The British government’s recognition of the Ulster Defence Association’s ceasefire officially came into effect today.
It came hours after the UDA, Northern Ireland’s largest loyalist paramilitary group, pledged to end all violence and work towards complete disarmament.
The announcement was made at a loyalist Remembrance Day parade by Tommy Kirkham of the Ulster Political Research Group, political representatives of the UDA.
Mr Kirkham, speaking to more than 2,000 UDA members in the loyalist Rathcoole Estate on the northern outskirts of Belfast, said: “From today we are prepared to move into a process. Our commitment to that process will be to work towards a day when there is no longer a need for a UDA and a UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters).”
Mr Kirkham said that the UDA would now desist from all “military activity”.
“The strategy of the organisation will become one of community development, job creation, social inclusion and community politics,” he said.
The announcement followed the decision of Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy to recognise the UDA ceasefire.
A Northern Ireland Office spokesman today said the British government welcomed the commitment from the UDA to “end all violence and enter a process that would see the end of all paramilitary activity”.
Mr Murphy, who will make a statement in Britain's House of Commons on the issue today, admitted on Friday that he was taking a gamble but he had decided to despecify the UDA’s ceasefire because he was persuaded the organisation was serious about seeking a new beginning.
Mr Kirkham said the UDA would engage with the decommissioning commission but said it must be confident that there was no longer any threat to the loyalist community.
He said the paramilitary group would persuade people of Northern Ireland that it was capable of change.
“We recognise the need for change. We will be more effective in our new role but will remain protectors of our community.”
Mr Murphy’s decision to recognise the ceasefire was made despite a report by the Independent Monitoring Commission which blamed the UDA for running organised crime rackets and carrying out paramilitary shootings.
Earlier this month Mr Murphy held talks with members of the UDA’s inner council including Andre Shoukri and Jackie McDonald.
Nationalist politicians have given a cautious welcome to claims about the UDA’s new intentions but have said the organisation will be judged by its future deeds.
Alban Maginness, of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, said that the UDA continued to cause terror in many parts of Northern Ireland.
“The UDA must be judged on actions rather than words. For nationalists and ethnic minorities who have been repeatedly attacked by the UDA this is the only test that matters,” he said.
Sinn Féin South Belfast MLA Alex Maskey said there was scepticism in the nationalist community at the UDA announcement.
“We are faced with a dilemma because in the first instance we want them to stop the kind of activity they have been involved in. We have heard all of these statements before and there is a huge dose of scepticism out there,” he said.
“But I hope, and my party certainly hopes, that it is successful,” he added.