Northern Ireland's oldest paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, announced its full disarmament Saturday — a long-sought peacemaking move that, if confirmed, would formally end the pro-British group's decades of terror against Irish Catholics.
And the other major Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Defense Association, announced it also has begun to surrender weapons to independent disarmament officials.
Northern Ireland's disarmament chief, retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, has declined to confirm reports this month that both the UVF and UDA had handed over guns, ammunition and explosives in a secret ceremony.
But in Saturday's statement to Belfast media, the Ulster Volunteer Force said its commanders gathered together the underground group's entire arsenal and destroyed it in the presence of de Chastelain and independent observers from both sides of the Northern Ireland community June 12.
The UVF said it had "completed the process of rendering ordnance totally and irreversibly beyond use." It declined to provide specifics of the type or volume of weaponry surrendered.
Minutes later, the Ulster Defense Association announced it also has begun to disarm in cooperation with de Chastelain, who since 1997 has led efforts to disarm all of Northern Ireland's myriad paramilitary forces. From 2001 to 2005, he oversaw the total disarmament of the Irish Republican Army, the major outlawed group on the Catholic side of the community.
The UDA said its representatives recently delivered an unspecified quantity of weapons to de Chastelain. It pledged to hand over more of its illegal arsenal soon.
"This is a courageous and unprecedented move that is part of a wider transition from conflict to peace. ... By carrying out this act we are helping to build a new and better Northern Ireland where conflict is a thing of the past," said the UDA's commanders in their statement.
In Dublin, Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said he expected to receive a report soon from de Chastelain confirming both disarmament moves. He praised the 12-year efforts of the Canadian and his deputies, Andy Sens of the United States and Brigadier Tauno Nieminen of Finland.
"While more remains to be done, they have made progress on a scale many people believed was not possible. The people of this island will be forever in their debt," Ahern said.
Few options left
For more than a decade, both the UDA and UVF had resisted pressure from the British, Irish and American governments to disarm. However, their failure to move caused fewer problems for Northern Ireland's wider peace process because — in stark contrast to the IRA and its popular Sinn Fein political party — the Protestant gangs marshaled little political support and merited no role in the territory's power-sharing government.
Analysts agree that the UDA and UVF are finally disarming now, in part, because Britain was about to withdraw a long-standing deal that permits outlawed groups to hand over weapons without the threat of arrest and imprisonment. Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward had warned that UDA and UVF members caught with weapons after August would face criminal prosecution.
The UVF began killing Catholic civilians in 1966 in a self-declared "war" against the IRA's host community. They were joined five years later by the UDA, an umbrella group for Protestant gangs. Together they killed about 1,000 people, mostly Catholic civilians, before declaring a joint cease-fire in 1994. Both groups in recent years turned increasingly to criminal racketeering marked by deadly feuds within their own ranks.
During the bloodiest years of Northern Ireland's "troubles," the UDA and UVF sought to match the IRA killing for killing. Much more crudely armed than the IRA, the anti-Catholic extremists often plotted mass slaughters by machine-gunning or bombing Catholic social venues. But reflecting their poorer supplies and engineering skills, UDA and UVF guns frequently jammed and their bombs often failed to detonate properly.
Nonetheless, the UVF is responsible for the deadliest act of the entire Northern Ireland conflict: the detonation of four no-warning car bombs in the Irish Republic on May 17, 1974, that killed 33 people.