no element of Northern Ireland feels left behind.
"I want to show that politics works and the best way to achieve change is through democratic means.
"With my background as a victim of terrorism, I have never had any truck with violence or the threat of violence".
Mrs Foster led a delegation of senior party figures to meet the LCC on Thursday.
The organisation, which was founded in 2015, is made up of members of the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando.
The Irish News understands that among the issues discussed was the High Court case challenging the Protocol as well as the way to deal with unionist unease at the sea border rather than "taking to the streets."
It is understood that ex-RHC prisoner Jim Wilson, PUP spokesman Winston Irvine, south Belfast loyalist figure Jackie McDonald and David Campbell of the LCC were at the meeting.
Mr Campbell came in for criticism recently over comments he made regarding unionist anger at the Northern Ireland Protocol.
When asked were the days of loyalist fighting over, Mr Campbell said he "hoped so" but added “we live in an imperfect society and one fights in different ways”.
He also said: "If it comes to the bit where we have to fight physically to maintain our freedoms within the UK, so be it."
The DUP was criticised in the wake of the meeting.
Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry said the meeting sent out a "terrible mixed message" and accused the DUP of giving the impression that paramilitary organisations are "legitimate stakeholders".
"We are supposed to have an anti-paramilitary strategy where we are trying to remove the cancer of paramilitarism from our society," he told the BBC's Nolan Show.
"Are we genuine in trying to tackle paramilitaries or do we see these as part of the wider stakeholders in our society to be consulted and engaged with around important decisions?
"Meetings like this instead give the impression that paramilitary organisations are legitimate stakeholders," the North Down MP said.
Sinn Féin Policing Board member Gerry Kelly also criticised the meeting saying: "Let's be clear UVF and UDA do not represent, but are a scourge on loyalist or inionist communities.
"If DUP were telling them to disband, good. But they are asking for their support."
Justice Minister Naomi Long was among those who criticised the meeting saying: "Proscribed terrorist organisations are not a legitimate part of our community. They aren't stakeholders to be consulted.
"They are a malignant force destroying our community.
"Our job as ministers is to eradicate paramilitarism, not give them a platform or legitimacy".
Defending his party leader, DUP Policing Board member Mervyn Storey accused Alliance of "hypocrisy and double standards."
"This Alliance Party reaction is not about principle, its about politics. The Alliance Party principles brought Sinn Féin into government at a time when the PIRA was fully armed and Sinn Féin didn't support the police, the courts or the rule of law. The Alliance party is guilty of double standards.
"One rule for republicans another rule for loyalists."
Mr Storey also criticised Justice Minister Naomi Long's decision not to remove Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly from his position on the Policing Board over social media comments about the IRA escape from the Maze prison.
"Perhaps Mr Farry should reflect on this before accusing others of being weak on criminality", he said.