13 April 2006

Loyalists come out of the shadows to talk about peace

Belfast Telegraph

Growing hint that the war may be over

13 April 2006

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We won't give up guns yet, say UVF
Deadline for deal holds key to moves


By Brian Rowan
13 April 2006

In what is understood to be its first official in-depth interview since the early 1970s, the leadership of the UVF talks to Brian Rowan about its terrorist past ... and plans for the future

The UVF leadership reveals today its internal thinking on winding down the organisation, decommissioning, its attitude to the latest political process and a host of other issues.

The secretive organisation has revealed it will not make a statement on the future of its organisation until after the November 24 deadline for a political deal here.

In the interview, the UVF signals its preference for an internal political settlement, but also flags up potential hostility to the two governments' alternative 'Plan B'.

That new position was outlined by the paramilitary leadership yesterday - its words spoken from behind a balaclava.

The UVF is waiting to see the detail of any political Plan B that might emerge if a power-sharing Executive is not restored.

For months now, the organisation - and the closely associated Red Hand Commando - has been involved in an internal debate.

The two groups - whose ceasefires are not recognised by the Government - are believed to be moving towards some kind of peace declaration.

But, in an exclusive interview, the UVF said there will be no announcement on "future intentions" for at least another seven months - even if its internal consultation process is completed before then.

"Whether it is called Plan B, joint management or joint authority it spells the same thing to this organisation," a spokesman said.

"There will be no statement of intent to declare the future of this organisation until after November 24."

As the talking continues inside the group, the organisation has also ruled out imminent decommissioning.

"Quite frankly, decommissioning is not a word that we use in our vocabulary ? It is not on our agenda," the leadership spokesman said.

He said he was speaking "with the full authority of the Brigade Command, the Ulster Volunteer Force".

Asked to clarify his comments on weapons, he said: "I can only speak for now and for the short and medium term."

He said the loyalist war was both "justified" and "legitimate".

"The constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland was under threat.

"The pro-Union population of Northern Ireland were under threat, and this organisation responded commensurate to that level of threat."

The masked spokesman said the UVF was the first organisation "onto the stage" and would be the final organisation to leave it.

He acknowledged the significant developments within the republican movement - the ending of the armed campaign and decommissioning.

But he said the IRA was not "a toothless tiger".

"The organisation has not gone away, and whilst they exist, there is always a level of threat to the loyalist community and to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom."

The loyalist debate will move to meetings in Scotland and England in the near future.

---------------

The voice came from behind a balaclava. But that voice was speaking with "the full authority of the brigade command" of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

The man was telling how that organisation is talking about peace - talking to itself in an internal debate and getting closer, it seems, to declaring its part in the loyalist war over.

This is the reading between the lines of this interview - the message that emerges out of a paramilitary word puzzle.

It will be at least several more months before the outcome of the debate is declared. The UVF wants to wait until after November 24 - the latest deadline for a political deal here.

The delay, and the organisation's concern, has to do with the political "Plan B scenario" if devolution is not restored.

"Whether the current (internal UVF) consultation has reached its conclusion or not, the Ulster Volunteer Force will make no statement of future intentions until November 24, and until we see in front of our eyes what this Plan B scenario entails."

It is unusual for the UVF to come out of its shadowy world and to speak for itself in an interview of this kind.

The man in the balaclava, the "volunteer" chosen to speak by and for the leadership, had company in the room, one of the most senior figures on that so-called brigade command.

A little over two weeks ago, it was this paramilitary leader who took my message to others at the UVF top table my request for an interview.

I wanted to talk to the organisation about its internal debate ? and I wanted whoever did the interview to have the authority to speak as a representative of the leadership.

Yesterday morning, I sat in a room with the man in the balaclava.

I asked was it reasonable to assume that the debate was heading towards peace.

"That would be a fair assessment," he replied.

"In recent times that consultation has been more comprehensive and widespread," he told me.

"In a practical sense, each of the operational areas of the organisation has been consulted. The officers, NCOs and volunteers in each of those operational areas have been eyeball to eyeball with the leadership of the organisation.

"Every issue which affects the organisation at present and is likely to affect the organisation in the future has been discussed frankly, openly and transparently."

Was he confident that the leaderships of the UVF and the closely-linked Red Hand Commando could carry their organisations when the point of decision is reached, whenever that might be?

"Clearly, absolutely without equivocation," he replied.

He was equally clear on a number of other matters, including the question of the UVF's weapons.

"Quite frankly, decommissioning is not a word that we use in our vocabulary. Decommissioning is something that the Ulster Volunteer Force have neither promised nor discussed nor are likely to become engaged in.

"It is not on our agenda."

Not now or ever, I asked.

"I can only speak for now and for the short and medium-term," he replied.

It is clear that whatever happens in this paramilitary talking process that is going on, that the UVF, like the IRA, will not disband its organisation. Something of a structure will remain beyond this debate.

"The UVF were the first organisation on the stage," its spokesman told me. "We will be, if at any stage in the future leaving the stage, the final organisation to do that."

It is not the military threat of the IRA that now concerns this loyalist group. Its focus is on the politics and on the deadline date of November 24.

"We are joined together as a group who believe in the integrity of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and with the will to defend that at all costs," the UVF spokesman said.

"Any option which gives the destiny of Northern Ireland constitutionally to the Northern Ireland people is much better than any circumstance which would threaten joint authority, joint management or whatever it might be termed."

And he added:" The Ulster Volunteer Force does not stand in the way of Plan A."

He means there will be no loyalist revolt if there is a Paisley-Adams deal - Plan A, as far as the UVF is concerned - is better than Plan B.

On the possibility of talks with the DUP, he said the UVF "have been having direct dialogue with all unionist parties in the course of 40 years ? the DUP included".

"What we are reluctant to become involved in is some springboard exercise as a precursor to (the DUP) going into an Executive with Sinn Fein," he said.

He said if the DUP arrived at that point, the decision should be taken on its merits for the people of Northern Ireland.

In this interview, there was no sound of the war drums.

This is an organisation that believes it "kept the lights on" in the peace process after the Canary Wharf and the Thiepval Barracks bombs in 1996.

Now, ten years on, it is once again trying to find its place in that process.

There is no suggestion of a threat to the republican or nationalist communities, but the UVF ceasefire is no longer recognised.

The shootings in its most recent feud with the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the four murders, forced the Government to "specify" both the UVF and the Red Hand Commando.

"The membership of our organisation faced extreme provocation over a sustained period. Ultimately it (the feud) was unavoidable because of other people's inaction," the UVF spokesman said.

I suggested to him that his organisation had taken the law into its own hands.

"Unfortunately the law clearly wasn't operating with these people. We were forced to take the action that we took."

The LVF has gone now, and there is a decision to be made by the UVF.

How close is it to some peace declaration?

That now depends on the shaping of the politics between now and November 24.

Loyalists are not talking about the Provos any more. They are talking about Plan B as if it is a poison in the political system.

'The UVF is not a criminal organisation'

ON IRA DECOMMISSIONING:

UVF: "We accept the significance of that, but we do not believe that the IRA are an unarmed organisation at this stage.

ROWAN: They have certainly put away more weapons than the UVF have put away.

UVF: Well that's correct.

ROWAN: And any other loyalist organisation.

UVF: That's correct.

ROWAN: They are well ahead of loyalists in terms of decommissioning.

UVF: Well decommissioning has never been something that we felt should be given the weight that it has been given. It has never been an issue with us. Quite frankly decommissioning is not a word that we use in our vocabulary. Decommissioning is something that the Ulster Volunteer Force have neither promised nor discussed nor are likely to become engaged in. It is not on our agenda. However, the issue of military material is something that the Ulster Volunteer Force are very actively discussing. We recognise that society is changing. We engaged in the (consultation) process. We do not want to see a Northern Ireland awash with weapons and plagued by the misuse of those weapons and we are looking at that issue responsibly.

ON CRIMINALITY:

UVF: Well crime is a societal problem. The Ulster Volunteer Force is not a criminal organisation.

ROWAN: But there are criminals within it.

UVF: There are criminals within every organisation in society, not least paramilitary organisations.

ROWAN: Drug dealers.

UVF: The organisation has a very strict policy on drug dealers.

ROWAN: People destroying the loyalist community.

UVF: The organisation is absolutely opposed to those things. The organisation in the past has had to use military means to oppose those things within our community and beyond it.

ROWAN: How do you convince people that the UVF are dealing with these things within their ranks?

UVF: Well this (internal) process is looking at criminality as much as it is looking at those other things. I would say clearly, the Ulster Volunteer Force is opposed to criminality. The Ulster Volunteer Force has in the past disciplined its own members - fairly ruthlessly in some instances - and also has taken severe military action against others within the loyalist community who have been involved in criminality and heavily involved in plaguing the communities within which they operate.

ON THE LOYALIST WAR:

UVF: I would still say that that campaign was justified and that that campaign was legitimate. The constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland was under threat. The pro-Union population of Northern Ireland were under threat, and this organisation responded commensurate to that level of threat.

ROWAN: Was the Dublin-Monaghan bombings - 33 people dead on the streets - legitimate and was that justified?

UVF: It is the clear policy of this organisation not to speak of specific operations and individual incidents.

ROWAN: Was it justified was it legitimate, what had it to do with the war with the IRA?

UVF: We did not set the rules of engagement. The terms of this conflict were set out before us, and as I say, I'm not going to get into and delve into individual operations or specific incidents.

ROWAN: Loughinisland, was it justified?

UVF: What I will say to you is that the Ulster Volunteer Force campaign was justified.

ROWAN: Many people will see what happened in Dublin-Monaghan, and will see what happened in Loughinisland, and will see many of the hundreds of murders by the UVF as nothing more than the slaughter of the innocent - nothing to do with war.

UVF: We did not set the rules of engagement. We were involved in a war, a conflict. The nature of conflict is such that suffering is obviously the result. Our position on the innocents killed throughout that period as a result of our actions is unchanged from October '94. We offered those individuals abject and true remorse.

ROWAN: There were many individuals - innocent individuals - killed. Would you accept that?

UVF: I would accept that in the course of the conflict that many civilians have been killed.

ROWAN: And your organisation regrets that. Is that what you are saying?

UVF: I'm saying that our organisation have offered abject and true remorse as of our October 1994 statement and our position remains unchanged.

ROWAN: But the loyalist war, you're saying, was still justified.

UVF: Clearly, yes.

ON THE IRA:

UVF: We accept that changes within the republican movement have indeed taken place - significant changes. We are not satisfied that the IRA as an organisation are a thing of the past. The organisation has not gone away, and whilst they exist, there is always a level of threat to the loyalist community and to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. At this stage, that (threat) is not military ?It has been said before that war is politics by another means. The republican movement used that in the inverted sense, that politics is war by another means. At this stage, the republican movement, it is our belief, are pursuing their campaign in an unarmed, but nevertheless, a belligerent fashion."

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