Lisburn attack severest test for Loyalist politics

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One of the most surprising and most welcome features of the peace process was the emergence of the fringe loyalist parties - the new breed of articulate working-class loyalists advocating dialogue in preference to violence.

New parties, the Progressive Unionists and the Ulster Democratic party, and new faces such as David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson, Gary McMichael and Davy Adams, put a modern, and astonishingly moderate, gloss on loyalist paramilitarism.

The image of the gunman in the balaclava was suddenly superseded by these articulate men, many of whom had thought deeply about politics while in prison.

In common with the IRA, illegal loyalist groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association did not disband. But when the IRA cessation ended in February, the loyalists maintained their ceasefire and continued to give politics a chance. In elections in May they were rewarded with 43,000 votes, almost 6 per cent of voters supporting them.

The IRA attacks in Lisburn are providing the severest test yet of the depth of the loyalist commitment to politics. From almost all sides come appeals to them not to open fire again; but from some sections of their grassroots there is pressure for a return to war.

The arguments are finely balanced. Those who want to maintain the ceasefire can point to their votes as evidence of support, and argue that much of it would disappear if their ceasefire ended. They can also argue that the loyalist parties still have a place at the table in the Stormont political talks. Ending their ceasefire would mean their automatic expulsion into the political wilderness.

They can also point to the new relationships established with important political elements in Belfast, Dublin, London and Washington.

The moderates can also contend that re-opening a sustained campaign of killings will guarantee that Northern Ireland is plunged into large- scale violence. Loyalist aggression would obscure the responsibility of the IRA for re-starting violence, and deflect at least some of the criticism from republicans.

But arguments will be heard for a resumption. The political approach of Mr Ervine, Mr Hutchinson and others was based on the assumption that republicans were ready to negotiate rather than fight, a contention which Lisburn has undermined.

If the conclusion is that negotiation is off the agenda, and that the IRA is intent on a return to war, then the ending of the loyalist ceasefire is inevitable. But if there is a possibility that the IRA wants to fight a limited campaign and envisages another peace process at some future stage, then the loyalist leaders may pause.

Discreet communication channels are known to exist between the extremes of republicanism and loyalism, and it may be that messages are even now passing back and forward.

But one argument for the resumption of violence is based on tradition: that loyalist paramilitarism has been necessary to protect the union with Britain. Viewed from this perspective, the ceasefire has simply been a holiday from the perpetual struggle against the republicans.