Loyalists 'closer to decommissioning'

Loyalists in the North are moving towards decommissioning their weapons, the head of the Presbyterian church said today.

Loyalists in the North are moving towards decommissioning their weapons, the head of the Presbyterian church said today.

Representatives of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) have accepted the days of violence are in the past, moderator Donald Patton said following a meeting in Belfast.

The organisation, responsible for a string of sectarian killings during the Troubles, has been set a Government deadline of this summer to hand over guns or face sanctions.

Dr Patton said: "They said themselves that violence isn't the way forward, that is in the past and violence can't contribute to a positive future for anybody."

He led the church delegation at the Presbyterian headquarters Church House while the loyalist grouping, known as the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), included Frankie Gallagher and William McQuiston.

Dr Patton added: "There has to come an organised point where it is agreed that (decommissioning) will happen.

"At the same time, if too many fixed deadlines are set down, sometimes that becomes a difficulty as the confidence needs to be built."

He said the church hoped to have another meeting within weeks.

"They are seeking to move towards the point of decommissioning," he said.

Issues of social exclusion and creating a shared future were also discussed.

Last week the UPRG, which advises the UDA, met the leader of the Catholic church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady. The Democratic Unionist Party has also been engaged in talks.

The North's Security Minister Paul Goggins has said loyalists must begin the process of destroying weapons now.

He has warned that if significant progress is not made by this summer, the amnesty period freeing those who hand over weapons from the fear of prosecution would be halted.

The SDLP is also to meet the armed group. Assembly member Alex Attwood said the decommissioning deadline was going to be missed.

"They have been given encouragement for 14 years to move in the right direction and every time they have been found wanting," he said.

"This isn't a matter of encouragement, this is about them giving us firm guarantees.

"The UDA are saying that they won't work to deadlines laid down by government."

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