Loyalist leaders to meet Cardinal

Groundbreaking first talks between the head of the Roman Catholic church in Ireland and loyalist leaders are to take place today.

Cardinal Sean Brady is meeting a delegation from the Ulster Political Research Group, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, at his residence in Armagh.

Cardinal Brady will use the meeting to urge the UDA to hand over its weapons as pressure continues to mount on the loyalist group to finally begin decommissioning.

Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward has threatened the group, responsible for a string of sectarian murders during the conflict, with sanctions if it does not act soon.

The meeting is the latest stage in a series of efforts to persuade loyalist paramilitaries to enter the political mainstream and decommission.

They have included contacts between Irish President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin with Jackie McDonald, the UDA brigadier in south Belfast.

Recently the UDA had been praised for not retaliating in the face of the dissident republican murders of a policeman in Co Armagh and two soldiers in Antrim. Indeed Mr McDonald was present at the funeral of the murdered Catholic PSNI officer.

Nevertheless Mr Woodward has threatened to revoke legislation protecting loyalists from prosecution if they give up arms. He wants to see action as soon as possible.

A spokesman for the Cardinal said he would be urging the UDA to reject violence.

Father Tim Bartlett said the meeting had been arranged following a request from a third party and the Cardinal was anxious to understand the concerns of the loyalist community.

"He will appeal to the UPRG to use its influence to encourage loyalist groups to reject the option of violence once and for all so that the children of this and future generations can live in peace."

Frankie Gallagher, the UPRG spokesman, said the meeting with the cardinal could not have taken place three or even two years ago and was an "historic" occasion.

He said they would reassure Cardinal Brady the issue of weaponry was being managed by the UDA.

"We need people to have a little patience but I think this will be a good year for the whole society of Northern Ireland.

"I can go so far as to say the UPRG is working towards creating an environment where political violence is no longer a viable option and weapons are a thing of the past."


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