Loyalist paramilitary groups in the North have destroyed their weapons and pledged to respect democratic rule, it was announced today.
The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Red Hand Commando (RHC) said all arms and explosives were totally and irreversibly beyond use.
And the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) disclosed it had started to decommission its own haul of guns.
The organisations killed almost 1,000 people, mainly Catholics, during 30 years of violence.
The UDA said: “The dark days are now behind us and it is time to move on. There is no place for guns and violence in the new society we are building. It is time to work for a better future.”
The UVF and RHC added: “We have done so to further augment the establishment of accountable democratic governance in this region of the UK, to remove the pretext that loyalist weaponry is an obstacle to the development of our communities and to compound our legacy of integrity to the peace process.”
The UVF said the process began last autumn but was suspended after dissident republicans killed two soldiers and a policeman in Antrim and Craigavon, Co Armagh, in March.
It continued: “Assurances were sought from the (British) government and from the Irish government that those responsible, in whatever jurisdiction, would be vigorously pursued and the failures of 1969 (when the conflict began) would not be revisited upon our community.
“Only when forthright assurances were given and it became clear that they would be honoured did our process resume.”
The group’s campaign of violence stretches back to the mid-1960s after the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and against early calls for full civil rights for Catholics in the North.
Dawn Purvis, leader of the UVF-aligned Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), said: “This is a truly momentous day in the history of progressive loyalism. The decommissioning of all weapons by the UVF and RHC shows that peaceful, stable, inclusive democracy is the way forward for our country.”
While the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had met with loyalist groups, she made an apparent sideswipe at reports the party played a key role in delivering decommissioning.
“For those involved, decommissioning was a process, carefully managed and brought to fruition, not an event, and contrary to some reports, not delivered as a result of two meetings in the space of nine months,” said the PUP Assembly member.
She praised the late David Ervine who once led the PUP and who she said worked to build peace and end division.
His tearful widow Jeanette was in the crowd at the event at the Methodist East Belfast Mission Hall where her late husband’s funeral was held.
Former UVF prisoner Billy Hutchinson helped negotiate with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) led by General John de Chastelain who four years ago witnessed destruction of the IRA’s arsenal of guns, ammunition and explosives.
“The war is over, the weapons have been put beyond use and we move on and I think that it’s quite clear,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“The (British) government and the Dublin government and the Executive have no excuses, loyalist weapons have been put beyond use.”
The UDA was formed in loyalist working-class areas in 1971 and is the largest paramilitary group in the North, once boasting tens of thousands of members.
It said: “This is a courageous and unprecedented move that is part of a wider transition from conflict to peace.
It added: “By carrying out this act we are helping to build a new and better Northern Ireland where conflict is a thing of the past.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward, Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, Sinn Féin, Catholic leader Cardinal Sean Brady and President Mary McAleese were among those welcoming the news.
A spokesman for the IICD said: “The IICD has witnessed a decommissioning event involving arms belonging to the UDA and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF).
“This is a significant move and we look forward to completing the process of putting all UDA-UFF arms beyond use at an early opportunity.”