Top loyalists land in New York for a five-day peace trip
Four senior loyalists arrived in New York yesterday, beginning a five-day trip to the Big Apple and Washington, during which they’ll meet politicians and business leaders, and visit urban regeneration projects that might offer lessons for Northern Ireland.
Given their close UDA ties, Jackie McDonald, Jimmy Birch, John Bunting and Denis Cunningham were issued special visas, after supportive interventions by the US State Department, the Northern Ireland Bureau, and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.
Loyalist politicians — including David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson, Gary McMichael, and David Adams — were regular Washington visitors during the years leading up to, and immediately following, the forging of the Good Friday agreement.
However, Jackie McDonald is believed to be the first alleged UDA “brigadier” to officially visit since the UDA was banned in 1992.
McDonald is also considered a lynchpin of loyalist peace process support, and his ties with Irish Senator Martin McAleese and President Mary McAleese are seen as hugely significant on both sides of the border. Martin McAleese will accompany the loyalists on their visit.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the men’s trip underscored their peace process commitment and “their determination to build on that process to improve the situation on the ground, particularly in disadvantaged loyalist areas which have yet to fully benefit from the peace dividend”.
The DFA said the delegation aims to raise awareness of issues facing loyalist areas, and to garner support for “transition and reconciliation initiatives” in these areas.
They will tour a number of New York’s neighbourhood redevelopment schemes today.
They will also visit the Clinton Foundation, founded by Bill Clinton in 2001 to aid social and economic development projects in America and abroad.