Pro-British paramilitary forces on Saturday completed an historic step in the Northern Ireland peace process by scrapping their weapons in front of independent witnesses.
The moves, confirmed by the British and Irish governments, underscored commitment across the sectarian divide to ending violence, but did not remove a threat from hard-line splinter groups operating on both sides.
“The struggle has ended,” said the Ulster Defense Association, which has also begun to fully decommission arms. “Peace and democracy have been secured and the need for armed resistance has gone.”
An Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) statement was read to reporters in Belfast by a man representing the UVF and the Red Hand Commando (RHC) and wearing an ordinary suit, a change from when paramilitary spokesmen addressed the media wearing masks and toting guns.
“The leadership of the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando today confirms it has completed the process of rendering ordnance totally and irreversibly beyond use,” the UVF and the RHC statement said.
The UVF killed more than 540 people during 30 years of conflict with pro-Irish nationalists.
Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative peace since a 1998 deal ended the predominantly Catholic Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) military campaign to end British control of Ireland.
“In recent years, loyalist organizations have been making effective progress towards conflict transformation, and today is an important landmark in this process,” Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said.
Mainly Protestant military organizations that want to keep Northern Ireland within the UK have been under pressure for years to get rid of arms, following the IRA’s decision to dispose of its weapons in 2005.
“The leadership of the UVF and RHC have delivered on what they said they would do,” said Shaun Woodward, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, confirming the UVF and RHC had completed decommissioning in cooperation with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the move.
“The announcements underscore the remarkable progress that has taken place in Northern Ireland over the years,” Clinton said in a statement. “All parties agree, as the people of Northern Ireland do, that the only way forward is through peace and reconciliation and not through violence.”