First Ulster terrorists hand in guns

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The Independent Online
SHOWERS OF sparks flew into the air in a Belfast warehouse yesterday as observers witnessed a scene many never believed they would see: the sight of voluntarily decommissioned terrorist guns being sawn into pieces.

The destruction of a handful of weapons given up by a fringe loyalist group was the second important move of the day, for at 4am yesterday bleary eyed Unionist and nationalist politicians had announced agreement on the shape of a new Northern Ireland administration.

Both developments have their limitations for the group involved, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, is one of the smaller underground armies, while the political advance has left the core central issue of decommissioning untouched.

But both were, none the less, hugely welcome to the British and Irish governments, after months of seemingly interminable wrangling. The politicians will now go off on their Christmas break with a sense of achievement at having broken the recent stalemate.

The first-ever act of voluntary decommissioning took place after police provided an escort for a car travelling from the LVF's Portadown stronghold to Belfast. The vehicle carried eight or nine guns, detonators and blast bombs.

In keeping with the legislation aimed at facilitating decommissioning, the weapons were not checked for fingerprints or subjected to forensic science tests before their destruction.

Paradoxically, the LVF has in recent years been one of the most violent groups, and one of the most opposed to the peace process. It was founded by Billy Wright, known as King Rat, who was assassinated by republicans a year ago. In the 12 months up until April of this year the group killed 13 people including 11 Catholic civilians, a Protestant who was drinking in a Catholic bar, and one of its own members whom it suspected of being an informer. Most of the victims were chosen at random simply because of their religion.

Its current leader, Mark Fulton, was arrested by police recently in the early hours of a Saturday morning. A bail hearing on Tuesday was told that he had been firing a gun in the air after drinking heavily. The group has no political wing and no coherent political philosophy.

The LVF's decision to call a ceasefire, which took effect in May of this year, is believed to have been heavily influenced by its 19 imprisoned members. Without a ceasefire they would not have benefited from the Good Friday Agreement's provisions for early release.

The group opened contact with the Government through a Protestant pastor who had served a life sentence for double murder. It then publicly announced that it would decommission some of its weapons if the Government formally recognised its ceasefire. This the Government did some weeks ago.

While David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) called on the IRA and other loyalists to follow the LVF's example, both republican and loyalist spokesmen poured cold water on the idea that decommissioning by the major groups had become any more likely.

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said that he welcomed the LVF move if it was a genuine disarmament effort, but added that the IRA had already made its contribution to peace by announcing and maintaining a ceasefire.

David Ervine of the Ulster Volunteer Force-linked Progressive Unionist Party said: "This is a Christmas farce. I'm sorry to have to tell you it won't make a damn button of difference to the main paramilitary organisations."

In their agreement, thrashed out principally between the UUP and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, it was decided that a new Northern Ireland government would have 10 departments. There are also to be six cross-border implementation bodies responsible for areas such as trade and business development and the Irish language, and provision for closer north-south co-operation in areas such as tourism and agriculture.

Mr Trimble, who has been troubled by doubters within his party's ranks, received the endorsement of his executive by 70 to 30, which he said reflected the "stability of support" for his position. He was, however, accused of selling out by the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which said yesterday's agreement would pave the way for Sinn Fein to take its seats in a new executive without IRA arms decommissioning.

The LVF arms handover was described as a modest but significant move by the Canadian General John de Chastelain, who heads the decommissioning body. The general said that he hoped for complete disarmament by May 2000.

Ulster's Arsenal

YESTERDAY'S decommissioning of Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) weapons in Belfast, though carrying a powerful symbolic charge because of its unprecedented nature, represents but a drop in the ocean in terms of Northern Ireland's total arsenal.

The Government's hope will be that the LVF's action in handing over fewer than a dozen guns will start the ball rolling. But everyone is well aware that there are possibly thousands of guns in the hands of paramilitary groups which show no sign of following suit.

The most heavily armed group is the IRA, which in the mid-1980s received several shiploads of guns from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's Libyan regime, transforming it into the best-supplied terrorist group in Western Europe. Some of this materiel has since been seized by the security forces north and south of the border, but a great deal is still hidden.

At the heart of the IRA arsenal are up to 1,000 rifles, most of them modern Kalashnikovs which came from Libya. It also has hundreds of pistols and handguns.

The IRA also received from Col Gaddafi a selection of sophisticated weaponry including powerful machine-guns, some anti-aircraft weapons and a number of ground-to-air missiles. It may also have a couple of flame- throwers. It may possess up to three tons of Semtex, the plastic explosive which the IRA incorporated into armour-piercing grenades, shoulder- fired rockets, mortars and under-car booby trap devices.

Loyalist groups such as the UVF and UDA, though much larger than the IRA, are not nearly so well-equipped, though a shipment from South Africa about 10 years ago brought them hundreds more guns. They are thought to have perhaps 400 rifles and 300 handguns, together with dozens of machine-guns and a small quantity of explosives.

Northern Ireland also has an inordinate number of legally-held firearms - 139,000 in a country of a million and a half people. Most of these are shotguns and airguns, together with 13,000 small-bore rifles and 12,700 handguns.

David McKittrick