Worries over new loyalist gangs amid claims Loyalist Communities Council represents minority
Concerns have been raised that recent violent street protests could result in the emergence of new gangs amid claims that the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) represents only a minority of paramilitary members.
Set up in 2015 the LCC includes the representatives of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando.
It has been suggested that despite the involvement of the three largest loyalist groups support in some grass roots loyalist districts has abated.
One loyalist source last night suggested that the LCC has "lost control and they do not know it".
It was also suggested that the majority of the loyalist violence has not been coordinated.
The LCC has come to renewed prominence as tensions around the Northern Ireland Protocol reached boiling point in recent weeks.
The recent violence has also been linked to a decision not to prosecute members of Sinn Féin for attending the funeral of Bobby Storey last year.
In a recent letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson the LCC withdrew support for the Good Friday Agreement
The umbrella group came under renewed pressure last week after it delayed condemnation of outbreaks of violence in loyalist areas.
It eventually broke its silence to claim none of its "associated groups" were involved in recent street violence and said any action taken by the loyalist community should be "entirely peaceful".
There were suggestions last week that the LCC, which includes several leading loyalist figures, were unable to reach an agreed position on the violence.
Suggestions of divided opinion emerged when the UDA linked south Belfast Ulster Political Research Group issued a statement condemning the violence a day before the LCC clarified its position.
The UPRG statement was seen as significant as south Belfast serves as a powerbase for senior UDA figure Jackie McDonald.
While loyalists appear to have heeded calls to temporarily cease their protests following the death of Prince Philip, it has been suggested these will be resumed at some point in the near future.
Sources last night said that several loyalist factions are not under the control of the LCC.
While it was already known that the break-away South East Antrim UDA is not involved with the LCC it has now been claimed that other units are also beyond its influence include the north Antrim and Derry UDA faction.
It has been responsible for multiple attacks in the area in recent years.
Other UDA factions said to be out of step with the main organisation include those units in south Derry and Tyrone.
Sources say there is also discontent in the Armagh and Newry areas.
It has been suggested that the UVF in Mid-Ulster is also divided between those linked to initiatives back by the Shankill Road leadership and others who refuse to engage with them .
The remnants of the LVF, which still has pockets of support in some areas and the Orange Volunteers, also fall outside the LCC.
Academic Dr Aaron Edwards, author of 'UVF:Behind the Mask', said that since the formation of the LCC in 2015 the landscape has changed significantly.
"Loyalism has become more fragmented since then and what we have seen in recent months is a further fracturing of loyalism and not just in terms of old paramilitary groups," he said.
Dr Edwards, who is a senior lecturer in defence and international affairs at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, said that a senior loyalist previously told him that they were having "great difficulties in controlling disaffection in younger loyalists" and that the 2012 Union flag protests were used to try and contain discontent.
"This is a young person's game and trying to control that is difficult for paramilitary organisations supposed to be on ceasefire and unarmed," he said.
"It's a social challenge and the dynamic in this remains since the flag protest, the flags protest was a glimpse into the future and now we are here."
"The context has changed and the security situation has changed."
Dr Edwards said the vacuum within loyalism creates a dangerous space.
"What we are seeing at the moment is leaderless violence on the streets and it won't stay leaderless for long," he said.
"There is a history in Northern Ireland, the north of Ireland, of groups of determined individuals emerging to take control and bolster their own positions.
"It has happened in the past and will happen again."
Dr Edwards believes mainstream loyalism will continue to fragment.
"What we will see potentially is more gangs emerge and the break off and syphoning of parts of the loyalist hierarchy," he said.
Dr Edwards suggested that new loyalist gangs may emerging similar to those in other European countries and suggested some young loyalists are being radicalised.
"A humanitarian response is what is required as well as a security response," he said.
The Belfast native said it is possible that the violence of recent weeks could take "a more serious turn" and referred to his friend, journalist, Lyra McKee who was shot dead by the New IRA during a riot in Derry almost two years ago.
"I suspect that over the summer months and lifting restrictions it will not fizzle out before it should," he said.