As judge rejects his high court bid to silence Sunday Life, we reveal how PSNI crackdown has hit terror gang hard
The East Belfast UVF has lost more than £1m of drugs in Paramilitary Crime Task Force raids during the past year.
Almost £200,000 in criminal cash has also been recovered since May 2021, inflicting a huge financial blow on the terror group.
Senior PSNI sources say the scale highlights the East Belfast UVF’s role as one of Northern Ireland’s premier drugs gangs.
While the finds are welcome, they are believed to be just the tip of the iceberg, accounting for less than a quarter of the estimated £5m of cocaine and cannabis that has passed through the organisation’s hands.
The East Belfast UVF is reportedly led by Stephen ‘Mackers’ Matthews, a veteran loyalist who denies any links to criminality or membership of a proscribed group.
Matthews lost a last-minute High Court bid on Saturday to stop Sunday Life naming him as the reported head of the East Belfast UVF.
When the newspaper contacted Matthews for comment on this story it was told by Jamie Bryson that Matthews planned to issue injunction proceedings to prevent his name being mentioned in the story.
Sunday Life’s lawyers then received legal papers from Matthews’ solicitors on Friday evening and the case was quickly assigned to a judge for a hearing on Saturday.
After hearing two hours of detailed submissions by barristers for Sunday Life and Matthews, Mr Justice David Scoffield threw out the application.
A PSNI spokesman said: “Between the start of May 2021 and the end of May 2022, approximately £1.2m of suspected drugs and around £190,000 in cash has been seized as part of ongoing investigations into East Belfast UVF.”
East Belfast UVF sources accuse the task force of wrongly attributing drug finds to the group. They point to how dealers arrested in what are publicly termed operations against the East Belfast UVF are not described as such in court.
But security sources told Sunday Life they stand over their assessment of it being one of the biggest and most dangerous drug gangs in Northern Ireland.
They also revealed how the East Belfast UVF bought cocaine from dealers in the neighbouring nationalist Short Strand district and have links to a west Belfast drugs mob known as the ‘Tarmacers’, which is supplied by the Kinahan cartel.
The loyalist gang’s criminal turf covers an area stretching from the lower Newtownards Road in inner east Belfast into north Down and Carryduff to the south.
“If you want to deal drugs in this area you have two choices: pay protection money to the East Belfast UVF or sell its product,” a security insider told Sunday Life.
“At the end of the week the money is collected by UVF company commanders, who take a cut, before sending the rest down the Newtownards Road to the ‘brigadier’ and his 2IC (second-in-command).”
Our source named the East Belfast UVF’s main drug barons as the son of a leading UVF figure, a cousin of this individual, and a loyalist from the Ravenhill Road.
“They are the main men, the ones who see that all the East Belfast UVF cocaine dealers are supplied or taxed,” added the insider.
“Each of them has been arrested on several occasions, but they have never been charged with drug offences. They use ‘runners’ in order not to get their hands dirty.”
Each of the dealers live lifestyles far beyond their apparent financial means, driving top-of-the-range cars, taking expensive holidays and paying for pricey cosmetic treatments.
Money they make from drug dealing is invested in legitimate businesses such as gyms, takeaway restaurants, beauty salons, taxi firms and several pubs.
Many of these businesses run at a loss but continue trading because the cash-in-hand nature means they are essential money-laundering tools.
In the past six months alone three men named by the Paramilitary Crime Task Force as East Belfast UVF drug dealers have been sentenced in court.
Brian Dempsey (57) was caged for 18 months on June 1 for possessing £270,000 of cocaine with intent to supply and £6,570 of criminal cash. He was arrested in May 2021 during a police raid at a property in east Belfast.
Two weeks ago Matthew Long (36) was handed a three-year probation term following guilty pleas to selling East Belfast UVF drugs to feed his own addiction.
When cops arrested the ex-RAF man he was in possession of a phone that showed he had 25 regular cocaine customers.
Another former soldier, 50-year-old Gerard Taylor, was sentenced to two years and three months in prison for being concerned in the supply of cocaine.
When the task force raided his Chobham Street home they discovered a hydraulic press used to package the drug. Taylor told detectives that he only became involved in the racket to pay off drug debts.
In the past three weeks another four men have appeared in court charged with involvement in two different alleged East Belfast UVF cocaine supply networks.
Edward Jackson (55) and Trevor McCarten (41) are accused of possessing the drug with intent to supply, while Francis Magee is charged with being concerned in the supply of the drug. The trio were arrested following a task force operation that led to the recovery of £200,000 of cocaine.
In a separate case Tate Carson (19) faces charges of having cocaine and cannabis with intent to supply and £80,000 of criminal cash.
He was lifted on June 1 at his home on Victoria Road during an operation which formed part of a task force probe into criminality associated with the East Belfast UVF.
Security sources concede that while they have hit the terror gang hard — taking £1.2m of its drugs off the streets in the past 12 months — the godfathers who run the rackets remain at large.
This is due to them having a trusted network of henchmen who ensure that they never get their hands dirty.
It is because of this that senior PSNI officers are keen to see unexplained wealth order (UWO) legislation introduced in Northern Ireland.
One told us: “UWOs would be a big help in the fight against criminal gangs like the East Belfast UVF.”
Before the Assembly collapsed, it was in the process of introducing new laws which will force criminals to provide a detailed account of how they obtained cash, property or goods.
UWOs do not require any criminal charges to be filed and can be issued against items valued at more than £50,000 if the owner is alleged to have been involved in serious crime.
Justice Minister Naomi Long described the legislation as “an important step in ensuring law enforcement will have access to a wider range of powers. (It) will be an integral part of the overall response to organised criminality in all its forms.”