THE leadership of the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) met in Londonderry last week to deny suggestions that there is a 'split' looming within that organisation or the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
In a statement released on July 9, the North Antrim and Londonderry Branch of the UPRG stated its intention to no longer co-operate with the PSNI, and a refusal to support the political institutions in Northern Ireland. This culminated in a protest march around areas of the Waterside by a substantial number of loyalists voicing their concern about treatment of their communities, ex-prisoners and former 'combatants'.
In the aftermath of this, press speculation has been rife that cracks had appeared not only between the UPRG, but the UDA in North Antrim and Londonderry and the rest of Northern Ireland.
The five regional leaders of the UPRG, Frankie Gallagher (National Spokesperson), Billy McQuiston (Spokesperson for West Belfast), Colin Halliday (Spokesperson for South Belfast & South Down), John Howcroft (Spokesperson for North Belfast), and North Antrim and Londonderry representative, David Malcolm gave assurances the organisation's membership were combating the same issues across Northern Ireland, not just in the wider north western region.
Frankie Gallagher referred back to a UDA statement in 2004 that stated the organisation was attempting to transform itself from a conflict footing to a situation where violence and weaponry were no longer required. However, the message from the UPRG as a whole was that positive moves within loyalism and their communities fell victim to consistent demonisation from the police, and mainstream unionist politicians as well as nationalism and republicans.
When asked if absolute assurances could be given that no members of the UPRG or the UDA were involved in drug dealing, Mr Gallagher said: "Jackie McDonald is on record as very clearly stating, 'you can't be a loyalist and a drug dealer,' but that doesn't seem to be getting through to the media."
John Howcroft highlighted co-operation between police and the community 'outing' drug dealers in the Tiger's Bay district of North Belfast at a high level and that this policy needed to be followed through in all loyalist communities, but was predicated on trust being built between communities and the PSNI.
Billy McQuiston highlighted how education and regeneration would bring equity for loyalists, but said that it was based on the removal of the demonisation of loyalists as drug dealers.
However, it was stated that the levels of frustration felt by loyalists across the Province was exacerbated because of the generally poorer economic situation in the north west.
However, education, community regeneration and building "bonds between communities" are how the UPRG view the way forward. This they said will be how pressure will be placed on unionist politicians, to deliver a "fair slice of the cake" for loyalist communities.
The Sentinel asked that, if it was the case that mainstream unionist representatives failed to pay heed to loyalist concerns, would the UPRG organise on a political footing and stand for election?
Frankie Gallagher said: "No. We believe in unionist unity. Certainly, the UDA was formed to maintain the union and we are still committed to that as much as we ever were. But we want a union that is different than it was 40 years ago. We don't see the advantage of standing in marginalised areas or trying to split votes."
Rather than this, said Mr Gallagher, the UPRG are urging mainstream unionists to form electoral pacts in seats that could result in gaining seats in for example, Fermanagh/South Tyrone or South Belfast. The UPRG man said the power of the lobby the organisation has will be used to create a better society for the republican/nationalist working class as well.
On the question of UDA decommissioning, a process which has partially started, the UPRG leaders asserted that whilst the issue of UDA guns had nothing to do with them, the statement of 2004 remained solid and that it was a work in progress, and that the help of all concerned parties was required to keep the process moving. It was also stated that the UPRG are now holding a "re-visited" period of consultation in all areas to reassess if all loyalists are aware of what the policies of the UPRG are, and to take on board any fresh concerns.
David Malcolm stated: "What we are trying to do collectively is bring everyone with us. You saw the process that republicans engaged in when they were splintered with different factions, it is critical we bring everyone with us."
With regard to a timescale for the conclusion of the whole process, Frankie Gallagher told the Sentinel: "All we can do is refer to what the UDA said and they said they have their timescale and in that timescale they will do what they intend to do within that.
"We are confident, very confident that they are solid in what they are doing and they are doing it in the right way."