Page last updated at 06:44 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 07:44 UK

The long road to decommissioning

UDA Mural
The IICD says it expects the UDA to decommission it s weapons

The path to loyalist decommissioning has been long and at times so tortuous that many doubted that it would ever be completed.

Like their republican counterparts, loyalists have not given up their guns easily.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 committed all its signatories to use whatever influence they had to bring about decommissioning within two years.

But as the millennium dawned, it became increasingly clear that it was unlikely to happen within that timeframe.

Ironically, it was guns belonging to an organisation that explicitly rejected the peace process which were the first to be destroyed.

In December 1998, the Loyalist Volunteer Force handed over a small quantity of arms.

However, as the IRA procrastinated about when and whether to decommission its own weapons, the mainstream loyalist groups, the UDA and the UVF, showed absolutely no inclination to make any unilateral move.

It was a frustrating time for the Independent International Commission for Decommissioning, a body set up following an agreement between the British and Irish governments.

The head of the body, the Canadian general Sir John De Chastelain, was forced to show stoical patience as tentative signs of progress often turned out to provide little of substance.

In the end it was political agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein which provided a much-needed impetus.

General Sir John De Chastelain
General Sir John De Chastelain headed the body charged with overseeing decommissioning

The IRA had decommissioned a quantity of weapons three times previously in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Each time, the lack of completeness had failed to convince unionists or loyalist paramilitaries.

But in 2005, when General De Chastelain confirmed that all IRA weapons had now been put beyond use, the onus was now firmly on loyalists to follow suit.

They proved to be in no hurry.

And it was only when devolution was restored in 2007 that the pressure began to build.

In one of her first acts as Social Development Minister, Margaret Ritchie, said that she would withdraw community funding linked to the UDA, if the organisation did not begin decommissioning.

The High Court later ruled that she had been wrong to block funding.

Nevertheless, she had demonstrated that a stick could be used as well as a carrot.

Later that year, a small number of guns were handed over by the south-east Antrim brigade of the UDA.

But as the group were considered a renegade faction and not sanctioned by the inner council of the organisation, the move was not seen as evidence of a wider impending move.

Indeed, when the UDA stood down the UFF, a cover name it used for its paramilitary activities, UDA leader Jackie McDonald made a point of claiming that 'ninety per cent' of people in loyalist communities did not want decommissioning.

Legislation

The fact that loyalist weapons were still occasionally being fired meant politicians could not allow the issue to lie fallow.

A year ago, the DUP confirmed several of its senior politicians had met with loyalists to discuss an end to criminality and press for the decommissioning of weapons.

The final shove came in February when the Secretary of State Shaun Woodward warned that special legislation allowing paramilitaries to decommission without fear of prosecution was being renewed for one final twelve month period.

The UVF and a smaller associate group, the Red Hand Commando, made their decisive move in June when they agreed to finally put all their weapons beyond use.

The IICD have confirmed that in their latest report.

More significant is their view that the UDA, a larger and more fractious organisation, has agreed to do the same by the February deadline.

If it does happen in the way the report expects, then it will be end of more than a decade when the word decommissioning was never far from the forefront of Northern Ireland's political lexicon.



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