The DUP has been accused of legitimising “malignant forces” after the party’s leadership met with an organisation representing loyalist paramilitary groups to discuss opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol.
Arlene Foster, deputy leader Lord Dodds and East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson held talks with the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), a group that represents the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commandos, all of whom the UK Home Office has linked to terrorism.
It came just a day after Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice president Maroš Šefcovic announced in a joint statement that both sides are committed to the “proper implementation” of the NI protocol as set out in the terms of the Brexit deal.
A DUP spokesman said Thursday’s talks with the LCC had been “constructive and useful” with both parties discussing “constitutional methods” to have the protocol axed.
But Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party leader and justice minister Naomi Long said paramilitary organisations “aren't stakeholders to be consulted”.
Ms Foster has defended the talks. NI's first minister said it was was “absolutely” appropriate for her to meet with the LCC to discuss the protocol and said she would do so again.
Anger has been growing within the unionist, or loyalist, community over the protocol ever since it was implemented in January at the end of the Brexit transition period.
The DUP, whose MPs voted for Brexit, claim the new trading arrangements create trade barriers between NI and the rest of Great Britain and therefore pose a threat to NI's constitutional place within the UK.
Under pressure from its grassroots and in the aftermath of a poll showing its support had collapsed over its handling of the protocol, the DUP earlier this year launched an official campaign to have the post-Brexit trading arrangements torn up.
Opposition parties say the party is failing to find workable solutions to some of the problems surrounding the protocol.
The DUP now has the backing of the Tory party's hardline European Research Group, whose members left the DUP at the altar last year when they voted for prime minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal agreement, including the protocol. A number of unionist parties and politicians are now supporting a legal challenege to the protocol.
Mr Johnson earlier this year said he would be willing to trigger a clause in the Brexit deal that would remove the protocol. But that position appears to be slipping away following pushback from the EU and the Irish government, which played a key role in the talks.
In their joint statement on Wednesday, following the first meeting of the UK/EU's Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee since the end of the transition period, Mr Gove and Mr Šefcovic reiterated their desire to find "pragmatic solutions" to the implementation of the protocol and to make it work for the "benefit of everyone".
The following day the three senior DUP figures met with the LCC, whose chairman David Campbell earlier this year faced a backlash after suggesting loyalists would "fight physically" to maintain "freedoms" within the UK. He later clarified that his remarks were not in relation to the protocol.
"We listened to the views expressed and the need for political and constitutional methods to safeguard the UK single market and ensure there is unfettered flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland," a DUP spokesman said after the meeting.
But Alliance Party leader Ms Long said it was wrong for senior members of NI's largest party to meet with "malignant forces".
"Proscribed terrorist organisations are not a legitimate part of our community," she said. "Our job as ministers is to eradicate paramilitarism, not give them a platform or legitimacy."
According to a July 2020 Home Office report the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commandos are on a list of proscribed groups linked to NI-related terrorism.
A number of Republican groups including the IRA, INLA and IPLO are on the list.
Sinn Féin, NI's second-largest party, which has been linked to paramilitary groups in the past, criticised the meeting. MLA Linda Dillon said there was no place for "armed gangs" in NI's politics.
“There is no place for armed gangs who are involved in serious crimes including murder, drug dealing, racketeering, extortion, and who recently have been making threats of violence.
"What the public wants to hear from the DUP and those in positions of leadership is to make it clear to the UVF, the UDA or whatever armed loyalist gang it is that they have no place in society or in our communities."
She added: "No one should be giving cover to anyone involved in these activities."
At a press conference following Thursday's meeting with the LCC, Ms Foster insisted it was necessary for her to meet with the group to gauge its views on the protocol.
"And I will do so again because it's important that all communities have a voice in the political process," Ms Foster said when asked if the talks were appropriate.
"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," she added.
Although the LCC represents loyalist paramilitaries, it is not itself a proscribed organisation. It was set up by Mr Campbell in 2015 as a means to end paramilitary violence and says it represents a range of individuals and views from across the unionist and loyalist community.