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Four men with known links to the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) paramilitary group in Northern Ireland were granted visas by the State Department to attend a series of high profile events and meetings in Washington, D.C. and New York last week.

The visas were granted as the result of an ongoing commitment by Senator Martin McAleese, the husband of Irish President Mary McAleese, to highlight the concerns and viewpoints of the Loyalist community in the North.  Senator McAleese also accompanied the men on their U.S. visit.

The visa applications, which required special permission because of the men’s Loyalist backgrounds, were supported by State Department and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and were granted to UDA leader Jackie McDonald, Jimmy Birch, John Bunting and Denis Cunningham.

In Washington the group met with Congressmen Peter King and Richie Neal, and they attended a number of political and business briefings in New York.

“The American authorities in conjunction with the Irish ones felt that the time was right for a Loyalist delegation, for their voice to be heard,” Denis Cunningham, one of the four men, told the Irish Voice.

“We have also contributed to the peace process, and everyone who’s involved in it should have a say and be able to confirm what their role in it was.”

Cunningham says the group was extremely encouraged by their meetings here.

“It was the first time that people from the Loyalist working class were able to go and share their thoughts, their opinions and more importantly their aspirations for the future,” he said.

Cunningham added that the McAleeses took a very brave step many years ago in building bridges to the Loyalist community.

“It was forward thinking gesture to reach out to loyalists and it culminated in our visit to America last week,” he said.

The surprise for the four visitors was the warmth of the U.S. welcome.

“It’s an unknown territory to us and we didn’t know what to expect,” said Cunningham.

“There is a peace process in Northern Ireland and we wanted to convince people here that we are on that road and it’s an exclusively peaceful road.

“Loyalists have a role to play in it and we are very determined to make it work for our community so that everyone has a better standard of life and can contribute to the economic growth of the entire country.”

As a country coming out of conflict it will be crucial to maintain investment in the peace process to ensure political and social stability, Cunningham said.

“If we can stabilize the economy we can stabilize the social exclusion, then we can stabilize the peace process,” he added.

Cunningham added that many who were involved in the conflict during the Troubles are now looking to ensure their children and their grandchildren have opportunities and never have to face what they did.

“We can’t look back, we have to look forward if we’re going to enjoy the benefits of the peace process. That means securing a better standard of living and a better future for all the communities living together,” he feels.

“We now have dialogue with out former Republican combatants. If we can do that on a daily basis that helps to change mindsets and helps us move on for the right reasons. At the end of the day irrespective of people’s political aspirations, there’s an opportunity for us all to live together and to move on together.”