Prominent loyalist leaders including UDA boss Jackie McDonald and UPRG representative Frankie Gallagher are expected to speak at a west Belfast GAA club tonight as part of a special cross-community event.
The panel discussion, which involves leaders from both communities, is said to have been organised by Standing Northern Ireland Peace Process, a group set up to explore new ways for divided communities to build links.
The presence of McDonald — the so-called brigadier of the South Belfast wing of the loyalist paramilitary group — and other loyalist leaders is considered to be a significant step in building relations with republican and nationalist communities.
This is the first time an event involving such high profile leaders will take place at a west Belfast GAA club.
Jim Auld, head of Community Restorative Justice Ireland, who is one of the republican representatives invited to speak at the meeting tonight, said he viewed the development as a very positive step.
“It’s my understanding that Jackie McDonald and Frankie Gallagher will be coming to speak,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“There are a number of people that I know that have been invited and it is my understanding that it will be an opportunity for Jackie McDonald and some of his friends to speak to people from nationalist communities.
“I think it’s a very positive thing in terms of restorative justice.
“The nationalist community has a lot to offer the unionist community in terms of community development.
“But I don’t think it is a one way process. I think it needs to be the two communities offering the same opportunities to speak to each other. I think that will happen, I hope that will happen.
“I think that anybody who is going along tonight will be going with a positive perspective on things.”
It is understood nationalist community worker Jim McCorry and Ulster Political Research Group Colin Halliday will chair the event, while Gerry Ruddy of the IRSP will also take part in the panel discussion.
Mr Auld said he expected most of tonight’s discussion to revolve around both sides acknowledging the past but also looking at ways to move forwards.
“I think there needs to be an acknowledgment on all sides that things were done in the past but we need to look at how to move forward too,” he said.
“I am an optimistic man and I think there are a number of people working on new ideas all the time for ways to move forward, this is just one of them.”
Tonight’s meeting is expected to be held at the Sarsfield Gaelic Athletics Club in Andersonstown at 7pm.