‘They’ve had to swallow their pride as they’ve watched people who had no role in taking on violent republicanism, growing rich on drugs and hiding under the UVF flag’
Anger is growing over the failure of the terror group’s top brass to move against drug dealers within the organisation.
Chief of Staff John ‘Bunter’ Graham is facing increasing demands for action and, despite assurances that he is determined to weed out drug dealers, he has failed to prevent his organisation becoming more deeply involved in the drugs trade.
The Sunday World can reveal there has been a series of meetings involving brigade staff and a list of demands has been presented to veteran chief Graham.
They include questions over the circumstances surrounding the arrest and charge on guns charges of alleged B Company commander Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine, but also the failure to stem the tide of drugs in loyalist communities.
As previously reported, the UVF leadership gave the green light for guns to be broken out of dumps in readiness for a campaign of disruption over the Irish Sea border, but now angry members have warned if action is not taken they will turn the guns on drug dealers.
Sources have told us that while there is no suggestion that any type of vigilante activity is likely, there is genuine fury over the drugs issue.
“They have guns in their hands,” said our source “they are genuinely furious at the way the organisation has been allowed to drift into being little more than a drug gang.
“They’ve had to swallow their pride as they’ve watched people who had no role in taking on violent republicanism, growing rich on drugs and hiding under the UVF flag.”
It comes as concerns continue to grow over the increasing influence of East Belfast UVF which is now regarded as the largest drug gang in the North.
The organised crime gang has extended its operations beyond its natural hinterland and is now working in partnership with drug gangs in the south and west of the city.
Allegedly headed by top loyalist Stephen Matthews, it is understood he has forged ties with the leader of the South Belfast UVF and has formed an alliance with UDA kingpin Jim Spence in the west of the city.
Their expansion has heaped more pressure on beleaguered Chief of Staff Graham.
He has failed to deliver on repeated pledges to move against Matthews.
Despite repeated raids by the Paramilitary Crime Task Force, Matthews’ mob has continued to run a highly lucrative drugs racket.
The Sunday World understands East Belfast has settled long-running dispute with the Kinahans over an unpaid bill.
It is believed the money was due in relation to a huge drug seizure in Belfast docks earlier this year.
In February police intercepted a £3 million drugs shipment in Belfast docks in what was one of the largest hauls ever detected. A large slice of the consignment was destined for East Belfast UVF and is believed to have been shipped by the Kinahan cartel.
It is not clear if the entire debt has been cleared or if a compromise amount was agreed, but it is business as usual.
The gang has also forged links with West Belfast UDA. Woodvale commander Jim Spence who has overseen the terror group’s drug operations is also believed to be working with Matthews, tapping into the Kinahan supply line.
Spence has been spotted in the east of the city on a number of occasions.
We can also reveal that disgraced UVF brigadier Den Elliott is also back on the scene. Bunter busted him three years ago when he discovered Elliott was running a lucrative sideline.
The UVF chief stripped him of his rank and fined him £50,000 but the Sunday World understands he is back to his old ways and is in cahoots with East Belfast.
Long-standing members already disturbed by events around the arrest of Winkie Irvine are demanding he take action against the drug dealers.
“Some of these guys literally don’t have a pot to p**s in, they’ve been to jail, and yet the current crop are running about in big cars and raking in a fortune off the back of the drugs,” one source told us.
“Bunter has been telling us for years he’s going to clean up the organisation yet East Belfast just gets stronger and stronger.”
He said Graham deserves a degree of credit for moving against Elliott and cleaning up the notorious Mount Vernon unit, but he has failed to take on Matthews.
Matthews, who is facing criminal charges in relation to an alleged UVF show of strength in the Pitt Park area of east Belfast in 2019, has adopted a more low-profile approach in recent months but, according to sources, still has total control of the east Belfast operation.
Members are deeply suspicious over the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Irvine who is facing a raft of arms charges after guns and ammunition were found in his car.
He has been released on bail after it was claimed in court he was involved in a process that would have “significant implications” for wider society.
Legal representatives for the Irvine stated their client was working with police – a claim which has alarmed the UVF membership.
Last night, a spokesman for Spence and Matthews said his clients deny any involvement in criminality.
“My clients individually robustly and firmly reject any allegations of membership of any proscribed organisation or involvement in any criminal activity.
“Mr Spence and Mr Matthews all individually particularly reject allegations of involvement in the nefarious drugs trade which they each condemn without reservation.”
He added: “The broader allegations being advance are utter nonsense with no basis in reality whatsoever and is another example of a concerted effort to demonise and criminalise loyalism collectively.”