UVF renounces violence

For decades the group have attacked the province's Catholic minority.

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The UVF's elder statesman, 73-year-old Gusty Spence, read a statement at a Belfast news conference that said the underground group would cease to exist as an illegal organisation at midnight, British time (0900 AEST Friday).

Mr Spence, who was convicted of the UVF's first murders in 1966, said the organisation he founded that year "will assume a non-military, civilianised role."

"All recruitment has ceased. Military training has ceased. Targeting has ceased, and all intelligence rendered obsolete," he said in reference to the UVF's files on potential targets.

He added that UVF units, which it calls "active service units," have been deactivated, while the UVF's weapons supplies "have been put beyond reach" of rank-and-file UVF members.

Nearly 13 years ago, Mr Spence also was the figure chosen to read out the UVF's decision to cease fire and to express "abject remorse" for the innocent Catholics it had killed.

The latest breakthrough in Northern Ireland's 13-year-old peace process came just five days before the formation of a new Catholic-Protestant government, the major goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

The UVF has faced mounting pressure to disarm in response to the Irish Republican Army, the major paramilitary group in Catholic areas, which surrendered its much greater stockpile of weapons two years ago.

Until now the UVF has refused, arguing it needs to retain its capability to retaliate against Catholics for any IRA attacks – a position fundamentally undermined by the IRA's disciplined, sustained conversion to peace.

The UVF killed more than 400 people, most of them Catholic civilians, from 1966 to 1994, when it called a ceasefire in response to a truce called by its Catholic-based enemy, the Irish Republican Army.

Since then its members have rarely mounted attacks on the Catholic side of the community.

But the UVF, which has an estimated 500 members today, remains a major criminal force within working-class Protestant communities in Northern Ireland and occasionally wages deadly criminal feuds with rivals in other Protestant paramilitary groups.

In 2005, a panel of experts called the International Monitoring Commission blamed the UVF for killing four people and mounting dozens of attacks that year in a campaign to wipe out a breakaway Protestant gang, the Loyalist Volunteer Force.

The panel, which Britain and Ireland formed to assess paramilitary behaviour, also blamed UVF leaders for encouraging Protestants to launch riotous attacks on police.

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