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Northern Ireland Office defends Minister Conor Burns over contact with loyalist Winston Irvine


Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns Photo: Liam McBurney

Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns Photo: Liam McBurney


Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns Photo: Liam McBurney

The Northern Ireland Office has defended Minister Conor Burns following previous suggestions he had issued a reference for leading loyalist Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine.

The 47-year-old leading loyalist had been in custody after his car was stopped in the Shankill area of Belfast last month and a holdall containing guns and ammunition discovered in the boot of the vehicle.

On Wednesday he was granted bail after a judge was told that his DNA was not present on a holdall containing guns in his car.

During the hearing, Justice O’Hara noted the references from a number of people in support of Mr Irvine.

The court heard that a letter from Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns indicating he would like to continue dialogue with the accused was also included.

It is understood that this was not in the form of a reference provided for the bail hearing.

The Northern Ireland Office confirmed that the letter was dated December 2021 and was never intended for use in any criminal proceedings.

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In a statement, an NIO spokesperson said: “Minister Burns wrote to Winston Irvine in 2021 noting that dialogue and debate are vital in Northern Ireland and indicating his willingness to engage."

Earlier, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole had claimed the intervention “raises questions” about the minister’s judgement.

“It is extraordinary that a serving NIO minister has provided a letter of support in these circumstances,” Mr O’Toole said.

“These are serious offences and the suspect who has been charged is entitled to a fair trial.

“But for a serving minister to intervene on a bail application raises questions about Conor Burns' judgment.”

During Wednesday’s hearing it was also said that the Assistant Chief Constable had confirmed regular contact between the pair, but not in relation to the matters before the court.

Mr Irvine was released on a £750 bail and a £10,000 family surety.

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