Paramilitary groups decommission weapons

The British and Irish governments last night welcomed news that all paramilitary groups on ceasefire in Northern Ireland have now decommissioned their weapons.

Three groups announced they had disarmed, with the moves coming just 24 hours ahead of an effective deadline.

The largest group to decommission was the republican Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) which killed 120 people during the Troubles, while disarmament was also confirmed by the so-called Official IRA and the breakaway South-East Antrim branch of the loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

Other fringe republican and loyalist groups remain involved in violence and various illegal activities, but yesterday's announcements were welcomed as a positive step forward.

Critics said the moves had come late and asked if the timing is linked to the fact that the legislation allowing illegal groups to decommission weapons without fear of prosecution runs out today.

The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), formed 13 years ago, was empowered by the Government to oversee the disposal of paramilitary weaponry, but its mandate is set to end.

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said the IICD had confirmed that the INLA, the Official IRA and the South East Antrim UDA have decommissioned their weapons.

He said: "This is another hugely significant day in the history of Northern Ireland. On the eve of the end of the decommissioning legislation, these acts of decommissioning and those that have gone before are recognition that the future of Northern Ireland must be a peaceful one, free from violence and the fear of violence."

Mr Woodward said the Government had been correct to extend the decommissioning legislation by a year but confirmed the amnesty opportunity ends tomorrow.

He added: "The significance of decommissioning goes well beyond the removal of arms, important as that is. It is a physical manifestation of the triumph of politics over violence."

The IICD, led by General John de Chastelain, oversaw the most noted disarmament episode in 2005 when the mainstream Provisional IRA allowed its illegal cache of guns and explosives to be destroyed.

Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern today said: "These events are further positive developments as we look to finally close the last chapter of the conflict and ensure a peaceful future for all the people of Northern Ireland."

He also praised Gen de Chastelain and the work of the agency.

"Their work has been critical to the success of the peace process and they have faced their task at all times with immense patience, professionalism and dedication," he said. "Ireland owes them a great debt of gratitude."

Four months ago the INLA used a graveside oration outside Dublin to confirm its "armed struggle is over" and it vowed to end its 35-year campaign of violence. Yesterday it confirmed it had disarmed.

The INLA was formed in 1974 and was known as a brutally violent organisation that also engaged in bitter internal feuds.

The ruthless paramilitary group was also responsible for one of the largest death tolls of the Troubles in 1982 when it killed 17 people - including 11 soldiers and six civilians - in a bomb attack on the Droppin' Well pub in Ballykelly, Co Londonderry.

The group wound its campaign down in the 1990s in the aftermath of ceasefires by the IRA and the main loyalist groups, but it continued to be involved in sporadic violence and criminal activity.

Trades union leaders who helped in the INLA decommissioning process - including assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Peter Bunting - confirmed their belief that all INLA arms had been destroyed.

Willie Gallagher, a former INLA prisoner and spokesman for its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Workers Party (IRSP), declined to detail the amount of weaponry that was decommissioned and would only confirm that rifles, handguns and explosives were involved.

Asked about one of the INLA's most infamous attacks of the Troubles, the murder of Conservative MP Airey Neave when a bomb exploded beneath his car as he left the House of Commons in 1979, he refused to apologise for, or condemn the bombing.

"The INLA statement clearly outlined that the INLA had no regrets for its involvement in conflict," he said.

"We viewed Airey Neave as an enemy combatant and a casualty of war. Of course, we do sympathise with his family, like all families that have been bereaved on both sides.

"We do regret all deaths, but we believe that deaths such as Airey Neave were necessary in the conflict and our prosecution of the war."

The Official IRA emerged in 1969/70 when, at the start of the Troubles, the republican movement split into the Official and Provisional IRA, with the "Provos" becoming the largest organisation of its kind.

The Official IRA declared a ceasefire in 1972, but later became involved in bitter republican feuds, while there were also claims that remnants of the organisation continued to be linked to illegal activities since then.

It is understood to have killed around 57 people.

The group said it had disarmed and said other groups should abandon violence due to public support for the peace process.

It added: "To those groups still intent on a violent agenda and who would declare themselves the protectors of the community against the oppressor, we say listen to the voice of that community.

"They spoke loud and clear in their demand for peace and, by ignoring that voice, you yourselves have become the oppressor. It is time for you to leave the past and catch up."

Over recent months the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force decommissioned, as did the UDA, though a splinter group that had broken away from the mainstream UDA had yet to finally announce that its weapons are destroyed.

But last night Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons that the South-East Antrim UDA, had this afternoon "completed their decommissioning".