Loyalists disarm: suddenly there is light at the end of a long road

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It has been a long loyalist road to this point — a journey that has taken a decade and more to get this far.

The combined loyalist arsenal would not compare with what was once held by the IRA — an IRA that had been armed by Libya and that had bunkers stuffed with Semtex explosive, a mountain of ammunition and a wide range of weaponry.

Republicans completed their decommissioning process with the de Chastelain team in September 2005 — whatever complete can mean in the context of a decades-long war. No one can say that every weapon has been destroyed with confidence.

The loyalists managed to smuggle a major arms supply into Northern Ireland in the late 1980s, but much of it was later seized.

It included anti-personnel hand grenades — the type used by Michael Stone during his attack in Milltown Cemetery in 1988 — VZ58 rifles, 9mm pistols, RPG7 rocket launchers and a pile of ammunition.

The weapons that were not seized were used during a major surge in loyalist violence in the build-up to the ceasefires of 1994.

Another big arms shipment destined for the UVF was intercepted in 1993.

At the time that group said: “We, the Ulster Volunteer Force, in claiming responsibility for the weapons seized in England wish to make it clear to the people of Ulster that whilst it is a logistical setback, it in no way diminishes our ability nor our determination to carry on the war against the IRA.”

A Special Branch estimate dating back a number of years suggested that loyalists held something in the region of 900/1000 weapons — the majority of them handguns. And that figure gives some indication of what any decommissioning process would involve. How many of those weapons have now been put beyond use will be one of the questions that will be asked in the days ahead.

Up to this point there had been a small act of de-commissioning by the splinter loyalist faction, the LVF, and the breakaway south-east Antrim UDA group is also understood to have made a start to decommissioning. But the major focus in this decommissioning process has been on the main groups — the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando.

Now, there are reports that something has happened and that something more is imminent — that if some of those groups have not already moved, then they are at an amber light.

At this stage nobody is saying it with their name or their organisation’s name attached to it.

There is no official confirmation, but well-placed and well-informed loyalist sources are confirming that start to their decommissioning process.

From The Belfast Telegraph