One of Northern Ireland's most lethal loyalist paramilitary groups today announced that it had put all of its weapons out of commission, marking an important milestone in the long-running peace process.
The Ulster Defence Association apparently made the move in response to a government deadline. In effect the organisation, like other loalist and republican groups, was told that if it had a window of opportunity in which to decommission.
A deadline was set as 9 February. Before that date the UDA could put its weapons beyond use on the basis of no-questions-asked. Anything found in its possession after then could be forensically examined and used as evidence in future court cases.
A spokesman for the UDA announced: “Today the leadership of the Ulster Defence Association can confirm that all weaponry under its control has been put verifiably beyond use.”
The verification came from former Canadian General John de Chastelain, who witnessed the action as head of an international decommissioning body. He has previously overseen similar acts by the IRA and other loyalist groups.
The decommissioning was also witnessed by two figures of high repute, Archbishop Lord Robin Eames, a former head of the Church of Ireland, and Sir George Quigley, a former senior civil servant.
They said yesterday: “We were very pleased to have the opportunity to be present at such a significant moment in he course of Northern Ireland's steady progress towards what can be a far better future for everyone.”
The UDA has a murderous history, though it and other loyalist outfits have been quieter than usual in the last few years. But despite this recent relative inactivity the authorities are mightily relieved that such a dangerous group has been de-fanged.
Both the British and Irish governments have been involved in many months of persuasion to bring about disarmament. A partial success was achieved last June when the other major loyalist organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force, decommissioned its entire armoury.
During the troubles UDA members killed around 430 people, most of them Catholic civilians in sectarian assassinations. It produced some of the most notorious loyalist figures, such as Johnny Adair, whose exploits earned him the nickname of “Mad Dog.”
Thousands of UDA members served sentences for terrorist offences, including one hundred jailed for murder.
It originally emerged in the early 1970s as a vigilante group in working-class loyalist areas, but quickly degenerated into an organisation carrying out shootings and bombings.
Some of its members were involved in torture killings of Catholics in the 1970s, while some of its leaders acquired a reputation for self-gain, enriching themselves with funds which technically belonged to the organisation.
Some of the gloss was taken off yesterday's announcement by the widespread suspicion that some in the UDA had attempted to trade its weapons for cash, a claim denied by the organisation.
It seems clear however that much discussion went on about the prospect of securing increased official funding for run-down Protestant areas, which are the traditional loyalist paramilitary strongholds.
A UDA attempt to develop a political wing, analagous to the replacement of the IRA by Sinn Fein, came to nothing. There have however been official efforts to reward the more dovish elements in the UDA at the expense of the more hawkish tendencies.