A little over a week before the DUP began negotiations over a possible deal to support a minority Conservative government, its leader Arlene Foster was enjoying a cup of tea with the leader of a Loyalist paramilitary group.
The failure of the Conservative Party to secure a parliamentary majority has led Prime Minister Theresa May to link up with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a government.
Yet as we can reveal, there are worrying links between the DUP and the Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
By Nick Lowles & Matthew Collins
There has been intense media speculation about the DUP’s socially conservative policies (key members are opposed to gay marriage, abortion and have strongly sceptic views on climate change) but less is being said about links with Loyalist paramilitaries.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has already tweeted her displeasure at the DUP’s hostility to same-sex marriages.
As a Protestant Unionist about to marry an Irish Catholic, here’s the Amnesty Pride lecture I gave in Belfast…https://t.co/NdRaT2s3W5
— Ruth Davidson (@RuthDavidsonMSP) June 9, 2017
Other media have pointed to DUP founder Ian Paisley’s links to the shadowy paramilitary Ulster Resistance, which had been set up to oppose the 1986 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
But it is not the Ulster Resistance or even Paisley’s earlier Third Force incarnation people should worry about. Rather, it is the DUP’s links to the UDA that should really concern people.
Not only do these links continue to this day, but in allying itself with the DUP the future UK Government (which sits as a neutral arbiter) may jeopardise the very future of the Northern Irish peace process.
‘Cup of tea’
On 31 May this year, a little over a week before polling day, DUP leader Arlene Foster met with UDA ‘Brigadier’ Jackie McDonald at a community office in the Taughmonagh area of south Belfast. This was just days after the UDA’s ‘rebel’ faction had carried out a murder of a man in Bangor in front of his three-year-old son.
Mrs Foster claimed that the meeting with Jackie McDonald was not pre-arranged and instead took place while she was in the area canvassing for votes. Challenged on why she had not used the opportunity to demand McDonald denounce violence and disarm the Loyalist group, she simply replied:
“I had no need to say it to Jackie McDonald. Jackie McDonald knows my views very, very clearly.”
(When asked if the UDA should disband immediately, Mrs Foster told the BBC: “There should be no paramilitary organisations.”)
In fact very few people in Northern Ireland do not know about Jackie McDonald. Only a few months ago the Sunday World newspaper ran a major feature on the UDA leader and the criminal rackets he and his organisation run.
The exposé began:
“In an unprecedented glimpse inside the UDA, terror group members reveal the fascist-like regime that forces them to hand over membership fees, dish out beatings of their own and force families from their homes.
“UDA veterans, shackled to an organised crime gang, tell of a paramilitary leadership that has no intention of going away.
“And they reveal how foot soldiers are begging terror boss Jackie McDonald to let them walk away – without a beating.”
The article went on to list a string of criminal activities carried out to this day by the UDA – all under Jackie McDonald’s leadership.
During the troubles McDonald was sentenced to 10 years for extortion and blackmail, but upon his release in 1994 he became a leading figure in the Loyalist ceasefire agreement.
McDonald now leads the ‘mainstream’ faction of the UDA. While he is seen as a ‘progressive’ voice within Loyalism, his faction of the UDA is still widely regarded as responsible for racketeering and violence across the province, and also linked to factional violence and murder.
This is the same Jackie McDonald that Arlene Foster had a cup of tea with just days before the election.
This incident is only the latest in a worrying list of links between the DUP and Loyalist paramilitaries.
With the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), the Unionist and Nationalist parties that first brought political stability to Northern Ireland, have now both been politically marginalised, it is perhaps no surprise that the Loyalist paramilitaries (UDA and UVF – Ulster Volunteer Force) have been keen to develop relationships with the DUP in the hope of political and economic patronage.
The links between the DUP and the UDA have increased dramatically since the infamous ‘Flag Dispute’ of 2012, when Loyalist anger at the non-display of the Union flag above Belfast Town Hall led to several nights of rioting. Some commentators have suggested that the DUP’s efforts to reach out to the UDA was an attempt to rebuild links with the Loyalist community.
Community and sports associations run directly or indirectly by leading UDA figures have received huge amounts of funding from the Northern Ireland Executive (the government), while the UDA has actively encouraged its supporters and the communities over which it has influence to back DUP candidates at elections.
Often in the full glare of the press, senior elected representatives of the DUP have met with known members of the UDA across Northern Ireland.
In 2013, DUP activist Bobby Harrison-Rice was forced to quit his role as vice-chair of his local policing partnership, after the Sunday World revealed he had supported a call to have Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly murdered.
It later emerged that Harrison-Rice had made various racist and homophobic comments on social media, including tweeting out after Lee Rigby was murdered: “Find the mosque where they prayed and do every f***er in it”.
In 2014, the DUP selected former UDA prisoner Sam ‘Chalky’ White as a candidate to stand in east Belfast.
Just a few days before White was announced as the DUP candidate, the east Belfast UDA commander, Jimmy Birch, put out the call for supporters to back the DUP in the elections.
In Antrim, the party selected John Smyth, already a sitting councillor, who had a string of convictions for Loyalist-related terror offences which dated back to the 1970s.
It is little wonder that leading figures with the Ulster Unionist Party began to refer to the DUP as “Loyalist Sinn Fein”.
Late last year, the-then Northern Ireland Assembly member Christopher Stalford opened his new office in a building owned by Belfast South Community Resources (BSCR). Attending the opening was Arlene Foster and the party’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds.
Mr Stalford spoke glowingly of his new office, saying: “I am proud that I recently opened my constituency office in Sandy Row.”
But what Stalford failed to mention was that BSCR is managed by convicted Loyalist multiple killer Garnet Busby, and that ex-UDA prisoner Trevor Greer is among its staff. According to one newspaper report, the South Belfast UDA continues to use the top floor of the building to hold ‘kangaroo courts’.
Until recently, one of the officers of BSCR was Jackie McDonald, the UDA leader. BSCR recently received £7.5 million in public funding from Arlene Foster’s administration.
A few weeks later, a day after the BBC referred to a community office on the Shankill Road as the “UDA Headquarters”, Paul Givan the one-time Communities Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly and now the MP for South Antrim, paid the building a visit.
For the Irish Times, Givan “was sending out a very clear message.”
“UDA veterans, shackled to an organised crime gang, tell of a paramilitary leadership that has no intention of going away.”
During the election campaign itself, the Loyalist Communities Council (made up of the UVF, UDA and the Red Hand Commandoes) issued a statement calling for a block vote across Belfast for the DUP.
The Loyalists were particularly supportive of South Belfast DUP candidate Emma Little Pengelly, with the UDA-linked The Ulster Political Research Group magazine The Loyalist stating it “would strongly urge a vote for Emma Little Pengelly.”
On election night, the newly-elected MP publicly thanked the people of Taughmonagh – the area of the constituency that is considered to be McDonald’s stronghold– in her victory speech.
Her father, Noel Little, was a known gunrunner for Ulster Resistance, a group which was set up by the DUP’s founder, the Reverend Ian Paisley.
Her father was once photographed alongside a red-bereted Peter Robinson during an Ulster Resistance rally in 1986. Robinson took over the leadership of the DUP after Ian Paisley stepped down.
Two years later, Noel Little was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the distribution of a huge shipment of guns from South Africa in 1988 that found its way to the UDA and UVF.
While Little was released without charge, he was arrested again the following year after French security services raided a Paris hotel, where he was in the company of South African diplomat Daniel Storm and American arms dealer Douglas Bernhardt.
It later emerged in court that the Loyalists were trying to get guns from South Africa in exchange for information about advanced missile systems, after parts of a Blowpipe missile and a model of a Javelin missile went missing from a Short Brothers plant at Castlereagh.
The court heard that Little was the main instigator of the plot. Following two years on remand, he received a suspended sentence and fine.
Arlene Foster’s cup of tea with the UDA boss was not the first time she has found herself in the company of a UDA commander.
Last October, Foster was photographed standing next to the self-declared North Down UDA commander and convicted armed robber, Dee Stitt.
Foster was there to celebrate the £1.7 million funding for Charter NI, a project to improve employment in east Belfast and for which Dee Stitt is chief executive.
The funding and on-going governmental support for Charter NI came despite Stitt publicly claiming that the British Government did not “give a f*** about Northern Ireland”.
Stitt also described the Loyalist band, the North Down Defenders, as “our homeland security” and added “we are here to defend North Down from anybody.”
“we are here to defend North Down from anybody.”
It seems that Stitt is held in high regard by the DUP leadership. Over the last few years has been a regular visitor to Stormont. In 2012 Assembly Member Alex Easton wrote a glowing reference in support of Stitt’s application to join the influential Social Investment Fund’s South Eastern Steering Group.
“I believe that David would be an outstanding member of the steering group if selected,” Easton wrote, adding that Stitt commanded “widespread support across the community” and was “very good at community dialogue”.
Easton later claimed that he was unaware that Stitt was a paramilitary gangster.
Quite why Foster was happy to be photographed with Dee Stitt is a mystery, particularly given that his UDA brigade is considered by police to be one of the most out-of-control paramilitary gangs in Northern Ireland.
One of the most disgraceful recent assaults carried out by Stitt’s group was a hammer attack on a Bangor community worker who had tried to mobilise local people against the paramilitary gang. He was attacked with hammers in front of his wife and three children.
The Sunday World even alleged that the DUP was once considering Stitt as a potential local election candidate.
Despite Stitt’s paramilitary record, Arlene Foster’s government gave one of his charities £900,000 in 2016 for a local sports project.
Another leading UDA commander who has benefited from funding from the Northern Irish government during the time it was being run Arlene Foster was former UDA prisoner Adrian Bird. Despite being the Lisburn UDA Brigadier, he received huge public funding for his work in the Old Warren Estate with regards to battling racism and educating Loyalists about the need for integration.
The Lisburn UDA commander has also been photographed with Arlene Foster.
Publicly, the DUP is strongly opposed to the UDA and recently put out a statement claiming that: “There is no place for the UDA, or any other paramilitary group in our society.”
The DUP went on: “Their existence never was justified and is not justified now. We will work with those who wish to leave their past behind, but anyone involved in any kind of illegal activity must face the full weight of the law.”
The evidence linking the DUP – and more specifically Arlene Foster – to several current UDA commanders seems to suggest otherwise.
It is ironic that in a General Election dominated by claims of links between the Labour Party leadership and Sinn Fein and the IRA, the Conservative Party are attempting to negotiate an agreement with a political party that itself has disturbing links with a paramilitary organisation.
We totally understand the need to involve former paramilitaries in the peace process, but surely it cannot be right to give away millions of pounds of public money to people and organisations still involved in paramilitary and criminal activity.
We also wonder what due diligence was done by Theresa May before asking the DUP to support her potential new administration.
Nick Lowles is chief executive of HOPE not hate; Matthew Collins is research director.