Three loyalist paramilitary groups in the North have started to decommission their weapons after painstaking behind-the-scenes efforts to secure disarmament.
In a further milestone in the development of the peace process, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is understood to have decommissioned a major weapons cache, with further disarmament moves by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Red Hand Commando (RHC).
The British and Irish governments tonight welcomed the destruction of weaponry, but said they had yet to receive official confirmation of the move from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD).
The loyalist groups killed hundreds of people during the decades of violence, with the UVF responsible for murders in the mid-1960s which marked the beginning of the Troubles.
Republican and nationalist politicians expressed hopes that the news – expected to be formally confirmed in an IICD report in August – will mark the beginning of the end of loyalist paramilitary activity.
Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said he was reluctant to pre-empt the IICD report, although ministers are believed to have been briefed on developments.
“If these reports were to be confirmed, what we would see would be a seismic transformation within loyalism,” said Mr Woodward.
“What they would say is that loyalism has carried out a major act of decommissioning.”
Chief Constable Hugh Orde welcomed news of the decommissioning steps.
“I think it is very significant,” he said. “I think it is a step change which shows a degree of organisation and commitment that perhaps we have not seen before.”
In January Mr Woodward was criticised for extending decommissioning legislation for a year to provide loyalists with a window of opportunity – though he demanded action by August.
Today Orde said: “I think the legislation put an additional pressure on these groups and they had to make a decision.”
Taoiseach Brian Cowen also welcomed the reports and said he looked forward to official confirmation.
The IICD was established in 1997 to oversee the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, with those passing illegal weapons to the groups granted immunity from prosecution.
The political process was dogged by efforts to secure IRA decommissioning, which was eventually completed in 2005.
Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson, who met loyalists to encourage decommissioning, said: “The party would certainly welcome any move by the organisations to decommission their weapons and cease from their paramilitary activity, however, we do not want to pre-empt the outcome of this process.
“The party will continue to engage with these organisations in order to impress upon them the need to leave violence and criminality behind and to complete the decommissioning process.”
Senior Sinn Féin representative Gerry Kelly said: “The IRA dealt with the issue of arms in a decisive way four years ago.
“If these reports prove to be true and the UVF have now followed suit then that would obviously be a welcome move.
“It is also important that other armed organisations go down this road.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey said: “This is something that we have been working on for the last few years and it shows the progress that Northern Ireland has made.”
The UVF campaign of violence stretches back to the mid-1960s when loyalists lashed out over the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and against early calls for full civil rights for Catholics in the North.
In 1966 it killed two Catholic men, John Scullion and Peter Ward, plus Protestant woman Matilda Gould who was caught up in an attack on a Catholic owned bar next to her home.
The UVF carried out the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974 which caused the largest single loss of life in the conflict, killing 33 people.
The group killed 550 people during the Troubles, while the UDA, which also operated under the flag of convenience of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), claimed 431 lives.
The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group allied to the UVF, killed 19 people.
The UDA was formed in 1971 and is the largest paramilitary group in the North, once boasting tens of thousands of members.
It controversially remained a legal organisation until 1992 when it was banned by the then Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew.
Victims of loyalist violence today welcomed the decommissioning move.
Relatives for Justice director Mark Thompson said families also demanded full disclosure of the extent of links between loyalists and security forces.
“For families affected by loyalist violence, especially concerning the issue of collusion, truth, acknowledgement and recognition surrounding the killings of their loved ones remains the central focus as it also is for many families across our society affected by all the groupings to the conflict,” he said.
Loyalists involved in contacts with the IICD kept the move a closely guarded secret, with only a handful of members aware of developments.
Leader of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) Dawn Purvis was unable to confirm decommissioning had taken place.
But she said loyalists were involved in ongoing contacts with the IICD.
“That is to be welcomed,” she said. “That is where the process of decommissioning has to be dealt with.”
Justice spokesman for the nationalist SDLP Alban Maginness said that, while loyalist decommissioning was welcome, it was long overdue.
“The loyalist groups have sorely tried our patience for long enough and there should be no element of bargaining in completing decommissioning,” he said.
“All the loyalist groups must give up their weapons and go out of business.”