August 10, 2007 / 3:09 PM / in 12 years

N.Ireland deadline for Protestant group to disarm

BELFAST (Reuters) - A Northern Ireland minister on Friday told the largest Protestant paramilitary group in the province it must disarm within 60 days or face the cancellation of a funding package aimed at weaning it away from violence.

The move aims to bolster peace in Northern Ireland, where paramilitary groups still pose a challenge.

A 1998 peace deal largely ended 30 years of violence in which 3,600 people were killed in a conflict between majority Protestants, committed to ties with Britain, and a Catholic minority in favor of a united Ireland.

In May Catholic and Protestant politicians, arch foes for decades, entered into a power-sharing government.

The government has tried to coax the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) to abandon violence by funding a 1.2 million pounds ($2.43 million) community program aimed at helping members move away from their past.

Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie said on Friday that in recent weeks the UDA had been linked to a series of shooting incidents. In one case, a police officer was wounded and another man stabbed.

“There is no excuse now for paramilitarism,” she told reporters at a news conference. “The conflict is over.”

Ritchie said there had to be “clear and demonstrable evidence” that the UDA had started to decommission its weapons and move “irreversibly away from criminality and violence”.

“This is now the last chance saloon for the UDA,” she said.

“If, however, what I seek is not evident within 60 days, the funding will stop and the project will be wound up,” she said.

Frankie Gallagher, spokesman for the UDA’s political ally, the Ulster Political Research Group, said there had been “engagement” with officials on issues such as weapons and meetings with police officials.

“I don’t think it is an ultimatum,” he told the BBC in Belfast, referring to Ritchie’s decision.

“She is just saying it isn’t happening quick enough,” Gallagher added. “People do want to move on.”

Earlier this year the Ulster Volunteer Force, the other major Protestant paramilitary group, said it would put “beyond reach” weapons it used against Catholics opposed to British rule in the province.

The move followed disarmament by the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA), which pledged in 2005 to dump its arms and pursue its goal of a united Ireland through peaceful means.

That paved the way for the historic coalition deal between the IRA’s political ally Sinn Fein and the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party.

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