The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is to assume a non-military, civilianised role after putting its weapons beyond use, the loyalist paramilitary organisation announced today.
Recruitment, military training and targeting have stopped and all its so-called active service units de-activated, the leadership claimed.
With Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Belfast next Tuesday for the restoration of the power-sharing government at Stormont, today’s declaration effectively called an end to a campaign by one of the deadliest and most feared terrorist groups in the North.
It followed a series of meetings by its political representatives with Mr Ahern, the chief constable Sir Hugh Orde and Northern Secretary Peter Hain.
A statement read out by one of the UVF’s founding members, convicted killer Gusty Spence, said: “We have taken the above measures in an earnest attempt to augment the return of accountable democracy to the people of Northern Ireland and, as such, to engender confidence that the constitutional question has now been firmly settled.”
As part of the developing peace process, the IRA, which claims to have decommissioned all its weapons, announced an end to its campaign almost two years ago.
One of its former commanders, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness – Deputy First Minister-designate at Stormont – was in Edinburgh today for talks with Chancellor Gordon Brown.
He was accompanied by the Ian Paisley, the incoming First Minister – another sign of the astonishing political pace in Belfast in advance of Tuesday’s new beginning.
This developing relationship, growing confidence that the IRA no longer pose a threat and the belief that the North’s future within the UK is secure have convinced the UVF that the time has come to finally stand down.
From midnight tonight the organisation said it will assume a non-military, civilianised role.
It also confirmed that the body set up to monitor paramilitary disarmament, General John de Chastelain’s Independent International Commission on Decommission, has been instructed about the decision to put all ordnance beyond reach.
Nationalists may seek more clarification of what that means, but Downing Street, Dublin and Washington will be relatively reassured, and it is bound to increase pressure on the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the largest of the Protestant paramilitary organisations still heavily involved in all forms of criminality, to follow the same path.
The UVF declared a ceasefire in 1994, just after the IRA’s first cessation, as part of the process which led towards the April 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
But the organisation, which has been responsible for hundreds of murders and some of the worst terrorist atrocities, continued to kill.
Today’s statement said it has addressed the methodology of transforming from a military to civilian organisation by implementing a series of measures in every operational and command area.
Recruitment, military training and targeting have ceased and all intelligence rendered obsolete.
All its active service units have been de-activated.
The statement added: “We encourage our Volunteers to embrace the challenges which continue to face their communities and support their continued participation in non-military capacities. We reaffirm our opposition to all criminality and instruct our Volunteers to cooperate fully with the lawful authorities in all possible instances.
“Moreover, we state unequivocally that any Volunteer engaged in criminality does so in direct contravention of Brigade Command and thus we welcome any recourse through due process of law.
“All Volunteers are further encouraged to show support for credible restorative justice projects so that they, with their respective communities, may help eradicate criminality and anti-social behaviour in our society.”
Just hours before the statement was delivered at Fernhill House Museum in the city’s Protestant Shankill district, the Government confirmed its approval of four loyalist restorative justice schemes after a watchdog found no evidence that they were a front for paramilitary gangs.
The UVF urged all violent dissidents to halt their campaigns and for the British and Irish authorities to deal swiftly with the threat. Failure to do so would inevitably provoke another generation of loyalists towards armed resistance, they warned.
The statement added that “we reaffirm the legitimacy of our tactical response to violent Nationalism yet reiterate the sincere expression of abject and true remorse to all innocent victims of the conflict”.