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UPHEAVAL UVF plan Army Council style leadership to take over from ailing chief John 'Bunter' Graham

As Bunter quits, veterans' plans will see Winky and Austin denied top-dog jobs

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Bunter Graham

Bunter Graham

Bunter Graham

The UVF is planning to install an Army Council style leadership to take over from ailing terror chief John 'Bunter' Graham.

Amid growing speculation over the future of the terror group, the Sunday World understands a series of proposals were put forward at leadership meetings on the Shankill Road in the last number of weeks.

Last week we revealed Graham, who has suffered deteriorating health in recent years, and loyal lieutenant 'Harmless' Harry Stockman who has his own health issues, are on the brink of standing down.

A number of new leadership models have been put forward including simply appointing a new Chief of Staff with UVF commanders Winston 'Winky' Irvine and Sam Austin named as possible contenders.

The Sunday World also understands there is growing support for an Army Council style leadership.

The UVF politburo would be made up of veterans with a mission to safely transition the organisation into retirement.

Well placed sources have told us they have learnt the lessons of the past and long standing volunteers are not prepared to leave the UVF in the hands of one supreme commander.

"If that leader is compromised then the whole organisation is compromised," said our source.

"Had we learnt that lesson years ago then a lot more innocent people, including our own members would still be alive."

Graham 77, is widely believed to have been recruited by MI5 and has been an agent for the intelligence service for almost the entire time he has been at the top of the tree in the UVF.

"They (MI5) got at him, he might have thought he could use the situation to the UVF's benefit, but it was the opposite.

"What happened was British intelligence ran the UVF, they were in their control."

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He said anyone who questioned Bunter's position or raised the hare over MI5 involvement was 'discredited, smeared and demoted.'

"It might be too late in the day for many of our comrades who went to jail unnecessarily or who lost their lives, but even at this late stage we can recover some dignity and ensure the UVF leaves the field in a respectful way."

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Loyalist Winky Irvine

Loyalist Winky Irvine

Loyalist Winky Irvine

The UVF and sister terror group the Red Hand Commando were unique among terrorist groups in that they were the only ones who had a single figure head.

Graham was Chief of Staff and all final decisions lay with him. The IRA had their ruling Army Council while the UDA was controlled by a seven man Inner Council comprising the organisation's brigadiers such Jackie McDonald and in the past Johnny Adair, John 'Grugg' Gregg and Billy 'The Mexican' McFarland.

The UDA's command structure lies in tatters as the organisation has splintered into a number of drug gangs.

The UVF has also descended into organised crime with Bunter ordering a purge against drug dealers.

Despite his longevity he has become a divisive figure, but with him now inching toward retirement it is seen as an opportunity to put the organisation in the hands of a trusted cohort of veterans.

B Company commander Irvine and Shankill Road commander Austin are almost certain to be involved.

Irvine is a divisive figure but is known to be a Bunter favourite. He is currently working on a publically funded conflict resolution project in Carrickfergus.

He retains his rank with B Company in the Woodvale area of the city but is understood to be a supporter of Bunter's blueprint to transition the organisation.

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Harry Stockman

Harry Stockman

Harry Stockman

Austin is a respected figure on the Shankill. He is the son of Sam 'Pinky' Austin who was highly regarded among the UVF membership.

Pinky passed away in 2016 with his funeral bringing the Shankill to a standstill. Bunter, Stockman and Irvine were among the mourners.

A former leader of UVF prisoners in the Maze, he was handed a 10 year jail sentence in 1994 for his role in a UVF bomb-making factory.

His son took up the mantle and has been a low profile but popular figure in the organisation. Notoriously anti-drugs, he suffered personal tragedy in 2018 when his son Dan died of a drug overdose.

Dan had battled addiction for years with his father paying for him to go into rehab.

A major issue facing the new leader or leadership council is what to do about east Belfast. It is understood the east of the city was represented at meetings in the last few weeks, with Graham coming under increasing pressure from security services to deal with them.

He proposed installing a new leadership but that plan has fallen by he wayside over concerns for the personal security of any 'puppet' brigadier put in place.

Should a ruling council be put in place, East Belfast remains the biggest obstacle to progress.

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