DUBLIN – The leader of Ireland's 4 million Roman Catholics, Cardinal Sean Brady, and representatives of Northern Ireland's major anti-Catholic paramilitary group announced Monday they will meet soon to discuss the outlaws' potential disarmament.
Brady and figures linked to the Ulster Defense Association — which has been sticking to a 1994 cease-fire but refuses to disarm in line with Northern Ireland's 1998 peace deal — said they would meet later this week, although a precise date and time are not yet confirmed.
The UDA's legal political front, the Ulster Political Research Group, due to meet Brady at his official residence in Armagh, Northern Ireland, includes senior UDA commander Jackie McDonald. He often has made declarations of peace while defending the shadowy group's right to keep weapons as insurance against a collapse of the peace process.
UDA representative Frankie Gallagher said his delegation would stress that the UDA's arsenal, chiefly consisting of 1980s-era guns and ammunition, already was beyond the reach of rank-and-file UDA members and in the sole possession of senior figures.
"In terms of weaponry, we can give reassurance to the cardinal that that is being managed by the UDA," Gallagher said.
He said the UDA, which has an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 members in working-class Protestant parts of Northern Ireland, has been mulling a start to disarmament for the past four years and "there's a clear route now."
The Good Friday accord of 1998 envisioned that Northern Ireland's rival underground armies — the IRA on the Irish Catholic side, and the UDA and smaller Ulster Volunteer Force on the British Protestant side — would surrender their weapons by mid-2000 in support of a new Catholic-Protestant government.
All three major paramilitary groups refused to budge by that target date, a failure that fueled the collapse of power-sharing in 2002.
The Irish Republican Army did gradually disarm from 2001 to 2005, when it formally renounced violence and handed over its Libyan-supplied arsenal — including flame-throwers, surface-to-air missiles, and tons of Semtex plastic explosive — to disarmament experts.
But the less elaborately armed UDA and UVF have refused to match the IRA move, citing a range of excuses, including the recent rise in violence from IRA splinter groups. They argue their groups deserve more credit for refusing to retaliate against Catholics for last month's dissident IRA killings of two British soldiers and a policeman — the first such slayings since 1998.
The British government is threatening to withdraw Northern Ireland's de-facto weapons amnesty, which has been in force since 1997 in hope of spurring total disarmament, unless the UDA and UVF start surrendering arms soon. The amnesty permits outlawed groups to hand over weapons without fear of prosecution; once that guarantee is removed, UDA and UVF members could not reveal their arms dumps without facing the risk of prison time.