UDA win reprieve after they draw back from brink

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The loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Defence Association has been given a last-minute reprieve after it was on the verge of being declared in breach of the Northern Ireland ceasefire, illustrating the Government's extreme reluctance to take such a drastic measure.

The UDA's involvement in the widespread violence in north Belfast has been so brazen and on such a large scale that the organisation's professed ceasefire has become close to meaningless.

This had brought John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to the point of specifying that the UDA's seven-year cessation was over. He drew back only at the last moment, when a sign emerged that the group had suddenly realised it had gone too far.

On a practical level the act of specification was not expected to have dramatic effects: the familiar old problems would remain of how to prove individuals had been involved in criminal acts on the streets, or within the UDA command structure.

But politically, such a move would have potentially profound and damaging effects on the peace process. This helps explain why the British authorities have for months been reluctant to make such an announcement.

They have tried hard to avoid saying that the UDA's ceasefire had lost its meaning, in part because they have been nervous that such a declaration would produce even greater violence from the grouping.

Formally specifying that the UDA ceasefire was over would have meant confirming that one of Northern Ireland's big three terrorist groups was officially off the reservation.

The ceasefires of the other two, the IRA and loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, have also been broken on a number of occasions. But the general sense is that despite such breaches their overall cessations have been valuable, and have contributed to the marked fall in the death rate.

On a deeper level the move would be hazardous, in that it would mean the end of one of the three major ceasefires that have been fundamental props to the peace process.

The UDA's commitment to that process was always the most shallow of the three big groups, and it is no surprise that it has taken an increasingly cavalier attitude towards its cessation. Its political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party, has failed in recent elections and the UDA's leading figures have reverted to thinking in paramilitary terms rather than political concepts.

Observers are puzzled over the UDA's long-term intentions, since the organisation has proposed no alternative to the Good Friday Agreement. Its actions suggest it simply hankers after a return to the days of more violent conflict.

Last year it started a violent feud with the UVF in the Shankill area close to Ardoyne, during which more than a dozen loyalist activists were killed. This year its violence has largely taken the form of pipebomb attacks on Catholic targets, growing into the riots of the summer and autumn.

Its specification would have come at a particularly delicate time, when street violence is increasing and there is a sense that the Good Friday Agreement is in deep trouble.

The Agreement seems destined for the deep freeze, since the Ulster Unionist Party appears intent on pulling its ministers out of the Belfast administration.

At the same time the continuing north Belfast violence has produced a particularly poisonous atmosphere, causing many to question the value and prospects of the peace process. Because of the UDA's past record, many will regard its promise to end its violence with extreme scepticism.

Events on the streets will now be watched closely to establish whether yesterday's development is a meaningless stalling manoeuvre or a genuine change of heart.