To DUP outrage, a decision to withdraw £1.2 million (Euro 1.7 million) funding for a group connected to the unionist paramilitary UDA has been confirmed after the UDA’s killer gangs refused to disarm.

The Minister for Social Development in the multi-party Executive, Margaret Ritchie, made her announcement in a statement to the Belfast Assembly, provoking the suspension of the sitting amid a furious response by the Ian Paisley’s DUP.

However, the move was broadly hailed as a victory for common sense by nationalists and unionists alike.

Following serious violence last summer, including the shooting of a member of the PSNI, the Minister had given the UDA 60 days to engage meaningfully with Gen John de Chastelain’s decommissioning body and to begin ‘putting weapons beyond use’.

This deadline passed last week.

In the latest trouble, five men were arrested at the weekend linked to fighting which broke out in Carrickfergus between feuding UDA factions. Members of the ‘mainstream’ UDA clashed with rivals from the breakaway south-east Antrim faction which uses the name ‘Beyond Conflict’, in the early hours of Saturday morning.

In her statement on Tuesday, Minister Ritchie, who belongs to the nationalist SDLP party, said she believed the policy of providing funds to the UDA’s so-called ‘Conflict Transformation Initiative’, announced by the British government last March, was ‘flawed’.

She said she hoped the new institutions would ensure “the integrity of our institutions was safeguarded, and that it would recognise the supremacy of law and order”

“The UDA’s fractious nature means, at this time, the organisation is unable to meet the objectives of the conflict transformation initiative . . . and I propose to end it immediately.”

The SDLP minister described the British original decision to fund the UDA project as having been “risk-prone” from its inception in March. She went further and accused former British ministers Peter Hain and David Hanson of having lacked the political will to withdraw government funding once it became clear that the UDA was not prepared to move away from violence.

She then provoked further controversy by referring to the “sustained campaign of briefing against me and attempts to destabilise those around me”. That pressure culminated four days before the deadline, when new British Secretary Shaun Woodward publicly praised the UDA and claimed it had begun “meaningful engagement” with General John de Chastelain’s decommissioning body.

Amid a hysterical response by the DUP, Paisley’s deputy Peter Robinson alleged that Ritchie had ignored legal advice, was acting “beyond her legal powers” and was in breach of the ministerial code.

The DUP finance minister accused Ms Ritchie of having made a decision on the funding without having first consulted with the other members of the Executive. Later, SDLP sources would insist the Executive had refused to allow Ritchie discuss the subject amid intense political pressure to toe the line with British policy.

Speaker William Hay then called the adjournment while seeking legal advice on whether Assembly standing orders had been breached.

Outside the chamber, DUP sources insisted Ms Ritchie had acted against the advice of the predominately-unionist Executive and the Executive’s legal services.

The dispute between SDLP and DUP members continued when the session resumed, giving clear evidence of the split between the parties. But Ms Ritchie received support in her decision from the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionists.

Sinn Féin Assembly group leader John O’Dowd welcomed what he called “the clarification from Margaret Ritchie that there will be no funding for the UDA”.

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