Police fear an escalation in paramilitary violence following the arrest of prominent loyalist Winston Irvine, a court heard yesterday.
he high-profile campaigner, closely associated with the UVF, appeared in Belfast Magistrates’ Court yesterday to face a series of charges over a cache of arms and ammunition recovered from his car this week.
And it emerged that rather than face trial yesterday he should have attended his graduation from Maynooth University where he completed his Masters in Peace Studies.
In denying bail, the magistrate described the seizure, which included handguns and ammunition, as a “significant transport”, adding that there was a “serious concern for public safety”.
His comments came at the end of a lengthy appearance at the Laganside Court complex.
In opposing bail, Detective Inspector McCullough said Irvine’s release would increase tensions in the community.
The nature and quantity of arms and ammunition recovered, he said, bore all the hallmarks of a “paramilitary operation”.
“Given the amount of ammunition and range of weapons, that’s typical what paramilitaries have access to,” he said.
He said ammunition, including nine magazines of automatic rifle ammunition, indicated groups had access to assault rifles.
None of the weapons recovered from Irvine’s car were capable of firing most of the ammunition seized.
“Weapons suitable for such ammunition have yet to be found,” he said, adding that police believe Irvine has “clear access and knowledge” of the whereabouts of these weapons.
He said there were fears if he were released there was a risk ‘that he would move other weapons before they were recovered’, which he said would constitute serious interference in the course of justice.
Given the range of weapons, he said an increase in communal tension and unrest was possible.
Representing Irvine, senior barrister and famed GAA analyst Joe Brolly hailed his client’s contribution to the peace process, saying he kept the peace in North Belfast and worked tirelessly on conflict resolution and had a reputation as a “renowned peacemaker”.
Mr Brolly described Irvine as someone who has access to the highest levels of government in Ireland and the UK and to senior PSNI command, saying his client had been in contact with Deputy Chief Constable Bobby Singleton the eve of his arrest.
And he vowed that when the case went to trial he would produce a “galaxy of witnesses” to refute the allegations.
Irvine, a high-profile loyalist activist who has held a series of positions with state-funded bodies including the Policing and Community Partnership Board, appeared via video link from a holding cell.
Wearing a red T-shirt, he spoke only to confirm that he understood the accusations.
DI McCullough detailed the events leading up to his detention. He also revealed that during five interviews totaling nearly four hours of questioning, Irvine repeatedly replied “no comment” and on one occasion said the weaponry had nothing to do with him.
The police officer revealed the PSNI were about to arrest Irvine on an ‘unrelated matter’ when they noticed his car was parked in Glencairn Street, while a red VW Transporter van was parked behind him.
He said there was an interaction between Irvine and the driver of the van who opened a side door and lifted an object, Irvine then closed the trunk of his car and they drove off.
He was later arrested in Disraeli Street where police searched his car. They recovered a Sainsbury’s bag which contained a holdall which in turn contained a number of weapons including handguns and a blank pistol which had been modified to fire live ammunition.
More than 200 cartridges were recovered as well as nine rounds of ammunition for an assault rifle.
Irvine told officers he had no idea what was in the bag.
A subsequent search of his home in the Ballysillan area uncovered a number of items allegedly linking Irvine to the UVF, including a plaque commemorating ‘fallen volunteers’ and a balaclava.
A number of UVF pin badges and a gold chain and pendant bearing the UVF Company “B” logo were also found in a bedside cabinet. There were also commemorative badges honoring former UVF Commander Trevor King who was assassinated by the INLA in 1994 and Brian Robinson who was shot dead by the British Army in 1989.
A large sum of cash, believed to be £3,000, was also found, which Irvine said he and his wife had saved up to redecorate their home.
DI McCullough said a cell phone was recovered but Irvine refused to reveal the pin to unlock the device.
Representing Irvine, Mr Brolly said news of his arrest was met with “disbelief” by people working in the field of conflict resolution.
He said his client had spent 15 to 20 years “intensely involved in the peace process” and was currently working with Inter Com, a state-funded cross-community group that monitors sectarian tensions in the streets.
He worked with ex-Loyalist and ex-Republican prisoner groups and was instrumental in decommissioning the UVF in 2009, a process in which he said he is still involved.
“He continued to work to keep guns out of harm’s way, his whole life is an indication of his passion for the peace process.”
He also cited his work with the International Fund for Ireland.
“He shared platforms with (former) police chief George Hamilton.”
His client also works with the Independent Review Board which monitors paramilitary activity, a job he says has been going on for 12 years.
“I have spoken to people this morning and there is disbelief that he is involved in nefarious activity that would encourage violence in any way.”
He said Irvine’s phone never stopped ringing as he helped keep the peace on the streets of North Belfast and said he was key to preventing an escalation of violence at the sectarian flashpoint Lanark Way earlier this year.
Married with four children, he said Irvine was committed to his community and had a clean criminal record except for minor driving offences.
“It will be hotly contested, we will produce a host of witnesses who will attest to his work in the peace process,” he said.
Irvine was taken into custody to appear by video link on July 1.