UVF 'show of strength' being reviewed by PSNI

Police are investigating an apparent show of strength by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) at an event in east Belfast on Saturday.

About 1,500 people, including many dressed in white shirts, ties and black trousers, lined part of the Newtownards Road for an annual memorial event, which the PSNI said the Parades Commission had been made aware of.

The parade is held each year for Robert Seymour, a UVF member who was shot dead by the IRA in a shop in east Belfast in 1988.

The police said the procession “passed off without incident”.

A statement added: “A review of evidence gathered will now take place.”

A Parades Commission notice said 107 bands and up to 2,000 people were expected to attend the event organised by the 36th (Ulster) Division Memorial Association.

A spokesperson for the commission said it was notified about the parade on Saturday and will "review information from the PSNI about the parade" and any alleged breaches will be "a matter for the PSNI to investigate."

The attendance of large numbers in paramilitary-style dress has been linked to support for a new leadership of the east Belfast UVF, which was put in place late last year.

Those who formerly ran the faction were stood down after a long association with drug dealing and other criminality.

The application for the event lodged with the Parades Commission stated that it would involve 2,000 people and more than 100 bands.

The route of the parade on Saturday night involved the Newtownards Road, Beersbridge Road, Castlereagh Road and Woodstock Road.

It was scheduled to last almost four hours.

'Incredibly disturbing' - Long

Justice Minister Naomi Long has described the apparent show of strength as “incredibly disturbing”.

Speaking in the Stormont Assembly, she said people in Northern Ireland were “weary of these paramilitary organisations exerting coercive control in their community”.

The minister said that many paramilitary groups have “now transitioned fully into organised crime gangs”.

She said local communities are "not interested in leadership and management" but in "organisations being put out of business."

She said in her opinion the apparent shows of strength are "shows of fragility".

'No tensions raised'

Rev Mervyn Gibson, who attended the parade, said there were "more men out than usual" but insisted he saw no tension or violence.

The Orange Order grand secretary, who is also a minister at Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church in east Belfast, said he believed those present were there to pay respects to Robert Seymour.

"Were they there for other issues? They may have been there to send a message to someone else. But my concern and the concern of others was that whatever was done didn't raise any tensions and lead to any violence.

"There was certainly no tensions raised, there was certainly no violence after it and I don't see any tensions emanating from the parade.

"I had been talking to all involved in what has been described as a dispute, and nobody wanted any bother whatsoever and people went out of their way to ensure there wasn't any."

He added: "If there's internal issues within an organisation let them deal with it, but let them do so peacefully, and I believe that's what they're doing."

Analysis: Stark reminder of paramilitaries' existence

The police have not yet launched a formal investigation into the event.

They are currently reviewing material such as CCTV footage and, at this stage, it is thought to be unclear what offences, if any, were committed.

This includes any under section 13 of the Terrorism Act, which covers wearing paramilitary ‘garb’ in a public place.

An issue is whether what those were wearing falls under law and whether it would meet the threshold for bringing a prosecution or prosecutions.

Police were in contact with organisers beforehand to ensure it was peaceful.

The event looked different to previous years because it involved what is considered to have been a show of strength organised by the UVF, putting hundreds of additional people on the streets dressed in similar fashion.

It was another stark reminder of the continued existence of paramilitaries almost three decades after the Belfast Agreement.

There is said to be an uneasiness between the UVF and the former leadership it had removed in east Belfast.

But tensions have not escalated and there are no signs the situation is about to deteriorate.

What is the UVF?

The Ulster Volunteer Force murdered more than 500 people during the Troubles.

It was formed in 1966 and adopted the names and symbols of the original UVF, the movement founded in 1912 by Sir Edward Carson to fight against Irish home rule.

The UVF shot dead the first police officer to be murdered during the Troubles.

In recent years, it has been linked to serious criminality including drug dealing.

The East Belfast UVF is one of the major crime-dealing loyalist paramilitary organisations currently in operation and is among four loyalist factions being targeted by the Paramilitary Crime Task Force - the others being the South East Antrim UDA, the West Belfast UDA and North Antrim UDA.