This one, a flag featuring a fierce knife and grinning skull, was emblazoned with the slogan "Kill 'em all - let God sort 'em out!" There could be no better summary of the essence of loyalist violence, as practised by the UDA and others such as the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
Two of the Catholic men killed and injured by the UDA and LVF since Christmas have been distant relatives of Sinn Fein figures, but in both cases the connections appear to be purely coincidental. All seven of those who died were killed not because of their associations or their political beliefs: they died simply because of the long-established and truly primitive loyalist principle that "any Catholic will do".
Seamus Dillon and Terry Enright were doormen standing outside discos; Edmund Treanor was having a New Year's Eve drink in a bar; Fergal McCusker was walking home after a night out; Larry Brennan was waiting in his taxi for a fare; Ben Hughes was on his way home to his children and grandchildren from the shop in a Protestant district where he had worked for almost 30 years.
Each one was easily identified as Catholic by sectarian geography. At one time in the 1970s some loyalists would deny they were motivated by straight tribalism, but today the long years of killing have removed any embarrassment. The RUC's files are littered with confessions from Protestant assassins illustrating their sectarian motivation. "We decided to pick up a Taig and do him in," more than one confessed. Another said he had killed a Protestant woman "because she was a Taig-lover".
Of the almost 1,000 people that loyalists have killed in the Troubles, more than 600 were uninvolved Catholics gunned down, blown up, stabbed or beaten to death in an expression of religious hatred. The rest were activists.
Because both loyalists and the IRA have killed so many people, casual observers sometimes make the mistake of assuming that the extreme Protestant groups and the republicans are essentially mirror-images of each other. That is not the case.
Security sources and those working with prisoners readily confirm that the loyalists are less disciplined, less organised, less educated, less political and much worse at PR than the IRA. More have been in trouble with the law for non-terrorist offences. They are more hot-blooded and more eager to seek speedy vengeance, as has happened in recent weeks.
Loyalists themselves sometimes characterise their violence as "counter- terrorism", arguing that their attacks are essentially retaliation against republican violence from the IRA and INLA. That is partly true, but it is highly misleading to suggest it is the whole story.
While the seven killings of recent weeks have indeed represented savage vengeance for the INLA's killings of two loyalist figures, the fact is that violence from extreme Protestants is almost commonplace. It comes from organisations which are supposed to be observing a ceasefire, others which are not, and sometimes it comes from mobs in neither category.
Last year, for example, loyalists were involved in up to 15 killings, compared with four carried out by republicans. Some were the work of the LVF while some were "internal" or "disciplinary" shootings.
A Catholic man was beaten to death in the bitterly divided town of Portadown, while in County Antrim a policeman was kicked to death by a mob which resented his part in halting loyalist marches. In Belfast, a former Protestant minister of religion, wrongly suspected of being a paedophile, sustained two broken legs, a suspected fractured skull and puncture wounds in a beating incident, and later died.
While the IRA has always had its political wing, the equivalents have emerged only recently in groups such as the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force. Within the multi-party talks the Ulster Democratic Party, headed by Gary McMichael, speaks for the UDA.
Most politicians involved in the talks privately accept the bona fides of the leaders of these political adjuncts. It is obvious from the recent killings, however, that the parent paramilitary groups remain ready to resort to violence at any moment. That highlights the dilemma for the authorities and others involved. Kicking the UDP out of the talks might well send the UDA back to full-scale violence, triggering an IRA response and thus wrecking the peace process.
But allowing the UDP to stay means that the two governments and the conventional political parties will be sitting at the table with those associated with an unapologetically active terrorist organisation. All involved will be making their judgements on whether the true face of the UDA is that of Gary McMichael, or of Johnny Adair, and whether the former might ever displace the latter.Reuse content