UDA leader declares: `War is over'

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THE striking declaration that "We are of the view the war is over" was last night made by the prison leader of one of Northern Ireland's main terrorist groups, the Ulster Defence Association.

The unprecedented statement, which will heap pressure on the IRA to make a similar pronouncement, came as Tony Blair came into Belfast to attempt to persuade budding Unionists to support the Good Friday agreement.

The statement was made in a BBC Radio interview by Sammy McCrory, leader of UDA inmates at the Maze prison. It represents the furthest any leading paramilitary figure - loyalist or republican - has ever gone in asserting that the Northern Ireland ceasefires are permanent fixtures rather than temporary expedients.

Meanwhile, one of the UDA's most notorious killers, Michael Stone, was warmly welcomed when he attended a rally of the UDA's political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party, last night.

Speaking from prison, Mr McCrory said: "I just hope to look forward and not look back. We are of the view the war is over." He said that, on behalf of the UDA/UFF, he apologised to all victims of violence.

The UDA commander's words will have the same political effect as those of Mr Blair who has sought to increase pressure on the IRA to decommission weaponry and make clear that its "armed struggle" was over for good.

In a speech in Belfast yesterday, the Prime Minister promised legislation aimed at ensuring that the IRA's "so-called war is finished, done with, gone". He listed a range of factors, including the dismantling of paramilitary structures and cooperation on arms decommissioning, which he said the Government would put into legislation.

He appeared to stop short of specifying what Unionist critics of the accord want - making IRA decommissioning a formal requirement before Sinn Fein can be admitted into a new Northern Ireland administration.

Mr Blair said there had to be a clear commitment that violence was over for good, with an end to bombings, killings and beatings and an end to procurement of weapons.

But he added: "We are not setting new preconditions or barriers. On the contrary, we want as many people as possible to use the agreement as their bridge across to an exclusively peaceful path."

Mr Blair's application of increased pressure on republicans found an echo in Dublin where the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, declared: "People are entitled to an absolute assurance that the conflict is over, that weapons will not be used again by either the parties owning them or allowed to fall into the wrong hands - and that they will be safely and verifiably disposed of."

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