The Northern Ireland Office has denied that minister Conor Burns provided a reference for Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine ahead of a bail hearing on Wednesday.
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.
There was delay to the High Court proceedings on Wednesday while the prosecution, defence and judge discussed “sensitive matters” in chambers.
When the public bail hearing began it lasted less than 10 minutes. 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 but linked to a meeting that the minister held with the loyalist-linked group Action for Community Transformation last year, during which Mr Irvine was present.
The Northern Ireland Office was keen to stress that the letter was dated December 2021 and was never intended for use in any criminal proceedings.
Earlier, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole had questioned the minister’s intervention saying: “These are serious offences and the suspect who has been charged is entitled to a fair trial.”
But he added that “for a serving minister to intervene on a bail application raises questions about Conor Burns' judgment”.
However sources said the letter was dated last year and not intended or approved for use during court proceedings.
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."
Prosecution lawyer Natalie Pinkerton pointed out during the short hearing that some of the references provided “predate these alleged offences”.
However, is understood that they include at least two clergy and a number of other senior civic figures who gave letters specifically for use in the bail proceedings.
Among them was David Porter, Chief of Staff to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
While still in post, Mr Porter is to stand down in November, and will remain on the Archbishop’s staff in a part-time post focused on strategy.
Mr Porter was appointed Chief of Staff and Strategy in 2016, having been the Archbishop’s Director of Reconciliation, and has been present at talks linked to Northern Ireland’s legacy.
Lambeth Palace played host to controversial talks attended by senior republicans, along with loyalists linked to the UVF and members of the security services in February 2020.
Mr Irvine was part of the loyalist delegation present at the talks.
The Belfast Telegraph contacted the Archbishop Justin Welby’s office about the reference.
A spokesperson said no one from the office had provided a reference in an official capacity and they could not comment on what staff “do or don’t do” in a personal capacity.
The court was told there was also an acknowledgement from “the then chairwoman of the Policing Board” recognising Mr Irvine’s contribution up to her term of office ending in 2015.
A previous bail hearing heard claims that the accused had been in conversation with PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton about decommissioning weapons.
This was later denied by the PSNI, and during Wednesday’s bail hearing the court was told that while the pair do have regular contact they did not speak in relation to the matters before the court.