A LOYALIST leader who has been granted a visa to travel to the United States to meet community and political leaders this weekend has said he hopes his visit will “open the door” for other loyalists.

Jackie McDonald, widely seen as the head of the UDA, will head off on Sunday (October 2) alongside fellow loyalist bosses Jimmy Birch, John Bunting and Denis Cunningham. Although the itinerary has yet to be confirmed, it is expected the group will travel to New York and Washington where they will meet Irish American congressmen Peter King and Richie Neal.

Although the Sandy Row man told our sister paper the South Belfast News he could not go into detail about his trip yet, he confirmed President Mary McAleese’s husband Martin had played “a big part” in the quartet gaining the support of the US State Department in their visa applications.

“We only had it confirmed on Monday afternoon and we will travel to New York first, but other than that, I can’t get into it too much,” he said.

“Martin has been a big help to us but it’s something we have been working on for a while. It seems to us that everybody else has been there except representatives of working-class loyalist areas, so it’s a massive thing for us to go.

“Hopefully it goes well and leads to more visits in the future. If we talk to the right people, we can open the door for others to come behind us and build on that work, which can only be good news.”

Because of their paramilitary backgrounds, special permission is required to allow the men to enter the US. They will travel on British passports, supported by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

Mr McDonald said he hoped the trip would lead to ideas on how to improve his local area in a variety of ways.

“We are going to look at a few projects and how people in inner city areas have dealt with issues such as community policing and problems in their areas. I will hopefully see if there is anything we can learn and bring back to Sandy Row, Taughmonagh and other areas, so we can add it to the stuff we are doing there already.”