Veteran members are calling on the leadership to come clean about events surrounding the arrest of top loyalist and alleged UVF chief Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine, demanding answers and calling for an internal inquiry over the alleged movement of weapons.
The calls come off the back of explosive details revealed during a bail application for Irvine this week.
Irvine, who in the past has been named as a member of the terror group and the commander of UVF B Company on the Woodvale area of Belfast – claims he has denied – is facing a raft of charges after police recovered a cache of weapons from his car last month.
A High Court judge granted Irvine bail with few restrictions.
But it is the assertions made during his bail application that has alarmed the membership.
There had been growing disquiet from the moment his car was intercepted by the PSNI who had allegedly observed him taking delivery of a holdall which contained a number of weapons and several hundred rounds of ammunition.
This week the court heard Irvine had been in regular contact with PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton.
ACC Singleton had previously denied a claim he had been talks with Irvine the day before the weapons seizure but it was conceded this week the pair have been in contact in relation to other matters.
Irvine was described in court as a “peacemaker’’ and it was suggested the weaponry was being transported as part of a prior agreement.
UVF veterans on the Shankill are now demanding an inquiry into Winkie’s engagement with the PSNI after it was revealed in court he was in regular contact with ACC Singleton.
They are saying that either Winkie is claiming he was decommissioning when he wasn’t, which they believe is “throwing the whole organisation under the bus to save his own skin,’’ or else he was taking weapons for decommissioning with the knowledge of the Brigade staff.
“There are questions to be answered, is the leadership involved in acts of decommissioning?” one veteran told us this week.
“If they are, command staff are in the dark, there has been no discussion about actively engaging in acts of decommissioning.”
He said that “never in all the years of the Troubles did a UVF man stand up in court and claim he was working with the police and think that was a good thing”.
“How could anyone in the organisation trust anyone who has publicly stated he is working with the police?
“We want answers as to what is going on the top of the organisation and whether Brigade staff authorised Winkie to run the defence he has.”
During the course of Irvine’s bail hearing his counsel Joe Brolly referred to a “significant publication’’ that had been delayed because of his client’s arrest, but which, when published would have significant consequences for the wider community.
“What is that publication?” said our source. “Members are demanding answers as to what the ‘significant publication’ is that was referred to in court and want answers from Brigade staff as to whether the UVF is secretly engaged with government in acts of decommissioning that the command staff hadn’t been told about.”
There is also concern surrounding a “sensitive issue’’ that was talked about in private between judge and barristers.
“Men are being kept in the dark and this is arousing suspicion.”
UVF Chief of Staff John ‘Bunter’ Graham is now facing demands for a new leader of B Company to be put in place while an internal inquiry takes place and the Sunday World understands they have nominated a paramilitary veteran who was active during the Conflict as far back as the ’70s.
In the past, a former B Company commander was stood down amid allegations of weapons going missing.
“So why, this time, isn’t the Brigade Staff putting in place a inquiry into the seizure of these weapons?
“Every time a prisoner on UVF wings in jail they had to hand their depositions over to the jail commander to be checked, so people are questioning why Irvine is able to get away with the defence he has adopted without any scrutiny from the top of the organisation.”
Irvine was granted bail on Wednesday after a judge was told his DNA was not present on a holdall containing guns in his car.
References were also provided for the Shankill loyalist – who was arrested on June 8 with a number of weapons and ammunition in his car – by senior figures, the court was told, including a Northern Ireland minister.
NIO minister Conor Burns has moved to clarify that a letter sent to Irvine related to separate matters and that similar communiques were sent to other community activists.
Forty-seven-year-old Irvine of Ballysillan Road in Belfast, is accused of possessing a firearm and ammunition in suspicious circumstances, possessing a prohibited firearm, possession of a handgun without a certificate, and having ammunition without a certificate.
A second man, Robin Workman (51), from Shore Road in Larne, is in custody on the same charges.
Police claim Workman, who works as a joiner, transported the haul of guns to a meeting with his co-accused in the Glencairn area.
In a previous court hearing it was stated DNA samples were found on the handles of the holdall but this week it was revealed Irvine is not forensically linked to the bag.
A former Policing Board chair also provided a character reference, as a did a number of other people who were not named.
It was previously alleged in court that a PSNI chief held discussions with the leading loyalist about decommissioning weapons.
Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton later confirmed no telephone conversation took place between himself and Mr Irvine on the day before a bag containing guns and ammunition was found in the boot of Mr Irvine’s car.
During the hearing it was said that the Assistant Chief Constable had confirmed regular contact between the pair, but not in relation to the matters before the court.
When asked if internet access should be a condition of bail, the defence indicated a statement was about to be released of significant importance.
My Brolly said: “It is important that he does. My Lord will be aware of very sensitive material. My Lord is also aware that a witness has attended today who had asked to give evidence anonymously to the court.
“There is going to be a publication once Mr Irvine is released – that was delayed – which might have fundamental importance in our society as a whole and it will be important that he has internet access,” he added.
Loyalist sources say speculation is “rife’’ as to the identity of the anonymous character witness who attended but not called.
Mr Justice O’Hara said: “I am going to grant bail to Mr Irvine. Whatever the police concerns about him, he is a man who is now 47, he has a very limited criminal record and, whatever the risk, I think they can be managed.”
He was released on £750 bail.