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Powell joins loyalists to deliver unity statement

Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell and Richard Monteith at the launch of the new Loyalist Communities Council. Picture by Mal McCann

LOYALISTS have vowed to 'disown' anyone who continue to use their name as a cover for criminality as members of the three main paramilitary groups agreed an initiative aimed at bringing them back into the political process.

However, there was no talk of disbandment or the standing down of paramilitary structures, with former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell arguing it was preferable that they continue on in a "civil fashion".

Two representatives each of the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando will now sit in an umbrella group calling itself the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC).

In a statement it said it will "eschew all violence and criminality", and those who continue down that path will be "disowned and should be aware that they will not be permitted to use the cover of loyalism".

The statement was issued at a press conference in an east Belfast hotel with veteran members and leaders of the main groups present to offer endorsement.

All factions of loyalism were represented apart from the South East Antrim UDA who chose not to participate.

The LCC said it will concentrate on "law abiding responses to criminality", as well as addressing loyalist "disenfranchisement" from the political process.

Mr Powell and Ukip MLA David McNarry have been involved in efforts to facilitate the move for the past 18 months as meetings took place to discuss a way forward for loyalism.

Yesterday's development came just days before the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers is expected to issue a report carried out by a three-person panel to assess current levels of paramilitary activity.

It also marked the 21st anniversary of the loyalist ceasefire statement.

Mr Powell, who played a key role in peace process negotiations with Tony Blair at the time of Good Friday Agreement, admitted that "given all that has happened people will naturally be cynical" of the process.

He said the real test "will be how these undertakings will be implemented".

"Some may argue that these organisations should just disappear. The experience from around the world suggests that would be a mistake. Other violent groups would simply take over the names UVF, UDA and the Red Hand Commando and carry on with paramilitarism", he said.

"We really don't want to see a Real UVF and a Continuity UDA. It is far better the groups continue but there is no criminality; there is no violence; they continue in a civil fashion.

"Anyone who has anything to do with criminality should be dealt with by the police.

"I think there is every chance it will succeed if it gets support from politicians and the community in Northern Ireland.".

South Belfast loyalist leader Jackie McDonald said while there have been several attempts in the past to move things on this was an initiative that "needs encouragement".

"We need people to help us and not knock it without giving it space to work. We are trying to be genuine and sincere and I understand there has been criminality and dissident loyalists, but we have said to the police on several occasions that is your job to put those people in jail and we won't tolerate it any more."

Former RHC prisoner William 'Plum' Smith, who helped deliver the loyalist ceasefire statement, said: "I thought this country would be further on after 21 years but obviously it hasn't, there's been pitfalls politically and there's been violence and feuds.

"At this juncture in time it's essential that loyalism gets itself back on the rails and this initiative hopefully will do that.

"The alternative is for everyone to walk away and leave it to the wolves but I feel we've a responsibility to our community to get things back together."

However, victims campaigner Raymond McCord, whose son was murdered by the UVF, called the initiative "a sham".

"It's about money, power, greed and control. Why not just disband? They won't because they make too much money from it," he said.

"The people excluded in all these 'peace building' initiatives are the most important and that's the victims."

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