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Dissidents won’t get a bye ball from loyalists forever

If loyalists were to be provoked to respond to the escalating bombing campaign waged by dissident republicans, then the significance of the decommissioning of weapons by the UDA faction loyal to Andre Shoukri is inestimable.

At least one AK-47 rifle and perhaps up to a score of modern rapid-firing sub machine-guns have been handed over by that faction over the last two years - at a stroke depriving the UDA structure overall of its 'best kit'.

That's why Shoukri's decision to surrender the weapons to General de Chastelain was so important - even though it was given virtually no mention outside the columns of this newspaper.

What the rest of the UDA in Belfast handed over to the general to destroy was second and third-division armaments, among them weapons whose functionality couldn't be guaranteed.

Undoubtedly, until MI5 gets its act together here and significantly penetrates and greatly neuters the main dissident republican organisations, their campaigns are likely to escalate, bringing greater risk of loss of life and, perhaps, some response from a loyalist element.

Hopefully not, of course. But it would be foolish to assume that all loyalists will remain utterly placated on the dissident issue and be forever inclined to give a bye ball to ongoing attacks.

The UVF leadership is a trifle restless over the ongoing investigation process linked to Operation Ballast, which was initiated by the former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan and is continued by the Historical Enquiries Team.

Many have been arrested from the ranks of the UVF in north Belfast and it isn't being ruled out that, before the renamed investigation is concluded next year, up to 50 UVF activists could be facing serious terrorist charges - including some of its most senior leaders in the Shankill area.

The Progressive Unionist Party has expressed its concern over the instability that a long-running arrest programme leading to the front doors of its most senior leaders would generate.

Park a dissident car-bomb outside Tennent Street Police Station and UVF resentment over arrests could become fashioned into some 'military' reaction to that development, perhaps around the Ardoyne area.

Hopefully, we are nowhere near that scenario and if all the loyalist guns and explosives - or the bulk of that material, anyway - has been binned then there is little to worry about from the UVF.

The UDA, having signed up to decommissioning, too, is equally unlikely to wish to embark again on the weary trek along the path of terrorism. It has yielded many of its weapons, but not all have been discarded.

Significantly, the north Antrim/Londonderry brigade did not join in the project to 'dump arms', cutely telling General de Chastelain that it was largely bereft of weapons because it had loaned most of its 'kit' to the infamous Johnny Adair in the Shankill over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The general could hardly call them 'liars' without causing offence.

The argument advanced within the brigade to retain weapons was that it faced possible attack from dissident republicans encroaching from Donegal in the future and a real threat of attack from dissidents in north Antrim.

The detached south-east Antrim brigade also indicated that it had jettisoned all its weapons, although it said that in the summer of 2009, but then did further decommissioning. So who knows?

There is a risk that loyalists could respond to a sustained period of bombings and shootings orchestrated by dissident republicans, but it is a slight risk at the moment.

However, if the dissidents were to specifically target a leading loyalist, or a location frequented by such figures and caused casualties, then the risk of a violent response would escalate significantly.

True, most of the weapons have gone, except really in north Antrim, but as one of those decommissioning guns in north Belfast chillingly told me: "Getting new guns isn't a problem."

It doesn't bear thinking about.