The last remaining armed loyalist paramilitary groups in the North have pledged to decommission all their weapons within six months, the British Government announced today.
The Ulster Defence Association and the UDA’s breakaway faction in South East Antrim have given the commitment to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward said.
The undertaking comes after the Ulster Volunteer Forces and Red Hand Commando (RHC) put all their guns beyond use in June.
At that time both the leadership of the UDA and the South East Antrim unit said they had destroyed part of their arsenals, and indicated that they would finish the job at some point.
In the IICD’s latest report to the British Government, commission head General John de Chastelain told Mr Woodward that both groups have now committed to doing so by February – when a long running amnesty to allow paramilitaries to decommission without fear of prosecution finally ends.
Loyalist paramilitaries killed almost 1,000 people, mainly Roman Catholics, during 30 years of violence in the region.
The Secretary of State hailed the IICD report as hugely significant.
“The end is in sight for the decommissioning process,” he said.
“So much has been achieved by the IICD since it was established and I would urge all groups to continue to work with the Commission and put their arms beyond use before the scheme comes to an end in February.”
In the report, Canadian Gen de Chastelain and fellow commission members Norwegian Brigadier Tauno Nieminen and Andrew Sens, from America, confirmed they had witnessed the UVF/RHC decommissioning acts at first hand.
A substantial quantity of firearms, ammunition and explosives were put beyond use, they said.
The commissioners also said they were given assurances from the mainstream UDA’s five brigades and the South East Antrim grouping that they would complete their decommissioning by the end of the IICD’s mandate in February.
They also dismissed recent speculation that the UDA’s Derry/North Antrim brigade was refusing to give up its arms and said its leaders had given a commitment they were still on board.
“In conclusion, we feel that substantial practical progress has been made on decommissioning Loyalist paramilitary arms,” they wrote.
“We believe we have completed the decommissioning of the UVF/RHC arms and we have been given a commitment by representatives of the UDA and the UDA South East Antrim group that they will complete the decommissioning of their arms within the timeframe of the Commission’s current and final mandate.”
The IICD, which was set up by the British and Irish governments in 1997, oversaw the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA’s arsenal in 2005.
Earlier this year the governments extended the commission’s mandate for a final year in an effort to finally persuade loyalists to hand over their guns.
At the same time Mr Woodward extended the prosecution amnesty for a further 12 months.
He said the progress that has been made has justified those decisions.
“This is a hugely significant report which confirms substantial practical progress has been made on decommissioning loyalist paramilitary weapons over the past six months,” he said.
He added: “Northern Ireland has been transformed over the past decade and the work of General John de Chastelain and the IICD has helped society to move away from conflict and towards peace.”
After the decommissioning events in June, the UVF and UDA leaders said they were committed to moving towards a better future.
The UVF said it had begun the process of destroying weapons last autumn but suspended it after dissident republicans killed two soldiers and a policeman in Antrim and Craigavon, Co Armagh, in March.