McAleese hails 'milestone' as UDA destroys weapons
PRESIDENT Mary McAleese yesterday praised the move by the largest loyalist paramilitary terror group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), to decommission all the weapons under its control.
Independent witnesses verified the disarmament, which was set up by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) led by General John de Chastelain.
The former Church of Ireland primate Lord Eames and the chairman of the Ulster Bank Sir George Quigley, a former senior civil servant, confirmed the decommissioning.
President McAleese, whose husband Martin worked ceaselessly, over the past 13 years, to bring the loyalist groups to decommissioning, praised the move as "deeply important".
It was announced at a press conference in a hotel near Stormont yesterday by the UDA's sister political organisation, the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG).
URPG leader Francie Gallagher said: "Today, the leadership of the UDA can confirm that all weaponry under its control has been put verifiably beyond use."
He went on to pay tribute to former UDA members who died or were imprisoned during the Troubles.
Mr Gallagher added: "To all those in the community who have lost loved ones, we understand and we share your sense of loss, but we are determined and are willing to play our part in ensuring that the tragedy of the past 40 years will never happen again."
The UDA is estimated to have been responsible for 431 killings during the conflict. Yesterday's move was warmly welcomed in Dublin, London and across Northern Ireland.
President McAleese said their act of decommissioning was "a very positive milestone on the journey of peace".
"The decommissioning of weapons by the UDA, which follows a similar move on the part of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) last year, is further testimony to the reality that we are witnessing the deconstruction of a culture of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland and that it is being replaced by a culture of consensus, democracy and good neighbourliness.
"This is a deeply important and welcome development in terms of consolidating the new beginning heralded in the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement."
Taoiseach Brian Cowen said: "At a time such as this, while we welcome progress, it is also very important we remember all of the victims of the conflict."
He added: "Taken together with the completion of decommissioning by the IRA and the UVF, it is a clear signal that Northern Ireland has moved on and that the democratic institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement are the means through which the entire community in Northern Ireland, and the people of these islands, can and will build lasting peace and prosperity."
The Northern Ireland Secretary for State Shaun Woodward said the move vindicated British government policy.
"This is a major act of leadership by the UDA and further comprehensive evidence of the success of politics over violence in Northern Ireland," he added. "The road to decommissioning has not been easy."
Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly said: "The nationalist and unionist populations will both be relieved that a substantial amount of guns are being taken off our streets. There can be no place for guns as we move forward in advancing the political process; this process has been about taking the gun out of Irish politics."
All of the major churches in Ireland welcomed the move.
Cardinal Sean Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, said: "I commend all those who took risks to bring about this vital step on the road to a lasting peace."
In a statement, the Church of Ireland's bishops in the North said: "Today's announcement, confirming the putting beyond use of all UDA weapons, is to be warmly welcomed and gives encouragement at the beginning of this New Year."
Two other loyalist terrorist groups, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando (RHC), put their weapons beyond use last June, when the UDA is also understood to have decommissioned a small number of its weapons.
The UVF killed 550 people and the associated RHC group killed 19 people, the majority of them Catholics.