LONDON -- Northern Ireland achieved another important milestone in peacemaking Saturday as the territory's two major Protestant paramilitary groups announced their first acts of disarmament -- and pledged that their decades of slaughtering Catholic civilians were over for good.
One group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, said it had destroyed its entire stockpile of weaponry during a secret June 12 meeting with disarmament chiefs. The other, the Ulster Defense Association, said it had handed over its first, unspecified portion of its arsenal and would continue the process in coming months.
"The struggle has ended. Peace and democracy have been secured, and the need for armed resistance has gone," said the written statement from Ulster Defense Association commanders. "Consequently we are putting our arsenal of weaponry permanently beyond use."
And the Ulster Volunteers, in a statement read by an unmasked member at a Belfast news conference, said their organization "has completed the process of rendering ordnance totally, and irreversibly, beyond use. ... For God and Ulster."
Together, the two underground groups killed nearly 1,000 people in a self-declared war against the support base of the Irish Republican Army. Unable to pinpoint IRA members living within minority Catholic areas, they opted to terrorize the whole Catholic community with machine-gun and bomb attacks on Catholic social venues that targeted young and old alike. They also killed Catholics who strayed into Protestant areas or moved into Protestant districts -- sometimes torturing them first to elicit bogus "confessions" of IRA membership.
Northern Ireland's soft-spoken disarmament chief, retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, was in his homeland Saturday and declined to comment. But the British and Irish governments, which since 1997 have charged de Chastelain with securing the disarmament of several Northern Ireland groups, lauded the latest achievement of his often-thankless diplomacy.
Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said de Chastelain and his deputies, Andrew Sens of the United States and Brigadier Tauno Nieminen of Finland, "have made progress on a scale many people believed was not possible. The people of this island will be forever in their debt."
Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, said it was a "historic day." Woodward lauded the Ulster Volunteers for what he called their "bold and courageous decision for peace," and urged UDA warlords to give up all of their weapons, too.
Analysts agreed that Woodward played a particularly important role in spurring the UDA-UVF disarmament moves -- by threatening to take away their chance to surrender weapons with legal impunity.
Since 1997, Britain and Ireland have permitted the IRA, UDA, UVF and other illegal gangs to give weapons to de Chastelain without fear of facing arrest and imprisonment. But Woodward repeatedly warned this year he would withdraw that concession, and shut down the disarmament commission, unless the UDA and UVF began delivering the goods by August.
Britain has been pressing for paramilitary disarmament since 1994, the year that the IRA called an open-ended truce and the UDA and UVF replied with their own. The cease-fires paved the way for Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998. All three groups were supposed to disarm by mid-2000 as part of that landmark pact -- but none met the deadline.
The IRA, which boasted a much more extensive range of weaponry largely smuggled from Libya, gradually disarmed from 2001 to 2005 after killing nearly 1,800 people during a failed 27-year effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. The UDA and UVF were slow to accept the IRA's conversion to peace, noting the continued threat from IRA splinter groups that continue today to plot gun and bomb attacks.
The Protestant extremists' determination to stick to their own guns posed few problems for Northern Ireland's wider peace process. In stark contrast to the IRA and its popular Sinn Fein political party, the Protestant gangs built only a paltry political base and merited no role in the territory's 2-year-old power-sharing government.
Rejected by Protestant voters, in recent years both the UDA and UVF have concentrated on their well-established criminal rackets, including smuggling and counterfeiting. Their pursuit of riches has fueled deadly feuds within their own ranks.
The UVF, founded in 1966, has killed more than 500 people. It claimed responsibility for the deadliest act of the entire Northern Ireland conflict: the detonation of four no-warning car bombs in the Republic of Ireland on May 17, 1974, that killed 33 people. The UVF's most notorious gang, the Shankill Butchers, abducted and lethally tortured dozens of Catholics using a range of knives in the late 1970s.
The UDA, an umbrella for Protestant vigilante gangs formed in 1971, killed more than 400. Britain didn't outlaw the group until 1992. Seeking to preserve their legal status, UDA members used another name, "Ulster Freedom Fighters," to claim responsibility for acts of violence.
The leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics, Cardinal Sean Brady, noted that Saturday's disarmament announcements came far too late for their thousands of dead, maimed and traumatized victims.
The news, he said, would "evoke painful memories of loved ones lost and lives destroyed through the utter futility and evil of violence."