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UVF units on 'war footing' amid plans to raid homes for weapons as they recruit young guns

In a chilling briefing to the Sunday World, the top Belfast man, who commands huge respect within the paramilitary group, highlighted just how close we are to a return to violence.

.A woman walks past a banner in support of Ulster loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) east Belfast Battalion. Picture date: Tuesday November 30 2021. PA Photo.

Steven Moore

Units within the UVF are on a "war footing" and are planning to raid homes for legally-held weapons to build a new arsenal, according to a senior paramilitary.

We can reveal the terror group is continuing to accept new young members despite previous claims they are turning them away.

Units across Ulster have been told to start looking for new weapons, with orders to target homes with legally held firearms in particular. There are also reports that sealed arms dumps - which include rocket launchers - are to be reopened.

The UVF, whose headquarters sit in the loyalist stronghold of the Shankill Road, have been emboldened rather than calmed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plans to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol with new legislation.

Senior figures within the UVF believe their campaign of violence, which culminated in an elaborate hoax bomb attack aimed at Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney while he visited Belfast, has helped force Johnson to act.

That followed sporadic outbursts of street rioting, bus hijackings and a series of security alerts, including one on the train line between Belfast and Dublin.

However, despite a high-profile visit to Belfast by Taoiseach Micheál Martin this weekend, no similar attacks were carried out.

Last week we revealed the UVF had warned the government they intended to step up their campaign of violence in a bid to get them to move against the Protocol.

Now a senior UVF man has told the Sunday World that veterans within the terror group are trying, but failing, to talk younger members out of taking up arms.

In a chilling briefing to the Sunday World, the top Belfast man, who commands huge respect within the paramilitary group, highlighted just how close we are to a return to violence.

"The UVF is on a war footing, that's for sure," the high-ranking Belfast-based paramilitary told the Sunday World.

"The fact the Prime Minister is now saying he's going to introduce laws to scrap the Protocol has not made a difference. If anything, it's shown the younger members in senior positions in the UVF that violence and the threat of violence pays off.

Simon Coveney, being ushered from the room due to a security alert

"The attack on Simon Coveney (at a peace-building event in North Belfast in March) and several other incidents has shown them violence gets a response.

"When you speak to young UVF members you hear them saying over and over again how the IRA got away with the same strategy for 30 years.

"They are hailing Boris coming here and announcing plans to introduce legislation as a victory."

He said he was speaking out to highlight just how dangerous the situation is as Protocol talks continue - and in the hope that the UVF 'young guns' who seem hell-bent on going back to war, don't end up wasting their lives away in prison like he did.

"I think there are people out there who still don't realise the severity of the situation," he added.

"At no time since the Good Friday Agreement have we been this close to a return to the conflict.

"Throughout our units, us senior figures are fighting a losing battle with the young ones who seem ready to resume the fight.

"Trust me when I say this isn't scaremongering. Whatever you think of the Protocol it has been a disaster for cross-community relations. I fear it could be a long, hot summer."

He revealed UVF Brigades throughout the country are heavily recruiting and even more worrying, arms dumps supposedly put out of action have been opened.

"The weapons are being activated. That's where we are at now plus new weapons are also being sourced.

"Commanders are telling their volunteers to make them of aware of anyone they know who may have legally held firearms and who might be seen as easy targets for theft.

"There are thousands of legal guns out there in Northern Ireland, many of them belonging to farmers.

"And they are being told to check on weapon dumps which were used to hide weapons held back from decommissioning.

Police at the scene as Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has been moved out of a building in north Belfast amid a security alert. Pic Pacemaker

"The reason I'm speaking out is because I lost years in a prison cell and if we don't turn back quickly, that's where many young loyalists are headed.

"I'm worried because once again the DUP and some loyalists are putting their trust in Boris Johnson and you know how that usually turns out.

"He's almost certainly going to let everyone down. If he does a deal that just changes the Protocol, rather than scrapping it completely, it won't be enough for most loyalists.

"Either way it looks like it's going to take a long time and many loyalists are not planning to wait around to see the results of political negotiations."

We revealed earlier this year how more than 100 loyalists had applied to join the UVF on the Shankill Road.

At the time a senior loyalist told this paper they had been refused membership but it's understood that stance has now changed.

"They are definitely taking on new recruits," says our source. "They had no choice. There are so many wanting to join all over the country the organisation feared if they didn't accept them they'd end up joining other rival loyalist groups.

"And not just that but also the fact having such a large membership will get them more money but also give them a stronger position when it comes to negotiating with the government when they want them to return to peace.

"They are coming to the UVF because the UDA are seen now as basically nothing more than a drug dealing organisation."

It's well known that paramilitary groups withheld weapons from the decommissioning process and more have been gathered in subsequent years.

It understood the UVF still has a small number of RPG rocket launchers which came into Belfast via Liverpool in 1987.

Meanwhile, hundreds of guns belonging to Ulster Resistance have never been recovered.

"The UVF can access weapons if it needs to," says the source. "There are plenty of unaccounted for rifles from Ulster Resistance days which have been hidden for a worst-case scenario return to war."

Following the attack aimed at Mr Coveney it was reported that the UVF have discussed using one of those rocket launchers on an Irish government building.

Our source says the Irish government remains a significant target.

"Young loyalists who weren't even born during the Troubles have marked out the Irish government as being mainly to blame for the current situation," said our source.

"They hate Leo Varadkar and blame him for going to the EU during the Brexit campaign to warn of republican violence if they put up the old border.

"Ironically while they hate Varadkar they are using him as their inspiration in a way to threaten loyalist violence.

"Us older ones are not in a hurry to return to violence but it could be out of our control."

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