Northern Ireland’s three biggest loyalist paramilitary groups have released a joint statement condemning “all forms of criminal activity” and said any members who commit crime will be removed from their organisations.
The Red Hand Commando, Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force released “A Loyalist Declaration of Transformation” on Monday.
The joint release comes on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, and says the agreement was "created in a spirit of accommodation and its promise was a more inclusive Northern Ireland".
The statement says: “We fully support the rule of law in all areas of life and emphatically condemn all forms of criminal activity. Individuals who use criminality to serve their own interests at the expense of loyalist communities are an affront to the true principles of loyalism.
“We reject and repudiate as unacceptable and contrary to loyalist principles any criminal action claimed to have been undertaken in our name or attributed to any individual claiming membership of one of our organisations.
"We further declare that any engagement in criminal acts by any individuals within our organisations will be regarded as placing those persons outside the memberships. This has been collectively agreed.
"We cannot allow criminals to hinder transformation and the ground on which such people stand is now shrinking.”
The loyalists added that they “seek to make an important contribution to the construction of a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland”.
They said the groups could no longer be "apologists for conflict" but "advocates for change".
The statement continued: “Loyalists must have ownership and control of their own future. Now is the time for a renewed loyalism, with a new impetus, to meet the challenges ahead.
"We want to see a better future for all in Northern Ireland and where the residual effects of conflict are recognised and addressed in a reparative manner. We must shape our own destiny, and with the co-operation of others, ensure loyalist communities are at the centre of Northern Ireland’s peace and political transformation.”
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said: "I welcome the explicit commitment to peace and the Rule of Law in today’s statement. I would also acknowledge the hard work of those in progressive loyalism and encourage them to continue their efforts to completely remove illegal paramilitary organisations from our communities."
Twenty years on from the Peace Agreement it is disappointing that we are still in a place where there are statements about paramilitary violence and criminality.Chief Constable George Hamilton
"Our communities do not want to live in fear of violence. The Loyalist Community Council must support people in giving information to the police."
"There are no grey areas when it comes to the Rule of Law."
"Through the Paramilitary Crime Task Force, PSNI will continue to actively pursue and investigate those involved in violence and criminality and place them before the courts in order to protect society and keep people safe."
Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly said today it is time for all armed groups to leave the stage for good.
He said: “What people wanted to hear this morning was that these groups are leaving the stage rather than the same recycled statement of intent to end criminality.
“There is no place for any armed groups in our society in 2018, 20 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
“The public want an end to their ongoing recruitment, their procurement of weapons and an end to their existence.
“In the last year alone members of these groups have been involved in murder, drug dealing, extortion and intimidation, including racist attacks.
“We need to see leadership from political unionism to bring an end to groups like these rather than the often selective condemnation of their activities while engaging with them in cosy electoral pacts.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann MLA welcomed the statement but said the loyalist groups will be measured by their actions.
“At our Spring Conference on Saturday I said that we will work with those who have abandoned violence and want to better our society. But it is long past time that those who continue to threaten and exert control over communities in Northern Ireland were gone.
"They must pack up and get off the backs of our people, or face the inside of a jail cell.
“Today’s statement is welcome, but it will not be measured by the words it contains, but by the deeds that back it up and the difference felt in the lives of people living within loyalist communities.”