Emma Little-Pengelly pulls out of conference organised by leading loyalist Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly has pulled out of a conference organised by a leading loyalist facing guns and ammunition charges.

Ms Little-Pengelly was named publicly by the organisers as a special guest at the conference right up until Tuesday, days after The Irish News reported Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine as a key figure involved in the event.

In a statement issued approximately 30 hours after The Irish News asked about the participation of Ms Little-Pengelly, other ministers or officials, The Executive Office (TEO) said: “No ministers from the Executive Office are attending this event.”

Upper Bann DUP MP Carla Lockhart is named on the event programme as a panelist. The party was contacted on Tuesday evening and asked whether she would still be attending but did not receive a response.

emma little-pengelly pulls out of conference organised by leading loyalist winston ‘winkie’ irvine

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly named as special guest at conference

The one-day Building Cultural Networks (BCN) convention at the Crowne Plaza in south Belfast on Wednesday will also be addressed by the boxer Carl Frampton, the leaders of both the Apprentice Boys and the Orange Order and the one time chair of the flags commission, Dominic Bryan.

emma little-pengelly pulls out of conference organised by leading loyalist winston ‘winkie’ irvine

Carl Frampton will be guest speaker at Crowne Plaza conference PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

Mr Irvine (48) of Ballysillan Road in Belfast, was charged with possession of guns and ammunition in June, 2022.

He was arrested following a surveillance operation by PSNI officers investigating a hoax bomb alert that led to then Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney being evacuated from a venue next to Holy Cross Church in north Belfast.

The prominent loyalist is seeking to have the charges thrown out, with a hearing listed for Wednesday and Thursday.

BCN, formed in January 2023, is part of Action for Community Transformation (ACT), the Shankill Road-based community organisation focussed on the “civilianisation” of UVF and Red Hand Commando members.

Following its formation, and some months after Mr Irvine was charged, BCN was awarded £878,000 by the IFI, a body set up by the Irish and British governments in 1986 that draws in money mainly from the European Union, the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The Executive Office did not address Ms Little-Pengelly’s planned participation in the conference organised by an individual facing guns and ammunition charges. The questions were first put to the office on Monday morning.

emma little-pengelly pulls out of conference organised by leading loyalist winston ‘winkie’ irvine

Carla Lockhart has been named as a panelist

The convention title is Cultural Expression: Rights, Roles & Responsibilities, which “encapsulates the essence of the event, directing participants to explore and examine the interconnected dynamics of individual rights, societal roles and collective responsibilities, as we aim to deconflict identity and cultural expression in Northern Ireland”.

According to the organisers BCN “has made a hugely significant and outsized contribution in helping to manage many of the highly contentious and dangerous challenges around bonfires and cultural celebrations.

emma little-pengelly pulls out of conference organised by leading loyalist winston ‘winkie’ irvine

Winston Irvine

“Playing a crucial role in conflict prevention, contributing to one of the quietest and most peaceful summer’s experienced in Northern Ireland in recent times.”

Mr Irvine was charged amid allegations two pistols, an air gun, magazines and more than 200 rounds of ammunition were discovered inside a leather Calvin Klein holdall in the boot of a vehicle he was driving.

He was arrested by police investigating the security alert at the event attended by Mr Coveney. The minister was evacuated from the Houben Centre next to the Holy Cross Church after a van was reportedly hijacked and driven to the venue. A controlled explosion was carried out.

Mr Irvine requested and was granted the preliminary inquiry as part of a bid to have the charges thrown out. Up to a dozen police surveillance officers are expected to give evidence at those proceedings.

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