Loyalist Communities Council launched with backing of UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando
It is aimed at reversing the perceived "neglect" of loyalist working class communities
A new loyalist grouping involving former paramilitary groups has been announced.
The Loyalist Communities Council has been launched with the backing of the UDA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando.
It is aimed at reversing the perceived "neglect" of loyalist working class communities.
It "will play a full and meaningful role in connecting loyalism to civic society" and "work to grow confidence within detached loyalist communities in Protestant areas".
The initiative was announced at a press conference in East Belfast this afternoon.
Called "Unfinished Work", it is understood the move has been in preparation for 18 months.
A statement from the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando said: "We recognise that the Northern Ireland 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, and to our communities being largely ignored and neglected.
"It is no coincidence that the attainment levels of working class loyalist young people are the lowest in the UK.
"It is our desire to make a meaningful contribution to reversing this situation, to give our young people hope for the future, and to help bring structures which will improve our communities and protect our culture."
Relatives of people killed by loyalists, including Raymond McCord, whose son Raymond jnr was murdered, staged a protest outside.
The launch of the council has been timed to coincide with the 21st anniversary of the loyalist ceasefire.
On October 13 1994, the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando announced they would "cease all operational hostilities".
Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, and Ukip MLA David McNarry were heavily involved in helping to facilitate the loyalist move.
On the question of funding, Mr Powell said none had been promised.
"This is not about money," he added. "These men have taken this step because it's the right thing to do.
"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."
Mr Powell said this represented the "best last chance" to involve loyalists.
He said loyalism had been left behind since 1998.
"Securing peace in Northern Ireland was one of Tony Blair's greatest achievements and is something I spent 10 years of my life working on too and something I'm really proud of," he added.
"One issue we were never able to address successfully was loyalism, even though it was loyalist support for the Belfast Agreement that allowed unionism to participate in the negotiations.
"When we left office in 2007, the issue of loyalism was still not solved."
Mr Powell said loyalism lacked a clear and united support and its supporters felt marginalised and excluded.
"They were left behind economically and ignored physically."
Mr Powell said he understood people would be cynical, and said the real test would be in how the undertakings were implemented in practice.
Mr Powell said criminality must be left behind.
"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."