Loyalist Communities Council is 'last best chance' to bring loyalism in from the cold
A new loyalist grouping represents the "last best chance" of involving those who feel abandoned by the peace process, it has been claimed.
The Loyalist Communities Council will work to address the "significant disenchantment" which loyalists argue still exists 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement.
It has the support of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando.
The paramilitary organisations have pledged to reject criminality and make a "meaningful contribution" to reversing discontent felt within their communities.
Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, stressed the importance of the initiative in terms of finally addressing loyalism's concerns.
"I do think that, in this case, given everything else that's going on in Northern Ireland, this is the last best chance," he said.
However, there was criticism from victims of loyalist violence.
Raymond McCord, whose son Raymond junior was murdered by the UVF in 1997, said victims had been forgotten.
He claimed the initiative was motivated by money and power.
"I am disgusted," he said. "Politicians have helped to ensure that paramilitaries are more important than victims."
Yesterday's announcement follows 18 months of back-stage talks involving Mr Powell and Ukip MLA David McNarry.
It coincided with the 21st anniversary of the loyalist ceasefire.
Despite the historic October 1994 statement, the organisations continue to exist.
Feuds and turf wars among rival factions have led to numerous murders.
Some paramilitaries also continue to involve themselves in criminality, including extortion, racketeering and drug dealing.
Mr Powell said criminality must cease for good.
"The misuse of loyalism for criminal purposes will not be tolerated ... but we should be ready to help those who want to make the transition," he continued.
The diplomat, who played a key role in the negotiations during the lead-up to the 1998 Agreement, admitted the loyalist issue had never been resolved.
Leaving a community "out in the cold" was, he said, "a terrible mistake".
"Loyalism lacked a clear and united voice, its supporters felt marginalised and excluded," Mr Powell added. "They were left behind economically and ignored physically."
Yesterday's joint statement from the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando said they are "re-committing" to the 1998 Agreement and "eschew all violence and criminality".
It said: "We recognise that the Assembly, which we continue to support, is not inclusive of the loyalist community.
"We accept the democratically expressed will of the electorate; however, a vacuum in loyalist communities has been created which has led to significant disenchantment with politics."
It added: "It is our desire to make a meaningful contribution to reversing this situation."
Mr Powell said it was unreasonable to expect paramilitary organisations to disappear.
"Other violent groups would simply take over the names UVF, UDA and the Red Hand Commando and carry on with paramilitarism," he continued.
"We really don't want to see a Real UVF and a Continuity UDA.
"It is far better that the groups continue but there is no criminality; there is no violence; they continue in a civil fashion."
Mr Powell said no promises had been made about funding.
"But if they are going to achieve that transition, I believe we need to give them help and support to achieve the promises they have made here today," he said.
Meanwhile, Mr McNarry said the initiative had the potential to address criminality, encourage renewed confidence and widen the democratic process."
A series of senior loyalist figures attended yesterday's launch in East Belfast.
UDA leader Jackie McDonald said loyalists were sincere about turning their backs on criminality.
"We are trying to be genuine, we are trying to be sincere," he said. "I understand, there has been criminality in the past, but we frown upon that and we don't want to see it any more."
PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said it was important the initiative won widespread backing in the loyalist community.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the Loyalist Communities Council could be a positive step towards a more normal society.
"The fact that three paramilitary groups have given their backing to this initiative is a positive statement of intent," he said.
Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly said any genuine move by loyalists towards disbandment was a positive step, but expressed "reservations".
The Northern Ireland Office gave a cautious welcome to the proposals. A spokesman said: "The initiative needs to be judged on its results."