Loyalist paramilitaries make joint pledge denouncing criminality
The three main loyalist paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland have issued a declaration denouncing criminality and pledging to make a "meaningful contribution" to improving the lot of their communities.
As part of the initiative, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Red Hand Commando are supporting the formation of a "Loyalist Communities Council" to help deliver the goals.
It will focus on "law abiding responses to criminality", as well as addressing loyalist "disenfranchisement" from the political process and increasing educational standards in loyalist communities.
"We eschew all violence and criminality," said the joint declaration. "If there are those who attempt to use current or past associations with our organisations to further criminality they will be disowned and should be aware that they will not be permitted to use the cover of loyalism."
Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell and Ukip MLA David McNarry have been involved in efforts to facilitate the loyalist move.
It comes amid a political crisis at Stormont prompted by a police assessment that structures of the Provisional IRA still exist and some of its members were involved in a murder in Belfast.
While the main loyalist paramilitary organisations called a ceasefire over 20 years ago, the outlawed armed groups continue to exist.
While no longer engaged in direct conflict with republican paramilitaries, feuds and turf wars among rival loyalist factions have led to numerous murders in the intervening decades.
Some paramilitaries have also continued to be involved in criminality, including extortion, racketeering and drug dealing.
The groups have also been blamed for orchestrating serious public disorder amid disputes related to loyal order parades, flags and the arrest of members over historic Troubles crimes.
The declaration was made on the 21st anniversary of the 1994 loyalist ceasefire. Mr Powell played a key role in the peace process negotiations during the time of the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Since leaving politics he has headed up a negotiation and mediation charity that works in conflict zones around the world.
Announcing the initiative at an east Belfast hotel, Mr Powell said it was the "last best chance" to include loyalists left behind by the peace process.
He said: "Some may argue that these organisations should just disappear. The experience from around the world suggests that would be a mistake. Other violent groups would simply take over the names UVF, UDA and the Red Hand Commando and carry on with paramilitarism.
"We really don't want to see a Real UVF and a Continuity UDA. It is far better the groups continue but there is no criminality; there is no violence; they continue in a civil fashion."
Failure would be "bad" for Northern Ireland, Mr Powell said.
"What is happening is that people are deciding that these organisations, the UDA, UVF, Red Hand Commando should draw a line, to make a fresh start, to come together in one body where they are going to make clear they have nothing to do with criminality.
"Anyone who has anything to do with criminality should be dealt with by the police.
"They are going to try and build their community, to get a political voice for their community, and try and get some investment into their community.
"I think that is a worthy cause which we should all support and not leave people behind," he added.
The former Labour Party aide said he believed the project could succeed.
"Given the 18 months of effort these men have put into producing this coming to a common agreement, setting out a way forward, I think there is every chance it will succeed if it gets support from politicians and the community in Northern Ireland," he said.
Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Office offered a cautious welcome to the proposals.
A spokesman said: "The initiative needs to be judged on its results.
"There is no justification for the existence of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland and we need to move forward to a time when they all disband."