Ritchie told not to press the 'destruction button'

THE Ulster Unionist Party last night warned Margaret Ritchie that she "will not escape accountability" if efforts to end UDA activity implode over her threat to axe funding for a loyalist project.

The UUP said the Social Development minister is making a major misjudgment in demanding UDA arms or else an end to the 1.2 Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI).

MLA David McNarry said Ms Ritchie has her finger poised over a “destruction button” that could ruin years of hard work to get the paramilitary organisation to the point where it has expelled major criminal figures, ended sectarian violence and is aiming to stand down members and deal with weapons.

The CTI, he stressed, is not money for the UDA and does not involve the UDA at all. It is money for loyalist areas to encourage people away from the UDA and create employment opportunities.

“Those involved in the project’s implementation are honourable people with the necessary skills to oversee and deliver the project to the minister’s satisfaction,” said Mr McNarry.

“Should the project be moth-balled because of Ms Ritchie putting party politics before her ministerial responsibilities, then she will not escape accountability for the likely unravelling of discipline in loyalist quarters and the ramifications arising thereafter.

“No one should underestimate the seriousness of a fall out hitting home in reaction by some who may well feel that a destruction button has been pressed to scupper years of positive work.

“To say so is not making a concession to a paramilitary organisation, but rather making a succinct and specific point of serious reality.

“To undermine years of work spent in convincing the UDA that ‘transformation’ was and remains the only and best way forward is not only foolish but, if successful, it would set back conflict transformation for years and probably blow the heart out of those today who are willing to take risks and make it work.”

The MLA said the minister has the clout to review the CTI project whenever she wishes. The project stands alone and the desired outcome is worth attaining, he added.

“Therefore, Ms Ritchie should separate her stand on the UDA from the project and place the issue of decommissioning on a separate agenda,” he said.

Mr McNarry said he supported the minister’s call for the UDA to start a “meaningful engagement with de Chastelain” – but her methods were flawed and counter-productive, he said.

The UUP Assembly group chief whip said: “In a statement on August 13, party leader Sir Reg Empey acknowledged that there are many in the UDA working hard to ensure that a transition towards exclusively peaceful means.

“Crucially, the leader added that the continued criminal and destructive actions of a few are undermining public confidence and said that this, combined with a lack of decommissioning, means that the UDA have a job to do to convince the public that public money would be well spent. He urged the UDA to re-double their efforts and create public confidence in their efforts to complete the transition initiative.”

The UUP wants an end to private armies and all weapons gone, said Mr McNarry. But axing a project which Ms Ritchie told the News Letter this week has “done good work so far” is not the way to do it.

He also urged the UDA to instruct its political spokesmen in the UPRG to “take a back seat” because he felt it would take the public glare off the organisation and “protect the CTI project from the aurora of suspicious speculation generated by their high-profile public involvement”.

n Last night, it was reported that the UDA could ask Ms Ritchie to accept a briefing from John de Chastelain.