Martin McGuinness is to meet loyalist leaders including senior UDA figure Jackie McDonald, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
If the planned talks go ahead they will represent an historic first meeting at the most senior levels of the republican and loyalist leaderships.
This newspaper understands the Deputy First Minister has the meeting pencilled into his diary for today, but is awaiting confirmation from the loyalist side.
UDA ‘brigadier’ McDonald — a member of that organisation’s so-called inner council — has been in Brussels since Monday and is not due back in Belfast until today.
A senior loyalist source said: “I know it has been talked about and people have crossed that Rubicon. There is no objection to meeting McGuinness. It’s about how it’s done.”
Earlier this week another senior loyalist said he hoped that meeting would take place this week.
“He (McGuinness) is just waiting on us to say yes,” the paramilitary leader said.
Last week UDA leaders met the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) and held separate talks with First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson.
With the Stormont stand-off continuing on the question of the devolution of policing and justice, the UDA is seeking assurances on Northern Ireland’s political future before making its next move on decommissioning.
The deadline to complete that process is February.
“The only problem is if devolved government falls apart,” a senior paramilitary leader told this newspaper.
He was speaking just hours before the First and Deputy First Ministers rowed publicly over the question of the transfer of policing and justice powers.
If the McGuinness/loyalist talks go ahead, the issue of the dissident republican threat is likely to be on the agenda.
Last night a Sinn Fein spokesman could not confirm that a meeting would take place today.
He added, however, that his party has its “own issues to raise with loyalists, including recent violence linked to the UDA and the need for them to complete their work with the IICD”.
It is not clear whether loyalists intend to meet the Deputy First Minister as a UDA delegation or whether the meeting will be with the politically-aligned Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG).