Cantrell Close: UVF told to lift threats as police blame terror gang for forcing Catholic families out
The UVF is facing growing pressure to withdraw sectarian threats after the Chief Constable blamed the organisation for forcing Catholic families from their south Belfast homes.
George Hamilton pointed the finger at the loyalist terror group yesterday afternoon, just hours after its flags were taken down from lampposts in Cantrell Close.
"There are people using the guise of the UVF who we believe are members of that organisation who are threatening people because of their community background, because of their religion, to leave their home - that is not acceptable," he said.
Although Mr Hamilton was not sure if the threats were supported by the leadership of the terror group, which he described as "chaotic and disorganised", or if they were made by individual members, when asked outright if it was the UVF, he replied: "Yes."
The attribution of blame comes after a week of mounting pressure on police to confirm once and for all who was behind the threats.
The East Belfast Community Initiative (EBCI) - a group that claims to mediate on behalf of loyalists linked to the local UVF - removed the flags in the cul-de-sac yesterday.
Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, a spokesman for the group, said the "perfectly lawful and legitimate" flags were taken down as a "goodwill" gesture following discussions with South Belfast DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly as part of a bid to de-escalate tensions.
The Chief Constable insisted he was willing to take tough action against the UVF, but expressed frustration over the difficulty of finding witnesses due to the fear of reprisals.
He also said it was too early to say if dissident republicans were behind threats against two elderly loyalist community workers in the same area this week.
Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir welcomed the removal of the flags, but called for the UVF to go further and withdraw threats against families.
He also called for the "equally wrong" threats against the community workers to be lifted immediately.
But Mr Bryson disputed Mr Hamilton's claim, telling this newspaper that he accepted "the word of the UVF", who had been clear in saying it wasn't behind the threats that forced the Catholic families to flee.
He added: "That's their position and it hasn't changed, so how can they withdraw threats they never made?"
He added that if the Chief Constable was correct in his assertion, then he should take action.
"Last week the Chief Constable said he didn't know and now he's coming out with these allegations," he said. "If he has evidence, then he should do something with it."
There was mixed reaction among the residents of the mixed housing development
"I'm glad the flags are gone, but the threats should be lifted too," one resident said.
But a Protestant couple weren't so optimistic.
"I don't know why they are trying to force Catholics and Protestants to live together - it's never going to work," they said.
The young residents, who were one of the first families to move in to the cul-de-sac off the Ravenhill Road, said that while UVF threats were unjustifiable, flags were a reality their neighbours must accept.
"Why should we change them?" they asked.
"Can you imagine us moving into Short Strand and demanding they take down their flags?
"It's got to be expected, this is all about common sense and there's no point complaining - at the end of the day this is a Protestant area."
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, the party's policing spokesman, also called for the UVF to withdraw the threats and vowed to pressure the PSNI to bring individuals before the courts.
"It is 2017 and the UVF continues to be involved in murder, racketeering, extortion, drug dealing and issuing sectarian threats," he said.
"They have no other purpose than to serve their own ends."
Separately, police seized a quantity of suspected drugs following a search of a property in Cantrell Close yesterday.
Police said suspected cannabis and class A controlled drugs, along with other drugs paraphernalia, were seized.