'Incredibly disturbing': Loyalist show of strength takes place in east Belfast

By Rebecca Black, PA

Concern has been expressed at an “incredibly disturbing” apparent show of strength by a loyalist paramilitary group in east Belfast at the weekend.

Police are reviewing the incident on the Newtownards Road on Saturday which saw more than 1,000 people, many of whom were wearing white shirts, ties and black trousers, lining the route for an annual memorial event.

It comes amid ongoing tensions within the Ulster Volunteer Force, and reports of a change in leadership in the group in east Belfast.

In a statement, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said a policing operation was in place for the notified procession organised by the 36th (Ulster) Division Memorial Association.

“At the procession’s height, it is estimated that as many as 1,500 people in plain black trousers, white shirts and ties lined the route,” they said.

“The procession passed off without incident. A further review of evidence gathered will now take place.”

Speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday, Justice Minister Naomi Long was asked to condemn the incident by Alliance MLA Peter McReynolds.

Ms Long described it as “incredibly disturbing that at this juncture in Northern Ireland we continue to see such shows of strength”.

“I think the people of Northern Ireland generally and of east Belfast in particular, are weary of these paramilitary organisations exerting coercive control in their community,” she said.

“They’re not interested in changes in leadership and management. They’re interested in these organisations being put out of business, the sooner that happens, I think, the better for us all.”

She added: “Some people refer to these as shows of strength. In my view they are shows of fragility. When you have to ship people in from outside to cause intimidation … there is nothing strong about that.”