Nearly 30 suspected members of a loyalist paramilitary unit involved in drugs, punishment beatings and loan sharking are under police investigation, a court has heard.
With two of them said to be on-the-run, the scale of the probe emerged as a man accused of being operational commander of the UDA in Belfast’s Shankill area was remanded in custody.
David Coleman appeared before the city’s magistrates’ court charged with membership of a proscribed organisation between June 14 and October 18.
The 32-year-old, of Hopewell Crescent in Belfast, was arrested by detectives from the PSNI’s Paramilitary Crime Taskforce.
Fourteen searches were carried out at locations in the city, Holywood and Portadown.
Three other men detained in the operation were released pending reports being sent to the Public Prosecution Service.
Amid heavy security Coleman entered the dock, smiling at associates gathered in the public gallery.
A detective sergeant set out objections to bail based on his alleged high-ranking membership of the terror grouping based in the lower Shankill district.
“He’s the overall second in command of West Belfast 2nd Battalion, C Company UDA,” the officer claimed.
“As well as that role (police believe) he’s the operational or military commander for the UDA in that area of the Shankill.”
District Judge Fiona Bagnall was told paramilitary crime has had a “pernicious, pervasive” impact on local communities.
The UDA has been heavily involved in punishment beatings, drug dealing and loan sharking as it preys on the vulnerable, the court heard, with the Shankill area particularly affected.
According to the detective Coleman’s alleged role in controlling its illegal activities is based on mobile phone evidence.
Claiming the accused could obstruct the course of justice if released, he described the C Company battalion as a sophisticated organised crime gang.
“It is believed to have at least 27 members, all subject to an ongoing live investigation,” he said.
“Five have been reported and police are seeking two other members, they are (effectively) on-the-run at this time.”
The court was told how the wider searches recovered a holster and ammunition.
But it was claimed Coleman could frustrate efforts to locate a gun and significant quantities of drugs still believed to be out there.
Further opposition to his release centred on an alleged access to money which could aid any attempt to abscond.
The detective revealed that Coleman had a cash-counting machine in his house.
He confirmed the accused had been adamant in denying membership throughout interviews, replying when charged: “Absolutely not, I don’t belong to nothing.”
A defence solicitor argued that the case against his client was “vague and speculative”.
“There’s no direct evidence of membership,” he insisted.
But refusing bail, Judge Bagnall cited the risks of reoffending and obstructing the course of justice.
She remanded Coleman in custody to appear again by video-link on November 16.