Guarded welcome for loyalist transformation statement
THERE has been a guarded welcome to a statement by loyalist paramilitaries pledging to place anyone involved in criminal acts "outside the membership" of those groups, delivered yesterday to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
In a joint statement, the Red Hand Commando (RHC), Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) said they fully supported the rule of law and spoke of loyalists' contribution to the peace process.
The statement, read by former Church of Ireland Archbishop Alan Harper, said: "We reject and repudiate as unacceptable and contrary to loyalist principles any criminal action claimed to have been undertaken in our name or attributed to any individual claiming membership of one of our organisations.
"We further declare that any engagement in criminal acts by any individuals within our organisations will be regarded as placing those persons outside the memberships. This has been collectively agreed.
"We cannot allow criminals to hinder transformation and the ground in which such people stand is now shrinking."
Former Methodist Church president Harold Good and former Presbyterian Moderator Norman Hamilton were also present yesterday along with loyalists Jim Wilson and Dr William Mitchell.
UDA leader Jackie McDonald was asked about the similarities between the latest statement and past initiatives aimed at moving loyalists away from paramilitarism.
"Obviously, if you see the people on the stage here with us, that's a profound difference... I don't want to let these men down," he said of the clergymen.
However, the presence of UDA commander Dee Stitt, who is currently under investigation by the Paramilitary Crime Task Force, overshadowed the proceedings and was criticised by the Chief Constable George Hamilton, who made reference recent threats from that organisation to a journalist.
"Through the Paramilitary Crime Task Force, PSNI will continue to actively pursue and investigate those involved in violence and criminality and place them before the courts," Mr Hamilton said.
"There are no grey areas when it comes to the rule of law."
Monica McWilliams, who was part of a panel appointed by the Stormont Executive to make recommendations on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in 2016, said it was "really important that this is not a repetition, loyalist transformation cannot be based on how long is a piece of string".
"Given the day it was and given the three Church leaders involved, reminding us of the unique contribution of loyalists is useful context," she said.
"But equally useful is recognition that people have been using criminality and that has to be put to bed, that cannot go on and they do need to exercise that not in words but in communities where it matters."
Alliance MLA Stephen Farry said it was "disappointing" that 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, paramilitary criminality was still up for discussion.
"We have been down this road before with various loyalist organisations only for nothing to really change, and even in recent days we have witnessed loyalist shows of strength and threats to a journalist."
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swan said the statement will not be measured "by the words it contains, but by the deeds that back it up and the difference felt in the lives of people living within loyalist communities".
DUP leader Arlene Foster called on those "who use criminality to get off the backs of their communities".
"Their objectives are not political but rather power and profit. I support the police in putting them out of business and behind bars once and for all.
"We commend those who are leading and working hard to help move their communities forward."
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said: "There is no place for any armed groups in our society in 2018, 20 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
"The public want an end to their ongoing recruitment, their procurement of weapons and an end to their existence.
"In the last year alone members of these groups have been involved in murder, drug dealing, extortion and intimidation, including racist attacks."
Tánaiste Simon Coveney said: "I acknowledge and share the concern that, 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, there are communities that have not fully benefited from the peace process.
"At this important moment, I wish to reaffirm the Irish government's determination to work in partnership with the British government and representatives from all communities and sectors in Northern Ireland to address these concerns."
Loyalist Declaration of Transformation:
"The Good Friday Agreement was created in a spirit of accommodation and its promise was a more inclusive Northern Ireland. There would have been no agreement without the involvement of loyalists.
"However, it is time to recommit to the creation of a Northern Ireland that enables all to realise their potential and aspirations.
"Any community left behind in that ambition represents a failure not only for the peace process but for Northern Ireland as a whole.
"For too long we have been berated for our past and not able to imagine a better future.
"We must challenge that outlook by no longer being apologists for conflict but advocates for change and working to create a society that is at ease with itself in its diversity and difference.
"It was made clear at the time of the CLMC 1994 ceasefire statement that 'abject and true remorse' existed for suffering inflicted during the conflict and that remains the case today.
"However, no-one should ever be excluded from playing a constructive role in the future because of past actions. We therefore seek to fulfil the commitments we made in 1994 by continuing a process of transformation.
"We draw attention to the fact that even in the context of republican reliance on divisive identity-politics we continue to maintain a commitment to the peace process.
"We are fully committed to participation in such a process and will approach it with honesty, integrity and sensitivity.
"We also recognise the importance of a legacy process designed to help Northern Ireland confront the past and from that experience build a society of possibility and hope.
"We have made this clear many times and have indeed contributed to previous work on dealing with the past.
"We fully support the rule of law in all areas of life and emphatically condemn all forms of criminal activity.
"Individuals who use criminality to serve their own interests at the expense of loyalist communities are an affront to the true principles of loyalism.
"We reject and repudiate as unacceptable and contrary to loyalist principles any criminal action claimed to have been undertaken in our name or attributed to any individual claiming membership of one of our organisations.
"We further declare that any engagement in criminal acts by any individuals within our organisations will be regarded as placing those persons outside the memberships.
"This has been collectively agreed. We cannot allow criminals to hinder transformation and the ground on which such people stand is now shrinking.
"We seek to make an important contribution to the construction of a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland and to support this objective intend to provide strong community leadership and positive influence to promote social, economic and political development.
"Loyalists must have ownership and control of their own future.
"Now is the time for a renewed loyalism, with a new impetus to meet the challenges ahead.
"We want to see a better future for all in Northern Ireland and where the residual effects of conflict are recognised and addressed in a reparative manner.
"We must shape our own destiny and with the co-operation of others ensure loyalist communities are at the centre of Northern Ireland's peace and political transformation."