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Loyalist paramilitaries must leave the stage

When the Good Friday Agreement was signed 20 years ago, the building of a peaceful society was at its very core.

Yes, it was a document full of constructive ambiguity but the overwhelming desire of those who came together to find agreement was the ending of violence and the chance for future generations to get out of the shadow of those who used guns and bombs to achieve their aims.

The process of establishing a normal society has taken longer than everyone hoped while power-sharing has failed to deliver the basis for trust, respect and understanding between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

And while there has been significant progress on decommissioning and the departure of the IRA from the stage, loyalist paramilitaries continue to hold sway in unionist districts, their main concern these days is about criminality and the pursuit of money and power.

There have been numerous steps over the past two decades that supposedly heralded a change in direction but the paramilitary structure remains in place.

The latest attempt to address this issue came on Monday, the eve of the Good Friday Agreement anniversary.

A press conference attended by Protestant clergymen, who have performed sterling work in trying to turn loyalists away from violence and gangsterism, offered a lengthy statement seeking to fulfil the commitments made in the 1994 ceasefire 'by continuing a process of transformation.'

The statement pledged to expel any members involved in criminality saying they cannot be allowed to hinder transformation.

The sentiments expressed are laudable and those who have been trying to steer paramilitaries away from illegal activity deserve to be commended.

But the wider public will be understandably sceptical about yet another loyalist statement of intent, particularly when they see Dee Stitt holding a prominent position at Monday's event only days after a Belfast-based journalist received a threat from the North Down UDA.

The most powerful response to the sceptics would be a complete end to intimidation, extortion, racketeering, drug dealing and thuggery.

Twenty years on, it is time for all paramilitaries to go.

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