So, are all the loyalist guns really gone?
Having taken the guts of 15 years since they first announced their ceasefires to reach the point of some sort of arms decommissioning, there’s almost a poetic justice that the loyalist paramilitaries’ ‘historic’ announcements were entirely overshadowed by the news of the death of Michael Jackson.
A man with a similar penchant for faux military uniform, masks, grandiose titles, drugs and painting himself whiter than he actually was.
Last week’s loyalist statements followed the usual hackneyed template of paramilitary self-justification.
There was talk of struggle and having defended their community, of leaving the dark days behind, of moving forward to a better future of peace and prosperity, of conflict being a thing of the past, blah, blah, blah...
The UDA described their move as ‘courageous’. (Self praise and all that.)
The UVF effort read like the small print in an insurance claim form (“in the presence of independent international witnesses and consistent with the modalities and schemes agreed upon by our interlocutor...”)
But both shared a common theme — one we’re also familiar with from IRA and dissident statements.
Self-justification, self-glorification and language that confirms that these self-appointed murderers on both sides see themselves on a par with real soldiers.
The irony is that this comes at a time when we remember real soldiers...
It was on this day in 1916 that the Battle of the Somme began. It’s a battle which will forever have a powerful resonance in this part of the world because of the enormity of the sacrifice.
The 36th Ulster Division was the only one to achieve its objectives in the first two days of fighting — but at a terrible cost.
Over 5,500 of its men were killed or horrifically injured. Of nine VCs awarded during the Battle of the Somme, four went to soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division.
Compare and contrast with the UDA’s interpretation of ‘courageous’.
Or indeed the UVF’s many attempts to hijack the memory of those real soldiers.
But on to the future — and will the loyalists’ partial decommissioning now change Northern Ireland as we know it?
The removal of even one gun has to be seen as A Good Thing.
When demands were first made for the Provos to decommission, critics argued that the weapons could always be replaced. And anyway that you didn’t actually need a gun to kill someone.
Right on both points.
But sheer common sense would also tell you that gangster terrorists having access to large caches of illegal weaponry is not conducive to peace.
Getting rid of the guns — getting rid of at least some of the guns — has to be a step in the right direction. What we’re left wondering, however, is how many more steps still need to be taken.
At a time when no news story is complete without use of the phrase ‘greater transparency’, the one thing the long-suffering population of this place do not have is any form of transparency.
How many guns and explosives were actually dumped? Where? When? How?
And who was watching?
Possibly more important, how large an arsenal has been retained? There are reports that a sizeable number of weapons have been held back. The IRA did the same thing. Why have paramilitaries been allowed to get off with this?
And what’s the payback for it all?
The death of Michael Jackson has taken our focus off the much dodgier men in masks.
But what we have to remember is that they’re still out there, still armed to some extent, still deluded and dangerous.
As the man said, still Bad.