AN historic meeting has taken place between members of the Dublin government and loyalist paramilitaries.
A delegation of Irish parliamentarians had face-to-face talks with former members of the UVF and UDA as part of a two-day tour of Belfast.
The politicians are part of the Oireachtas’ Joint Committee for the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, a group that was set up to keep tabs on the progress of the peace process in Ulster.
Committee member Donegal TD Joe McHugh believes it is the first time the committee has met with ex-paramilitaries.
But although they were made to feel “very welcome”, he added that they were given the message that ongoing bloodshed by dissidents is “tempting” some to react.
Mr McHugh (Fine Gael) said: “We had a very productive meeting with them. It was a very frank dialogue. We were made to feel very, very welcome.
“Our objective was to say to people in those communities: we’re here to help, and we’ll provide that help in whatever way we think would be of value.
“This is a first. It’s historic from the point of view of the Good Friday Agreement committee.
“The peace process is by no means finished at all. It’s an ongoing process.
“We can’t get complacent about it. There’s a fragility to peace that we can’t take for granted.
“There are interface areas that might not have benefited from the peace dividend as much as they should have.
“To have them sitting around talking about the future – young people, about jobs – it’s a strong statement of where Northern Ireland is at the moment.”
He said he was not going to “start judging” them, and that the “sacrifices” made by those on both sides of the paramilitary divide had to be acknowledged.
Although the discussions had been very “civil”, he added: “With the current levels of dissident activity they were honest and said the temptation is always going to be there to return to violence.
“But they’re working very, very hard to try and prevent young people going down the route that they went down.
“That was tremendously symbolic in itself.”
The committee meets in Dublin once a month and is made up of members of the Dail and Seanad – including members from Sinn Fein – as well as Northern Irish MPs too.
Mr McHugh said the task was now to go back to Dublin and work out how they can best help out some of the communities they had visited.
Although the committee does not have money which it can funnel directly into community projects, it can make representations on behalf of schemes to try and obtain funding.
The delegation had arrived on Thursday and toured locations in north Belfast, before heading to east Belfast’s new Skainos Centre on the Newtownards Road.
The trip concluded on Friday with an official opening of that building, which was part-funded by cash from the Republic’s government. Although the Skainos Centre includes a Methodist church, it is also now home to a range of offices for different organisations.