Step towards permanent peace
The announcement of the Loyalist arms decommissioning is a major step forward for Northern Ireland and all its people.
The UVF and Red Hand Commando have said that their explosives and weapons have been placed “totally and irreversibly” beyond use, and the UDA and UFF have already begun that process.
It has taken a long time for the Loyalist paramilitaries to reach this stage, and many of their critics would say it has been far too long. Nevertheless, it is most welcome news, and also a major historic development.
This was underlined by the Reverend Dr Harold Good, one of the observers who monitored the Provisional IRA’s decommissioning. He said that the latest Loyalist developments have given grounds for great confidence and that their decommissioning “cements our peace process”. Such decommissioning is not just the handing over of weapons and explosives, though this in itself is vitally important. It is also a crucial step towards the greatest prize of all, which is permanent peace. One of the architects of the Loyalists’ move from violence to politics was the late David Ervine who had earlier followed that life-changing journey himself. His widow Jeanette, with an eloquence typical of her late husband, summarised neatly the significance of the latest decommissioning when she said: “The hard work of politics starts now.” After so many false starts and dashed hopes, the Loyalist paramilitaries have given their vote of confidence in the peace process, and despite the sporadic outbreaks of trouble, the entire community can at last begin to believe that the war is truly over. This is scarcely credible to those who have lived through forty years of blood, suffering and mayhem, but all sides must build politically on the platform which has been created. There are many “peace” walls and barriers which still need to be taken down and other measures which are necessary to build confidence and stability between the two main communities, and within each community itself. It will not be an easy or a rapid transition, but the political structure is now in place and the ballot-box takes precedence over the bomb and the bullet, which it should always have done.
Much will be expected of our political and community leaders on all sides, and they need to be challenged — and encouraged — to take the maximum advantage of the opportunities which now stretch before them. It may be quite some time before the fruits of these labours will be self-evident, but the sooner the better, and there is not a moment to be lost. In the meantime it is right and proper to recognise all those who have laboured for peace over a very long period, and none more so than General John de Chastelain who showed such patience and skill in helping to move along the peace process at the sharp end.
Northern Ireland now stands at a new threshold, and the opportunity must not be lost to sustain and develop the peace process for the benefit of everyone. President McAleese, who with her husband Martin has also done much to help the process, has rightly said that this signals “a turning away from a culture of conflict towards a culture of good neighbourliness.” There is no other way for all of us.