12 March 2006

DUP may hold arms talks with UDA

Sunday Times

Liam Clarke
March 12, 2006

THE officer board of the Democratic Unionist party will this week decide whether to meet the UDA, Northern Ireland’s largest paramilitary group, in an effort to persuade it to stand down and decommission weapons.

Last week Peter Robinson, the DUP deputy leader, met Rev Mervyn Gibson, the chairman of the Loyalist Commission, to discuss the issue in detail. The commission, which includes representatives of loyalist paramilitaries, clergymen and community leaders, aims to bring an end to loyalist violence.

Robinson said: “This is a job I was asked to do by the DUP executive and I will be reporting back to them on what Rev Gibson told me. Then they will take a view.”

It is understood that Gibson told him the UDA is unlikely to decommission its weapons in the foreseeable future. That option had been considered but no agreement had been reached.

The group is prepared to take a number of measures, including announcing an end to criminality and the winding-up of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the part of the organisation used to carry out murders.

A Loyalist Commission source said: “These measures may appear cosmetic to the outside world but they are significant to the UDA itself. I can already see a fall-off in extortion and there are big moves against drug dealing.”

Last week the UDA said it was moving towards peace after police raided the Alexander bar in north Belfast, during a Latino night. The PSNI arrested 17 people who were allegedly involved in a dress rehearsal for a loyalist show of strength. UDA sources say the display was part of a process of reassuring their members before making new peace overtures.

But last week the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) took a more nuanced view. It argued that “loyalist paramilitaries are heavily involved in organised and other crime” including drugs and have shown themselves capable of extreme violence. “We believe there are signs of a possible readiness to turn away from some of their present criminality,” the IMC said.

The UDA has been making peace overtures for some time. An announcement was expected by some loyalist sources after a meeting between 10 UDA leaders and Martin McAleese, husband of the Irish president, on February 8. The expected move failed to materialise.

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