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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 September 2006, 17:52 GMT 18:52 UK
Can UDA be brought in from cold?
Secretary of State Peter Hain this week announced that the government is giving 135,000 to a project aimed at helping the UDA move away from paramilitary activity and crime.

Is it a simply a hopeful shot in the dark, or part of a strategy to bring the organisation in from the political wilderness? Home Affairs Correspondent Vincent Kearney reports.

Secret talks seem a pre-requisite for political initiatives in Northern Ireland, and this loyalist project is no different.

UPRG delegation pictured after meeting Bertie Ahern
A UPRG delegation met Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin
Back in November 2004, senior members of the UDA and their political representatives held tentative talks with senior officials from the Northern Ireland Office to discuss the future of the largest loyalist paramilitary organisation.

Those talks intensified during the past nine months, with Prime Minister Tony Blair and his senior advisors kept informed of the progress.

In July, senior members of the UDA, four of its so-called brigadiers, met Secretary of State Peter Hain, and then took the unprecedented step of travelling to Dublin to meet Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Those meetings were made public, but it was the discreet, behind the scenes talks that laid the foundations.

During those talks, NIO officials made it clear that the British government would respond if there was evidence of a genuine attempt by the UDA leadership to abandon terrorism and criminal activity.

Peter Hain reinforced that message when he faced the media after announcing the funding on Monday.

The secretary of state said he could understand that victims of UDA violence might feel angry and bitter about the move, but insisted that he had to look to the future and try to help people if they wanted to move away from gangsterism and violence.

Andre Shoukri
Andre Shoukri was ousted from the UDA earlier this year
The UDA leadership insists that it is genuine about wanting change, and the government funding is the start of the positive response that was promised.

It is a clear manifestation of political support.

It is also a test of that declared commitment to change, with more money promised if the government is satisfied that the UDA is serious.

So what does the UDA mean by change?

It doesn't mean that the organisation is going to vanish overnight, or even in the foreseeable future, and it certainly has no intention of decommissioning its weapons.

The Ulster Political Research Group, the organisation's political representatives, says the money will be used for "conflict transformation".

The aim is to prepare members of the UDA to find a new role in their community, and in the long term this could include training and educational courses to help increase their chances of employment.

People can think what they want, but most of our members did not join the UDA to be drug dealers and criminals
UDA source
But there is a long way to go. The International Monitoring Body, the Organised Crime Task Force and other government agencies have all declared that crime is rife within the organisation, and that it is still actively involved in violence.

The last IMC report, published earlier this month, said there was evidence that some of the organisation's leaders "appear committed to ending criminality amongst their members", and added that this "may reflect a positive strategic decision."

That was heavily qualified and far from a ringing endorsement, and all eyes will be on the next report, which is due to be published early next month.

Peter Hain
Mr Hain announced 135,000 was being granted to the project
Senior UDA members and their representatives have been talking about change for some months now, and now effectively they are being asked to prove it.

During the dispute between the organisation's ruling Inner Council and a faction in north Belfast that remained loyal to Ihab and Andre Shoukri, those close to the leadership described the rift as a clash between those who wanted to end criminality, and those who were actively engaged in it.

Many took this with a very large pinch of salt because of the known levels of crime within the ranks of the UDA.

But those who talk of change insist they mean what they say.

"People can think what they want, but most of our members did not join the UDA to be drug dealers and criminals," says one senior loyalist.

'At war'

Another senior source accepts that the organisation did engage in crime throughout the Troubles, but argues that this was justified because the organisation was "at war".

"Yes, of course we robbed banks and ran extortion rackets in the past," he explains.

"But that was for the organisation, to fund the purchase of weapons and other activities.

"Anyone engaged in that kind of activity now is doing it for themselves, not for the UDA."

The government will hope that those voices are an accurate reflection of the current thinking of the UDA leadership.

If that proves to be the case, and the organisation is genuinely looking to a new future, it may come to consider the investment of 135,000 as good value for money.

If the UDA fails to deliver, the government will have lost relatively little, but the loyalist leadership will have lost any credibility it has achieved in those months of talks that convinced Peter Hain that it was worth taking a risk.




SEE ALSO
Hain backs loyalist project grant
18 Sep 06 |  Northern Ireland
UDA supporters in street protest
03 Aug 06 |  Northern Ireland
Ahern 'allays loyalist concerns'
13 Jul 06 |  Northern Ireland
Why UDA expelled 'unlikely loyalists'
21 Jun 06 |  Northern Ireland
NIO rejects 'funding spin' claims
06 Jun 06 |  Northern Ireland

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