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Police fear escalation of loyalist violence in wake of Winkie Irvine arrest

Instead of facing court yesterday, Winkie should have been graduating from Maynooth University where he has completed his masters in peace studies

Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine was remanded in custody after weaponry was found in his car and police raided his home

Richard Sullivan

Police fear an escalation of paramilitary violence in the wake of the arrest of prominent loyalist Winston Irvine, a court heard yesterday.

The high-profile activist, closely associated with the UVF, appeared before Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday to face a raft of charges over a cache of guns and ammunition recovered from his car this week.

And it emerged that rather than facing the court case yesterday, he should have been attending his graduation from Maynooth University where he has completed his masters in peace studies.

In refusing bail, the magistrate described the seizure, which included handguns and ammunition, as a "significant haul", adding that there was a "serious concern for public safety".

His comments came at the conclusion of a lengthy appearance at the Laganside Court complex.

In opposing bail, Detective Inspector McCullough said releasing Irvine would increase tensions in the community.

The nature and quantity of the weapons and ammunition recovered, he said, bore all the hallmarks of a "paramilitary operation".

"Bearing in mind the amount of ammunition and the range of weaponry, it is typical what paramilitaries have access to," he said.

He said ammunition including nine magazines of automatic rifle ammo was an indication that groups have access to assault rifles.

None of the weapons recovered from Irvine's car was capable of firing the bulk of the ammo seized.

"Weapons suitable for such ammunition have not yet been found," he said, adding that police believe Irvine has "clear access and knowledge" as to the whereabouts of such weaponry.

He said there were fears should he be released there was a risk "he will move other weapons before they are recovered" which he said would be a serious interference in the course of justice.

Given the range of weaponry, he said an increase in community tension and disorder was possible.

Barrister Joe Brolly

Representing Irvine, senior counsel and famous GAA analyst Joe Brolly hailed his client's contribution to the peace process, proclaiming he was keeping the peace in north Belfast and had worked tirelessly on conflict resolution and had a reputation as a "renowned peacebuilder".

Mr Brolly described Irvine as someone who has access to the highest levels of government in Ireland and the UK and senior command in the PSNI, claiming his client had been in contact with Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton the day before his arrest.

And he vowed that when the case came to trial he will produce a "galaxy of witnesses" to refute the allegations.

Irvine, a high profile-loyalist activist who has held a series of positions on publicly-funded bodies including the Policing and Community Partnership Board, appeared via video link from a holding cell.

Dressed in a red T-shirt, he spoke only to confirm he understood the charges.

DI McCullough detailed the events which led to his detention. He also revealed that over five interviews amounting to almost four hours of questioning, Irvine repeatedly answered "no comment" and one occasions said the weaponry had nothing to do with him.

Winkie Irvine throwing an empty milk crate during rioting at Ardoyne after a Celtic-Rangers game in 2005

The police officer revealed PSNI were on their way to arrest Irvine on an "unrelated matter" when they noticed his car parked on Glencairn Street, while parked behind him was a red VW Transporter van.

He said there was an interaction between Irvine and the driver of the van who opened a side door and lifted an item out, Irvine then closed the boot of his car and they drove off.

He was later stopped at Disraeli Street where police searched his car. They recovered a Sainsbury's bag which contained a holdall which in turn was packed with a number of weapons including handguns and a blank gun which had been modified to fire live ammunition.

More than 200 rounds were recovered as well nine magazines of ammo for an assault rifle.

Irvine told officers he had no idea what was in the bag.

A subsequent search of his home in the Ballysillan area uncovered a number of items allegedly linking Irvine to the UVF including a plaque commemorating "fallen volunteers" and a balaclava.

A number of UVF pin badges and a gold chain and pendant bearing the UVF's 'B' Company logo were also found in a bedside cabinet. There were also commemorative badges in honour of former UVF commander Trevor King murdered by the INLA in 1994 and Brian Robinson shot by the British army in 1989.

A substantial bundle of cash, estimated at £3,000, was also found which Irvine said he and his wife had saved to redecorate their home.

DI McCullough said a mobile phone was recovered but that Irvine had refused to reveal the pin to unlock the device.

Winkie, right, with fellow members of the Loyalist Communities Council.

Representing Irvine, Mr Brolly said news of his arrest had been greeted with "incredulity" by people working in the realm of conflict resolution.

He said his client had spent 15-20 years "intensely involved in the peace process" and that he currently works with Inter Com, a publicly-funded cross-community group which monitors sectarian tensions on the streets.

He has worked with ex-loyalist and ex-republican prisoner groups and was instrumental in delivering UVF decommissioning in 2009, a process he said he was still involved in.

"He has continued in working to take weapons out of harm's way, his entire life is an indication of his passion for the peace process."

He also cited his work with the International Fund for Ireland.

"He has shared platforms with (former) Chief Constable George Hamilton."

Winkie with ex-PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton

His client has also been working with the Independent Review Commission which monitors paramilitary activity, work he said had been ongoing for 12 years.

"I have spoken to people this morning and there is incredulity that he would be involved in an nefarious activity that would encourage violence in any way."

He said Irvine's phone never stops ringing as he is instrumental in keeping the peace on the streets of north Belfast and said he was key to preventing an escalation of violence at sectarian flashpoint Lanark Way earlier this year.

Married with four children, he said Irvine was committed to his community and had a clean record bar minor driving offences.

"This will be hotly contested, we will produce a galaxy of witness who will attest to his work in the peace process," he said.

Irvine was remanded in custody to appear via video link on July 1.

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