Editorial: UDA and UVF shouldn't be involved in discussions on Windsor Framework and power-sharing

There will be some alarm that leading figures from the UDA and UVF are being presented as benign grassroots community leaders whose views deserve to be sought out on wider political developments.

Conservative MP Simon Hoare, who chairs the NI Affairs Committee at Westminster, met with the representatives of the criminal paramilitary groups in Belfast earlier this month.

Although the committee said in a statement that Mr Hoare was on a fact-finding visit to inform discussion "on paramilitary activity and organised crime", the loyalists characterised the meetings as being concerned with their views on the Windsor Framework.

On one level, Mr Hoare's diligence is praiseworthy and he is clearly taking his role seriously.

But there will be concern that such engagement grants a degree of legitimacy to paramilitary groups who terrorise and extort their own communities and are involved in drug dealing and a wide range of criminality.

There will also be bemusement that the views of the UDA and UVF on the Brexit trade deal between the UK and EU should be perceived as carrying any weight.

The paramilitary leaders reportedly "made clear" to Mr Hoare that there could be no return to power-sharing at Stormont while the framework remains in place.

As well as carrying a sense of threat, this assertion inevitably raises several questions. One of these is to what extent the views of the leadership of the UDA and UVF influence DUP policy, given that it is Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his MLAs - and not unelected paramilitary and criminal thugs - who have abandoned Stormont for more than a year.

Mr Hoare said he discussed how the loyalist paramilitaries could transition from crime. It is deeply frustrating that senior British politicians are still indulging the idea that the correct way to approach the continuing existence of the UDA and UVF is to offer words of encouragement, as if that were all that was needed.

However distasteful it can seem, back channels and private meetings have been a well established part of efforts to bring peace to conflicts around the world, including in Northern Ireland. The British government met with the IRA as far back as 1972, and the Hume-Adams talks at Clonard Monastery in the 1990s helped set the scene for the Good Friday Agreement.

It would be entirely wrong to characterise the latest UDA and UVF engagement as being comparable.

The truth of the matter is that these organisations should never have existed in the first place, and should certainly have left the scene years ago; instead they have been pandered to for too long.