| 8.3°C Belfast

Dissident killings drove us to brink of war, says loyalist

A senior loyalist paramilitary leader has revealed how close Northern Ireland was to being returned to “the dark old days” after the dissident republican murders in March.

Speaking just days after confirmation of decommissioning the source told the story of a leadership struggle “to hold the line”.

In weekend statements the UVF, Red Hand Commando and UDA disclosed that preparations for disarmament were suspended in March after the dissident attacks at Massereene Barracks and in Craigavon.

Two soldiers, 23-year-old Sapper Mark Quinsey from Birmingham and 21-year-old Sapper Cengiz “Patrick” Azimkar from London, and police officer Stephen Caroll were murdered.

“People were champing at the bit (to react),” the loyalist paramilitary leader revealed.

He said this was “across the board”, meaning across the loyalist organisations.

“That’s how close it was,” he said — how close it was to “back to the dark old days”.

In those weekend statements the paramilitary leaderships revealed: “Assurances were sought from the Government and the Irish government that those responsible in whatever jurisdiction would be vigorously pursued.

“The key factor that saved the day was the arrests,” the senior loyalist told this newspaper.

“While the security forces were doing their job, others were doing their job to hold the line.

“The people who were champing at the bit were told of assurances and asked for space. It was very serious — (and) it was difficult. This thing (the peace process) has to be managed on a daily basis,” he said.

Within weeks of the March killings it became clear that loyalists had not abandoned their decommissioning plans.

And two statements at the weekend by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning confirmed arms moves by the three mainstream organisations — the most significant by the UVF and linked Red Hand Commando.

A source with knowledge of the decommissioning process is also now hinting at a significant move by the breakaway UDA “brigade” in south-east Antrim.

The source suggested people would be “surprised — pleasantly surprised” when General de Chastelain reports in August.

There was no detail of timing but the hint suggested more than a token gesture by the loyalist dissidents.

General de Chastelain and his team will be back in Belfast soon to assess what further progress is possible before he delivers his August report to the British and Irish governments. The IICD will end its role in the peace process by February next year.

Belfast Telegraph