Belfast Telegraph

PSNI 'did not hold meetings with UVF' over bonfire row

Crackdown call: Gerry Kelly
Crackdown call: Gerry Kelly
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

A senior PSNI officer has said that "no formal meetings" took place between police and the UVF over an east Belfast bonfire.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd was responding to claims that police met with Stephen Matthews during the dispute over the contentious bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre.

Mr Matthews has been widely named as leader of the East Belfast UVF, a claim he strongly denies.

Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson told the BBC that Mr Matthews met with police as part of his role with the East Belfast Cultural Collective (EBCC), a group representing a number of bonfires in the greater Belfast area.

However, Mr Todd said police had "not met with that individual as part of any formal set-up" during the dispute over the bonfire which was built on land owned by Belfast City Council.

He accepted that Mr Matthews may have had "chance" encounters with police as he attended a number of bonfires but rejected the claim there had been any meeting.

"There have been no formal meetings or scheduled meetings or diaried meetings between any senior member of this organisation and the individual you name to which I am aware of, and I have checked with all the local officers responsible," Mr Todd told BBC's Nolan Show.

"However, that individual has been present, along with others from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, at a number of sites and will have come into contact with police officers as they go about their daily work.

"I don't style that as a meeting. It shouldn't be characterised as we're in some way in cahoots with that individual, that we're bending to their will or seeking their support."

Writing on Twitter, Mr Bryson said that there was "never any suggestion" the PSNI had engaged with the UVF.

"That was the whole point, EBCC is not the UVF and the bonfire was run by the community, not any other organisation. PSNI engagement with EBCC was positive and hopefully those channels of communication can continue," he wrote.

The new Chief Constable Simon Byrne has vowed to take on the UVF, accusing them of "cynical" tactics at Avoniel which included using women and children as human shields.

Sinn Fein's policing spokesperson Gerry Kelly yesterday urged the PSNI to follow through on its pledge to crack down on the UVF with all its powers.

The North Belfast MLA said: "Simon Byrne was clear that the UVF would not be tolerated and that the PSNI would go after them with all of their powers.

"Those words need to be followed by action because the East Belfast UVF is a scourge on communities.

"People don't want to see the PSNI sitting down and doing meetings with the UVF, they want to see [the UVF] taken off the streets and put before the courts."

Last night, Mr Todd said that police would continue to target the East Belfast UVF.

"Since January this year, we have had significant success - 18 people arrested and 16 of them charged before the courts as a result of Paramilitary Crime Task Force operations targeting the East Belfast UVF," he said.

"We have also taken a significant quantity of drugs off the streets to protect our communities and seized a substantial amount of cash which has resulted from criminal activity.

"We will continue to arrest members of the East Belfast UVF and put them before the courts."

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