The British government said Saturday was a "historic day" after two loyalist paramilitary groups announced they had completed the process of decommissioning their weapons.
The Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando made the announcement Saturday, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said. A third loyalist group, the Ulster Defense Association, announced it had begun the process of decommissioning, according to the NIO, which is the British government department responsible for Northern Ireland affairs. Loyalist paramilitary groups are those that want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. While it was not clear what led up to Saturday’s announcements, the three groups had faced an August deadline to demonstrate substantial progress toward decommissioning. A report last month by independent monitors questioned whether the groups were serious about completing the decommissioning process. Shaun Woodward, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, then said he was tired of “foot-dragging” on the issue. If there was no substantial progress by August, Woodward said, he would end the amnesty the groups currently enjoy. Current legislation ensures that individuals handling illegal arms with the purpose of decommissioning them are immune from prosecution.
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“Today’s announcement is a culmination of a long and difficult process,” Woodward said in a statement Saturday. “The leadership of the UVF and RHC have delivered on what they said they would do. In decommissioning their weapons they have clearly signaled that loyalism has nothing to fear and is confident in the political institutions and wants to play a positive role in the future of Northern Ireland.” The two groups made a “bold and courageous decision,” he said, and he urged the UDA to continue decommissioning. “For those who have doubted the political process, it is proof that the politics works and that guns have no place in a normal society.” he said. “This is proof that decommissioning works and today’s acts of leadership (are) further testimony to the transformation in Northern Ireland.” The Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1966 and has conducted bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, extortion, and robberies, according to GlobalSecurity.org. Before its 1994 cease-fire, targets included nationalist paramilitary groups — those fighting for the reunification of Ireland. The Red Hand Commando is a splinter group of the UVF. The Ulster Defense Association is the largest loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, with between 2,000 and 5,000 members, according to the U.S. State Department. It has evolved into a criminal group deeply involved in drug trafficking, but it has also targeted the Catholic community, the State Department says.