29 January 2006

Loyalists set to give up weapons

Sunday Times

Liam Clarke
January 29, 2006

LOYALIST decommissioning could happen within six to eight weeks, according to a senior UDA source. The organisation and its political wing, the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), have been in contact with the British government in the past weeks and are hoping for a positive outcome.

“There have been eight meetings with the British government representatives since January 10,” said the source. “Everything is on the table and the pace of contact is increasing.” The UDA has also met General John de Chastelain’s decommissioning body within the past fortnight.

Sources say the organisation’s ruling inner council is seeking to cut all links with crime in return for “confidence building” investments by the government in loyalist areas. “Things are going smoothly; the inner council is isolating drug dealers and doing away with criminality,” said a source in the group.

It is understood that the UVF, the other major loyalist paramilitary group, is also in contact with the government. A spokesman could not be contacted.

A source close to the Loyalist Commission, an umbrella body that includes unionist politicians, Protestant churchmen and paramilitary representatives, said it was essential that the UDA and UVF maintained a co-ordinated approach. He believed that both will disarm within the same time frame in order to avoid feuding.

Tommy Kirkham, a spokesman for the UPRG, confirmed that everything including decommissioning and the standing down of the UDA was up for discussion in the talks with the government.

“I think it will come together in the next six to eight weeks,” he said. “There is a lot of dialogue going on and a lot of assurances being given but we haven’t got substantial agreement at this point in time.” It is understood that a wide range of options have been discussed as a part of a trade-off for the ending of loyalist paramilitary activity.

A loyalist source said: “There are things that the UDA want for their areas, not for themselves as individuals. We have been in dialogue for 2Å years but movement has been promised recently which pushes it all forward.”

This is believed to be a reference to the work of a special inter-departmental “delivery team” set up to address the needs of loyalist areas last October. The team is led by Nigel Hamilton, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, who reports to David Hanson, the north’s political development minister. Membership includes senior officials from government departments and the Northern Ireland Office.

The team has increased its workload this month in parallel with offers from the loyalist paramilitaries to consider previously taboo subjects such as early decommissioning. A number of announcements are said to be imminent from the government and loyalists.

One British government source said: “Many people in paramilitary groups appear to be willing to recreate themselves as community activists. Time has moved on for them and, if they are genuine, it is right that we should respond and facilitate the transition.”

Loyalists also believe that appointing members of the Orange Order to the Parades Commission was an effort to create a “feelgood factor” in loyalist areas in the run-up to this year’s marching season.

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