Actions not words the key, loyalist terror groups told
DUP leader Arlene Foster has welcomed a joint statement from three loyalist paramilitary groups supporting the rule of law and suggesting that members involved in crime could be expelled.
The UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando made their pledge on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement at a Press conference in Belfast's Linen Hall Library. It is their first joint statement since the 1994 loyalist ceasefire and followed lengthy discussion with three Protestant church leaders.
But many parties responded cautiously to the statement. The Ulster Unionists insisted the paramilitaries would be judged by their actions.
TUV leader Jim Allister described their claim to support the rule of law as farcical because they were proscribed organisations. Sinn Fein said it was time for all armed groups to leave the stage.
In their joint statement, the three groups said: "We fully support the rule of law in all areas of life and emphatically condemn all forms of criminal activity.
"Individuals who use criminality to serve their own interests at the expense of loyalist communities are an affront to the true principles of loyalism.
"We reject and repudiate as unacceptable and contrary to loyalist principles any criminal action claimed to have been undertaken in our name or attributed to any individual claiming membership of one of our organisations."
The statement continued: "We further declare that any engagement in criminal acts by any individuals within our organisations will be regarded as placing those persons outside the memberships.
"This has been collectively agreed. We cannot allow criminals to hinder transformation and the ground in which such people stand is now shrinking."
Former Presbyterian Moderator Norman Hamilton, former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and all-Ireland Primate Alan Harper, and former Methodist President Harold Good - who played a key role in verifying decommissioning - attended the Press conference.
DUP leader Mrs Foster said the loyalist statement stood "in stark contrast to Gerry Adams' latest justification for violence".
She said it was time "for those who use criminality to get off the backs of their communities" and she supported the police in "putting them out of business and behind bars once and for all".
Mrs Foster said the DUP would "continue to help those who want to transition into politics" and she commended "those who are leading and working hard to help move their communities forward". UUP leader Robin Swann said the paramilitary groups' statement would be measured by the difference it made to the lives of people in loyalist communities.
"It is long past time that those who continue to threaten and exert control over communities here were gone. They must pack up and get off the backs of our people, or face the inside of a jail cell," he added.
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said: "What people wanted to hear this morning was that these groups are leaving the stage rather than the same recycled statement of intent to end criminality.
"There is no place for any armed groups in our society in 2018, 20 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement."
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: "Alliance gives this statement a guarded welcome, but it will be actions that will determine the scope and sincerity of this new commitment.
"It is disappointing that 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement these discussions are still happening."
The PUP welcomed the loyalist statement, which placed "considerable emphasis on a commitment to peace... in an era of pernicious and polluted politics".