Hard men take cue from IRA

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The Independent Online

While the IRA ceasefire of August 1994 represented a remarkable departure for that organisation, loyalist paramilitarism also underwent a quite startling transformation at that time, writes David McKittrick.

They followed the IRA on to ceasefire in October that year, surprising everyone by including in their cessation statement an expression of "abject and true remorse" for the deaths of innocents.

On one reading their emulation of the republicans was inevitable, as there was little logic in loyalists fighting on when the IRA had stopped. But that period saw also, for the first time, the grafting of a coherent political wing on to the violent Protestant groups. The Ulster Defence Association produced the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), while from the Ulster Volunteer Force came the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). These new groups were left-leaning, or populist, interested in politics and dialogue, and remarkably non-confrontational in their approach.

Their appearance was one of the most promising features of the ceasefire period. Most of their spokesmen (they have no spokeswomen) were former prisoners whose time behind bars had caused them to reflect on the limitations of violence.

Leading members, including David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson, proved more open and adventurous than mainstream Unionist politicians, travelling widely and meeting a variety of opinion. Before the IRA ended its ceasefire, for example, the UDP leader, Gary McMichael, appeared on local television with a Sinn Fein representative.

These political loyalists have spread the doctrine of non-violence. But loyalist paramilitary groups have, like the IRA, refused to decommission arms and remain in existence. They have publicly committed themselves to a policy of "no first strike," signifying that they would not go back to violence unless the IRA did; now the IRA has done so.

The fledgling loyalist politicians have played a role that has won them the approval of the British and Irish governments - so much so, that Dublin has been arguing that a place should be reserved for them at any conference table.

The moderating influence of the UDP and PUP has, however, largely been due to the IRA ceasefire. Once the IRA campaign re-starts, few expect them to be able to convince the loyalist hard men not to follow the IRA back to war.