Largest paramilitary group, UDA, awaits London response

  • 16 November 2005
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The British government has yet to respond to the call by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) on 13 November to begin talks with the group over its future, according to a senior figure within the organisation.

At a Remembrance Sunday (13 November) event in Belfast, the UDA said it was "open-minded" on its future and was awaiting contact from the British government.

The call was made after months of debate within the UDA, the largest and most unstable paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, following September's riots in Belfast and IRA decommissioning.

Internally, the UDA is divided between those who want to see the group adopting a more political and community-based role and those, like its north Belfast leader Andre Shoukri, who would prefer to remain heavily involved in criminality.

Although the British Government and Northern Ireland Office (NIO) have so far failed to respond to the UDA statement, senior figures within the group are confident a face-to-face meeting will take place before Christmas.

Contacts between the UDA and NIO have been ongoing since the 1994 ceasefires, although since 2002, when the UDA ceasefire was declared void, the lines of communication have been strained.

"There have been phonecalls made and things said in recent weeks, and although no response has been made I would be confident of a sit-down meeting taking place within the next month or so," said the senior source who has been involved in previous meetings between the NIO and UDA.

"There are some more senior people who don't care less about politics but they have been sidelined.

"We want to become more involved with the community in a positive way, but we need to be included in the political process," he said. The statement also follows last month's UDA announcement that it had met with the Decommissioning Body.

In recent months loyalist paramilitary groups have begun to show signs that their existence is coming to an end. A fortnight ago the Loyalist Volunteer Force announced its disbandment, while the Ulster Volunteer Force has sent out increasingly clear signals that it intends to disband at some point next year.

However, the UDA is heavily involved in criminality and past pledges to stop paramilitary activity have not been acted upon.

The UDA's most senior figure, Jackie McDonald, has said he believes disbandment could take five years, while the issue of decommissioning could take even longer.

SDLP MLA, Alban Maginness, gave the statement a cautious welcome. "We have heard similar statements from the UDA before which in hindsight seem to heave been made to make the group look better without delivering any change.

"But this statement does come at a time when there is a new political momentum and loyalists do need some time and space to work out their position."

Unionist politicians said the UDA's "re-engagement with politics" was a welcome development.

Colm Heatley