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Loyalists aim to catch up with peace process

It is 21 years since loyalist paramilitary organisations announced a ceasefire, offering ``abject and true remorse'' to the victims of their murderous campaign.

Just six weeks earlier, at the time of the first IRA ceasefire, Sean MacDermott was abducted and shot by the UVF on August 31, 1994 while the following day John O'Hanlon was murdered by UDA/UFF gunmen as he worked on a car.

The men, both Catholics, were the last people murdered by loyalist paramilitaries ahead of their cessation.

Sadly, they were not the last to die at the hands of loyalists. Indeed, the IRA and loyalist groups continued to kill, maim, intimidate and terrorise.

Nevertheless, at the time there was a sense of optimism and there is no doubt key figures within loyalism were sincere in their desire to embrace a peaceful future.

But while republicanism was able to exploit the peace, with Sinn Fein adept at not only increasing their mandate but also ensuring roles for former prisoners and funding for local communities, loyalism lacked a similar focus and strategy.

Over the past 20 years, loyalism has fragmented and there is little sense of a centralised control structure. Drug dealing, extortion, gangsterism and other forms of criminality are rife.

It is against this backdrop that a fresh initiative has been launched involving the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, which yesterday issued a `joint declaration of intent.'

This document spoke of loyalist disenfranchisement, economic and educational underachievement and a desire to ``give our young people hope for the future.''

Of course, any efforts to address criminality and deprivation must be encouraged, although people may well be cynical at the formation of a Loyalist Communities Council aimed at ``attracting meaningful funding''.

We can look back over 21 years and see many missed opportunities to build a stronger, positive and more cohesive society.

Loyalist groups feel they have been left behind. It remains to be seen if they can now catch up with those who have moved on.

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