By Q Radio News
Arlene Foster has been accused of legitimising loyalist paramilitaries after meeting with a body representing outlawed terror groups to discuss tensions around the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The DUP leader and Stormont First Minister has rejected the suggestion her engagement with the Loyalist Communities Council was inappropriate, insisting it was important to give a voice to all sections of the loyalist and unionist community.
Mrs Foster and senior colleagues met with the LCC yesterday to discuss the ongoing controversy over disruption caused by post-Brexit trading arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The LCC is not an illegal organisation but it does represent three outlawed paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando.
(Graffiti in Belfast condemning the Irish Sea Border - Credit: PA)
It contends that it also represents other people and viewpoints within the wider loyalist and unionist community in Northern Ireland.
The meeting came amid anger among loyalists over the NI Protocol, which necessitates checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Loyalists claim it has undermined the Union by driving an economic wedge between Great Britain and NI.
The Alliance Party has heavily criticised Mrs Foster’s decision to meet the council, claiming the engagement sent out a signal that paramilitaries had a role to play in shaping society.
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: “This meeting sends out a terrible mixed message.
“Everyone in Northern Ireland should have an equal voice and right to be heard.
“However, this must not be channelled through illegal paramilitary organisations."
(Alliance Party's Stephen Farry)
Mrs Foster defended the meeting at yesterday's executive press briefing.
Asked whether she thought the engagement was appropriate, she replied: “Absolutely and I will do so again because it’s important that all communities have a voice in the political process.
“I am absolutely a constitutional and political politician and therefore it is important that I listen to all voices in the loyalist and unionist community.
“I was very pleased to meet with the LCC today and to hear their concerns from their own community, to listen to those concerns, shared concerns about the protocol, about the status of the United Kingdom, about the Belfast agreement.
“So those conversations will continue.”