Is Decommissioning ‘Beyond Reach’? The UVF and the Ending of Armed Resistance
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of The Other View Magazine, where I served as a part-time Staff Reporter between 2006 and 2008, and made the case that the UVF’s declaration to end its campaign of terror fell short of decommissioning for several reasons which I outlined in this hard-hitting piece. The article was among a series of pieces of journalism (accompanied by many ‘fireside chats’) that I aimed specifically at the organisation to persuade it to give the conflict transformation strategy we had been helping to develop over the years a ‘fighting chance’ to bed down.
“All recruitment has ceased; military training has ceased; targeting has ceased and all intelligence rendered obsolete; all active service units have been de-activated; all ordnance has been ‘put beyond reach’ and the IICD instructed accordingly” – UVF Statement, 3 May 2007.
It was perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated statements of 2007. The UVF had reached the end of its three year internal consultation process. The findings and future intentions of the organisation were announced in a statement read out by none other than Gusty Spence, the ‘alpha and omega’ of loyalist paramilitarism. The UVF had taken this decision based on its findings that: ‘the six principles upon which our ceasefire was predicated are maintained; that the principle of consent has been firmly established and thus, that the union remains safe’. The ‘watching brief’ which the organisation was upholding since 1994 had finally drawn to a close.
The sticking point, though, was over the seemingly ambiguous tone with which the statement was designed and delivered. While internal consultation had taken place, no prior consultation with General John de Chastelain’s decommissioning body was in evidence – though representatives have since met the body. Instead the UVF chose to go it alone and place its ordinance ‘beyond reach’. In many respects the sovereignty of the UVF command structure – in both formulating and implementing its own policy – was maintained; unfortunately the significance of the statement made little impact beyond the immediate ranks of progressive loyalism. While the ‘army’ (UVF) declared its intention to leave the stage, it left behind many key questions unanswered, especially for the ‘party’ (PUP): what did it do with the arms and explosives it used to wage its campaign of terror since 1965; who exactly had control over it; and, more importantly, what form would the organisation’s civilianised role actually take? As I write we are still awaiting the answers to these questions; there is little indication that we will find out anytime soon.
Some of us who have worked closely with the key actors within progressive loyalism, have known for three years what questions the UVF was actually asking of its membership during its so-called ‘road-shows’, though we did not want to divulge the contents in public for fear of rocking the boat or stealing the organisation’s thunder. In retrospect, perhaps we were too naïve in avoiding writing about these matters or perhaps what we were writing (and by ‘we’, I include my regular co-author Stephen Bloomer) was just too detailed, clairvoyant or, perhaps, just too positive in its assessment. Nevertheless, Brian Rowan’s expert journalism meant that an accurate picture of what the UVF was up to was being communicated to a national audience. He had been reporting on the UVF’s internal consultation process since its inception in 2004. Much of his reportage was excellent, mainly due to the fact that he too had been listening to the UVF long after other journalists were simply burying their heads in the sand.
Like Rowan, Stephen Bloomer and I had been asking hard questions of the UVF. In an interview with a senior commander of the organisation in late 2005 the thorny issue of decommissioning was raised, though it will perhaps come as little surprise that the idea of a reciprocal suggestion was rejected: ‘I personally don’t think the UVF are in any position, anywhere even close, to decommissioning. Paramilitarism going away – that’s a different ball game – they believe very much in that and they would see a marked difference between going away and decommissioning – they don’t see the two running in parallel’. It was obvious that the UVF had been following its own rational military strategy since the ceasefires. Often this military strategy brought them into direct conflict with rivals in the LVF and UFF. Loyalism was at a crossroads and the UVF knew it. What direction it chose to take would depend not so much on mainstream republicans declaring their war over, but on détente within loyalism itself. The departure of the LVF in 2004 certainly facilitated a greater rapidity of change with the UVF. Progressive noises from within the UDA/UVF constituency – and a rapprochement between the latter and the UVF – meant that the UVF could take a decision in confidence: it did so and by the opening months of 2007 we had the semblance of a winding up statement from the organisation. The death of David Ervine in January probably delayed the release of the statement, but when it came it was warmly – if only sceptically in some quarters – welcomed.
Despite the hysteria whipped up by the local media the UVF has taken a command decision to put its ‘arms beyond reach’. That is, to place the ordinance under the control of local battalion commanders. This is both sensible and foolhardy. One must not forget that not all UVF members are motivated by patriotism or a genuine political belief in maintaining the Union. Some have profiteered from the conflict and it is these people that have trouble disengaging from an occupational commitment to criminality. As the UVF Brigade Staff Command made clear in its statement, these individuals should be subject to the due process of the law. Yet, these individuals have increased in number since the 1994 ceasefires.
The ‘ceasefire soldier’ is alive and well within the UVF in the organisation’s ‘civilianised’ guise, just as he (or she) is still paying dues within the other paramilitary organisations of the UDA, Provisional IRA, INLA, Official IRA and their splinter groups. Not that all of these individuals are motivated primarily by the promise of material gain, but some are. The sensible strategy for the law enforcement agencies – backed up by the security services – is to pursue these gangsters with the full rigours of the law.
As I revealed in Fortnight magazine in May 2007, the UVF has accepted that the way forward for their support-base is to roll out the EACTF programme across the Province as a practical measure designed, in the words of Billy Hutchinson, to ‘decommission the mindsets’ of paramilitants. It is important to stress, here, that from the UVF’s perspective this was not a decision arrived at by the promise of a ‘cash cow’ or by ‘collusion’ – as some critics have alleged (Irish News, 23 January and 7 February 2007).
To date the UVF and its associates in the community/voluntary sector have not received funding from the British government to oversee their organic disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy (though neither, incidentally, has the Provisional IRA), nor have they decided to ‘pawn their guns’ as is the case with the UDA. The argument put forward by the UVF is that as they are not motivated by aspirations for material wealth they do not require a cash windfall to stop their campaign of terror. Rather, they have taken a rational decision to dismantle their centralised command structure, downsize their organisation and wind up their paramilitary campaign. This is conditioned, in the main, by strategic choices available to them in the absence of violence from mainstream republicanism. Curiously, this is a point lost on many commentators – such as the IMC – who seem unable to accept the truism that, unlike the republican movement, the UVF is devoid of an elaborate political strategy. The UVF’s function since it went on ceasefire in October 1994 is to ensure that the CLMC principles (not the Mitchell Principles) are upheld.
The issue of UVF decommissioning is not so difficult to understand if one detaches that organisation’s campaign of terror from the actuality of mainstream republican violence. In fact the reason why the UVF still retains its ‘gear’ is simple: other loyalist paramilitaries still retain theirs and until that is taken out of the equation we will still have guns stashed away under floorboards and in attics, in burial plots and in dumps scattered across Northern Ireland. The main question arising from this assessment is: do loyalists have the wherewithal to give up their comfort blankets or – as Hugh Orde has indicated – will the authorities have to forcibly pursue them for it?