UVF parade: Shankill Butcher and ex-terror chiefs join anniversary march
UVF paramilitary leaders hijacked an historical parade in east Belfast on Saturday which saw a 10,000 strong crowd take to the streets to remember the original Ulster Volunteer Force.
The afternoon parade around east Belfast was a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the old UVF by Lord Edward Carson in 1913 — many members of whom died at the Battle of the Somme.
Organisers said that the emphasis was firmly on marking the events of 1913, insisting there was no link with modern-day paramilitaries.
With up to 40 bands involved, marchers wore period costumes and some carried replica weapons.
But paramilitary bosses Stephen ‘Mackers' Matthews, Harry Stockman, Joe ‘No Neck' McGaw and Shankill Butcher Eddie McIlwaine hijacked it to march alongside ordinary people.
McIlwaine was part of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang, led by Lenny Murphy, which carried out 19 murders between 1975 and 1977.
McIlwaine, a former UDR soldier, was arrested in June 1977 and charged with the kidnapping and wounding of Gerard McLaverty, the last of the Butchers’ Catholic victims.
Sentenced to 15 years in jail in 1979 for kidnapping, assault and possession of weapons with intent to endanger life, he has kept a low profile since being freed from prison.
With a fresh supergrass trial looming involving ex-UVF commander Gary Haggarty, the terror gang is determined to show it hasn’t gone away.
Haggarty — holed up in a safe house in England — has given police 760 interviews, totalling 30,000 pages, detailing his 20-year career in the UVF.
The 40-year-old has named the entire UVF leadership and accused them of a catalogue of crimes.
Criminal charges based on Haggarty's information are expected later this year, with the supergrass taking to the witness box afterwards to give evidence against those he has named.
Knowing full well that its leadership is likely to end up in court, the UVF is trying to put pressure on the government not to proceed with the case.
The involvement of some senior paramilitary figures in yesterday's commemorative parade was a warning to the authorities that the organisation is still around.
The winter Union flag protests that crippled trade in Belfast and caused millions of pounds of damage to the economy were an earlier warning from the UVF.
Much of the violence surrounding them, including the attacks on police, were organised by the terror gang, at which it recruited youngsters in vast numbers.
A loyalist source told Sunday Life the UVF is trying to intimidate the authorities into abandoning the Haggarty supergrass trial.
The ex-prisoner said: “The UVF leadership is in turmoil over Gary Haggarty's evidence so want to show they haven’t gone away.
“He sat at the top table with the leaders on the Shankill and he knows all about their skeletons in the closet.”
Our source explained how most of Haggarty's police statements focus on UVF crimes that took place after the Good Friday Agreement.
That means anyone convicted on his evidence will not benefit from the maximum two-year jail term handed down to paramilitaries who committed offences before April 1998. And that is why the UVF leadership is so nervous
about this fresh supergrass case.
In response loyalist terror chiefs have been flexing their muscles, with the public appearance of some key figures at yesterday's anniversary parade being the most public show of strength to date.
Around 10,000 people are estimated to have taken part in the march that started on the Ravenhill Road and wound its way around east Belfast before stopping at Craigavon House.
It was here that the original UVF was formed by Lord Carson in 1913 in opposition to Home Rule in Ireland.
Many of those who signed up as soldiers were killed three years later during World War I at the Battle of the Somme.
When fighting ended in 1916, the UVF disappeared, but it was to re-emerge as a terror gang in the 1960s under the leadership of Gusty Spence.
It has been responsible for more than 400 murders since then, the majority of which have been sectarian.
In a nod to the UVF's historic past, many of those taking part in yesterday's parade wore period costume from 1913.
But the paramilitary chiefs who make up its current leadership stuck to suits similar to those favoured by Mafia dons.
Ordinary people taking part in the parade would have been unaware the event had been latched onto by some members of the current UVF.
An armband sported by Stephen Matthews read ‘UVF 3 East Belfast' denoting the area that he controls.
The likes of Joe McGaw and Harry Stockman wore ‘UVF 1 West Belfast' armbands to signify their brigade area.
The UVF's Chief of Staff John ‘Bunter' Graham was also present but did not parade.
The 64-year-old Shankill Road-based paramilitary, who has been the terror gang's leader since the 1980s, is understood to be in ill health.
His frail state has led to unrest within the ranks, with senior figures currently jostling to replace him and many UVF brigades acting independently.
When yesterday's parade reached Craigavon House, speeches were read to the thousands in attendance.
One of those who addressed the crowd was the great granddaughter of Sir James Craig.
A minute’s silence for deceased members of the UVF over the past 100 years was also held.
Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson told reporters that the modern-day UVF was not on display.
He said: “There is no matter of UVF in terms of on show, they wore totally different uniforms than they would have worn then and would have fired real guns and fired shots.
“The modern UVF have moved on, moved off the stage in that way.”
Organisers said that hundreds of UVF flags that were erected along the parade route last weekend would be taken down once the event ended.