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Loyalist paramilitary groups start weapons decommissioning

Loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland today confirmed they have started to decommission their weapons.

The decommissioning announcement came from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Red Hand Commando (RHC) groups.

The decommissioning acts were overseen by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) led by General John de Chastelain who four years ago witnessed the destruction of the IRA's arsenal of guns, ammunition and explosives.

The UVF said it had destroyed its entire arsenal, with a further major disarmament act from the RHC.

The UDA released a statement in Belfast confirming it had decommissioned a portion of its illegal arsenal and had started a process that would lead to the destruction of all its arms.

The UVF leadership today said: "We have done so to further augment the establishment of accountable democratic governance in this region of the UK, to remove the pretext that loyalist weaponry is an obstacle to the development of our communities and to compound our legacy of integrity to the peace process."

The UDA statement said: "This is a courageous and unprecedented move that is part of a wider transition from conflict to peace.

"This process was initiated in autumn 2008 when the Combined Loyalist Military Command was reconvened to address the outstanding issue of Loyalist military material. As a result of those discussions, all constituent parts agreed to set in place the internal arrangements necessary to begin the disarmament process.

"As a result we have held a series of meetings with General John De Chastelain and his team who have witnessed an act of decommissioning. This process will be completed within the previously notified timescale.

"By carrying out this act we are helping to build a new and better Northern Ireland where conflict is a thing of the past."

The statements mark a milestone in the peace process and nationalists and republicans have said they hope the decommissioning acts will mark the end of loyalist paramilitary activity.

The UVF killed 550 people during the Troubles, while the UDA, which also operated under the flag of convenience of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), claimed 431 lives.

The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group allied to the UVF, killed 19 people.

Most of the groups' victims were Catholic civilians.

The UDA statement today said: "In this important moment in our history we wish to pay tribute to the courage and fortitude of our comrades and communities.

"To those who have died, we salute you and forever treasure your memory.

"To those who have lost loved ones, we share your grief.

'To those who have been injured or imprisoned, we thank you for your sacrifice.

"The dark days are now behind us and it is time to move on. There is no place for guns and violence in the new society we are building. It is time to work for a better future."

A spokesman for the UVF and RHC said: "The leadership of the UVF and RHC today confirms it has completed the process of rendering ordnance totally and irreversibly beyond use."

The process began in Autumn 2008 when the so-called Combined Loyalist Military Command was brought together to address the issue. There was agreement to begin the disarmament process.

In March preparations were suspended after two soldiers and a policeman were shot dead by dissident republicans in Antrim and Craigavon.

The representative added: "Assurances were sought from the Government and from the Irish government that those responsible, in whatever jurisdiction, would be vigorously pursued and the failures of 1969 (when the conflict began) would not be revisited upon our community.

"Only when forthright assurances were given and it became clear that they would be honoured did our process resume."

Every part of Northern Ireland and all regions of Great Britain where the loyalists had a presence co-operated in the process, which has now concluded.

The spokesman said the move would boost democracy.

"We believe the significance and substance of our actions will satisfy the above objectives. For God and Ulster."

The decommissioning was witnessed by General de Chastelain and his officials from the IICD.

The IICD was established in 1997 to oversee the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, with those passing illegal weapons to the body granted immunity from prosecution.

The political process was dogged by efforts to secure IRA decommissioning, which was eventually completed in 2005.

The UVF campaign of violence stretches back to the mid-1960s when loyalists lashed out over the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and against early calls for full civil rights for Catholics in Northern Ireland.

In 1966 it killed two Catholic men, John Scullion and Peter Ward, plus Protestant woman Matilda Gould who was caught up in an attack on a Catholic-owned bar next to her home.

The UVF carried out the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974 which caused the largest single loss of life in the conflict, killing 33 people.

The UDA was formed in 1971 and is the largest paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, once boasting tens of thousands of members.

It controversially remained a legal organisation until 1992 when it was banned by the then Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew.

Today's announcement was quickly welcomed by the Irish government.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin said: "In recent years loyalist organisations have been making effective progress towards conflict transformation, and today is an important landmark in this process.

"Northern Ireland has now moved closer to achieving the genuinely shared future for which many people have taken risks over the past decades.

"I wish to express the Government's appreciation to the loyalist leadership and all those who took crucial and courageous decisions to facilitate today's step forward.

"Full decommissioning will remove one of the many challenges which are faced by communities across the north, and I would encourage those organisations which have yet to complete the task to continue their constructive engagement with the IICD.

"We have always said that the peace process should leave no person or community behind. Loyalist communities face particular economic and social disadvantage, and all those with an interest in a better Northern Ireland must work together to ensure that tackling this is a priority for the future."

Dawn Purvis, leader of the UVF-aligned Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), hailed the announcement.

"This is a truly momentous day in the history of progressive loyalism. The decommissioning of all weapons by the UVF and RHC shows that peaceful, stable, inclusive democracy is the way forward for our country," she said.

While the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had met with loyalist groups, she made an apparent sideswipe at reports the party had played a key role in delivering decommissioning.

"For those involved, decommissioning was a process, carefully managed and brought to fruition, not an event, and contrary to some reports, not delivered as a result of two meetings in the space of nine months," said the PUP Assembly member.

She praised the efforts of the late David Ervine who once led the PUP and who she said worked to build peace and end division.

Today's statement was read at the East Belfast Mission Hall on the Newtownards Road in the heart of loyalist east Belfast.

The widow of former Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine, Jeanette, wept in the crowd as the announcement was made.

Dozens of supporters had gathered to hear a development, described by leading UVF figure and key weapons decommissioning negotiator Billy Hutchinson as historic.

"The war is over, the weapons have been pitched beyond use and we move on and I think that it's quite clear.

"The Government and the Dublin government and the Executive (in Northern Ireland) have no excuses, loyalist weapons have been put beyond use."

He said now was the time to address significant disadvantage affecting loyalist working class areas.

He spoke of his mother visiting him as a young man in prison and said everybody was a victim of the conflict.

"The Governments now have a responsibility to victims, nobody can dismiss victims, we have to recognise that they are out there and the reality is in this country people need to see that there are different levels.

"As far as we are concerned there are victims and they have to move on.

"The move stands for the UVF and RHC recognising that we live in a democratic society."

He was flanked by Ms Purvis and the PUP's Winkie Rea.

Councillor Hugh Smyth and commentator Roy Garland were also present.

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