A major outlawed Protestant group in Northern Ireland has abandoned its 11-year-old truce and is an enemy of the peace once again, Britain declared Wednesday in a long-expected verdict against the Ulster Volunteer Force.
The British governor, Peter Hain, said he has received sufficient evidence that the UVF — an underground group supposed to be bolstering Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord with a 1994 cease-fire — committed four killings this summer and launched multiple gun and grenade attacks this week against the police and British army.
Hain's Northern Ireland Office said in a statement that UVF members' violence "amounted to a breakdown in their cease-fire" and meant that, as of midnight, Britain no longer accepted it as valid.
The move followed three nights of Protestant riots that ravaged much of Belfast and other Northern Ireland towns.
Worst Protestant riots in almost 10 years
Police commanders said the UVF and a larger Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Defense Association, both attacked police and British troops with assault-rifle fire and homemade grenades in what have been the worst Protestant riots for nearly a decade.
But Hain said Britain would continue to recognize the validity of the UDA's own 1994 cease-fire, partly because that group has not been linked to any recent killings.
The rioting, which exploded each night from Saturday to Tuesday morning, left at least 60 police officers and several dozen civilians wounded, none fatally. The trigger — British authorities' refusal Saturday to allow Protestants to parade along the edge of Catholic west Belfast — capped years of growing Protestant opposition to the landmark 1998 peace accord.
Police arrested 63 suspected rioters, more than half of whom have already been charged with crimes ranging from hijacking to attempted murder. On Tuesday, in the most high-profile case, a 34-year-old man was arraigned on charges of possessing seven firearms, pipe-bomb equipment and a balaclava mask.
The UDA, in hopes of avoiding any punitive sanctions from Britain, announced Tuesday afternoon its estimated 3,000 members would "avoid any confrontation on the streets and steer away from any acts of violence." It conceded that the rioting had only damaged their own impoverished Protestant power bases.
The smaller, usually better-disciplined UVF remained silent — apparently resigned to Britain's negative cease-fire ruling.
British recognition of an outlawed group's truce brings both symbolic and practical benefits.
The public representatives of truce-observing groups are entitled to a place in negotiations, while those deemed not on cease-fire are barred. Also, convicted members of groups with British-recognized truces received early prison paroles as part of the 1998 peace deal — and UVF parolees now could find themselves being thrown back behind bars.
Hain was expected to discuss the fallout at a Belfast news conference later Wednesday.
Uncertainty about Ireland's future
Speaking before Hain's announcement, the most prominent UVF-linked politician in Northern Ireland, David Ervine, said he didn't know whether a British rejection of the UVF cease-fire would make matters worse or better.
"It could have a positive effect, or it could stir passions further. It could have no effect at all," said Ervine, a veteran UVF bomb-maker who today leads the UVF's legal Progressive Unionist Party. "The only important thing now is to get over these awful, awful days and restore people's confidence as quickly as possible in the cease-fire."
Belfast street tensions resumed Tuesday night as small Protestant crowds blocked several roads, snarling rush-hour traffic for the second straight night. Police said all the protests, while intimidating to motorists, remained nonviolent and eventually dispersed without riots.
However, after dark Protestants again sporadically tossed gasoline-filled Molotov cocktails at the police's foot patrols, armored vehicles and security bases in Belfast and the suburb of Lisburn, where one officer suffered minor burns.