The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), one of the most violent paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, has announced that the group is disarming and assuming a 'non-military, civilianized role.'
The Times of London reports that Thursday's official statement was made by Gusty Spence, one of the founders of the modern UVF, at the Fernhill House Museum in Belfast.
The statement said that the decision was taken after a three-year consultation process with "all units and departments of our organisation" and against a background in which mainstream republican violence had ended and the United Kingdom was safe.
"Commensurate with these developments, as of twelve midnight the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando will assume a nonmilitary, civilianised role," it said. "All recruitment has ceased. Military training has ceased. Targeting has ceased and all intelligence rendered obsolete. All active service units have been deactivated. All ordnance has been put beyond reach."
The UVF said that the measures were taken "in an earnest attempt to augment the return of accountable democracy to the people of Northern Ireland and to engender confidence that the constitutional question has now been firmly settled. In doing so we reaffirm the legitimacy of our tactical response to violent Nationalism yet reiterate the sincere expression of abject and true remorse to all innocent victims of the conflict."
The UVF was founded in 1966 to fight the Irish nationalist movement in Northern Ireland, taking the name and symbols of a defunct 1912 group with similar motives. The BBC writes that the terrorist group and the Red Hand Commando, a paramilitary closely associated with the UVF, are thought to be responsible for more than 500 murders since 1966.
The Guardian notes that the UVF's statement stopped short of promising to decommission its weapons. Billy Hutchinson, a member of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party who served 16 years for UVF murders, said that the group's weapons were put where "volunteers can't get at them" and that the "decommissioning mindsets" of the statement were the important piece of the announcement.
The Irish Independent writes that though British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern said that the UVF should begin decommissioning, they both welcomed the group's announcement.
Mr Ahern said he looked forward to decommissioning and expressed sympathy for the UVF's victims. "I have always said the peace process must leave nobody behind . . . that there must be an end to all paramilitary and criminal activity by all organisations, loyalist and republican."
Tony Blair's spokesman said: "We welcome this announcement, but as with statements from other paramilitary groups in the past we await to see it in action. What is underlined however, once again, is that the peace process has worked."
The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), the organization that oversaw the Irish Republican Army disarmament that began in 2005 and paved the way for Sinn Féin, the IRA's political arm, to enter into a devolved Irish government set to restart this month, expressed concern about the UVF's intention to deal with disarmament on their own, writes The Daily Record of Glasgow.
A spokesman for the body said: "Without the commission's involvement, their action on arms does not meet the requirement of the decommissioning legislation and the agreement reached by the parties in the Belfast Agreement.
"We are prepared to meet the UVF representative to discuss how we can work together in dealing with arms."
Brian Rowan of The Belfast Telegraph writes that when told of the IICD's statement, the UVF's Mr. Spence remained unbowed.
"Whether it meets the legislation or not, people have put their weapons beyond reach," he answered.
"If that doesn't suit people, then that's just too bad. As far as the UVF is concerned they are put beyond reach and they are not a danger to anybody."
Mr. Rowan notes that Mr. Hutchinson did speak to IICD officials about the UVF's plan to disarm, and likely would again. Still, Rowan argues, in describing its weapons as "beyond reach" and its intelligence as "rendered obsolete," the UVF announcement leaves many questions unanswered.
In the paramilitary dictionary, what does "beyond reach" mean - and what does "obsolete" mean? Can the guns still be used? Has all the intelligence information been destroyed?
There is a dancing around those questions. The UVF doesn't like them being asked, and doesn't want to answer. ...
The arms issue hasn't gone away.