Twenty years ago Billy Hutchinson, a young man from the Shankill Road, Belfast's loyalist heartland, was a getaway driver for a loyalist gang which shot dead two Catholic men on the neighbouring Falls Road. A year later Hutchinson, a member of the junior wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the killings. In prison he settled down after a difficult start, took a degree in town planning and did some thinking. Now he is one of more than 250 men, both loyalist and republican, who have been freed on licence after serving life sentences; most of them, like him, were convicted for murder.

He now devotes himself to community development work on the Shankill Road. Having served fifteen and a half years behind bars, he is anti-violence. He hovered smiling at the back of the hall where the loyalist ceasefire was declared, and supports it.

At a conference on the Shankill Road earlier this month, Mr Hutchinson picked a quarrel with Iris Robinson, wife of Peter Robinson MP, who is deputy leader of the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.

It was an exchange which laid bare the tensions that exist within loyalism between the would-be modernisers, who believe that loyalism needs to react creatively to the momentous events sweeping the province, and traditionalists.

Mrs Robinson had just told the crowded conference that Mr Paisley would not sit down with Sinn Fein. Mr Hutchison and his associates believe that at some stage this will have to happen.

She declared: 'It would be akin to asking Myra Hindley to sit down and develop a document on child care. Why should he sit down with Gerry Adams, who has the blood of so many hundreds of people on his hands?'

Mr Hutchinson, an intense fair-haired man in his late 30s, challenged her. 'She's sitting there saying you can't talk to murderers, but here on the Shankill Road thousands of young men and women have been to prison for fighting the IRA and republicanism. Now she's calling these people murderers.'

Mrs Robinson replied: 'As a born-again Christian I cannot support anyone who murders. That has always been my stand.'

'Then why do you keep saying that there's going to be a civil war?' Mr Hutchinson asked.

'Because you read the writing on the wall,' she replied.

Mr Hutchinson called out: 'You and your husband and your party have cried to the people out there to get out on the streets and fight republicanism.'

'No,' said Mrs Robinson. 'I say you use your numbers to fight through the ballot-box. I've never asked anyone to come on the streets.'

Mr Hutchinson, referring to the days in 1986 and 1987 when Mr Paisley and Mr Robinson took to the streets in recruitment rallies for a shadowy organisation, Ulster Resistance, responded: 'When you wear red berets and march in ranks it's a statement of militarism, and you scare the life out of young men who then think they have to go out and fight. This is hypocrisy.'

The exchange was one of a number of heated moments at the conference, which was itself a sign that a community not given to introspection is finally asking searching questions about itself. Protestants and Unionists have traditionally taken refuge in the past: the community's comforting buzzwords include tradition, birthright and heritage. But now, with the political landscape of Northern Ireland changing so rapidly and significantly, at least some are re-examining that heritage, and contemplating the future with a mixture of nervousness and hope. And some of the most radical new ideas are coming from Billy Hutchinson and other politicised ex-prisoners, once members of the illegal UVF, who say they want to keep the next generation of Shankill Road teenagers out of jail.

Perhaps the most articulate exponent of this position is another UVF ex-prisoner, David Ervine. This is how Mr Ervine sees the political future for loyalism. 'The politics of division see thousands of people dead, most of them working class, and headstones on the graves of young men. We have been fools: let's not be fools any longer.

'All elements must be comfortable within Northern Ireland. We have got to extend the hand of friendship, we have got to take the peacelines down brick by brick, and somehow or other we have got to introduce class politics. You can't eat a flag. Unionism, I believe, has got lost against a background of violence, which was preceded by a background of patronage and suppression.

'Edward Carson said: 'Look after the minority'. We didn't - and have we suffered for it. We have got to appeal to the Catholic, because Catholics, at least some of them, have shown their willingness to be unionist.

'Unionism is a wholly legitimate philosophy, which has the right to be heard, but we have found ourselves friendless. We're going to have to be honourable with each other's aspirations. That means I will concede not my nationality but my friendship.'

Twenty years ago people who said that sort of thing were denounced as traitors and hounded out of loyalist politics, but Ervine received a warm round of applause.

However, the new thinking is embryonic. Ranged against it are powerful voices who preach that unionism will only survive by entrenching itself even deeper within tradition.

The little bookstall outside the hall, run by a member of Mr Paisley's party, offered for sale Murder in the Vatican - American, Russian and Papal Plots, and The Secret History of the Jesuits, which proclaims: 'The Roman Catholic institution is not a Christian church and never was. Prophetically she is the whore of Revelation.'

The Loyalist Song Book, on sale at pounds 2, offers a series of ditties to gladden the most sectarian heart. 'Oh give me a home where there's no Pope of Rome,' sung to the tune of 'Home on the Range', has the chorus: 'No, no Pope of Rome, No chapels to sadden my eyes, No nuns and no priests and no rosary beads, And every day is the Twelfth of July.'

Ian Paisley, the single most influential Unionist political figure, delivered a brief speech to the conference and then left. He railed in his traditional fashion against 'the dogmas of Rome and the jackbook of Vaticanism'. His way forward was not couched in political terms: 'We need a revival of our Protestantism, we need a revival of our religion. We all need a spiritual awakening, a return to the basics.'

John Taylor MP, of the Ulster Unionists, the largest Protestant party, opposes a united Ireland on economic grounds. He warns that Dublin would not be able to support the Northern Ireland economy with subsidies in the way that London has. 'In a united Ireland the three and a half million people in the south would have to send us pounds 1,000 per man, woman and child each year to maintain our present level of services.'

Like Mr Paisley, he eschews the rhetoric of reconciliation: 'I'm an Ulsterman, not an Irishman. I don't jig at crossroads or play Gaelic football or speak Irish. We've got two races on this island. In every respect we are a different race from Gerry Adams. We are not fellow Irishmen.'

The representative of the Orange Order, the largest Protestant marching organisation, Fraser Agnew, was even more direct. Orangeism had been accused of dividing the Protestant and Catholic working classes and keeping them apart, he said. 'But is that a bad thing? . . . If it ensures that the freedoms won through the Glorious Revolution remain intact, then it's no bad thing.'

The approaches on offer from Mr Taylor, Mr Paisley and Mr Agnew are precisely what the ex-prisoners are trying to get away from. They seek a new start, but the precedents are not bright. The history of Unionist politics is littered with breakaway parties and individuals who make an initial impact but later fade. Many Unionists and loyalists grumble about their traditional leaders, but in the privacy of the ballot box find their pens moving, however reluctantly, towards the familiar names. The emergence of more progressive loyalist forces depends on the proposition that peace will create possibilities and release new energies.

Whatever happens, the divisions in Northern Irish society will be there for decades ahead. The question is whether the ending of violence will create new space for a new philosophy that seeks to find common ground, and which has learnt that a politics that dwells on divisions has led many first to the gun and then to the prison cell.

Endgame - the search for peace in Northern Ireland', a collection of David McKittrick's reports for the Independent and Independent on Sunday, is published by the Blackstaff Press, Belfast, pounds 12.99.

(Photograph omitted)