The extreme Protestant groups have hundreds of guns which they used, in the two years before the ceasefires, to kill more people than did the IRA. One reason why the loyalist guns are rarely highlighted is that they have, as Billy Hutchinson illustrates, embraced the peace process with such unexpected and evidently genuine enthusiasm.
After years of relying on the power of the gun, the loyalists have developed a curious empathy with the republicans: they know where they are coming from, they know how difficult it is to make peace, and they know the heavy price which all would pay in going back to war.
The striking difference between loyalists and republicans is the apparent lack of strains and pressures within the extreme Protestant underworld. Within Sinn Fein and the IRA, there are signs that many in the republican grassroots have become frustrated and dissatisfied with the pace and direction of the peace process.
On the loyalist side, however, there is no real sign of any real pressure for a return to war. But that is not to say that paramilitarism is dwindling: the UVF and UDA are still out there, carrying out punishment beatings and showing no sign of decommissioning their weapons. The question of who killed leading loyalist William Elliott earlier this month remains unanswered. The transformation of what was the most militant part of loyalism into an element hungry for negotiation, which is prepared to compromise, is only part of the wider Unionist scene. The recent election of David Trimble, a hardliner, as leader of the main Ulster Unionist party shows that some sections of Protestant opinion are on the move towards a tougher line.
It seems unlikely that parties such as the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and UDP will make a spectacular electoral dent in Mr Trimble's party. Old voting patterns are notoriously difficult to change in Northern Ireland, and many Unionists will consider the new parties too working-class, too left-leaning and too close to the paramilitants. These parties are therefore probably destined to remain on the fringe.
But the fact that the loyalist paramilitaries have embraced politics with such relish is already having an effect. In the past, many Unionist politicians were able to point over their shoulders at the violent Protestant groups and cite them as evidence of how hardline their grassroots were.
Now the old patterns are changing: the paramilitary groups are no longer willing to provide the muscle for politicians to use. This means the politicians will be compelled to rely less on threats and more on straightforward politics.
The fact that they will henceforth have to depend on force of argument, rather than the argument of force, is changing the face of Unionist politics.Reuse content