Brandon Lewis defends NIO meeting with loyalists and insists umbrella group is 'legitimate'
THE secretary of state has defended a meeting between his officials and loyalist leaders, saying it was "absolutely right" to engage with groups who were "against violence and towards democracy".
Brandon Lewis insisted the Loyalist Communities Council was "legitimate", pointing out that its representatives put their name on a letter sent to Boris Johnson this week withdrawing support for the Good Friday Agreement.
He also claimed the group were not spokespersons for illegal loyalist paramilitaries, describing such a characterisation as "unhelpful and inaccurate".
The group, launched in 2015 with backing from former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell, has been clear in the past that it represents the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando.
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) faced criticism in January when officials met the LCC, which is chaired by David Campbell, a former Ulster Unionist chairman.
The 90-minute virtual meeting discussed the Irish Sea border and its implications for the union.
The DUP also met the loyalist umbrella group last month, after which party leader Arlene Foster dismissed criticism as "hypocritical and manufactured".
In response to questions yesterday from The Irish News, Mr Lewis said he had “no problems with my officials meeting people across society”.
“If officials, and Northern Ireland politicians, were not talking to people across society we would never have got to an agreement like the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.
“It’s important that people who are determined and want to see a diplomatic and democratic approach, and are using the mechanisms that are there through democracy – I think it’s absolutely right.”
The secretary of state said he was "not sure why anybody would have a particular issue with people talking to someone like David Campbell".
“If people are organised and following the democratic and want to take a path that is against violence and towards democracy then I think it is important that they are properly engaged across communities," he said.
Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd said the secretary of state was "trying to take people here for fools".
“Neither the British secretary of state nor unionist leaders should be engaged in building common platforms with armed loyalist crime gangs," he said.
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said the LCC was "open in saying that it represents what are illegal, proscribed paramilitary organisations".
He said the NIO's engagement with it "legitimises and normalises" paramilitary groups.
"That is a corruption of democracy and undermines wider efforts to tackle paramilitarism given such mixed messaging," he said.
An SDLP spokesperson also said Mr Lewis "shouldn’t take the public for fools by pretending that the LCC does not represent proscribed paramilitary groups".