Loyalist terror groups celebrate Jeremy Hunt’s £3m ‘bung’ to keep peace over Irish Sea border

Many believe the free-flowing money over the last 25 years is one of the main reasons why the UVF and UDA have failed to step down

UVF mural in east Belfast where the organisation is still heavily involved in crime

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt’s Budget was good news for loyalist paramilitaries© Stefan Rousseau

Northern Ireland political leaders in Washington© PA

Richard SullivanSunday World

Loyalist groups have welcomed Jeremy Hunt’s £3m “buyoff” to keep the peace over the Irish Sea border.

The Chancellor announced the financial package in his Budget this week, honouring a commitment to further fund projects aimed at helping paramilitaries disband.

The move will heap more pressure on DUP chief Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as the money cannot be allocated in the absence of Stormont ministers.

The issue of funding for community groups including former prisoner organisations has been a thorny one.

Millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money has been poured into community initiatives since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement a quarter of a century ago.

Many paramilitary figures – still active members of proscribed organisations – are on the payroll of a number of organisations.

Many people will be appalled that this money tap has not been turned off and that yet more millions of public money is to be funnelled to bodies.

The controversy was further fuelled this weekend with the appearance of pictures on social media showing two relatives of a UVF figure enjoying St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington DC.

The pictures – which show the pair enjoying drinks and meeting with dignitaries – have sparked a furious reaction on the Shankill.

“People on the Shankill are all talking about it, we’re all struggling to make ends meet and they can travel to America,” one resident told us.

Many believe the free-flowing money over the last 25 years is one of the main reasons why groups such as the UVF and UDA have failed to step down.

“As long the money keeps coming, they’re not going to go away, why would they?

“It’s a total joke,” the source said.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt’s Budget was good news for loyalist paramilitaries© Stefan Rousseau

Speaking this week, UUP leader Doug Beattie said there needed to be clarity about how the money would be spent.

“If the Northern Ireland Office intends to go down this route it is important that there is transparency as to where the money will go and what programmes it will support.

“The outcomes from these funds must be measurable and also transparent. At no stage should any monies go directly to paramilitary groups or individuals linked to paramilitary groups.”

Meanwhile, DUP chief Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, also the US as part of St Patrick’s Day celebrations, has insisted he has not come under any increased pressure to accept the Windsor Framework and return to power sharing.

The Sunday Worldunderstands that in briefing the Orange Order ahead of his trip Stateside he indicated that, with further alterations, they would accept the deal.

There had been speculation that a representative of paramilitary umbrella body the Loyalist Communities Council also attended what sources describe as an “informal meeting”.

It is understood the LCC has been kept informed throughout the anti-Protocol process and it would not be unusual for such meetings to happen.

Sir Jeffrey has made it clear he would take soundings from all shades of loyalist and unionist opinion.

The Sunday Worldcontacted both the Order and the DUP but there was no response to a request for comment.

Speaking to the Sunday World, a senior paramilitary source said that while the Framework has failed to satisfy their concerns, on the whole they would continue to back Donaldson.

He said the inclusion of the £3m cash injection was “welcome news”.

Northern Ireland political leaders in Washington© PA

The funding announcement, he said, was an “indication’’ the government was confident the DUP will end their boycott of Stormont.

He said he believed the money would be earmarked for “community projects’’ to help people transition from paramilitary activity.

“There was concern the government was going to cut off the cash,” said our paramilitary source. “But to get our hands on it, Jeffrey will have to go back to Stormont.”

The government has not indicated how it sees the money being spent but points out it is not its responsibility but that of Northern Ireland-based ministers. Political sources say the money will remain unspent unless government in Belfast is restored.

Should the cash remain untouched it will be reclaimed by the Treasury.

Last month senior figures in the UVF threatened to “wreck the place” and said “the streets will be in flames” if any Brexit deal between the UK and EU does not scrap the Irish Sea border.

The threats led to new calls for the remaining paramilitary organisations to disband.

Speaking to a Commons committee, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris said he welcomed an Independent Reporting Commission recommendation that efforts to end paramilitarism should be redoubled ahead of the Good Friday Agreement’s 25th anniversary next month.

The Northern Ireland Secretary said he welcomed the idea of an independent person to carry out exploratory engagement on the issues of group transition.

According to our source, there remains a lot of anger within loyalism and that the risk of street violence remained a reality, but there is a growing understanding that the Framework is “the only show in town”.

MPs are expected to vote on the deal in the coming week when it will be supported by all sides of the House.

Thereafter, aside from some minor concessions to the DUP, work will start on putting in place the structures needed to implement the agreement.

“The Protocol has been removed in name only,” said our source.

“There is an understanding that we may not have a choice. We have been left up a tree without a ladder.”

According to recent opinion polls there is growing support among DUP voters for a return to Stormont, but Sir Jeffrey will maintain the boycott until after May’s local government elections.

It means Stormont will be closed for business when US President Joe Biden arrives next month for events marking the 25th anniversary of the GFA.

Yesterday Traditional Unionist Vote leader Jim Allister turned the screw on Sir Jeffrey.

Taking a full-page ad in the Belfast Telegraph, he set why the Windsor Framework must be rejected.

He said the Protocol and Irish Sea Border remain in place.

“If the DUP accepts the Windsor Framework, we all get the booby prize of a Sinn Fein First Minister. No Thanks.”

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