Paramilitary loan-sharks have been warned to pack it in or face being targeted in a new PSNI crackdown.
Sunday Life can reveal the NIO (Northern Ireland Office) has set UDA factions a 15-month time limit to call a halt to lucrative money-lending rackets.
These involve handing out 20% interest loans to skint families with payments doubled each week if they are not paid on time, leading them into an endless spiral of debt.
The problem is rife in Carrickfergus, Larne, east Belfast and north Down - areas which are now the focus of a new scheme funded by the Executive Office.
Government chiefs are in the process of appointing a lead partner to work with loyalists in these areas to end paramilitary money-lending.
The £168,000 contract lasting from next month until July 2022 is currently out to tender, with a charity linked to ex-UVF and UDA prisoners expected to win the bid.
If they are unsuccessful in convincing paramilitaries to stop illegal loan-sharking, PSNI chiefs will be instructed to come down hard on those still involved.
An Executive source told Sunday Life: "It's the classic carrot and stick approach. If these UDA gangs don't voluntarily stop money-lending, they will be forcibly stopped."
A spokesperson for the Executive Office, which is funding the anti-loan-sharking scheme, confirmed the Communities in Transition Project plans to award a contract to "a successful delivery partner" to provide support to areas who are "most vulnerable to monetary exploitation".
They said: "The Communities in Transition Project supports communities to resist coercive control in areas where there has been a history of paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime.
"Research carried out from the outset of the Communities in Transition Project has highlighted that the issue of monetary exploitation, and in some cases its connection with the drug trade, is a recurring feature in a number of areas. In many communities this activity goes largely unreported and is seen as a 'way of life' for many who do not fully understand its connection to criminality.
"The situation is leaving many people vulnerable to exploitation and coercive control.
"As part of the ongoing work to tackle these issues the Communities in Transition Project is seeking to award a contract to a successful delivery partner to provide support to those within these CIT areas who are most vulnerable to monetary exploitation, to help them deal with these issues and highlight the problem and how to access support."
Branded the 'Addressing Vulnerability to Monetary Exploitation Programme,' the project will operate solely in Carrickfergus, Larne, east Belfast and north Down.
It has been specifically designed to combat the South East Antrim UDA, which despite the geography attached to its name has a major presence in each of these areas.
The gang - elements of which were behind the recent death threat issued against First Minister Arlene Foster - has around 2,000 members.
Led by loyalist veteran Gary Fisher, it has abandoned any pretence of politics and is solely a criminal organisation.
PSNI chiefs estimate it makes in excess of £2.5m per year through drug dealing, extortion, robberies and money-lending.
The latter is a particular problem as it targets the most vulnerable and poorest families in loyalist heartlands.
Key to the government's plan to eradicating paramilitary loan-sharking is having UDA and UVF members working in communities to bring it to an end.
However, the problem they will face is that the South East Antrim UDA has shown absolutely no willingness to change. "It'll be a hard task convincing UDA members in Carrick and Larne to stop money-lending, there is far too much money in it for them," explained a loyalist source.
"Christmas was really busy for them; because coronavirus had caused so many job redundancies and put others on furlough, people were queuing up to borrow money.
"The UDA charge 20% interest on every £100 borrowed. If this isn't paid back in a week it doubles to 40%, and if that isn't paid back on time it doubles again to 80%, and so on.
"I know young lads who got a £100 loan to buy drugs and who ended up owing £1,000. If they cannot pay they are given a beating and forced to join the UDA."
Loyalist sources identified the South East Antrim UDA chiefs who control money-lending as:
÷ Clifford 'Trigger' Irons, a 43-year-old self-confessed cocaine user who runs the UDA in Carrickfergus and whose house was seized by the National Crime Agency as part of a fraud probe;
÷ David Murray, a 48-year-old Larne businessman who was named in court by police as claiming to lead the UDA in the port town;
÷ Adrian Price, a 50-year-old criminal who was convicted of withholding information about the South East Antrim UDA murder of Colin Horner and who leads the gang in Newtownards.
A UDA insider added: "These three don't handle the money themselves, they have others lower down the chain who do that, but any profits made are kicked back up to them.
"It's a sad sight to see pensioners and single mums calling to UDA money-lenders' doors to borrow money just to get them through Christmas."
The contractor appointed by the Executive Office to bring an end to money-lending will be asked, as a minimum, to gain the participation of 10 individuals in the programme each from Carrickfergus, Larne, east Belfast and north Down.
Sunday Life understands that the north Belfast-based Intercomm charity is a front-runner, as it works closely with leading loyalists as well as ex-UDA and ex-UVF prisoners.
Two years ago the PSNI appointed a specialist officer to assist the Paramilitary Crime Taskforce's crackdown on loan-sharking. This was in response to how difficult it is to bring charges against those involved in the shameful practice.
One of the few successes the authorities have registered against paramilitary money-lenders in Northern Ireland was the seizure of assets belonging to former Red Hand Commando gunman Mel Matthews.
A decade ago the 61-year-old was forced to surrender a huge house in the village of Kells, three plots of land, four luxury cars and a top-of-the-range motorbike totalling £400,000.
This was after the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) argued he was "closely involved in illegal activities including loan-sharking, and the collection of protection monies, as well as other activities typically associated with loyalist paramilitarism".