Loyalists urge end to sectarian violence

 

Loyalist paramilitaries have undertaken not to initiate street violence at Belfast's sectarian flash points.

A statement issued yesterday by the Loyalist Commission, which includes paramilitary representatives, agreed to the initiative in an attempt to end the rioting which has engulfed parts of the city.

It said: "Loyalist paramilitaries will not initiate any action against republican communities, reaffirming their policy of no first strike."

Welcoming the move, the North's First Minister, Mr David Trimble, said: "We cannot approach the future transfixed with community tensions and the further potential of violence on a scale as witnessed in Belfast over recent days.

"I welcome the statement issued by the Loyalist Commission which offers for consideration and agreement a cooling-down period linked to positive action by loyalists and reciprocated by republicans. I have been in touch with the Sinn Féin leadership to arrange an urgent meeting to discuss the statement."

The commission is an umbrella group consisting of church leaders, politicians and representatives of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. It also called for an end to attacks on the security forces, and urged republicans to respond with a similar gesture. One source close to the commission described the move as "truly historic".

In a three-page statement it said: "In order to de-escalate the present crisis and with the clear objective of bringing about a reduction in tension, saving all communities from further suffering and injury, the Loyalist Commission offers the following for earnest consideration and agreement."

Along with the no first-strike promise and the end to attacks on police and soldiers, it stressed that respect for both communities at peace lines was "essential".

Mr Fred Cobain, the Ulster Unionist MLA for North Belfast, called on republicans to make a similar gesture. "Unless the two sides are working together these problems are not going to be solved."

Sinn Féin representative Mr Gerry Kelly was sceptical of the loyalists' move. Warning that previous UDA statements had been followed by attacks on Catholic homes, he said: "If it is a sign that loyalist groups are going to end their campaign, then it is obviously a welcome step."

The Northern Secretary, Dr John Reid, welcomed the Loyalist Commission statement as "a positive and encouraging move to diminish the violence".

In Jersey, where he is attending a summit of the British-Irish Council, Dr Reid said: "I think it is also important that they have called for positive contact between the communities."

Sinn Féin's Mr Martin McGuinness called on the Loyalist Commission to meet the leadership of his party. He said: "The statement today, which talks about increased contact, is something I welcome.

"I actually think that it would be useful if the Loyalist Commission and all of those who are in it would recognise the importance, for example, of meeting the Sinn Féin leadership."