Viewpoint: Time to turn up the heat on UDA
When Social Development minister Margaret Ritchie warned that, without a start to UDA decommissioning, funding would be withdrawn from a conflict transformation project in west Belfast, she had the support of most people, unionist and nationalist. Now that the PSNI have confirmed that no progress has been made, that support will be strengthening, not weakening, as the clock ticks towards the October 9 deadline,
It was the minister's misfortune to inherit the previous government's pledge of £1.2m over four years to help communities affected by violence, and two months after her first warning she gave them 60 days to engage " meaningfully" with the independent commission on decommissioning. It was the least she could do, after UDA members had viciously attacked the police during rioting in Carrickfergus and Bangor - and after the Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, said he "wouldn't give them 50 pence".
The public have grave reservations, to say the least, about hand-outs of taxpayers' money that may end up in the pockets of unreformed paramilitaries, but they do accept that providing better opportunities for young people is the best way of transforming communities. When the people behind these projects have had paramilitary connections, politicians have a duty to ensure that promises to use exclusively peaceful means are fulfilled. In other words, that weapons and criminality are consigned to history.
No one expected, even after the UDA benefited indirectly from the government grant-aid, that there would be a mass surrender of illegal weapons. But they did expect that in the light of Sinn Fein's full participation with the DUP in power-sharing, and decommissioning by the IRA, that loyalist paramilitaries would begin the same process. It would have to be on a shorter timescale, because of political progress, than the 11 years taken by the IRA, but a start had to be made.
That is why there is so much impatience, if not anger, with the continued foot-dragging by the UDA and its representatives. While the mainstream loyalist leadership appears to be serious about moving away from violence and criminality - though more proof is required - there are significant elements in the UDA, as well as the UVF, which are determined to stick to their guns and are dedicated to gangsterism rather than any political cause. If the so-called reformers are unable to persuade others to accept the new realities, post devolution, and make contact with Gen De Chastelain, then the Stormont executive and the PSNI have no alternative but to turn up the heat. The minister should urgently consider diverting the UPRG money to reliable sources, in deprived loyalist communities, who would use it on worthwhile projects. There is no justification for helping to boost the image of organisations which are defying the law.