A senior loyalist has claimed the paramilitary leadership would be overthrown if it pushed for decommissioning.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph on condition of anonymity, the paramilitary leader said: “If you uttered decommissioning you would get slaughtered — even now.”
He continued: “You would lose the leadership. I can see no form of decommissioning this side of the general (General John de Chastelain of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning) going.”
His comments come at a time of increasing political and police pressure on loyalists — both UVF and UDA — to begin the decommissioning process through the IIC.
The senior loyalist who spoke to this newspaper believes that pressure will intensify.
“I don't think it's cranked up yet,” he commented, adding that the Northern Ireland Office and police “have made their minds up and are adamant that if there is no form of decommissioning before the general goes, then they intend to treat loyalists as criminals.”
But the leader of the PUP Dawn Purvis argues that pressure and demands will not work; that there needs to be another way.
“There's no discussion or debate about it in the loyalist community, and I think there's probably a lack of understanding from those in the chattering classes who make the demands but have no idea of the processes of delivery, nor do they engage in order to help people move forward,” she said.
Those who demand decommissioning should “engage with people, seek to understand where people are at and what things need to happen in order to deliver”.
“I don't see people under any pressure,” Ms Purvis commented, “but what I do see is a loyalist community under pressure and it's not from weapons.”
In statements last year the UVF and Red Hand Commando said their weapons had been put “beyond reach”, and the UDA said arms had been put “beyond use”.
Those weapons have not been destroyed, and the Northern Ireland Office has indicated that the de Chastelain Commission is now operating on a short timeframe.
The assistant chief constable Peter Sheridan also recently warned that any weapons found after the IICD is closed down will be subject to forensic and other evidence processes.
"If we can identify people they will go for their tea," he told the Irish News.
One loyalist who spoke to this newspaper sees the writing on the wall: " People will not let them (the loyalist paramilitaries) continue to play the game they are playing of talking and talking and talking and doing nothing."
"If you don't do it (decommission)," he said, "you are thrown in with the rest of the criminals".
Brian Rowan: Even if there is the will to decommission . . . can they actually deliver?
The senior loyalist would not describe what “beyond reach” really means.
It was the term used by the UVF and Red Hand Commando in a leadership statement in May last year to describe what had happened to their “ordnance”, as they described it.
“Instructions” had been given that weapons were to be put away.
The source spoke of a court martial and expulsions in one case in which those instructions or orders had been disobeyed. Others, he said, had sought access to weaponry but had been “steered in another way”.
“Let's say someone wants to reach for a weapon — it goes right to the very top,” the source commented.
In other words, the leadership has to clear any use of weapons — those guns that are not yet out of the reach of the UVF and Red Hand organisations.
There is now a greater focus, political and policing, on the question of loyalist guns, but it may be too late.
You need orders from those in authority to achieve decommissioning, and as one loyalist commented to this newspaper: “Sure, there is no leadership.”
“The IRA is an army,” the loyalist commented. “It gave orders. You're a soldier, you obey, and if you have another opinion, (you) keep it to yourself,” he continued.
That loyalist doubts the ability of the Command Staff of the UVF and the Inner Council of the UDA to achieve the same result.
He also sees what is coming if a gun is found. “It will be treated as a criminal find,” he said. A criminal find with all the “consequences” that entails.
The Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan has clarified comments attributed to him earlier this week.
The membership would have to agree to decommission — they could not be ordered
He said he was not suggesting that police know where loyalist weapons are being hidden but, rather, when the decommissioning process is brought to a close, he is confident that there are intelligence systems in place that will lead to the location of those arms.
His intervention was deliberate and part of the building pressure; a strategy that is about telling loyalists that their guns have not been forgotten, despite the claims of them being “beyond reach” or “beyond use”.
The loyalist who told me you would get “slaughtered” if you “uttered decommissioning” holds a senior paramilitary rank. His comments suggest that the membership of organisations would have to agree to decommission — that they could not be ordered into such a position.
It suggests a decision-making process from the bottom up rather than from the top down, and it suggests an inability to make decommissioning happen.
That seems to be the real problem.