It is understood that those involved included men close to the leadership of both the main illegal loyalist groupings, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association. They met prisoners known as 'O/Cs' (officers commanding) of both the UVF and UDA.
The Maze prison, in Co Antrim, holds several hundred loyalist prisoners, many of whom are serving life imprisonment for murder. News of the meetings will increase speculation, which has already been mounting, that a loyalist ceasefire is in the offing following the IRA ceasefire, which has lasted for more than forty days.
Loyalists indicated, however, that any such development is unlikely before the end of the month, after a number of other contacts have taken place. Such visits to the Maze, the UK's highest security jail, have happened intermittently in the past, with both republican and loyalist leaders allowed in for consultations which go beyond normal visiting by family and friends.
A Belfast Presbyterian minister is believed to have helped to set up the visit. Official sources last night described those involved yesterday as 'interested parties' but there is no doubt entry was permitted in the hope that the meetings would bring a ceasefire closer.
A Northern Ireland Office spokesman said that following representations to the prison service, it was decided to permit meetings with two groups of prisoners. These are understood to be the UVF and UDA. He said the authorities did not wish to hinder the loyalist debate on their attitude to a cessation of violence.
Loyalist violence has tailed off somewhat in recent weeks, but it has not ended. Early yesterday, for example, the UVF set off a bomb at a Catholic bar in north Belfast. The pub was empty at the time, 12.25 am, and although damage was caused there were no casualties. Despite this and other attacks, the UVF is generally considered to be in favour of an early ceasefire.
David Ervine, a member of the Progressive Unionist party, which is considered to be close to the UVF, recently said that a ceasefire was 'closer than ever'. But a loyalist councillor, Gary McMichael, whose father, John, a UDA leader, was killed by the IRA, said such speculation was 'reckless and unhelpful'.
Most observers agree the UVF has an older and generally more mature leadership than the UDA. Some UVF leaders have been in place since the 1970s, and are thought to be ready to contemplate ending the campaigns which have killed scores of Catholics in recent years.
The UDA, by contrast, has a much younger and less experienced leadership, which has been notably more militant than the UVF of late.
Despite the differences of emphasis between the two groups, they have for several years attempted to coordinate their activity through an umbrella structure known as the Combined Loyalist Military Command. It appears that the existence of this structure has made the UVF unwilling to call a ceasefire on its own account, its leaders hoping instead that a joint ceasefire will eventually be agreed.Reuse content