LEADING loyalists are facing a backlash from within their own communities over the Irish Sea customs border and its effect on the union.
A senior UVF source told Sunday Life its bosses had "messed up" over their support for Brexit, which appears to have enhanced the prospect of a united Ireland.
The damning assessment comes on the back of meetings between the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) - an umbrella body which counts paramilitary representatives amongst its members.
UVF boss Winkie Irvine and UDA chief Jimmy Birch were among the LCC delegation that sat down recently with senior civil servants to discuss the customs border.
The Belfast Telegraph reported that they were "briefed on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol" by NIO permanent secretary Madeleine Alessandri and three other officials.
The summit came amid growing unease in loyalist communities about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, and concerns about empty supermarket shelves and lorries stuck at shipping ports.
A UVF source said: "The UVF and UDA leaderships have to carry the can for this in loyalist communities, the DUP as well.
"They all advocated for Brexit and voted to leave the EU. They told people the union was safe and that Brexit secured Northern Ireland's position within the UK. Now they are running to the NIO complaining about what they have voted for. They were warned about the threat of a customs border dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, but dismissed it, which was a big mistake to make."
After meeting with NIO officials, the LCC said government must "ensure there would be no actual or perceived diminution in Northern Ireland's constitutional position".
It also warned the NIO that it would be "monitoring" the treatment of Northern Ireland citizens under the new dispensation and, "if necessary", would "consider sponsoring legal action to protect the position of unionists".
Some have taken this as a veiled threat, however UVF figures have denied there is any implied menace.
Our source added: "There won't be any loyalists taking to the streets over this like the flag protests. That didn't work then and won't work now."
LCC member Robert Williamson described the NIO meeting as "forthright and hard-hitting".
"People spoke their minds. It was important for the NIO to be told the feeling in loyalist working-class estates," Mr Williamson told the Belfast Telegraph.
"There is a lot of fear that our identity is being diluted. There are concerns about empty supermarket shelves and lorries queued at ferry ports."
Insisting that unionist rights must be protected by the Good Friday Agreement, he added: "The Agreement should not be a green document. There are a million unionists in Northern Ireland and the agreement is there to protect us too."