Dawn Purvis has resigned as leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The dramatic walkaway comes just days after the UVF murdered Shankill loyalist Bobby Moffett.
For decades the PUP has had close political links to that paramilitary organisation and the closely associated Red Hand Commando.
But in a fast moving play behind the scenes, Ms Purvis has now left the party.
Yesterday, in a face-to-face meeting, she told the UVF’s most senior leader of her decision, spoke to her staff and then to Jeanette Ervine, widow of the late David Ervine, who Ms Purvis succeeded as party leader.
Her decision to resign was accepted by her executive, called together for an emergency meeting yesterday evening.
Afterwards party members were being informed of the shock developments.
Ms Purvis has resigned both her membership and leadership of the PUP, and will continue in politics as an independent MLA.
Her resignation will be viewed as a very public demonstration of disgust at last Friday’s shooting.
Hours after gunmen fired on Mr Moffett — a one-time member of the Red Hand Commando — police arrested one of the UVF’s most senior figures on the Shankill Road, a man who had a significant part in last year’s decommissioning announcement.
He was later released unconditionally.
A Government decision on the credibility of the UVF ceasefire now depends on security assessments of who ordered and carried out the killing.
The final judgment will be a matter for new Secretary of State Owen Paterson.
Three years ago, in what was supposed to be an endgame statement, both the UVF and Red Hand Commando said they would “assume a non-military, civilianised role”.
And, 12 months ago, the two groups said they had “completed the process of rendering ordnance (arms) totally and irreversibly beyond use”.
Last Friday’s shooting makes a mockery of both statements.
Inside the loyalist community the immediate focus will be on political developments — watching to see how many follow Ms Purvis out of the PUP, and who stays behind and maintains that link with the UVF and Red Hand Commando.
There will be interest in the decisions of Party president Hugh Smyth and former Stormont MLA Billy Hutchinson, who represented the UVF in talks with General John de Chastelain throughout the decommissioning process.
Ms Purvis has been leader of the Progressive Unionist Party for three-and-a-half years, taking over after the sudden death of David Ervine and retaining his Assembly seat with an increased vote just weeks later.
Commenting on the developments, Mr Ervine’s widow Jeanette told this newspaper: “I said to her, to be perfectly honest, ‘I don’t blame you’.”
Earlier this week Mrs Ervine told the Belfast Telegraph: “There is no place for guns in our societythe people on the Shankill Road have suffered enough.”
Background suggestions by loyalists that the shooting was not sanctioned are being dismissed by senior paramilitary figures.
A source said: “In the present climate it would have to come from the very top. There’s no way that just happened.
“They (the gunmen) would be afraid of getting the exact same thing back again.”
The source described the shooting as “bad enough”, but said the intimidation of the Shankill community afterwards had “compounded everything”.