Page last updated at 08:48 GMT, Saturday, 27 June 2009 09:48 UK

Unlikely figure behind arms moves

By Mark Simpson
Ireland correspondent, BBC News

The UVF says it has decommissioned its weapons. The UDA has also announced it has started the process. But why did it take so long and why is it finally happening?

Help came from a most unlikely source as loyalists edged further down the path to peace.

Martin McAleese was working behind the scenes on the arms issue
Martin McAleese was working behind the scenes on the arms issue

Martin McAleese, the husband of the Irish president Mary McAleese, was working behind the scenes as the largest loyalist group, the UDA, dealt with the weapons issue.

He helped persuade hardline Belfast loyalists like Jackie McDonald that they had nothing to fear from the peace process in general, and the Dublin establishment in particular.

The two men not only talked at great length, they reportedly played golf together. It was an unlikely combination - an Irishman and an Ulsterman, a Catholic and a Protestant - swinging golf clubs rather than punches.

In recent years, Mr McAleese has worked quietly in the background, seeking progress rather than publicity.

The Belfast-born dentist is more used to negotiating pain-barriers than political barriers, but he displayed sensitivity and a steady hand in the murky world of loyalism.

Clung to weapons

In the eyes of many people, loyalist paramilitaries are largely sectarian, brutal bigots addicted to violence and criminality.

Even though they called a ceasefire in October 1994, they held onto their guns and were prepared to use them - truce or no truce.

Even when UDA and UVF prisoners were let out of jail early as part of the peace deal, the loyalists clung on to their weapons, ammunition and explosives.

They claimed they needed them for protection against republicans. The truth was that leading loyalists were more afraid of each other.

Bloody feuds erupted, as loyalists turned their guns on themselves. As well as murders, there were expulsions, with a number of notorious paramilitaries forced to leave Belfast for their own safety.

Among them was Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, who ended up in the north of England in Lancashire, earning him the nickname of the "Bolton Wanderer".

Rather than fighting a political cause, many loyalists were embroiled in drug-dealing, extortion, loan-sharking and the supply of contraband cigarettes.

Indeed, a report issued last month by ceasefire watchdog the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) said that some members of the UDA were still involved in such scams.

The reaction of many people on the streets of Belfast may be 'too little too late', but for loyalists this is a huge step

Given this, the involvement of Martin McAleese with loyalist leaders was all the more surprising.

It was often said that it sounded more like the title of a movie - The President, Her Husband and the Paramilitary Bosses.

It is difficult to quantify how big an influence Mr McAleese was on the UDA, and whether decommissioning would have happened without his gentle interventions.

He took some flak along the way, but it seems he concluded that the ends would justify the means.

Looking over shoulder

The timing of the arms moves is significant. Clearly, the August deadline for decommissioning set by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, successfully concentrated minds.

Also, the fact that 15 years have passed since the ceasefires meant that it was really a case of "now or never".

There is no doubt some loyalists - including some senior figures - would have preferred to never do it. They have a "no-one likes us, we don't care" attitude.

UVF mural
The UVF is expected to say it has decommissioned all its weapons

What is more, they are probably still looking over their shoulder at other loyalists, paranoid about another feud.

In the end, the pro-decommissioning lobby won the argument, particularly in the UVF.

Of the two main loyalist groups, it is by far the more stable. The recent IMC report said: "The movement of the UVF towards an end point seems managed and cohesive, and internal discipline looks fairly solid."

A different picture emerged of the UDA.

The report stated: "The leadership is area-based and not cohesive. There are some who remain opposed to significant change, and policy often seems to be more reactive than strategic."

Reading the above, it is no surprise that the UDA did not go as far as the UVF in the decommissioning process.

Piece of jigsaw

Securing any decommissioning at all must have been a struggle, never mind persuading people to hand over everything.

Nonetheless, the question will still be asked - why do the UDA still need their guns? Especially as the IRA got rid of their weapons four years ago.

Answers will be sought in the coming days. But for now, the significance of the moves by the loyalists - especially the UVF - will be the focus of the debate.

The reaction of many people on the streets of Belfast may be "too little too late", but for loyalists this is a huge step.

And in terms of the overall peace process, it is another key piece of the jigsaw falling into place.

Between them, the UDA and UVF killed almost 1,000 people during the Troubles, most of them Catholics.

Many of those murder weapons have now gone, and will never be used again.

That will be a source of relief to people in Northern Ireland, and also to many in the Irish Republic, including the quietly-spoken husband of the president.

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